Lack of answers tests the faith and mettle of families and searchers alike

Part Two of a three-part series on the search for Spooky 21, an AC-47 gunship that disappeared with its six-man crew while on a secret mission over Laos during the Vietnam War.

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 26, 2013 

— In military lingo, the location of the lost crew of Spooky 21 was a classic SWAG:

Scientific Wild-Ass Guess.

That’s the term investigators use for figuring out something as unpredictable as where a plane should have crashed when it got shot out of the sky.

Guesswork, backed up by some old data, was pretty much all the military had to go on for years in the hunt for the cargo plane-turned-gunship and its crew of six that disappeared over Laos during a Christmas Eve combat mission in 1965.

It wasn’t until 1995, decades after the Vietnam War had ended, that a military team scouring a rice paddy in southeastern Laos found a small amount of wreckage that could have been from the plane. But the crash site was more than 70 miles from where they’d expected to find it.

The Air Force crew that had manned Spooky 21 had long ago been declared dead. But there never had been anything definitive. Without some evidence of the plane or the missing airmen, their families would continue to seesaw between faint hope and heartbreak.

The imprecision of the search made anything definitive a tough mission. In 1999, after several visits to the rice paddy, search teams felt confident enough to call for a full excavation of a site the size of three football fields. Because of red tape, weather and other delays, they didn’t start digging for two more years. Eventually they excavated the rice paddy four times between 2001 and 2011.

Guiding their work was a sacred military trust and the motto of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, known as JPAC, to not stop looking for troops lost on the battlefield “until they are home.”

In the case of Spooky 21, that meant pursuing the fates of men who’d been missing so long they’d now been promoted: Col. Derrell Jeffords, pilot, 40, of Florence, S.C.; Col. Joseph Christiano, navigator, 43, of Rochester, N.Y.; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers, co-pilot, 27, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Chief Master Sgts. William K. Colwell, 44, of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Arden K. Hassenger, 32, of Lebanon, Ore.; and Larry C. Thornton, 33, of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Such searches were commonplace in Laos. More than 330 U.S. troops disappeared there during the Vietnam War. In its dense jungles and steep hills, even finding a site worth searching was difficult.

In the beginning, the hunt for Spooky 21 relied on villagers who recalled that a large two-propeller plane had crashed in the rice paddy sometime around late 1965. No wreckage was visible, and while telltale evidence doesn’t get up and walk away, the team knew that it can be carried away, piece by piece.

Desperately poor villagers scavenge aircraft wreckage. The metal sheeting becomes a new roof. Beams frame doorways, or are used to lift a hut above the flood zone. Wiring is used to tie walls together. Old bombs are hollowed out and used as water basins.

But Gregory Berg, a forensic anthropologist with JPAC out of its Hawaii base, said, “Something is always left behind.”

Sherrie Hassenger met her husband in 1954 back in Lebanon, Ore. She was 17 and more than a little nervous when her brother-in-law gave her phone number to his friend, Arden Hassenger.

He was older, and home on leave from the Air Force. She was still in high school. When he called, he reinforced her fears: His easy, friendly manner meant forward and eager. She knew what boys like that wanted.

But as she tried to figure a way to end the phone call, he cheerfully said, “Why are we talking on the phone? I want to see you.”

“You can’t. I just washed my hair.”

“Oh, I don’t mind a little wet hair.”

So before he showed up, Sherrie stuck her head under a faucet.

“I can’t have him thinking I’m a liar,” she recalls thinking.

During the next 11 years, they’d marry and have two boys and a girl. She’d move with him to Topeka, Kan., where he’d be trained as a gunner for this new style of warfare they were trying out with the old C-47 cargo plane. She followed him down to Florida just months before he left for Vietnam late in 1965.

Digging for closure

Sherrie had never remarried. She spent those years waiting for him to return. Sadness was a frequent companion. But she still could smile, remembering how their romance began with wet hair.

He had been missing for 34 years in 1999 when the military thought it had finally identified the crash site of his plane.

JPAC case file number 0222 documents what had been done during all that time to find Hassenger and his five crewmates. It was kept at the Central Identification Laboratory in Oahu, Hawaii, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The file was just one among many tracking efforts to find more than 82,000 Americans missing in action. Almost all served in the U.S. military.

Most were service members lost at sea, who won’t ever be found. But of the 73,000 still missing from World War II, the 8,000 from the Korean War and the 1,700 from Vietnam, about a quarter are thought to be recoverable.

Searches continue along Cypriot shorelines, and in French fields and Korean meadows. The obstacles include everything from the difficulties of tracking anyone who falls in combat to the delicate nature of international politics. When relations with North Korea sour – and the Hermit Kingdom is thought to be where more than 4,500 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for – recovery efforts cease.

The last search for Spooky was two years ago, but JPAC officials said they all usually follow a set pattern. They agreed to allow McClatchy to accompany a search team involved in an entirely separate investigation, but in an area of Laos near where the hunt for Spooky 21 took place.

“Digs are more similar than they are different,” said Army Capt. Jessie Lee, who served as the search team leader on this excavation.

This case involves a Marine who died in 1970 during the Vietnam War when a helicopter landed hard and exploded into flames. It happened about 25 minutes by air from what is now the base camp that U.S. forces share with the Laotian military.

