United States Navy Aircrew Returned Home
27 May 2003
States Department of Defense
IMMEDIATE RELEASE May 27, 2003
MISSING NAVY CREWMEMBERS FOUND AND IDENTIFIED
The remains of nine U.S. Navy crewmembers, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and their remains are being returned to their families for burial.
The nine are identified as Commander Delbert A. Olson, Casselton, North Dakota; Lieutenants (jg) Denis L. Anderson, Hope, Kansas; Arthur C. Buck, Sandusky, Ohio; and Philip P. Stevens, Twin Lake, Michigan; Petty Officers Second Class Richard M. Mancini, Amsterdam, New York; Michael L. Roberts, Purvis, Mississippi, Donald N. Thoresen and Kenneth H. Widon, Detroit, Michigan; and Petty Officer Third Class Gale R. Siow, Huntington Park, California.
A group burial will be held at Arlington National Cemetery on June 18, 2003.
The nine departed Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base on January 11, 1968 onboard a Navy OP-2E Neptune aircraft for a mission over Laos to drop sensors which detected enemy movements. During its last radio contact, the crew reported they were descending through dense clouds. When they did not return to their home base, a search was initiated but found no evidence of a crash. Two weeks later, an Air Force aircrew photographed what appeared to be the crash site, but enemy activity in the area prevented a recovery operation.
Between 1993 and 2002, six U.S.-Lao investigation teams led by the Joint Task Force Full Accounting interviewed villagers in the surrounding area, gathered aircraft debris and surveyed the purported crash site scattered on two ledges of Phou Louang Mountain in Khammouan Province. During a 1996 visit, team members also recovered identification cards for several crewmembers, as well as human remains.
Full-scale recovery missions by the U.S. Army
Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) in both 2001 and 2002
yielded additional remains, as well as identification of other crewmembers.
More than 1,900 Americans are missing in action from the Vietnam War, with
another 86,000 MIA from the Cold War, the Korean War and WWII.
The military has identified remains of nine Navy crew members killed when their surveillance plane crashed in Laos during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
The nine will be buried June 18, 2003, in a joint observance at Arlington National Cemetery.
The men were aboard a Navy OP-2E Neptune plane that crashed into a mountain in Laos in January 1968. The remains were recovered during six U.S.-Lao missions to the crash site between 1993 and last year, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The crew members were:
Captain Delbert A. Olson
of Casselton, North Dakota
Their plane left a base in Thailand on January 11, 1968, on a mission to drop sensors in Laos to detect enemy movements, the Pentagon statement said. The crew reported their plane's descent through dense clouds in its last radio transmission.
Two weeks after the crash, an Air Force crew photographed what was believed to have been the crash site, but enemy activity in the area prevented a recovery operation, the statement said.
Investigators interviewed villagers near the
site and found debris on two ledges of Phou Louang mountain in Khammouan
province of Laos, the statement said. The teams recovered identification
cards for several crew members during a 1996 visit. Other visits yielded
human remains and other identifying items from the wreckage.
After 35 years, nine Navy fliers killed in Vietnam War will be buried
Topeka, Kansas - Next month, at Arlington National Cemetery, Sue Jenkins will fulfill a request her late husband made 36 years ago, before he left for service in Vietnam.
Lieutenant (jg) Denis Anderson, a Navy flier who grew up in Hope, Kansas, told his wife of almost a year that if anything happened to him, he wanted to be buried at Arlington.
The request came "casually out of the blue," Jenkins, who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, recalled Wednesday. "I thought he said he wanted to be buried at the national cemetery in Abilene. But there's no national cemetery there. He probably said Arlington. I didn't want to hear it anyway."
David Olson of Prairie Village will be at Arlington next month as well, and he will reach what he calls closure. He was 7 years old when his father, Navy Commander Delbert A. Olson of Casselton, North Dakota, last hugged him goodbye.
Denis Anderson and Delbert Olson never made it home from Southeast Asia.
On January 11, 1968, they and seven other crew members were aboard a OP-2E Neptune on a mission over Laos when the plane crashed into the side of a mountain.
There they remained for more than 30 years.
A chance to fly
Denis Anderson and Sue Littlefield met while students at college in Chicago. They fell in love, got married and planned to be missionaries.
Marilyn Anderson, who still lives in Hope and is the wife of one of Denis Anderson's cousins, remembers "just a good Christian kid.
"He wanted to grow up to be a missionary. That was his purpose."
That was why he joined the Navy.
