Lost in Laos: After decades of searching, could a handful of debris provide the answer?

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 27, 2013 

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Nearly half a century passed before the suspected remains of six airmen made the journey from a rice paddy in southeastern Laos to a forensics lab near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

But once those remains arrived, the experts preparing to study and identify them knew that at best the men were only halfway home.

Getting them all the way would be a challenge.

The crew had vanished Christmas Eve 1965, when their American cargo plane-turned-gunship, call sign Spooky 21, had apparently been shot from the sky during a mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It took searchers decades to find what they believed to be wreckage from the plane.

And after another decade of excavations in a rice paddy tucked between steep Laotian hillsides, recovery teams had come away with a small amount of debris that they hoped were bones. But even if they were, they had no way of knowing if the bones belonged to the crewmembers, or even if they were human.

And what they found wasn't much.

Take two hands, cup them together, and then fill them with dry, blackened chips and slivers of material. That's what investigators had left to study after the lab run by the military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command sifted through the debris and figured out that some of it was just rock and wood.

Only one piece in that small pile of material looked vaguely human -- a single, broken tooth.

Forensic anthropologist Robert Maves was running the investigation of the materials once they arrived in Hawaii. Maves, 52, is a serious man. At JPAC for 18 years, he speaks about reuniting missing service members with their families as a moral obligation.

Frequently when remains arrive, lab workers have more to go on than what the suspected Spooky 21 evidence offered. A full skeleton might be rare; entire bones are not.

But this was not a Hollywood-style forensic cop show where the mystery is solved inside an hour, between commercials. To the casual eye, a handful of bone chips wouldn't even look like bone chips, especially if they'd been in a fire and were discolored.

The first chore was to identify what they might be. While not ideal, bone chips have helped to identify other lost service members. Even small ones have meaning.

Maves' team determined that these were, indeed, bone chips. They were identified as "post-cranial;" they came from the back of a skull. It was a small victory because they could move onto the second stage of the investigation-

Whose skull?

"It was time to check to see if we could pull DNA," Maves recalls.

'TROUBLING EVIDENCE'

The crew on Spooky 21's flight had been promoted, several times, since it vanished 48 years ago. By the time it reached Arlington, that crew consisted of Col. Derrell Jeffords, pilot, 40, of Florence; 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.

Spooky 21 vanished two decades before the first DNA "fingerprinting." By the time the remains arrived in Hawaii, DNA testing had become a routine identification tool. But when the crew disappeared, the entire concept had all been so new. It had only been a 12 years since James Watson and Francis Crick told the world what DNA looked like; essentially, a spiral staircase.

The surest identification is made when separate samples of a person's DNA are compared with each other. But the military didn't have DNA samples of the Spooky 21 crew. The next best thing is to test the DNA of a person's children, as they have the greatest genetic chance of carrying the same traits.

Maves' team arranged for the necessary cheek swabs as it prepared to try to extract DNA from the bone chips. But a big obstacle loomed.

"The report from the field was that the plane was smoking as it fell to earth," Maves said. "And we could see the chips had been subjected to flames. The evidence of fire was troubling."

DNA doesn't normally survive heat more intense than 600 degrees. As the lab tried to recover DNA from the chips, "we estimated the fire to have burned at more than 1,000 degrees," Maves said.

Still, they had to pursue every option. But it turned out to be fruitless.

The official entry in the Spooky 21 case file stated: "No DNA possible due to size and conditions."

Without DNA, the JPAC identification team was down to one final shot at identifying at least one crew member: the broken tooth.

Maves had the dental X-rays for each member of the crew. But his job suddenly became easier when he realized that he didn't have to bother comparing the records for five of them, because one crew member was missing his first left upper molar and four others had fillings in theirs.

Only one showed an intact left upper first molar: Hassenger.

The next step was obvious. They needed to make an X-ray of the broken tooth to try to match it against the exact angles of the molar in Hassenger's dental records.

On Sept. 22, 2011, they compared them. The match was perfect, in the way that any two maps of the same piece of geography would match.

And that was it.

After 46 years of loss and searching, this was success. Hassenger, at least, had finally come home.

"The available evidence suggests that Col. Derrell Jeffords and his five member crew died on 24 December, 1965 when their AC-47 gunship crashed in Savannakhet Province, Laos," military records state.

But there was one important task still to complete before the U.S. military had truly brought the Spooky 21 crew home.

FINALLY HOME

The morning of July 9, 2012, is overcast.

The white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery seem to march off into the mist in every direction from plot number 10047. This will be one of 24 burials on this summer's day at the national military cemetery. The plot, seven feet by three feet, has been dug eight feet deep.

About 168 square feet of dirt have been removed to make room for the remains of six men, which will share a single silver casket. What was found two years ago, almost half a century after they had vanished, would barely fill a coffee mug.

The caisson crests the hill near the gravesite in a light rain, as the Air Force Band plays "Going Home," a piece based on Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. Six airmen walk besides the casket; behind them, 18 family members: two wives, 15 children and one niece. They will receive American flags, folded into tight triangles.

Jeanne Jeffords, wife of Derrell Jeffords, would later sum up her feelings in a note to friends: "Those 6 wonderful men are no longer MIA (missing in action), they are finally home."

"See, the thing is, my brothers and sisters, they were older. They knew my dad. They knew what he smelled like, what he looked like. They knew what made him smile and what made him angry. They knew him. I didn't, or at least I don't remember knowing him. So people ask me if the burial was finally closure for me, if it helped me put an end to the story of me and my dad.

"But that's not it. July 9, 2012, was the day we finally met, really. It wasn't closure. After 47 years, it was the beginning of my story with my dad."

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