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Family members of 1st Lt. Thomas J. Claiborne, an AH-1W "Super Cobra" pilot from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, prepare to place a wreath at the site where he and Maj. Samuel C. Leigh died. Family members and friends of Claiborne and Leigh attended a wreath laying ceremony aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter "Sea Otter" (WPB-87362) near San Clemente Island Nov. 20.

Photo by Cpl. Christopher O'Quin

HMLA-469 Marines remembered, mourned

20 Nov 2009 | Cpl. Christopher O'Quin

Marines, sailors, families and friends gathered at Marine Memorial Chapel here, Nov. 19 to remember two 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing pilots.

Maj. Samuel C. Leigh, from Belgrade, Maine, and 1st. Lt. Thomas J. Claiborne, from Parker, Colo., died Oct. 29, in a mid-air collision with a Coast Guard C-130 “Hercules” near San Clemente Island while piloting an AH-1W “Super Cobra” from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, I Marine Expeditionary Force.

Flight suits and aviator equipment representing the two Marines and seven coast guardsmen killed was laid on tables before the crowd of roughly 300 attendees.

Throughout the memorial service, several colleagues and friends of the two pilots recalled their favorite memories and lamented the missed opportunities brought by their deaths.

“We were trying to plan a reunion fishing trip for Leigh and all our friends who served with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit,” said Lt. Col. Mark E. Sojourner, a friend of the and the commanding officer of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron 303, MAG-39, 3rd MAW, I MEF. “We made plans and we’ll go out there and have fun in his honor.” 

Those in attendance remembered Claiborne for his can-do attitude and his dedication to his job.

“Claiborne was very meticulous and very good at everything,” said 1st Lt. Jason Butler, a colleague of Claiborne and a Super Cobra pilot with the squadron known as “Vengeance.” “He was always there to help someone. He called me the night before his last flight to give me good information about training I was going to conduct.”

The following day, the families and pilots who knew Leigh and Claiborne, departed from Oceanside to the site of the collision on the United States Coast Guard Cutter “Sea Otter” (WPB-87362). Navy Lt. Benjamin J. Howard, one of MAG-39’s chaplains, led the group in prayer and a wreath laying ceremony.

“This lets the family memorialize their loved ones at the location where the tragedy happened,” said Howard.

Family members cast two red, white and blue wreaths into the sea as the crew of the Sea Otter stood in formation. "Taps" played aboard the vessel as the wreaths drifted in the ocean.

Family members cast two red, white and blue wreaths into the sea as the crew of the Sea Otter stood in formation. "Taps" played aboard the vessel as the wreaths drifted in the ocean.

The wreaths sank shortly later to settle in the ocean depths with the remains of Leigh and Claiborne like flowers on a graveston. Even though they are buried at sea, their legacy and memories will carry on with the Marines of Vengeance.

                                                         -30-


3rd Marine Aircraft Wing