ARLINGTON, VA. — Ever since Sherrie Hassenger’s husband went missing with five other U.S. airmen over Laos in 1965, her purpose has been to wish and to hope he would come home. When those men’s remains were buried in a single casket Monday at Arlington National Cemetery, she said, some of that purpose was taken away.
“All I listen to is ’50s, ’60s music,” she said. “When I saw those Air Force men in those dress blues, just like back then, I just wanted to go up and hug them and kiss them. It felt like maybe I could find a piece of my husband in them.”
The charred remains of the six airmen — identified not through DNA matches but through dental records, personal items and other circumstantial evidence — were buried in a single casket with full military honors, as is common in situations where remains can’t be conclusively linked to a specific individual. The remains are representative of six Air Force servicemen: Col. Joseph Christiano of Rochester, N.Y.; Col. Derrell B. Jeffords of Florence, S.C.; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Chief Master Sgt. William K. Colwell of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Chief Master Sgt. Arden K. Hassenger of Lebanon, Ore.; and Chief Master Sgt. Larry C. Thornton of Idaho Falls, Idaho.
The Air Force gave all six posthumous promotions, a military spokeswoman said.
It was Christmas Eve 1965 when their Air Force plane, nicknamed “Spooky,” took off from Vietnam for a combat mission. The crew sent out a “mayday” signal while flying over Laos, and after that, all contact was lost. Two days of searches turned up nothing.
For nearly half a century, the airmen’s families endured an emotional kaleidoscope that they say is difficult to describe to those who never had to face it. The men were listed for years as missing, and family members held out hope at first that their loved ones had survived. For most that hope faded over time, despite an occasional unconfirmed report that crew members were seen alive. The crash site has been excavated several times over the past decade, but it was not until 2010 and 2011 that human remains were recovered.