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 identification team then noted that because Spooky 21 had been identified, “both by type of plane and location” — meaning all other AC-47s that had been in that part of Laos had been accounted for — and with Hassenger’s identification through dental records, case file 0222 could finally be closed.
“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.
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.
The morning is muggy, the burial a little late in starting. It proceeds as military funerals do, an enduring ritual, comforting in its precision, tragic in its reason. Family and others pour across the soggy grass toward the casket.
Sherrie Hassenger, who never remarried, never stopped believing that her husband would return home. On this morning, she welcomed him back. In the casket was a single tooth from her husband. She’d always hoped he’d survived, and might return intact. But she admits it was time to finally say goodbye.
Just as on the day they met, her hair gets a little wet, this time, though, from the light rain, not her faucet.
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.”
Even now, Jeffrey Christiano says that Christmas Eve, the date his father and the others disappeared so long ago, remains a tough but vital time. His mom always made an extra effort to make sure the kids didn’t dwell in sorrow on what for many is the happiest night of the year. He thinks that effort drew his family even tighter.
Now he and his siblings keep that same spirit alive.
Christiano also says that he learned something at the burial that he hadn’t expected.
“My earliest memory of my father is clinging to the door frame and shouting, `Daddy don’t go!’ as he deployed to Vietnam,” Christiano says. “But really, I don’t know if those are my memories, or the way my mind interprets what I’ve been told time and again by others about how I reacted as he left that day.
“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.”
Email: mschofiekldmcclatchydc.com; Twitter: mattschodcnews