ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Missouri gravesite honoring an American crew whose plane crashed during the Vietnam War was being unearthed Tuesday in an effort to finally identify whose remains are buried beneath the single tombstone, and who was left behind.
The remains of some but not all of the 10-man crew, whose plane crashed over a mountain jungle in Laos in 1969, were buried together nearly four decades ago at a site in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis. After years of requests by relatives of the fallen crewmen, the remains are now being removed for DNA testing.
"It is our hope to soon provide much needed and long awaited closure for these families," said Maj. Tracy Bunko, a spokeswoman for Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations.
Military experts believe only five or maybe seven of the men's remains are buried at the gravesite, which is marked by a tombstone bearing the names of all 10 crewmen.
Paul Clever, whose father was among the killed airmen, has spent years researching the fatal mission and crash — including traveling to Laos last year with his wife — and believes the Air Force made a critical mistake by quickly listing the entire crew as killed in action. That, he said, hampered later efforts to recover the remains of his father, Staff Sgt. Louis Clever, and his fellow crewmen.
"They just conveniently accounted for them without the evidence," Clever said, adding that the plane's fuselage — where he believes some remains could have been found — wasn't recovered because it was deemed too risky. Clever said he was told it was hoisted into a truck by metal scavengers in 1982.
"Those remains are lost forever," he said.
But he graciously welcomed Tuesday's work at the cemetery and drove from his home in Memphis, Tenn., to watch the disinterment. Despite the agency's past mistakes, Clever credits the Defense Department for moving forward to try and identify the remains buried at Jefferson Barracks.
"When push came to shove today, people at the highest level said, 'We're going to make as much of this right as we can,'" Clever said. "Boy, isn't that a breath of fresh air?"
Bunko said DNA samples were taken from the men's relatives and will be compared to the remains during testing at a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command lab in Delaware. She said it wasn't clear how long the testing could take.
But once the process is completed, she said, the Air Force would work with crewmen's families to honor and bury each man individually.
The crew's plane went down on Feb. 5, 1969. The wreckage wasn't found until three months later, and search crews were only able to find a few scattered skeletal remains that were later buried together in a single casket.
Clever said his father spent 13 years in the Air Force and that his final mission involved top-secret work intercepting radio signals.
He said the crew departed Pleiku in central Vietnam for Laos, just weeks before the before the second Tet Offensive, mounted chiefly by the North Vietnamese. Supplies were already moving along the Ho Chi Minh trail, creating a situation those in the plane knew was dangerous, Clever said.
"When they took off they knew they were going to a very bad place," Clever said. "They (the North Vietnamese) were protecting their line of logistics."
When the plane failed to land as scheduled at an airport in Vietnam, a search was launched. Nothing was found in the original six-day search — no one knows exactly why the plane crashed.
The other crewmen have been identified as the pilot, Lt. Col. Harry Niggle, a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam; co-pilot Maj. Homer Lynn; Maj. Robert Olson, a navigator; Capt. Walter Burke, a third pilot; Master Sgt. Wilton Hatton, the flight engineer; and four others: Staff Sgt. Hugh Sherburn, Staff Sgt. Rodney Gott, Sgt. Clarence McNeill and Sgt. James Dorsey Jr.
The military hasn't released details about the men.