"He thought it would be a great opportunity to learn to fly," Marilyn Anderson said, and flying skills would be useful in getting him around in the remote areas he would be assigned.
During the Vietnam War, Anderson and Olson were part of a special squadron whose job was to sow sound and seismic sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a North Vietnamese supply route that snaked through part of Laos.
On that January morning in 1968, Olson was the pilot and Anderson the co-pilot when they took off from a base in Thailand, on a mission with two other planes. The Neptunes, originally developed to seek out submarines, were slow-flying aircraft and were forced to fly low over the Laotian jungle, sometimes as low as 350 feet and exposed to enemy fire.
It was exceedingly dangerous duty
Dana Snyder, Delbert Olson's daughter who lives in Overland Park, recalled in a interview in 2001 that her father "knew his mission, that he had a 50 percent chance of making it back alive."
A.G. Alexander of Whitefish, Montana, was a Navy commander piloting another plane on the 1968 mission and heard Olson's final radio communication.
"I tuned in on his frequency," Alexander said. "That's when I heard him say he was going down through the clouds. Only God knows what happened."
The plane carrying Anderson and eight others slammed into the side of the 4,583-foot mountain, just 150 feet from the top.
For months after the crash, Sue Jenkins said, she was unsure of her husband's fate, even though the Defense Department had labeled him "presumed killed in action."
"For some time, I didn't know whether I was married or a widow," she said. "One evening, God said: 'I have him right here with me. You don't have to pray for him as a prisoner anymore.' "
'An answer to a prayer'
Within weeks of the crash, the wreckage was spotted on the mountainside, but the area was thought to be too steep and enemy troops too numerous to chance a recovery.
David Olson spent years urging civilian and military authorities to recover the bodies of his father and the other crewmen. He grew frustrated by the lack of information and action from the military.
At one point, he planned to launch his own expedition to the mountain to recover the bodies. He had gone so far as to arrange for a helicopter to carry his rescue party.
"We were getting to the point where we were going in to go get them, and finally the Navy stepped up," Olson recalled Wednesday.
Alexander, the former Neptune pilot, and other veterans of the squadron also were instrumental in initiating the recovery effort.
"The government was putting out information that they had $15 million they were spending to find bodies," Alexander said. "When they said that, the squadron organization said we know where there are nine bodies.
"They came back with a letter saying it's too dangerous."
The former Neptune crew members' reply was simple enough: "It's no more dangerous for you now than it was for us then."
That got the recovery efforts rolling in 1993, but it was slow work.
Between 1993 and 2002, six U.S.-Lao missions worked the site. One one mission, members of a recovery unit rappelled down a sheer cliff and found the remains of two crew members and one of Olson's dog tags.
Finally, the remains of all the crew members were recovered and returned to Hawaii. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced the remains of all nine members of the crew had been positively identified.
Olson will be buried at Arlington on June 17, 2003, and Anderson will be laid to rest on June 19, 2003.
Some unidentified remains from all the dead crewmen will be buried in a common grave on June 18, 2003, with full military honors.
Sue Jenkins, who now lives in San Marcos, Texas, will accompany her late husband's remains from Honolulu to Washington, D.C. The Rev. Thomas Jenkins, her husband since 1970, will conduct the burial ceremony.
While in Honolulu, she will get back the wedding ring she gave her husband in 1966. It was recovered on the Laotian mountain.
"I'm ecstatic about that," she said. "It was an answer to a prayer."
And David Olson has reached his goal.
"It's the end of the journey," he said. "It's something they deserve. Everyone says it's closure. Everyone who fights for their country deserves to be brought home."
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, VIRGINIA -- On a drizzling Wednesday morning, the families heard the names of their loved ones read aloud -- Delbert Olson, Michael Roberts, Denis Anderson, Arthur Buck, Philip Stevens, Richard Mancini, Donald Thoresen, Kenneth Widon and Gale Siow -- and knew with certainty they finally could mourn.
Michigan crew members of the downed Navy OP2E Neptune
LT. J.G. PHILIP P. STEVENS, 25, of Twin Lake
grew up in North Muskegon and graduated from North Muskegon High School.
He went through Navy ROTC at the University of Minnesota and graduated
with a degree in electrical engineering. He also was a pilot. His remains
were buried next to his father and mother in Dalton.
PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS KENNETH (KENNY) H. WIDON, 27, of Detroit attended Pershing High School and followed his older brother into the Navy. He played the violin and ukulele. His sister, Suzanne Valenti, of Brighton still has his violin and many of the letters he wrote to his mother before he died. In one of them, he asked his mother to draft a will for him.
