Remains identified as 6 airmen from Vietnam War missing since 1965

The remains of six servicemen, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and are being returned to their families for burial with full military honors, the Department of Defense's POW/Missing Personnel Office announced Thursday.

The crew aboard an AC-47D aircraft nicknamed "Spooky" failed to return from a combat strike mission in southern Laos on Dec. 24, 1965. All contact with the crew was lost following an initial "mayday" signal. Search efforts for the crew and aircraft were unsuccessful.

Those on board were Air Force 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.

Col. Joseph Christiano's oldest child, Barbara Annechino, was 21 at the time, and said that she had never given up hope that her dad may be alive, the Democrat and Chronicle reports.

Christiano was 43 years old at the time of the crash in Laos. He was a career serviceman and veteran of World War II and Korean War.

A joint United States-Lao People's Democratic Republic search team investigated a crash in Laos in 1995, when villagers said they remembered seeing an aircraft crash in December 1965. The team was able to recover small pieces of wreckage, which prompted further investigation.

The joint search and recovery teams returned to the site four times between 1999 and 2001, conducting additional interviews with locals as part of the investigation. The team then began excavating the site, but did not recover any human remains at the time.

More than 300 American personnel are missing from Laos, where the U.S. bombarded supply lines of communist guerrillas fighting U.S. forces in neighboring Vietnam.

Search efforts were suspended until 2010. The Department of Defense reported that the joint team has since recovered human remains, personal items and military equipment, which scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command identified using dental records and other evidence.

The six men's remains will be buried as a group in a single casket representing the entire crew on Monday in Arlington National Cemetery, the Department of Defense said.

“It is a great honor and that this crew really deserves. They really are heroes,” Annechino told the Democrat and Chronicle.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.