It’s a morning in early November 2012. The jungle mist burns off slowly. Lee and his 10-member team clamber onto a Lao Air MI-17 helicopter warming up for flight at the base camp deep in the mountains.

The troops are unarmed and wearing civilian clothes, a concession to the Lao government, which gets uneasy with the idea of American military personnel openly moving about inside the country. The conditions are spartan: crisp canvas tents on cement slabs, male and female latrines and showers, and a laundry room.

Lee knows these searches are vitally important. No one in the military can accept the idea of leaving someone behind. He also sees it as part of a pact with troops in years to come, should they need to look for him.

But the searches can be tedious. Lee says his role is to keep his people alert and focused, and the best way is to be enthusiastic from the moment he wakes until he drifts off to sleep. It is in those quiet moments, though, in the dark, when he often wonders if those who vanish here in this isolated world, like the crew of Spooky 21, die afraid that loved ones would never truly know their fate.

He knows that slapping backs and telling jokes, trying to get spirits high for the hours of painstaking labor to come, matter. The slow pace of progress can eat away at your zeal for the work.

When the chopper finally swings over the excavation site on a steep hillside, then lands in the only secure bit of clearing, it’s next to a remote bamboo and thatched hut village. The site is across a deep and swift river. When the searchers first arrived, the only route across was three strands of bamboo the villagers had suspended by vines from a tree.

The angular Lee notes that he might have made it across the old bridge, but the brawnier members of his team would have had trouble, especially carrying the heavy digging tools and coolers of water in the 90-degree heat and swampy humidity.

Their first task was to build a simple bridge, and then they cut a path through a thicket of bamboo and dug 237 steps into the steep hillside, reinforcing each step with a sand tube.

The terrain held perils. The wreckage was hidden by more high bamboo. In its shadows lurked poisonous snakes, bees and jungle leeches. Across the valley on an opposing hillside, villagers spotted a tiger.

"Everything is about getting closer to our guy"

Forensic anthropologist Nick Passalacqua has flown in from Hawaii to oversee the actual digging. He’s fairly new to JPAC, but not to searching for lost people. It’s the focus of his year-old doctorate from Michigan State University, and he’s been involved in more than 75 human forensics cases.

“Finding the wreckage is important,” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re looking in the right place for the body. But if we find life-support equipment, that means we’re getting closer. Everything is about getting closer to our guy.”

But decades later, flesh and muscle will be long gone. The wind, rain and animals will likely have cleaned and broken bones into shards, and often have moved them elsewhere. The hope is some survival equipment will have moved with any remains. The searchers can never have enough clues.

The team runs a metal detector over the cleared hillside, marking each hit with a red plastic flag. Clicks reveal anything from a wedding ring to bombs and bullets. Each hit is checked out by an explosives expert.

Passalacqua studies the pattern of the wreckage on the hillside because it can possibly tell him something about how the chopper crashed and if it moved afterward. He’s satisfied that in this case, the chopper hasn’t moved much.

He divides the ground into a grid and calls for the dig to start on what he deems the most likely resting place for the lost Marine – a patch of ground between the chopper’s rotors and carriage.

But before the digging can begin, Petty Officer Elizabeth Mongkhonvilay, 24, from Emporia, Kan., talks with the villagers to make sure they’re at ease with what’s going on.

They have been recruited by their communist central government and the village chief, but they insist on a short spiritual ceremony before the digging for human remains begins.

“We’re looking for bones, and bones that have been at home here for a long time,” she explains. “Before they could touch a screen, or a shovel, they had to make peace with the dead.”

The dig is painstaking. Each shovel scrapes less than an inch deeper than the last, as dozens of black buckets are slowly filled with the dirt. Eventually, they’ll dig down about a foot. The villagers form a bucket line and rush the dirt uphill and over to a series of screens to filter out anything out of the ordinary and possibly important.

Passalacqua looks over what the screens are catching: sticks, rocks, a few bullet casings. But there are a few scraps of fabric that could have come from a survival vest, or might simply be long decayed debris from inside the chopper.

He reaches into a screen and picks out a small piece to study. Hard to tell if it’s rock, wood or even bone.

“It won’t likely be large pieces,” he says of the search for bones. “Sometimes you get lucky, and a body is buried by villagers and you find an entire skeleton. But these men died in a war, and often far from anyone.”

What Passalacqua decides is worth a closer examination will be shipped back to Hawaii. On a day when the contents of hundreds of buckets are screened, the material worth further review would barely fill one.

“It’s not fast,” Passalacqua explains. “We have to stay focused.”

“Not fast” is an apt description of the hunt for Spooky 21.

On June 13, 2011, what the Spooky search team uncovered in Laos, in a dig similar to the search for the Marine who died in the helicopter fire, arrived at the lab in Hawaii, and the question on the fate of the six crewmen became simple:

After 46 years missing, 16 years of searching the site and a decade of digging, had JPAC teams found enough to officially bring the crew home?

Searching for Spooky 21

This is Part Two of a three-part series on the search for Spooky 21, an AC-47 gunship that disappeared with its six-man crew while on a secret mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. Reporter Matthew Schofield, who covers defense issues, spent months looking into the story behind the missing plane. He spoke with family members and military officials, and studied records and official histories, as well as traveling to Laos to see how searches were conducted.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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