Sources: Interviews with family and POW Network, a nonprofit that compiles information on missing military personnel from public documents and published news accounts; members of the Navy OP2E Neptune crew.
Alive only in photographs and memories for so long, their boys came home.
The families came to Arlington to bury loved ones missing for more than 35 years. The funeral -- which included a horse-drawn caisson, a traditional Navy firing party, and a somber playing of "Taps" -- will let the dead, and perhaps also the living, finally rest in peace.
"This is a day of memories," a Navy chaplain said in a small chapel filled with mourners.
A widow held her husband's wedding band. A sister touched her brother's casket. A daughter, now grown, said good-bye.
Nine Naval aviators, three from Michigan, went to war in southeast Asia more than 35 years ago, flying dangerous and secretive missions into Laos -- where, at the time, officials said there was no fighting. They disappeared on Jan 11, 1968, when their airplane, an OPE2 Neptune, crashed into a mountain.
They were presumed dead.
But all the families had were messages from Western Union, old photographs and hope.
"I never got to say good-bye," said Dana Snyder. She was 8, and her brother was 7, when their father, Cmdr. Del Olson of Arthur, N.D., died.
"When you are a child and you never see the person and never see the remains, you can't conceive that he is really gone," she said. "You still fantasize and want to believe that he still may be alive."
The last picture of the three of them together is preserved in a photo album. In it, Olson, the plane's pilot and executive officer, is wearing his uniform. Snyder, now of Overland Park, Kan., is on one side of him, her arm draped around his shoulder, and her brother, David Olson, now of Prairie Village,Kan. is on the other.
"He didn't want to be left out there and forgotten," Snyder said.
So, she said, they brought him to Arlington, "the most honorable place to be."
Here, among the rolling hills and magnolia trees, 260,000 veterans are buried in long, neat rows and marked with marble headstones. This is the resting place of President John F. Kennedy, at whose grave an eternal flame burns. From this cemetery, you can see the tip of the Washington Monument, pointing toward heaven.
Each year, the federal government spends $100 million to search for U.S. servicemen lost in war, Pentagon spokesman Larry Greer said. Since the Vietnam War ended, 699 missing people have been accounted for. Another 1,884 are presumed dead, but still out there. More are missing from other conflicts: 8,100 from the Korean War and 78,000 from World War II, he said.
The interest in recovering men lost during the Vietnam War is so intense because it was such a controversial conflict, said Lewis Carlson, professor emeritus of history at Western Michigan University.
"There is a cynicism that was not there in World War II," he said.
Mary Schantag, archivist for POW Network, a nonprofit in Skidmore, Mo., has compiled about 5,000 pages of information from public records and published news accounts on missing military personnel and posted them on the Internet.
"The families aren't always comfortable with the information they are getting from the government," she said.
Documents about the OPE2's missions in Laos were not declassified until 1998, family members said.
In fact, the missions were so secretive that crew members were forbidden from discussing them with anyone, Adam Alexander, 73, of Whitefish, Mont., said. The commander of another crew that flew the day the plane crashed, he said he could hear the lost plane's final radio transmission.
"The last thing I heard was: 'I'm going down through a hole in the cloud,' " he said.
"Only God knows," Alexander said.
The missions the VO67 squadron that flew in Laos for less than two years were dangerous because the aircraft were "too big, too slow and too vulnerable," said Michael Walker, 65, of Pensacola, Fla. He was part of another crew of Navy fliers in the same group.
Charlie Tiffany, 58, of Kissimmee, Fla. attended the funeral to pay respects to his best friend in flight training, Lt. j.g. Arthur Buck, of Sandusky, Ohio.
"He was so strong, I saw him pop a football -- made it burst," Tiffany said. "It's funny the things you remember."
Excavation teams began recovering the nine men's remains in 1996. The wreckage was on a steep cliff, which made the effort difficult, Pentagon officials said. And last month, the Pentagon said it recovered as many remains as it could. Bones that could be identified through DNA analysis were returned to the families for burial.
The remains that could not be identified were buried together, at Arlington, in Section 60.
Remains of the crew's mascot, a bull terrier named Snoopy or Seagram, depending on who's talking, also were found. They will be buried somewhere else. Animals, the families were told, are not allowed to be buried at this cemetery, even if they were unofficially part of the crew.
The teams also found camera parts, a Zippo lighter and wedding ring.
