A long-ago war, a missing plane and an enduring mystery

This is Part One of a three-part series on the search for Spooky 21, an AC-47 gunship that disappeared with its six-man crew while on a secret mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. Reporter Matthew Schofield, who covers defense issues, spent months lo

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 25, 2013 

— Maj. Derrell Jeffords bounced his roaring Spooky 21 down and off the runway at Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam. It was just before 7:30 a.m., on Christmas Eve 1965. The big camouflaged belly of his twin-prop AC-47 was easily visible against a blue sky as he banked west.

The cargo plane-turned-gunship was on its way to Laos; its mission was top secret.

Jeffords put the South China Sea at his back and the plane lumbered over a landscape mimicking the twists and folds of an unmade bed. The flight plan showed that he and his five-member crew would be returning to base in under six hours. Back in time for a late lunch.

But that was without complications, and this was the Vietnam War.

Just over halfway through what had been up to that point an uneventful flight, at 10:56 a.m., two U.S. planes in the area picked up a UHF radio broadcast:

“Mayday, Spooky 21. Mayday.”

Then the plane disappeared, swallowed up in the dense green foliage of the Southeast Asian jungle.

This is a story of that flight, and the nearly half-century it took to find and bring home its six crew members. Guiding that effort through all those years was the pledge that those who go into battle make to each other: No matter what, we will come back for you. You will not be forgotten.

You will not be left behind.

It is also the story of how a six-hour combat mission at a time when America was ramping up its involvement in Vietnam would test the limits of forensic science, and the faith and patience of the grieving sons, daughters, wives and parents of the six lost airmen.

Besides Jeffords, a 40-year-old pilot from Florence, S.C., the Air Force crew was made up of the navigator, Maj. Joseph Christiano, 43, of Rochester, N.Y.; the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Dennis L. Eilers, 27, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and the weapons and ammo gang of Tech Sgt. William K. Colwell, 44, of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Arden K. Hassenger, 32, of Lebanon, Ore.; and Tech Sgt. Larry C. Thornton, 33, of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Two months before, 2-year-old Jeffrey Christiano had clung to the frame of his family’s front door, crying, “Daddy don’t go!” as he watched his father walk away.

As the crew members lifted off that morning, their families back home in the states were preparing for their first Christmas without them. They received the news that the plane had vanished that same day. Christmas Eve became one of the hardest days of the year.

This was what those who began the search for Spooky 21 knew: It had been headed for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and its crew had never been seen again.

Case file 0222 notes that the initial actions included “extensive searches” in the immediate aftermath of the plane’s disappearance, near the “strike location and in a fifty-mile-wide corridor on the route from Da Nang.” But that brief description went on to state, “Subsequent search efforts were terminated on 26 December 1965.”

There was a war on, after all.

Spooky 21’s mission was covert but vital to the war. It was part of a secret combat operation known as Tiger Hound, a search-and-destroy mission aimed at the trail, a series of dirt and stone paths hidden in the Laotian jungle that served as an enemy supply line. It connected the communist North Vietnamese military with its allies in the Viet Cong insurgency hiding in the south.

The winding, narrow, jungle-covered corridor through neighboring Laos enabled the fighters from the north to avoid the South Vietnamese army and its American allies digging in along the demilitarized zone 80 miles north of the airfield in Da Nang. But the trail, named for the North Vietnamese leader, was more like a network of capillaries than a set route. And it was keeping Vietnam from becoming a traditional war, fought along a single front.

“Without the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” said military historian James Willbanks, “the war doesn’t go on.”

Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The morning it disappeared, Spooky 21 roared west toward Laos, passing peaks crowned by tall trees and valley floors cut by fast rivers, covered in rice paddies or choked with bamboo. Villagers moved up and down the knife-sharp slopes with ease. But the heavy tree cover made it a hell of a place to find and fight an enemy.

The plan was for the crew to find and destroy its target – a way station hidden beneath the thick foliage, typically home to ammunition depots and anti-aircraft batteries. They were expected back at Da Nang about 1:30 p.m.

But on a clear morning, like that Christmas Eve day, gunners hidden beneath the jungle leaves could spot a big fat target like Spooky etched against the blue sky long before the crew could see them.

Most Laotian villagers had fled the region to escape the war. But they weren’t the problem. It was the North Vietnamese moving along the trail, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail had never been busier.

By 1965, the U.S. military resolved to do something about it. Bomb one path and the North Vietnamese army’s Group 559 – a military team strung along the trail like a version of Pony Express way stations, and tasked with keeping it open – simply redirected traffic several hundred yards over to a similarly primitive route while it patched up the first one.

But the trail ran through Laos and Cambodia, and cutting it in half would have meant expanding the Vietnam War into a regional war. Closing it would have required an invading and occupying ground force, a prospect that had little appeal.

The U.S. was stepping on the gas, however, as far as expanding its presence in South Vietnam. The 23,000 troops stationed there in 1964 had risen to 185,000 by the end of 1965, when Spooky 21 left Da Nang. The number would continue to climb until it peaked in 1968 at more than half a million.

But as the number of American troops increased, so did Soviet and Chinese support for the North Vietnamese. The American air campaign wasn’t enough to stop the flow of weapons, ammo – even food – often stacked onto comically overloaded bikes or stuffed into baskets and lashed to donkeys, sometimes even to elephants.

