SC airmen among MIA crew finally laid to rest at Arlington

The Associated PressJuly 10, 2012 

  • Missing in action in Vietnam There are still 28 service members from South Carolina missing from the Vietnam War. Of that number, 14 were killed in action and their bodies not recovered, 12 are presumed dead, and two died in captivity and their bodies were not returned. They are: •  John Malcolm Bischoff, Mountain Rest, Army, 1961, Laos •  Frank Bowman, Walterboro, Navy, 1968, S. Vietnam •  Harry Willis Brown, Charleston, Army, 1968, S. Vietnam •  William Thomas Carter, Longs, Navy,1966, N. Vietnam •  Cecil James Clack, Chester, Army,1969, S. Vietnam •  Charles Gale Dusing, Charleston, Air Force, 1965, S. Vietnam •  Harry Jerome Edwards, Holly Hill, Army, 1972, S. Vietnam •  Randall S. Ellis, Army, Charleston, 1969, S. Vietnam •  William Ellis, Jr., Army, Summerville, 1966, S. Vietnam •  John Henry Garner, Charleston Heights, Navy, 1967, S. Vietnam •  David Landrell Ginn, Anderson, Army, 1970, S. Vietnam •  Harley B. Hackett, III, Florence, Air Force, 1968, N. Vietnam •  Wallace G. Hynds, Jr., Sumter, Air Force 1967, N. Vietnam •  Frankie B. Johnson, Jr., Fountain Inn, Army, 1968, S. Vietnam •  James Montgomery Johnstone, Fort Mill, Army, 1966, Laos •  Douglas O’Neil Keefe, Columbia, Marine Corps, 1967, S. Vietnam •  Clarence Albert Latimer, Army, Due West, 1969, S. Vietnam •  James C. McKittrick, Laurens, Army, 1967, S. Vietnam •  Fred Howell McMurray, Jr., Charleston, Army, 1968, S. Vietnam •  George I. Mims, Jr., Manning, Air Force, 1965, N. Vietnam •  Carrol William Minor, Greenville, Navy,1968, S. Vietnam •  Samuel William Osborne, Jr., Charleston, Marine Corps, 1967, S. Vietnam •  Robert L. Platt, Jr., Charleston, Army 1967, S. Vietnam •  Ferris Ansel Rhodes, Jr., Charleston, Army, 1971, S. Vietnam •  Harold R. Sale, Jr, Lexington, Air Force, 1967, N. Vietnam •  James Salley, Jr., Columbia, Army, 1971, S. Vietnam •  Ted James Taylor, Lancaster, Army, 1971, S. Vietnam •  James H. Villeponteaux, Jr., Cordesville, Marine Corps, 1966, Laos SOURCE: Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office

Col. Derrell B. Jeffords, 40, of Florence, was laid to rest Monday in a solemn service at Arlington National Cemetery. It was 46 years after his death on Dec. 24, 1965.

That Christmas Eve, his crew was aboard an AC-47D aircraft nicknamed “Spooky” that failed to return from a combat strike mission in southern Laos during the Vietnam War. After a “mayday” signal was sent, all contact with the crew was lost. Following the crash, two days of search efforts for the aircraft and crew were unsuccessful.

For more than a decade, beginning in 1995, recovery teams studied a potential crash site in Laos. And last year Jeffords and his five crew members were identified. They were buried together Monday in a single casket.

For Jeffords’ widow, Jeanne, 86, of Temecula, Calif., the hardest part of the service was seeing how emotional it was for her children — daughter Deryl and son Terry, who were teenagers when their father died.

“I’ve lived with it for so long, I’m all teared out,” she said, adding that she appreciated the opportunity to meet the families of her husband’s fellow airmen. “For all these years we just had a list of names.”

The charred remains of the six airmen – identified not through DNA matches but through dental records, personal items and other circumstantial evidence – were buried in a single casket with full military honors, as is common in situations where remains can’t be conclusively linked to a specific individual. The remains are representative of Jeffords and five other Air Force servicemen: Col. Joseph Christiano of Rochester, N.Y.; 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.

For nearly half a century, the airmen’s families endured an emotional journey that they say is difficult to describe to those who never had to face it. The men were listed for years as missing, and family members held out hope at first that their loved ones had survived. For most that hope faded over time, despite an occasional unconfirmed report that crew members were seen alive. The crash site has been excavated several times over the past decade, but it was not until 2010 and 2011 that human remains were recovered.

Even though Sherrie Hassenger’s husband perhaps had the most conclusive identification of all six crew members – a tooth of Hassenger’s was recovered and matched through dental records – she and her son Keith Hassenger said they still have nagging doubts about what happened. Both said they appreciated Monday’s service and were grateful so many people came to pay respects, but they said they have had a difficult time getting answers over the years. The tooth, in their mind, raises more questions than answers: If a single tooth was found, they wonder, wouldn’t it make sense that other teeth or perhaps his skull could be found also?

Keith Hassenger said that while they approached Monday’s service with the feeling it might help provide closure, that comfort proved elusive.

“This may be the only thing we get,” he said.

The service drew hundreds of people, including Air Force and Vietnam veterans unrelated to the families.

Curtis Eilers, who was 3 when his father died, said he was taken aback that so many people have been interested in his father’s story and attended Monday’s service. Many strangers also attended a service for his father in Iowa.

“I didn’t know that anybody else would be interested,” he said. “I never thought of my dad as a hero.”

He said he was impressed by the efforts to identify the crew members.

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 be buried at Arlington. The Pentagon’s Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office lists more than 83,000 service members 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.

Jeffrey Christiano of Rochester, N.Y., who was only 2 when his father’s plane went down, said Monday’s burial brings his father home and resolves “this nagging, disjointed feeling that he’s not where he belongs.”

He said he has struggled to understand his own emotions in the months since he learned that his father’s remains had been found and would be buried at Arlington.

“Most people learn about their father by experiencing them. I had to consciously make the effort to put the picture of my father together myself,” he said. In many ways he put that picture together through the lens of the decades-long search to discover what happened. Now that the search is finally over, he said, “today’s the day he dies, for me.”

Staff writer Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this story.

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