For years, that was all the families knew about what happened to the six servicemen aboard the plane. Now, nearly 50 years after the AC-47D went down, a measure of finality comes Monday: Remains from the six men will be buried with full military honors in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery.
The burial comes after the recovery of remains in 2010 and 2011 by joint U.S.-Laotian search teams. Examiners relied on dental records, personal items recovered from the site and circumstantial evidence to conclude that the recovered remains are representative of all six Air Force servicemen: Col. Joseph Christiano of Rochester, N.Y.; Col. Derrell B. Jeffords of Florence, S.C.; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Chief Master Sgt. William K. Colwell of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Chief Master Sgt. Arden K. Hassenger of Lebanon, Ore.; and Chief Master Sgt. Larry C. Thornton of Idaho Falls, Idaho.
The Air Force gave all six posthumous promotions, a military spokeswoman said.
Dribs and drabs of information came in over the years, and some family members heard rumors that loved ones had been seen alive. But mostly it was the passage of time that led relatives to conclude their loved ones had perished.
“The sad part about our situation is for seven years, we hoped he was alive,” said Jeanne Jeffords, 86, of Temecula, Calif., whose husband, Derrell, was on board. Their son, Terry, was 16 years old when Jeffords died and their daughter, Deryl, was 13. “We hoped he was a prisoner. Seven years later, they released all the prisoners. The Air Force called me at 3 a.m. one morning and said, ‘We’re sorry to tell you, but your husband is not among the prisoners.”‘
Ron Thornton, who now lives in Bozeman, Mont., remembered reacting to news his father’s plane had gone missing with the optimism of the sixth-grader he was in 1965: At some point, he was just sure his father would come walking out of the jungle and back into his family’s arms.
“The world being the size it was, I just thought he’d been misplaced,” Ron Thornton said. “I really believed they would find him.”
Weeks turned into months, months to years. The family kept Thornton’s picture on the wall of their home in Great Falls, Mont., along with his medals.
Even now, he said, he doesn’t expect Monday’s burial will completely erase the questions from his mind, given that there is no definitive DNA evidence of his father’s remains.
“There will always be this little hint of doubt at the back of my mind,” he said. “It would be nice if they would have the proof positive.”
Joseph Christiano’s wife, Josephine, took an especially active role in the search, according to her daughter Elaine. Josephine Christiano addressed Congress and a special session at the Paris Peace Talks, went to Thailand and Laos looking for information, and joined a family support group.
She said her mother’s greatest fear was that her father was captured, held prisoner and died in captivity.
“The military will continue their search at the site to hopefully find more remains and artifacts,” Elaine Christiano wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “The family still has questions but we have to accept this as our (closure).”
Dean Eilers remembered getting the news about his brother Dennis around Christmastime.
“After weeks or so, you think maybe with the training ... and survival, you think they’d escape or get away from somebody. Then after a year or two, you thought they might be prisoners. Then after that, you don’t give up hope, but you figure they probably died in the crash, you know, after 40 some years.”
He said the family still wonders what happened that night.
The first joint U.S.-Laotian team didn’t visit the crash site until 1995 in the southern province of Savannahket, which was heavily bombed during the war as it lay on the Ho Chi Minh supply route that supplied Vietcong communist guerrillas in southern Vietnam. A villager recalled seeing a two-propeller aircraft crash near the village. A second villager had found wreckage of it and took the team to the crash site.
Follow-up teams revisited the site four times between 1999 and 2001 and recovered military equipment but no human remains, and excavation was suspended.
Excavations resumed in 2010 and 2011, when human remains and personal items from the crew were found.
It is not uncommon in situations like these for joint sets of remains to buried at Arlington. The Pentagon’s Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office lists more than 83,000 servicemembers as missing in action, the vast majority from World War II. In 2011, the office identified the remains of 62 service members previously unaccounted for.
Colwell’s family, after years of holding out hope, had him declared dead in 1977 “for paper reasons,” said his niece, Ann Famigliette, who described her uncle as a “lifer.”
“He loved it. He loved flying,” she said.
When the military called to tell her that her uncle’s remains had been identified, “it took me a while to process it,” she said. “I just didn’t think this day was going to come. ... I’m so grateful it has come, and he’s able to be buried a hero on American soil.”
Hassenger’s daughter, Robin Hobson, said she takes comfort in the fact that the remains were found near the wreckage of the plane, which she takes as evidence that the men died quickly and did not suffer.
“It’s just a big relief that he has come home. It’s been a long time, and it was time for him to be home.” said Hobson, who was 8 when her father deployed. “We know where he’s at now.”
Associated Press writers Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C.; Melanie Welte in Des Moines, Iowa; Matthew Pennington in Washington; John Miller in Boise, Idaho; Rik Stevens in Albany, N.Y.; Jonathan J. Cooper in Salem, Ore.; Tom Hays in New York, and researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.