Desperate for a more accurate and lasting way than bombing to hit and continue hitting a target, the old workhorse C-47 cargo plane had been outfitted with three electric miniguns, bolted to the floor and pointed out holes where windows had been.

After a year of tests, the plane was in its first month as a response to the increased activity on the trail. “Spooky” was its call signal, a homage to its ability to break Viet Cong night attacks on American bases.

But among the enemy, its nickname was “Dragon.” Tracer rounds, especially at night, made it look like the propeller-drive plane was spitting fire at the ground.

Jeffords controlled the aim of Spooky’s guns from the pilot’s seat. In the plane’s belly, Hassenger helped make sure the ammo didn’t jam. The only blond in an otherwise brown-haired group of airmen, his was job simple: Once they started raining fire on the enemy, the fire didn’t stop.

Hassenger had volunteered for the job because he thought it was the future. Also, his family could use the combat pay. His wife, Sherrie, said that her husband was a military man and made for his role.

Still, like the rest of his crew, he was new to this war, and he hadn’t volunteered for an easy task. A three-second burst from Spooky could cover a football field-sized area with a bullet every couple of yards. The plane carried a lot of ammo, about 24,000 rounds. But if things got hairy, the guns could burn through that in less than three minutes.

Beyond the challenge, however, was the danger. Spooky was fearsome in fight, but vulnerable. These early missions, like the Christmas Eve 1965 sortie over Laos, were part of the learning curve.

Shortly after takeoff, Christiano – the runt of the crew at 5’6”, but stocky and packing as much weight onto his frame as his taller crewmates – got instructions to redirect to different target coordinates. The original destination had been a patch of jungle about 100 miles straight west. The new one was another patch about 23 miles south of that, still about 100 miles from Da Nang.

Records indicate Spooky 21 turned west toward the target. Jeffords’ airborne chatter during the next couple of hours revealed nothing unusual. Everything appeared to be going according to plan.

Then came the “mayday” call.

Wrestling with loss

For years, only rumor surfaced about the plane or its crew. There were stories that the airmen were alive but captive. Some of the wives, not even certain if they were truly widows, quietly hoped their men had simply been captured, and had carved out new lives half a world away. Sherrie Hassenger figured her Arden would have been an asset in Laos, teaching villagers the finer points of woodworking and furniture making.

The U.S. military dutifully tracked down each rumor but could never substantiate any. Still, the resulting limbo was torture for the families.

By 1982, when Christiano’s son, Jeffrey, was an 18-year-old senior wrestling for his high school team in Rochester, N.Y., the crew had all been declared dead.

At that time, Jeffrey was hoping to get into the U.S. Air Force Academy, to follow in his father’s footsteps. In February of that year, on a date he had long ago circled on his calendar, he was focused on a wrestling match. Win it and he’d qualify for the state championships. He was good, and he had figured he’d be in a position to go for state.

Just as the match started, he quickly glanced up at the stands, as he always did, hoping somehow his dad would be there. He knew it was impossible. Still. . . .

His mom was in the stands, but she didn’t really get wrestling.

The match didn’t go well. Jeffrey still thinks the referee awarded a few points to his opponent too easily. After he lost, his mother approached him in the hallway.

“Did you win?” she asked, smiling.

Jeffrey loved his mom, but he recalls thinking, “I could really use a dad today.”

He thought about that a lot in those days.

“Until they’re home"

Finally, after years of little progress, a possible break came on Jan. 19, 1993.

A joint U.S.-Lao People’s Democratic Republic team went to a village in Xekong Province, near their target site, spoke to villagers about Spooky 21 and surveyed the ground. Still, the result was the same: no information, no wreckage.

A local village chief also stirred optimism at one point during a search for a different missing crew when he said that a two-propeller plane had gone down five to eight kilometers away, close to the Spooky 21 target area. But a subsequent search found nothing.

Case file 0222 recounts the fruitless chases. It was tucked away in a cabinet at Hawaii’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Its motto: “Until they’re home.” Like tens of thousands of other files, it outlines how the military hunts down the remains of missing troops. It also included records of the post-disappearance promotions of the crew members, as well as correspondence with surviving family members, like the letters from wives who disagreed with the ruling that their husbands were dead.

Then on Jan. 13, 1995, three decades after the crew disappeared, a Laotian identified only as “Mr. Thongkhoun” in Savannakhet Province, about 70 miles northwest of the previous search, spoke to a different investigating team.

He said that he’d seen a large propeller plane in December 1965 or January 1966 flying low, with heavy smoke pouring out. It hit a large tree and spun into a rice field.

Mr. Thongkhoun didn’t see any parachutes or other aircraft in the area, nor did he hear anyone mention a surviving pilot or crew. But he hadn’t actually poked around where the plane had hit until 10 years later.

His account put Spooky 21 far off course, outside what was thought to be the likely search area. But by expanding the area, records showed that three planes, including Spooky 21, had possibly crashed in that region of Laos, and two had been accounted for.

Mr. Thongkhoun sounded sure of the story. And the plane he described sounded like an AC-47.

The team began to wonder: Could this finally be Spooky 21?

This is Part One of a three-part series on the search for Spooky 21, an AC-47 gunship that disappeared with its six-man crew while on a secret mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. Reporter Matthew Schofield, who covers defense issues, spent months looking into the story behind the missing plane. He spoke with family members and military officials, and studied records and official histories, as well as traveling to Laos to see how searches were conducted.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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