Sue Jenkins, of San Marcus, Tex., recognized the ring and wore it on a chain around her neck to the funeral. She and Lt. j.g. Denis Anderson, the 25-year-old copilot, were natives of Hope, Kan., and college sweethearts. They were just four days short of celebrating their first anniversary when the plane crashed.
Dick Stevens, 68, of Commerce Township, and his sister, Joy Warren, 65, of White Lake Township, attended the funeral. They buried their brother, Lt. j.g. Stevens of Twin Lake on June 3, in Dalton in a grave next to his parents that had remained empty for so long.
"It's taken a lot of years," Stevens said.
The funeral was an opportunity for the families, and distant members of the same family, to connect.
Mark Thoresen, 41, and Darlene Long, 64, both of Riverview, attended the funeral to honor their father and ex-husband, Petty Officer 2C Donald Thoresen of Detroit. But they also reunited with Donald Eric Thoresen, 36, of Phoenix, the deceased's son from another marriage.
"One door closes," said Donald Eric Thoresen, "and another one opens."
Suzanne Valenti, 58, of Brighton, said her late mother, Mary Gerigk, clung so tightly to hope that she carried in her purse an inspirational poem and a small calendar on which she marked each day her son, Petty Officer 2C Kenny Widon of Detroit went missing.
Valenti dreamed she would hear a knock at her door, and her older brother would be standing there.
Finally able to touch his casket, she said:
"He is resting."
At Last, Flight Crew at Rest
Burials End 35-Year Wait to Honor Men Lost in Secret Mission
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
The mourners who gathered at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday included widows who have become frail since their husbands died at the height of the Vietnam War, children now grown into middle-aged parents, and comrades in arms turned gray.
For 35 years, they had waited to bring home the nine men, members of a secret Navy squadron who perished when their plane plowed into a Laotian mountainside on a mission so hush-hush the government wouldn't speak of it for years. They maintained hope when one recovery effort after another failed to retrieve everyone's bones from treacherous ledges on a sheer cliff surrounded by a snake-infested jungle. After all, they assured themselves, the military is expected to move mountains to bring back its dead from the battlefield.
This week, three decades of waiting end with a series of funerals that hold a measure of hope for families of the 1,876 Americans still unaccounted for from the war in Southeast Asia.
Two crew members from the Navy plane that crashed in Laos in January 1968 were buried yesterday; three more will be in the next two days. In addition, there will be a group funeral today at Arlington, with a coffin holding bone fragments that DNA analysis could not identify.
Three other crew members already have been laid to rest in the past month. Arrangements are undecided for the ninth crew member. The crew's mascot, a bull terrier named Snoopy who died in the crash, will be buried elsewhere because Arlington cemetery does not permit dogs to be interred.
Many believed the crewmen's remains would never be retrieved from the remote and unforgiving mountainside, where their bodies were located within days of the crash. For a time, it was considered too dangerous to risk other men's lives attempting the recovery of dead men's remains.
But family and friends persevered. One son threatened to launch his own recovery mission in a rented helicopter, and former squadron mates mounted a letter-writing campaign urging the federal government to bring the Navy crew home. From 1993 to 2002, investigative teams returned to Laos six times, battling monsoons, poisonous vipers and leeches as they rappelled down the north wall of Phoulouang Mountain, to recover bone fragments that took more than a year to analyze.
This week's funerals are the reason the teams led by Joint Task Force Full Accounting -- a unit established to find missing service members -- kept returning.
"It's sad, and you could cry at any moment, but it's a celebration, too," said Sue Jenkins, whose husband, Lieutenant (j.g.) Denis Anderson, will be buried tomorrow, as she left the funeral yesterday of his flight crew leader, Commander Delbert Olson. "It's a promise kept."
Their secret squadron was called VO-67. Formed in 1967, it existed for 500 days. Twelve nine-man crews flew hundreds of dangerous missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia, which remained classified information because the United States was denying that its forces were operating in those officially neutral countries.
In an effort to stop North Vietnamese troops and supplies from moving south into the war zone, the Navy had twin-engine OP-2E Neptunes drop sensors along the trail that burrowed into the ground to monitor footsteps and truck movements or that hung in trees to eavesdrop on conversations. The network was called "McNamara's Line," after then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
The U.S. planes flew perilously close to the ground, in straight lines for several minutes at a time, and thus were ready targets.
"We all knew it was going to be dangerous," said retired Navy Commander Adam Alexander, 73, who headed a VO-67 crew. "I'd go right down the treetops. To this day, my crew swears that when we landed, I had limbs hanging on my engines."
