INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Lt. Alan Bardach is finally home in Indiana where he belongs. He’s a hero whose name was honored for years at the Indy 500.
The return of his body brings closure to a family after more than a half-century of questions.
“We sent a beautiful ambitious young man to Vietnam and this is what we got back,” said Joel Bardach, pointing to a triangular box holding a flag and the medals of his older brother of Lt. Alan Bardach.
That box and that flag for Joel is his most cherished possession, though he’s only had it for four weeks.
That’s because it’s the first definitive sign of his brother in 51 years.
“He was a great big brother,” said Joel.
Even after all this time, when we asked him what would he tell Alan if he was home, after a long, emotional pause, there were no words. A half century, still not time enough to dim the pain.
Alan was the oldest. Joel the youngest. Joel says he fought with his other brothers, but never Alan.
Alan was always positive, full of charisma, a sharp dresser and the best salesman in the family’s jewelry business.
When he went to Purdue, he sold apples and did laundry to make money.
“He was a little entrepreneur way ahead of his time,” said Joel. “He was a hustler.”
Army First Lt. Alan Bardach went to Vietnam at the end of 1967 as part of the 507th Transportation Group.
For Christmas, he and his siblings had given their mother a photograph of the five of them.
Just two weeks later, he died with 45 others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 8 1968, in the middle of monsoon season in Vietnam. To this day, it’s still the 4th deadliest chopper crash ever.
For months he was listed as missing. But on June 8, 1968, when Joel was 17, he and his sister were watching Robert Kennedy’s funeral when Alan’s roommate at Purdue came to their home which still stands in Westfield near 161st and Oak Road. He still remembers the white Corvette he drove, but at the time he didn’t recognize the chaplain’s insignia on the collar.
Joel’s mother came home a short while later and didn’t have a chance to put down her handbag before being told Alan was dead.
He was 24 years old and had been in Vietnam for five weeks.
“It’s like getting hit across the chest with a baseball bat,” said Joel. “It’s something you never forget and something you sure don’t want anybody else to listen to.”
For decades, the Bardach family was connected with the tight fraternity at the Speedway.
Alan’s uncle designed a ring given each year to the winning driver. Joel says the idea came from of IMS President Wilbur Shaw, a well-known driver in his own right, Tony Hulman and Alan’s dad at a lunch between the three of them.
The center is a black and white checkered flag with five diamonds on the glittering flagpole, one for each 100 miles.
The Bardach Brothers Jewelers gave the ring each year from 1946 to ’82, just one ring handed out per year.
“They all wear that ring. When they’re around racing, they have that ring on,” said Joel.
For about a decade after Alan’s death, his father gave out a humanitarian award in Alan’s name to someone making a difference in the racing community.
Joel said his brother never missed a 500.
“It was one of the things he absolutely lived for.”
But the toughest time of year is not Memorial Day weekend, it’s not Alan’s birthday on June 26 or even the anniversary of his death on Jan. 8. It’s the holidays when the family celebrates together, yet is missing an important piece.
The five siblings who started out together in life did not getting the chance to finish together.
“Once there’s an empty chair, that chair’s always empty. I don’t care who else may try to sit there, but that chair is always empty,” said Joel.
Fast forward to 2019, this time another phone call, finally with news.
Genetic testing of a hip fragment and finger from more bones turned over in 1988 was a match.
It led to a special moment last month as those fragments were returned to Indiana in a flag-draped casket with a short ceremony at the Indianapolis Airport on Oct. 3.
Alan was home for the first time in 51 years.
“We were all trying to hang on for dear life. It was so surreal and beautiful,” said Joel. “It matters immensely. Honestly, I didn’t realize how much until I got the phone call saying they had found him and he was going to be returned.”
Alan was finally laid to rest in Hoosier soil on Oct. 5, a Huey helicopter even flying over. There again was that flag, Joel’s most cherished possession.
“Personally I have gotten 100% closure,” he said. “I couldn’t be any more at peace with this.”
Getting peace and answers to questions that have been asked for more than five decades, finally coming together in the last couple months.
“My heart goes out to people that still don’t have their answers. I can tell there’s hope.”
Alan’s burial plot is just grass for now. A headstone is due this week.
It sits at the top of the hill in Crown Hill Cemetery’s Field of Valor, just a few steps away from the eternal flame.
But as darkness falls in November, it’s the view that means so much to Joel. But it’s not because the site is in view of the eagle statue, nor the American flag, nor even the POW MIA flag. It’s because of the mausoleum behind it. That’s where Alan’s parents are buried.
“If you believe in the spirits, they get to talk every day, all day,” said Joel.
Those conversations a half-century in the making.
For Joel, Alan’s return, even if it’s just a box and a flag are better than nothing.
“If this is how we have to take that, I accept that.”
But still, he would anything for one more chance to speak.
“What would I say to him, good to see you,” choking up one more time.
Human remains were recovered from the crash site in Vietnam but most could not be identified. They were buried in a mass grave at a National Cemetery in Missouri in July 1968.
No one in the Bardach family has ever visited, including Alan’s parents while they were still living, because his remains could not be separated from the others.
But now, with this latest chapter, Joel wants to go see the site for himself. Alan’s dad died in 1998, 10 years after the bone fragments that would identify Alan were recovered, but years before genetic testing could help. He said he just wishes his father could have been alive to find out.