Robert Coakley, Michael Coakley and state Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli held a ceremony to place the chair of honor.
LENOX, Mass. — Robert Coakley waited 23 years to find out what happened to his brother.
In September 1966, Navy pilot William "Billy" Coakley's plane was struck by a ground missile over North Vietnam. But after three days of searching, his body was not found.
It wasn't until 1989, 23 years later, when his body was identified and buried in St. Ann's cemetery.
"It is a terrible, terrible feeling to not know what happened," said Bob Coakley on Friday, when a memorial chair was placed in Town Hall to honor all of those who went missing in action while serving overseas. "For 23 years, we had no idea."
The chair of honor will sit vacant to recognize those who are still unaccounted for. The decorated chair will tour town halls in the area before finding a home with the Lenox Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter.
Billy Coakley had been top of his classes at the former Cranwell Preparatory School and at Holy Cross. He joined the Navy to follow in his father's footsteps as a pilot. He then went to Harvard University before being assigned to the White House, where he introduced celebrities to the president.
Then he saw all his fellow pilots, who were raising families, heading overseas. As a bachelor, the Lenox native felt he should be going instead. He contacted then Congressman Silvio Conte and asked to be shipped out.
"He owed it to his fellow pilots," said Michael Coakley, Billy Coakley's nephew.
Mike Coakley has only vague memories of his uncle but he has vivid memories of his grandmother holding onto that hope that her son would return. The family had spoken to the pilot flying with Billy, who believed he was dead. But the family had heard stories of soldiers returning alive when everyone believed they were dead. They held out hope for the rare chance or for at least the body to be returned.
"My grandmother always believed he was coming back," Mike Coakley said.
Billy never did. But the Coakleys were able to bury their loved in the cemetery in their hometown.
The Coakley family brought photos and newspaper clippings to help tell the story of William Coakley.
But there is a total of 91,000 U.S. soldiers missing in action, a number that continues to grow with battles still raging across the world.
Recently, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli met with the group Rolling Thunder at the State House. The group provided an empty chair dedicated to those who are still unaccounted for.
"Even though they are not here, when they do get back, there will always be a seat for them," Pignatelli said on Friday, explaining the gesture. "It is a chair that is not to be sat in by anybody. It is a reminder."
With that idea, Pignatelli has placed a similar chair of honor in Lenox Town Hall and will move it to every town in his district. Then, the chair will be donated to the VFW.
Friday's ceremony not only kicked off the chair's tour of the Southern Berkshires and Hampden County but also kicked off theMemorial Day weekend.
For the Coakleys, Memorial Day is particularly emotional. Not just because of what happened to Billy Coakley but also because of his grandson Lance Cpl. Roger Muchnick Jr., who was killed last year and buried adjacent to Billy Coakley at St. Ann's Cemetery.