But Gregory Berg, a forensic anthropologist with JPAC out of its Hawaii base, said, “Something is always left behind.”
Sherrie Hassenger met her husband in 1954 back in Lebanon, Ore. She was 17 and more than a little nervous when her brother-in-law gave her phone number to his friend, Arden Hassenger.
He was older, and home on leave from the Air Force. She was still in high school. When he called, he reinforced her fears: His easy, friendly manner meant forward and eager. She knew what boys like that wanted.
But as she tried to figure a way to end the phone call, he cheerfully said, “Why are we talking on the phone? I want to see you.”
“You can’t. I just washed my hair.”
“Oh, I don’t mind a little wet hair.”
So before he showed up, Sherrie stuck her head under a faucet.
“I can’t have him thinking I’m a liar,” she recalls thinking.
During the next 11 years, they’d marry and have two boys and a girl. She’d move with him to Topeka, Kan., where he’d be trained as a gunner for this new style of warfare they were trying out with the old C-47 cargo plane. She followed him down to Florida just months before he left for Vietnam late in 1965.
Sherrie had never remarried. She spent those years waiting for him to return. Sadness was a frequent companion. But she still could smile, remembering how their romance began with wet hair.
He had been missing for 34 years in 1999 when the military thought it had finally identified the crash site of his plane.
JPAC case file number 0222 documents what had been done during all that time to find Hassenger and his five crewmates. It was kept at the Central Identification Laboratory in Oahu, Hawaii, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The file was just one among many tracking efforts to find more than 82,000 Americans missing in action. Almost all served in the U.S. military.
Most were service members lost at sea, who won’t ever be found. But of the 73,000 still missing from World War II, the 8,000 from the Korean War and the 1,700 from Vietnam, about a quarter are thought to be still recoverable.
Searches continue along Cypriot shorelines, and in French fields and Korean meadows. The obstacles include everything from the difficulties of tracking anyone who falls in combat to the delicate nature of international politics. When relations with North Korea sour — and the Hermit Kingdom is thought to be where more than 4,500 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for — recovery efforts cease.
The last search for Spooky was two years ago, but JPAC officials said they all usually follow a set pattern. They agreed to allow McClatchy to accompany a search team involved in an entirely separate investigation, but in an area of Laos near where the hunt for Spooky 21 took place.
“Digs are more similar than they are different,” said Army Capt. Jessie Lee, who served as the search team leader on this excavation.
This case involves a Marine who died in 1970 during the Vietnam War when a helicopter landed hard and exploded into flames. It happened about 25 minutes by air from what is now the base camp that U.S. forces share with the Laotian military.
It’s a morning in early November 2012. The jungle mist burns off slowly. Lee and his 10-member team clamber onto a Lao Air MI-17 helicopter warming up for flight at the base camp deep in the mountains.