During a six-week period in 1968, the squadron lost three planes and 20 crewmen, including the nine aboard Olson's plane.
Flying alongside Olson the morning of January 11, 1968, Alexander had just finished ropping his sensors and climbed above the clouds. Listening in on Olson's frequency, Alexander heard him tell the forward air controller, "I am going down through this hole in the clouds."
"And that's the last thing you heard," said Alexander, who considered Olson a skilled pilot and believes that he was shot down.
Twelve days later, an Air Force reconnaissance plane located the crash site on the sheer side of Phoulouang Mountain, about 150 feet below the 4,583-foot summit. The cockpit was burrowed into the mountain; a section of the fuselage landed below on a nine-foot-wide ledge. The landing gear was on another ledge, 200 feet below the first, and the tail an additional 400 feet down on a third ledge.
The bodies of a few crewmen could be seen scattered across the site, along with that of the mascot, Snoopy.
For the next three decades, the site was virtually untouched.
"It's an extremely hazardous mountain," said Tom Holland, scientific director of the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, which did a series of DNA tests on the bone fragments. "That's the reason no recovery could be attempted at the time of the initial loss."
That and the fact that the area was heavily defended.
The first three investigative teams, sent in 1993, 1994 and 1995, failed to locate the crash. A fourth team, deployed in 1996, recovered some human remains and dog tags but was forced to stop because of the dangerous conditions.
"I was upset," said David Olson of Prairie Village, Kansas, who was 7 when his father died. "Everybody who goes and fights for his country deserves to come back, hopefully alive. I wanted to try again. I was ready to get a helicopter and go. A dear friend who works in the aerospace industry was going to fly with me, to get people to get the guys out."
David Olson was not the only one frustrated by the lack of progress. Squadron members who started having reunions in 1999, one year after their mission was declassified, began lobbying government officials, urging that recovery efforts resume.
Holland said the team was ready to try again, anyway. "It reached a point after we had done some recoveries in Tibet and China on similar sorts of terrains, we realized this site was within our capability," he said.
The mission still was one of the most difficult ever conducted. Because of cloud cover and monsoons, teams could be sent only during February and March. Twice, in 2000 and 2001, a team flew in by helicopter and rappelled down to the crash site. They brought a medic because of the potential for fatal snakebites from bamboo vipers and banded kraits. They hacked through thick vines with machetes. They trod on ground undulating with leeches. They camped on the mountain for weeks at a time.
"Why?" Holland said. "Because those men . . . were somebody's husband, father, brother or son. It's a debt we owe, one generation to another. It's not only keeping faith with a generation past, but with a generation in the future that is going to be sent in harm's way. It says, if something happens, we're going to get you back."
To the sons and daughters of those who died and to the men they served with, the risk was worth taking.
"This gave me one more chance to do something in my father's honor," said Richard Mancini, 36, of Amsterdam, N.Y., who last month buried his father, Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Mancini, and is attending the Arlington funerals this week. "The only thing I'd ever done for him was to escort his body from Hawaii to America."
Also on that flight was Sean Siow, who was only 2 weeks old when his father, Petty Officer 3rd Class Gale Siow, was lost.
Siow, who lives in San Jose, will see his father buried tomorrow at Arlington. "It was something I felt I had to do," he said. "Anyone who has someone missing from a war, I hope it gives them hope."
Like Mancini and Siow, most of the relatives who have gathered for one final goodbye say they consider the occasion a happy one.
"It's a great day, because he's home," said Eric Thoresen, 37, of Phoenix shortly after burying his father, Petty Officer 2nd Class Donald Thoresen, yesterday morning. "I lived all my life wondering, 'What if he is still alive, living in the jungle, even starting a new family?' This brings closure."
Where the naval airmen lay for 34 years, there is a bronze plaque bearing their names. In all the years they were on "this sacred Laotian mountain," the plaque reads, "these VO-67 heroes were not forgotten by their country."
Posted: 27 May 2003 Updated: 29 May 2003
Updated: 24 June 2003 Updated: 11 May 2004
Captain, United States Navy
Lieutenant (jg), United States Navy
Lieutenant (jg), United States Navy
Lieutenant (jg), United States Navy
Petty Officer Second Class, United States Navy
Petty Officer Second Class, United States Navy
Petty Officer Second Class, United States Navy
Petty Officer Second Class, United States Navy
Petty Officer Third Class, United States Navy