Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A 43-year search for a lost helicopter in Vietnam ends

A 43-year search for a lost helicopter in Vietnam ends

As with so much in life and in death, there was news last week that was joyous and sad and bittersweet for the small community of the Vietnam War’s band of brothers of the Ia Drang Valley.

Early Dec. 28, 1965, an Army Huey helicopter, tail number 63-08808, lifted off from the huge grassy airfield at the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) base at An Khe in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

Two experienced pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Jesse Phelps of Boise, Idaho, and Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancel of Chattanooga, Tenn., were at the controls. Behind them in the doors were crew chief Don Grella of Laurel, Neb., and door gunner Jim Rice of Spartanburg, S.C.

All four were veterans of the fiercest air assault battle of the war, fought the previous month in the Ia Drang.

Huey 808 was one of 10 birds in a platoon of A Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, led by Capt. Ed "Too Tall to Fly" Freeman.

Normally, all missions were flown by at least two helicopters, but this one was so brief and so routine and along a route so well-known and marked by the center white line of a familiar highway that Freeman and his boss, Maj. Bruce "Ol’ Snake" Crandall, already at the Landing Zone with the rest of A Company’s 20 helicopters, agreed to waive that requirement and let 808 fly alone.

With that, 808 flew off the face of the Earth. It disappeared without a word on the radio of distress or trouble.

For weeks, searchers and Huey pilots combed the rugged jungle hills on both sides of the road and the mountain pass. Choppers hovered over every break in the tree cover, peering down or sending crewmen to look.

They found nothing.

The families of the crewmen joined the ranks of those waiting for news, for hope, for some closure of an open wound. More than 1,600 American servicemen are still missing in action in Vietnam.

Last week, the Department of Defense liaison officers who work with MIA families called Ol’ Snake Crandall and surviving family members of the four missing crewmen to confirm that after 43 years, search teams following one of thousands of leads had found and positively identified the wreckage of Huey 808.

In what amounts to almost an archaeological dig, the Joint Task Force — Missing in Action team assigned to this lead also recovered dog tags, other personal artifacts and some human remains.

The remains will be flown to the Central Identification Library in Hawaii.

"They told us it could take several months to complete that process," said Shirley Haase of Omaha, Neb., the sister of Grella. "I only wish my mother was here for this news. She waited for so long."

The men of Huey 808 will be coming home at last.

Grieving mothers and fathers have died waiting for news that never came.

Siblings have grown old.

Their buddies have never forgotten and never rested in pressing for a resolution to this case.

Too Tall Ed Freeman and Ol’ Snake Crandall, his wingman and boss, never missed an opportunity to ask questions or get a little pushy with a government official, even a president of the United States or a North Vietnamese army general, in seeking an answer to the mystery.

Too Tall Ed died last summer in a Boise hospital. In their final farewell visit, he and Crandall, both Medal of Honor recipients, talked about Huey 808, and Bruce promised Ed that he’d keep pushing the search as long as he lived.

Joseph L. Galloway is a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers. jlgalloway2@cs.com

I am glad we still have teams doing the recovery of remains in Vietnam, for many families the word of a confirmed death is important, yes everyone realizes that the NIAs are probably dead, but without the remains you just really never know. Joe Galloway was in La Drang Valley and his attachment to these pilots and the men of the 7th calvary is unique in todays society. Joe Galloway is one of the few journalists that really gets what it is like to be in "the valley of death".

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