Closure for families of airmen killed in 1965 plane crash, presumed dead but not …

  • The AC-47D went down almost 50 years ago while flying over Laos on a combat mission
  • Buried with full military honours, with all six receiving posthumous promotions
  • Have been laid to rest in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery

By
Associated Press

08:23 EST, 9 July 2012

|

14:55 EST, 9 July 2012

It was Christmas Eve 1965 when the Air Force plane nicknamed ‘Spooky’ took off from Vietnam for a combat mission.

The crew sent out a ‘mayday’ signal while flying over Laos, and after that, all contact was lost. Two days of searches turned up nothing.

For years, that was all the families knew about what happened to the six servicemen aboard the plane.

Final journey: An Air Force carry team carries the casket with the men's remains at their burial service

Final journey: An Air Force carry team carries the casket with the men’s remains at their burial service

Now, nearly 50 years after the AC-47D went down, a measure of finality came on Monday: Remains from the six men have been 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.

They
are: Col. Joseph Christiano of Rochester, New York; Col. Derrell B.
Jeffords of Florence, South Carolina; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers of Cedar
Rapids, Iowa; Chief Master Sgt. William K. Colwell of Glen Cove, New
York; Chief Master Sgt. Arden K. Hassenger of Lebanon, Oregon; 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.

MIA: Lt. Col. Dennis Eilers was among the servicemen shot down on Christmas Eve 1965 over Laos

MIA: Lt. Col. Dennis Eilers was among the servicemen shot down on Christmas Eve 1965 over Laos

MIA: Lt. Col. Dennis Eilers was among the servicemen shot down on Christmas Eve 1965 over Laos

Combat: Col. Joseph Christiano was part of the six-member crew on an AC-47D aircraft

Happier times: Larry C. Thornton poses for a photo while stationed at a U.S. Air Force base in Abilene, Texas

Combat: Col. Joseph Christiano (left) and Larry C. Thornton (right) were part of the six-member crew on an AC-47D aircraft

Long-lasting pain: Barbara Annechino, daughter of Col. Joseph Christiano is comforted by her brother Jeffrey during the burial service

Long-lasting pain: Barbara Annechino, daughter of Col. Joseph Christiano is comforted by her brother Jeffrey during the burial service

‘The sad part about our situation is for seven years, we hoped he was alive,” said Jeanne Jeffords, 86, of Temecula, Calififornia, 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,
Montana, 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, Montana, along with his
medals.

Even now, he said,
he doesn’t expect the 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.’

Family man: In this photo provided by Ron Thornton, Larry C. Thornton poses in a cowboy hat with his three sons, Dennis, Bradley and Ron, in this photo from the early 1960s

Family man: In this photo provided by Ron Thornton, Larry C. Thornton poses in a cowboy hat with his three sons, Dennis, Bradley and Ron, in this photo from the early 1960s

Final closure: Kim Tisdale, left, wife of Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale comforts her daughter Megan during the burial service

Final closure: Kim Tisdale, left, wife of Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale comforts her daughter Megan during the burial service

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.

Wedded bliss: Lt. Col. Dennis Eilers and his wife Belva Eilers, now Schaumberger, on their wedding day

Wedded bliss: Lt. Col. Dennis Eilers and his wife Belva Eilers, now Schaumberger, on their wedding day

Touching: Members of the Air Force Honor Guard hold American flags that were then presented to family members

Touching: Members of the Air Force Honor Guard hold American flags that were then presented to family members

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
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.

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.

Combat: The servicemen were flying in an AC-47D when it was shot down

Combat: The servicemen were flying in an AC-47D when it was shot down

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.’

Laid to rest: The six men will be buried in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia

Laid to rest: The six men will be buried in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia

Here’s what other readers have said. Why not
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The comments below have not been moderated.

Welcome Home, rest in peace and Thank you for serving your country and the free world, our thoughts and prayers are with you all and your families

May we never forget you service and your sacrifice. God bless you.

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