|From The Oregonian oregonlive.com
Lebanon family's long, wrenching wait for remains of Arden Hassenger, shot down in 1965
Published: Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 9:51 PM Updated: Thursday, May 31, 2012, 5:58 AM
By Mike Francis, The Oregonian
Arden Hassenger is coming home to Lebanon, Ore., 47 years after he went to war in Vietnam, but the question about what happened to him remains a mystery.
Did he die when his C-47 was shot down over Laos on Christmas Eve, 1965? Did he bail out? If he survived the crash, was he held prisoner in Laos? How did he die?
For his widow, Sherrie Hassenger, 73, and their children, the June 8 funeral may bring a sense of closure. That's what Sherrie hopes. But the family has ridden a roller-coaster of emotions since 1965, when the military declared Arden missing at age 32, then dead, then reported that he was sighted alive, and now, finally, dead.
Sherrie and Arden had been married for 10 years and she never remarried, waiting and hoping her husband would come home. The three children have grown and the two sons, Michael, 49 and Keith, 52, still live in Lebanon. A daughter, Robin Hobson, 54, lives in Benton City, Wash.
The family has received information in bits through the years. Some has contradicted earlier messages. There are references to Laotian villagers, recanted stories, but finally, Arden's dog tags have reached Sherrie, pressed into her hand by a man from the Air Force Mortuary Affairs office. She knows now Arden is gone, but doesn't know when those dog tags last hung around the neck of her living, breathing husband.
The Defense Department press release issued this week makes the case of Arden Hassenger sound relatively straightforward, if drawn-out and difficult. According to the military, a U.S.-Laotian team of investigators visited a site in Savannakhet Province where villagers remembered that a two-propeller aircraft crashed in December 1965. Investigators found some wreckage, but no human remains.
The military says investigators visited the site four more times between 1995 and 2001, still finding no human remains. It wasn't until an excavation in 2010 that investigators found "human remains, personal items and military equipment." Another visit last year found more remains.
The press release said forensic scientists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command used dental records to trace some of the remains to Hassenger.
But that account doesn't begin to cover the wrenching reversals dealt the Hassenger family. In 1977, the military declared Arden dead and conducted a memorial service in Lebanon. Sherrie Hassenger attended, "even though I didn't want it." She believed her husband was still alive.
And about 10 years later, she got a call from the Air Force's Missing Persons Branch at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. The caller told Sherrie her husband had been sighted, alive and captive, in Laos. The Pentagon revised his status to "missing."
The family got more tantalizing fragments. Two people in Laos told stories of seeing Americans in Laotian houses. Sherrie says she was once told that a Laotian man who may have known her husband walked more than 500 miles from Laos to the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, where he presented Hassenger's dog tags and some partial remains. But the informants later changed their stories, according to an account the Hassengers gave to the Albany Democrat-Herald.
Even though the United States never declared a war on Laos, it bombed the country heavily during the mid- to late-1960s. In "Air America in Laos III: In combat," Joe Leeker wrote that 1965 marked the beginning of major military activities in Laos, with as many as 40,000 North Vietnamese troops in the country and increasing U.S. support -- especially air support -- for the Laotian government. Sherrie said the mission of her husband's crew was to conduct armed reconnaisance over the Ho Chi Minh Trail system, which was being used to funnel arms to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters.
It was a complex conflict with shifting tides and many secret military missions. The mystery of Arden Hassenger's fate is one late echo of that turbulent time.
Sherrie Hassenger now is overseeing plans for a funeral service with full military honors in Lebanon's Odd Fellows Cemetery on Friday June 8, following a smaller, 11 a.m. funeral service.
"This has kind of torn my family apart," said Sherrie Hassenger. "Now we're kind of getting back together."