Aviators were dropping sensors on Ho Chi Minh Trail
By Ginger Couden CILHI Public Affairs Officer
More than 30 years after nine men gave their lives in the Vietnam War their remains will be heading home to a final resting place. The U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, located at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, recently identified the Navy OP-2E crew that went down in 1968.
The men will be buried throughout the United States in such hometowns as Amsterdam, N.Y. and Port Clinton, Ohio.
After years of investigations, recovery efforts, and laboratory analysis, CILHI was able to identify:
On Jan. 11, 1968 the OP-2E flown by Olsen and Buck departed Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force base for a mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On board were seven other crewmembers and one small dog, which was the mascot known as Snoopy. According to the VO-67 official website there were 12 OP-2Es deployed to Southeast Asia, assigned to Observation Squadron 67, VO-67, flying out of Nakhon Phanom AB in Thailand. The squadron was operational from Feb. 15, 1967 until July 1, 1968.
The OP-2Es would drop small acoustic and seismic sensors along routes. The acoustic sensors would remain in place, inactive, until the noise of a passing truck or tank activated them. Once activated the sensor would transmit a signal to either an airborne relay station or a gunship carrying beacon tracking radar. The information was then relayed to a ground readout facility where it was analyzed and a possible attack ordered for that area.
During Olsen and Buck’s last radio contact, the crew reported they were descending through dense clouds. Two other OP-2Es were working the trail that morning along side Olsen’s aircraft. The other aircraft tried to re-establish radio contact with the crew after their last report but were unsuccessful.There was a search of the area after the aircraft failed to return to friendly lines, but there was no trace of the aircraft or crew. All nine crewmen were listed as missing in action.
On Jan. 25, 1968, an Air Force aircraft photographed a suspected crash that later was correlated to this case. Due to the hostile environment in the crash site area, it was decided not to risk the lives of those on an investigation and recovery team. Subsequently, a military review board amended the status of the nine crewmen to killed in action.
In May 1993, a joint U.S./Lao People’s Democratic Republic (L.P.D.R.) team traveled to Khammouan Province, Laos to investigate the crash site. The team examined some military items consistent with those carried by a U.S. Navy OP-2E in a local village, but was unable to correlate them to a specific site or incident.
In December 1994, another investigative team traveled to the same province to investigate. The team found no evidence relating to the crash. In January 1995, a third team investigated the crash site believed to be associated with the unaccounted-for crew, again with negative results.
The fourth investigative team that deployed in April of 1996, did find the crash site believed to be associated with Olsen and Buck’s aircraft in Khammouan Province. The team surveyed the wreckage which was scattered on two ledges on the side of Phou Louang Mountain. They were able to recover some human remains and material evidence, including two identification tags and an identification card that were visible on the surface.
Initially, because of the arduous location it was determined the crash site was too dangerous for a recovery team to excavate. In addition, the site had a narrow weather window. If a team were to safely access the site, it would have to be during the February to April timeframe because of weather conditions.
It wasn’t until March of 2001 that CILHI was able to safely send in a recovery team. The crash site was located on the side of a cliff at an elevation of approximately 4,400 feet. The upper portion of the site consisted of three defined ledges projecting from the cliff. Team members had to rappel from the top of the mountain to the site. A helicopter sling-loading supplies from Boualapha Town to the mountain was the only way equipment could reach the team. The team excavated the site from March 15 to April 6, 2001. During the recovery the team found additional human remains as well as identification media for three individuals.
It wasn’t until a year later that Mother Nature allowed another CILHI search and recovery team to excavate the crash site. A 12-member CILHI team returned to the crash site from Feb. 7 to March 17, 2002.
The recovery team consisted of a team leader, team sergeant, forensic anthropologist, explosive ordnance disposal technician, a medic, forensic photographer, linguist, life support technician, two mountaineering specialists and two mortuary affairs specialists. Again the team rappelled down to the crash site from the top of the mountain and set up a base camp where they stayed for the duration of the mission. Their supplies were airlifted in. Standard and specialized archaeological procedures were used in the excavation of the crash site. The explosive ordnance disposal technician conducted a surface and subsurface ordnance detection sweep, determining the areas traversed and excavated to be safe from unexploded ordnance. The team found additional human remains as well as identification media for another individual. The team extended their stay to complete the excavation and closed the site recovering all human remains and material evidence.
Analysts confirmed that the wreckage found at the excavated site in Khammouan Province was that of the Navy OP-2 that went down on Jan. 11, 1968. The grid coordinates corresponded to the approximate last known location and material evidence found at the crash site correlated to the crewmembers.
The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory out of Rockville, Md. reported that 28 of the 36 bone and tooth samples submitted by CILHI yielded usable mitochondrial DNA sequence data. There were nine different mtDNA sequences that could be identified and matched to family reference samples obtained for the nine men on board the aircraft.
The CILHI forensic dentists determined the dental remains belonged to some of the nine men manifested on the aircraft.
The skeletal remains recovered from the crash site were individually identified as those of the nine crewmembers based on dental analysis, mtDNA analysis, and morphological comparisons. However, a number of bone fragments could not be individually attributed.
Three fragments of bone were attributed to a small-to-medium-sized domestic dog, which it was determined to be the crew’s mascot, Snoopy.
Based on mtDNA testing, odontological and anthropological analyses, the remains that could be associated with the crew were designated as individual identifications. The known dog remains were segregated.
Final Resting Place
In May of 2003, Mancini’s remains were escorted by his son to Betz, Ross, & Bellinger Funeral Home, 171 Guy Park, Amsterdam, N.Y. Buck’s remains were escorted by the military to Gerner-Wolf-Brossia Marsh Funeral Home, 216 Washington St., Port Clinton, Ohio. The other crewmembers interments are being scheduled on various dates and locations.
On June 18, 9 a.m., at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington Va., there will be a group burial of the crew’s additional remains that could not be individually associated given their size, condition, and the limits of forensic science.
There was an interment and services held for Stevens on June 3, 2003 at East Dalton Oakhill Cemetery, Dalton, Mich.