Commentary: Fallen brothers found - and lost

McClatchy NewspapersApril 10, 2009 

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

Early in the morning of December 28, 1965, a U.S. 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, CWO Jesse Phelps of Boise, Idaho, and CWO Kenneth Stancil of Chattanooga, Tenn., were at the controls. Behind them in the doors were crew chief Donald Grella of Laurel, Neb., and door gunner Thomas Rice Jr. of Spartanburg, S.C. All four were already 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. It was bound on a short, routine flight down Route 19 to an infantry field position just over the high pass between An Khe and the port city of Qui Nhon.

It was what Army aviators called an "ash and trash mission," hauling cases of C-rations, ammunition and other essential supplies to a company of grunts preparing for an air assault mission.

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 Capt. 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. The helicopter was gone, and a massive search effort began almost immediately and continued for months, both as an organized and methodical search and by individual Huey pilots who flew anywhere near that route.

For weeks, they combed the rugged jungle hills on both sides of the road and on both sides of the mountain pass. Choppers hovered over every break in the tree cover peering down if they could see or sending crewmen rappelling down ropes to look around clearings that were not easily checked from the air.

They found nothing. The Huey and its four crewmen had vanished.

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

This 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 POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC-MIA) team assigned to this lead also recovered dog tags, other personal artifacts and some human remains. After so long a time in the acid soil of Vietnam, that usually means bone fragments and maybe a tooth or two. Often that adds up to no more than will fill a small handkerchief.

The remains will now be flown to the Central Identification Library in Hawaii and every effort will be made through DNA testing to identify them and attach a name to them.

"They told us it could take several months to complete that process," said Shirley Haase of Omaha, Neb., the sister of crew chief Don 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, Idaho, 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.

A week ago, the Ia Drang fraternity buried Doc Randy Lose at the National Cemetery in Biloxi, Miss. Doc was the medic of the Lost Platoon of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry at Landing Zone X-Ray in November 1965.

Doc's old company commander, Col. (ret.) John Herren, was there. So was Sgt. Earnie Savage, who inherited command of the Lost Platoon after Lt. Henry Herrick and three more-senior sergeants were killed in the first 10 minutes of battle after the 30-man platoon was cut off and surrounded by hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers.

In all, nine men were killed and 13 were wounded in the opening minutes of a struggle for survival that lasted 27 hours for the cut-off Americans. Doc Lose used up all the bandages and kept plugging wounds with small rolls of C-Ration toilet paper. He crawled from man to man under intense enemy fire, was wounded twice himself and kept every one of the 13 wounded alive during the longest day and night of their lives.

Doc earned a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, and his battalion commander, Lt. Gen. (ret) Hal Moore, and I did everything we could to get that upgraded to the Medal of Honor we think he deserved.

Doc Lose died last month, killed by the Vietnam War just as certainly as if he'd been shot in the head by a sniper during those 27 hours with the Lost Platoon. You see, my friend Doc Lose came home from Vietnam a different man. He carried wounds no one but other combat veterans could see. Doc carried the battlefield memories of suffering and death and killing, and they never let him rest.

All that's over now. Doc has crossed the river to be with some other great soldiers. The rest of us will be along soon enough, Doc, so pop smoke when you hear us inbound. The goofy grape (purple smoke) will work just fine.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service