Missing pilots' kin, friends keep hope WAR IN THE GULF

January 20, 1991|By New York Times News Service

The Navy listed Lt. Robert Wetzel and Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun as missing in action, their A-6 Intruder lost somewhere over Iraq.

But the families and friends of the two fliers, who grew up in New Jersey, had not given up hope as they gathered yesterday.

"Of course we're hopeful -- he's only missing in action, and we're all optimistic," said Jim Wetzel, one of Robert's eight brothers and sisters, as the family gathered at homes in Neptune City, N.J., and Vero Beach, Fla., to share their burden.

And at the home of Lieutenant Zaun's parents, Calvin and Marge Zaun, in Cherry Hill, N.J., relatives, neighbors, friends, a pastor and other well-wishers visited throughout the day to express support and hope that the flier had survived.

"He just didn't give up -- he was never a quitter," said Warren Woywood, who has known Lieutenant Zaun since boyhood and was a fellow high school gymnast. "I just hope he is not in their hands. If he's alone, I know he's alive because he's a fighter."

Lieutenant Wetzel, a 30-year-old pilot, and Lieutenant Zaun, 28, a bombardier-navigator, never knew each other in New Jersey but met in August aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga, where they were teamed as the two-man crew of an A-6 fighter-bomber.

The Pentagon said yesterday that six U.S. aircraft had been lost in the fighting and that nine U.S. fliers were missing.

It said that the two crewmen of an Air Force F4-G downed by mechanical failure had been rescued and were in good condition. Searches for others were said to be under way.

Besides Lieutenant Wetzel and Lieutenant Zaun, the Pentagon identified five other missing U.S. fliers.

They were Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, 33, of the Navy, the pilot of an F/A-18 Hornet, believed to be the first U.S. casualty of the war; the crew of an Air Force F-15E, Lt. Col. Donnie R. Holland, 42, of Bastrop, La., and Maj. Thomas F. Koritz, 37, of Rochelle, Ill; and the crew of an OV-10 observation plane, Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, 39, and Chief Warrant Officer Guy Hunter, 46.

Friends and relatives of Lieutenants Wetzel and Zaun spoke of them yesterday as dedicated, gregarious young men who excelled in athletics, loved flying and went to war with a patriotic zeal.

Lieutenant Wetzel was born on May 20, 1960, in New Brunswick, N.J., the son of William and Kathleen Sullivan Wetzel, and grew up in Metuchen, N.J.

He attended Middlesex County College in Edison, receiving a degree in mechanical technology in 1983, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1985.

After college, he joined the Navy and became a pilot after attending aviation officer candidate school in Pensacola, Fla., and flight school in Beeville, Texas.

He was then assigned to Oceana Naval Air Station at Virginia Beach, Va., where he became engaged to Jacqueline Curtin. They had been planning a March 2 wedding.

Lieutenant Zaun, who was born on June 30, 1962, was an above-average student, and a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps program at Cherry Hill West High School, from which he graduated in 1980.

"He was fearless," said Jim Murphy, a next-door neighbor, who saw him stun members of the Erlton Swim Club with his diving feats.

Mr. Murphy, who was wearing a yellow ribbon, said: "Jeff once rode his bike to Cape May, but the police picked him up and called his parents. He was only 14 years old. But his parents said, 'Oh, yes. We know.' "

He said the Zaun youth often asked him about his own Navy experiences. "The Navy -- that's what he wanted to do. He just loved it."

Lieutenant Zaun, who is single, fulfilled a longtime ambition when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1984.

Mr. Woywood said his friend had started talking about earning a scholarship and going to the Naval Academy when he was in high school. He said Lieutenant Zaun worked hard, minimized his social life, joined the ROTC and often wore his uniform to school.

Mr. Woywood said he was not surprised when he learned Jeffrey Zaun had become a fighter pilot and gone to the Persian Gulf, partly because he always regarded him as a scrappy defender of the underdog.

"That's the way I always envisioned him. I see him very much doing that, protecting the smaller guy. He's a small guy himself."

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