Not forgotten – a determined effort recalls Navy pilot John Painter

Steve Myrick

In a Memorial Day observance in May 2007, Martha’s Vineyard paid tribute in a somber ceremony to four Islanders killed in the Vietnam war.

The name of John Robert Painter Jr. was one of four inscribed on a bronze plaque dedicated that day.

Born on March 15, 1945, he grew up in Vineyard Haven where he attended Tisbury School from kindergarten through 8th grade, before heading to Millbrook School in upstate New York.

Lieutenant Painter’s father, John, an inventive engineer and designer, owned Machine and Marine, now Vineyard Haven Marina, with his partner, Miles Carpenter.

Lieutenant Painter joined ROTC while attending Colgate University, and after graduation in 1966, became a pilot in the U. S. Navy Reserve. He also was trained as a jumpmaster.

After serving his first two-year tour in Vietnam, he signed up for a second. Nearing the end of his second tour, with only two weeks left to go, 26-year-old Lieutenant Painter was preparing for civilian life. Engaged to be married, he had bought some land in Aquinnah and lined up a job as a commercial pilot with American Airlines.

On the day of his final flight, the plane Lieutenant Painter was piloting with two others on board exploded on impact in the Gulf of Tonkin, South Vietnam.

Lieutenant Painter’s body was not recovered and he remains listed as missing in action. His family erected a memorial stone for him at their burial plot at Abel’s Hill, not far from one of his favorite surfing spots.

This week, The Times received a letter to the editor detailing an unexpected connection to Lt. Painter from Ron Scruggs of Land O’Lakes, Florida. Mr. Scruggs was the first executive secretary to the Tisbury selectmen.

His wife, a native Islander born Kathleen Ann Beauchemin, lived her early life on Tashmoo Avenue in Vineyard Haven.

To the Editor:

As a Navy lieutenant, John Painter lifted the A3 Skywarrior off of the aircraft carrier on June 18, 1971. A mechanical problem caused the aircraft to plummet into the Gulf of Tonkin. He and his crew were lost forever. Their bodies were never recovered, three more casualties of the Vietnam War — MIAs, missing in action. The A3 Skywarrior was outfitted to serve as a tanker aircraft, prepared to render valuable assistance to other aircraft returning to the ship with very little fuel.

In August 2012, Kathy Scruggs, my wife and a classmate of John’s and a Realtor with Keller Williams in Land O’Lakes, Florida, sold a house to Gary Grove, a retired Coast Guard crew chief. Kathy mentioned she was going to her 50th class reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. Gary said that he had an MIA bracelet that he acquired years ago, with the name of a person from Martha’s Vineyard. “John, something,” Gary said.

Kathy responded, “John Painter?”

Gary replied, “Yes, that is the name on the bracelet.”

“He was my classmate,” Kathy said, astonished.

And, another coincidence. Kathy’s brother-in-law, Jan Scruggs, is the president and founder of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. He confirmed that John Painter’s name is on the Wall at panel W3, line 81. The driving force to create the wall was to have the names of all casualties of the Vietnam conflict memorialized by inscription on the Wall.

This is an account of how the MIA bracelet reached Martha’s Vineyard via Gary Grove, who had just moved into the Groves Golf and Country Club in Land O’Lakes, Florida. Ceremoniously, in his military hat and with great military precision, Gary Grove presented the bracelet to Kathy Scruggs so she could bring it to the Vineyard and to John’s family.

Kathy left for her reunion with the hope of bringing the bracelet to her former classmate’s family on the Vineyard. The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Class of 1962, had 72 graduates. At their 50th reunion in September, 40 graduates attended. Kathy asked her classmates if they remembered John Painter? Does he still have family on the Island? They remembered John, and someone thought his sister, Jenny, still lived on the Island, in Vineyard Haven. The following night the reunion continued at a private home. Kathy found an address for John’s sister.

Kathy went to the house, but no one was home. She found out later that Jenny had moved but was still on the Island. As Kathy was leaving the Island that evening she still had the bracelet in her pocket. She had to find the family. She was on her way to Oak Bluffs, when she spotted a flea market and of course had to stop. As luck would have it, she met Gwen, another Islander who made jewelry from wampum, pieces of clam shells the Indians once used for money. As they were talking, Kathy told her the story of the bracelet.

“John Painter? Yes, I knew him, his sister lives in Vineyard Haven, in fact her daughter has a beauty parlor at the end of Circuit Avenue, here in Oak Bluffs. Unfortunately, it’s Sunday, so it’s closed,” Gwen said.

As Kathy and her husband Ron walked up Circuit Avenue, they stopped in front of the beauty parlor. Closed. They would be leaving in a few hours, and she still had the bracelet. She just couldn’t leave the Island with the bracelet. It had to stay with John’s family.

Just then they heard someone calling “Kathy,” and as she looked up she saw her classmate, David Lewis, running across the street.

“Kathy, I’m glad I caught you, I talked to Jenny this morning, I told her about the bracelet. She is so excited to get it. In fact, our church services are in the American Legion Hall, and when I was talking to Jenny, I looked up and found I was standing right in front of the plaque they have of John.”

Kathy gave David the bracelet to give to Jenny. Just before leaving the Island, Jenny called Kathy to thank her. She later called Gary Grove to thank him for helping her get the bracelet and remembering her brother.

Kathy believes John Painter helped get his MIA bracelet to his sister and to the Island.