On Christmas Eve in 1965, a World War II-vintage "Gooney Bird" rattled and rolled to takeoff from the Da Nang airfield in Vietnam on a secret mission to a war in Laos that the U.S. officially denied was being fought.
Nearly 47 years later, the Air Force crew of six aboard came home to the military's "Last Bivouac" in Arlington National Cemetery. Today they were lowered into the ground as a group in a single casket that was, in a sense, a time capsule from generations-ago conflicts whose politics and diplomacy were possibly even more muddled and maddening than those the nation has faced since 9/11.
At the graveside was 86-year-old Jeanne Jeffords, whose husband, Col. Derrell B. Jeffords, 40, of Florence, S.C., was the pilot. She stood as the Air Force band played "Going Home" and family and friends gathered while honor guards took the casket from the caisson at Arlington's Section 60, where many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are buried.
"He really was just a very good man," Mrs. Jeffords said earlier of her husband. "He loved volunteer work. He was the kind of man that everybody liked. He was always there to help somebody. He loved the military." She never remarried. "When people ask me why, I answer that nobody ever asked me," she said with a laugh.
Jeffords was a major on the last mission but was promoted while listed as missing, as were the other members of the crew: Col. Joseph Christiano, 43, of Rochester, N.Y.; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers, 27, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Chief Master Sgt. William K. Colwell, 44, of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Chief Master Sgt. Arden K. Hassenger, 32, of Lebanon, Ore.; and Chief Master Sgt. Larry C. Thornton, 33, of Idaho Falls, Idaho.
For Belva Eilers, the wife of Lt. Col. Eilers, the ceremony brought back the terrible memory of the Western Union woman in a trench coat who came to the door in Tipton, Iowa, with a telegram from the government on Christmas Day 1965.
They had been married in 1961. They had a son and a daughter, aged 3 and 1. The Western Union woman asked "Are you alone? Could you get someone?" The telegram began "We regret to inform you" that your husband is missing in Southeast Asia. "Talk about your world coming to an end," Belva Eilers said.
"I can't tell you how overwhelming this all is,' she said of the return of the crew's remains to American soil. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen."
On that Christmas Eve in 1965 Maj. Jeffords was at the controls of a new weapons system slapped together inside an old Gooney Bird, the nickname for the C-47, the military version of the twin-prop DC-3.
A year before, the Air Force Systems Command had begun converting C-47 transports under the Project Gunship program. They knocked out two windows and a door on the port side and installed three 7.62mm SUU-11A Gatling mini-guns. A three-second burst from the mini-guns was said to be able to put a round in every square yard of a football field.
The converted C-47s were now AC-47s, ready for close air support. The call sign was "Spooky," and the plane was definitely that to anyone who saw it in action. The pilot would dip the left wing over the target area and make a series of slow turns, or "pylon turns," as the mini-guns opened up.
They were nearly all night missions, and usually the only thing U.S. troops on the ground would see was the "cone of fire" from the tracer rounds, accompanied by the dull roar from the mini-guns. It was as though an angry god were spitting fire from above. Another nickname for the plane was "Puff the Magic Dragon."
The Jeffords plane took a course for the "secret war' in Laos, a "neutral" nation in name only. Under Geneva agreements, the major powers had agreed to stay out of Laos.
"We seek no wider war," President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared after the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964 that began the major conventional buildup in Vietnam.
But the North Vietnamese relied on the Ho Chi Minh trail through northern Laos for troops and supplies, and Hanoi, the Soviet Union, and China were backing leftists in a civil war in Laos. The CIA and "Air America" sought to counter by picking a winner from among a stew of warlords, corrupt politicians and royals.
In its last transmission over Savannakhet province in southern Laos, the AC-47 put out a "Mayday" before crashing in thick woods and undergrowth, according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office at the Pentagon.
The DPMO did not specify the cause of the crash, but Mrs. Jeffords and Jeffrey Christiano, the son of Col. Christiano, said they were later told that the AC-47 had been shot down.
"At first, there was just a telegram saying he was missing," Christiano said. "They told us pretty much right away that it was in Laos, even though we weren't supposed to be there at the time. Then they told us a little bit later that it had been shot down."
The flight of the Jeffords plane was one of the last daylight missions for the AC-47s, said retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Lloyd "Skip" Marshall, who flew more than 300 missions on Spookies from 1967-70 as an aerial gunner.
"We just stopped doing daylight missions, too dangerous," said Thornton, 65, of North Hampton, N.H., who attended the Arlington services as a friend of the families.
Despite what the government maintained at the time, "we flew over Laos a lot," Marshall said, and he also was on the ground there to train Laotians. "None of the politicians would admit it," he said.
The AC-47s normally would fire from about 3,000 feet, Marshall said, "but we'd go as low as we had to go. We didn't want to lose an outpost. We didn't want to lose anybody on the ground."
Being in the back of the plane with the mini-guns took determination, Marshall said. "The guns were so loud your entire chest cavity would vibrate," Marshall said. "It was just a roar, a terrible roar."
Initial searches for the Jeffords plane were fruitless and then in 1995, a joint U.S.- Lao People's Democratic Republic team heard from local villagers who recalled seeing a twin-engine plane go down in 1965. A local famer led them to small pieces of wreckage but no remains were found.
From 1999-2001, recovery teams went back to the area four times but still found no remains. The searches were suspended.
Then in 2010, the searches were renewed. "The team recovered human remains, personal items, and military equipment. Three additional excavations in 2011 recovered additional human remains and evidence," DPMO said in a statement.
Last year, the families were told. DPMO has taken heat over the years on identifications, the quality of its searches, and notifications to families, but the Jeffords and Christiano families said they were regularly informed with status reports.
"Every three or four months I'd get a letter," Mrs. Jeffords said. "They kept in touch with me all those years." Then last year, defense officials came to her home with photos of the crash site and the excavation work. Her husband's remains were coming home. "I would've thought they'd have given up after all these years," she said.
It was the third war for Col. Christiano, the navigator on the AC-47. He had also served in World War II and Korea. Barbara Annechino, his daughter, said he had reservations about going to a combat zone for the third time, but at age 43 then, he was proud that the Air Force still needed him.
She recalled a father who loved to sing show tunes as he cooked up his special sauce on Sunday mornings for the family, and she recalled his dedication to the military. "He believed in his job, and he believed in what we were doing in Vietnam," she said.
Susan Schilling's uncle, Chief Master Sgt. Colwell, also was a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "He just loved planes, loved to fly," she said. "He was about to retire but they put a hold on it and he did one more tour. I'm just so glad he's home now."
Jeffrew Christiano was two years old when his father was lost in Laos. "So I don't have memories of him – this is my memory of my Dad," he said of the long and anxious wait for the return.
But what he has to cherish is his father's dedication to service that came through in his letters, and the memories of family and friends. "There's that one thing – my father's deep love of this country," Jeffrey Christiano said. In his letters home, "he always said what an honor it was to serve this country."
According to DPMO, there are still 318 Americans listed as missing in Laos.