ARLINGTON, Va. -- EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part Three 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. Part One is running on online and in print on Sunday, May 26, in Issues & Ideas. Part Two and Part Three are running online: http://www.miamiherald.com/issues/
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:
“It was time to check to see if we could pull DNA,” Maves recalls.
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, 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.