Remains Recovered 13 December 1993; Identified 20 March 2000
Name: Gerald Gordon Van Buren v001p
Rank/Branch: Lieutenant Colonel/US Air Force
Unit: .314th Tactical Airlift Wing,
Nha Trang Airbase, South Vietnam

Date of Birth: 08 June 1935
Home of Record: Toledo, OH
Date of Loss: 29 December 1967
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 220900N 1032200E (UK315501)
Click coordinates to view (4) maps
Status in 1973: Missing in Action
Category: 4
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: C130E "Hercules"
Other Personnel In Incident: James R. Williams; Gean P. Clapper; Edward J. Darcy; Wayne A. Eckley; Donald E. Fisher; Edwin N. Osborne; Frank C. Parker; Charles P. Claxton; Gordon J. Wenaas; Jack McCrary; (missing)


SYNOPSIS: The Lockheed C130 Hercules, or "Herc" for short, was multi-purpose propeller driven aircraft used as a transport, tanker, gunship, drone controller, airborne battlefield command and control center, weather reconnaissance and electronic reconnaissance platform; as well as search, rescue and recovery aircraft. In the hands of the "Trash Haulers," as the crews of the Tactical Air Command transports styled themselves, the C130 proved to be the most valuable airlift instrument in the Southeast Asia War. They were so valuable, in fact, that Gen. William Momyer, 7th Air Force Commander, refused for a time to let them land at Khe Sanh when the airstrip was under fire from NVA troops surrounding the base. The C130 was critical in resupplying American and allied troops in this area, and when it could not land, it delivered its payload by means of a parachute drop.

On 29 December 1967, Maj. Charles P. Claxton, aircraft commander; then Capt. Gerald G. Van Buren, 1st pilot; Capt. Edwin N. Osborne Jr., pilot; Lt. Col. Donald E. Fisher, navigator; Capt. Frank C. Parker III, navigator; Capt. Gordon J. Wenaas, navigator; SSgt. Gean P. Clapper, radio operator; SSgt. Wayne A. Eckley, flight engineer; TSgt. Jack McCrary, flight engineer; SSgt. Edward J. Darcy, loadmaster; and Sgt. James R. Williams, loadmaster; comprised the crew of a C130E (tail number 64-0547). The aircraft departed Nha Trang Airbase, South Vietnam at 0030 hours on a highly classified special mission over the rugged jungle-covered mountains of Tuan Giao District, Lai Chau Province, North Vietnam.

The weather conditions included solid cloud cover with bases at 800 feet and tops to 8,000 feet. There were scattered high clouds with bases at 25,000 feet and tops to 30,000 feet. The visibility ranged from 3 to 5 miles with isolated rains showers throughout the region.

At 0430 hours, the pilot made radio contact with the Nha Trang air traffic control tower reporting the mission was progressing as scheduled. When no further radio contact could be established with the aircraft or its crew, and it failed to return to base at the time its fuel supply was exhausted, search and rescue (SAR) efforts were organized. The last radio transmission with the C130E placed the Herc over a region that was sparsely populated approximately 7 miles south of Ban Nam Muong, 19 miles southwest of Ban Ko La, 28 miles southwest of the Vietnamese/Chinese border and 41 miles northeast of the Vietnamese/Lao border. Over the next two weeks 1 electronic search and 3 photo reconnaissance missions were conducted over these extremely rugged enemy controlled mountains of northwestern North Vietnam. When no trace of the aircraft or crew was found, the formal search was terminated on 29 January 1968. At that time all eleven crewmen were listed Missing in Action.

In April 1991 the US government released a list of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action who were known to be alive in enemy hands and for whom there is no evidence that he or she died in captivity. This list, commonly referred to today as the USG's "Last Known Alive (LKA)" list, included Jack McCrary. According to a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report dated 1979, there was "radio contact with TSgt. McCrary" some time after the aircraft was declared overdue.

In a 1992 letter to Senator John Kerry, Major Van Buren's son wrote: "This highly classified aircraft was loaded with electronic warfare equipment including terrain following radar and, as such, I don't see it crashing into the side of a mountain as the Air Force would have us believe." He went on to say that he believes "the aircraft was caught over China, shot down or forced down, and the crew taken prisoner by the Chinese or Soviets."

In August 1992, the Vietnamese Office Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP) reported to US officials that it had conducted a unilateral investigation/recovery mission in Lai Chau Province and presented information to them concerning this case along with photos of a crashsite. The Vietnamese also reported they recovered some remains at this location.

In October 1992, a team from the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) made the arduous trip to this isolated crashsite previously investigated by VNOSMP near Phu Nhung Village, Tuan Giao District, which is situated at approximately 4300 feet in rugged mountains that could only be reached by a six-hour trek. The team members interviewed villagers, one of whom said that immediately after the crash, there were too many aircraft flying around to risk going to the crashsite. Later he did go there twice where he saw bodies in the wreckage and left without taking anything away with him. Shortly thereafter other villagers traveled to the site and began hauling away pieces of metal. Another villager said he hiked to the C130E's site three times. On each of these trips he also saw bodies in the wreckage. Further, the Tuan Giao District Assistant Chief stated the crash happened in an area inhabited by ethnic minorities who are not often in touch with local authorities because of terrain and distance.

On 30 October 1992, four sets of remains were turned over by the Vietnamese. The next day, 31 October, "an additional" four sets of human remains were shown to the team along with a Geneva Convention Card, and identification tag and an aircraft data plate. On 8 November, the team traveled again to the crashsite to interview more villagers, and again they gathered more information about remains collected from the site by local residents as late as October 1991.

In spite of the fact that the 1992 JTFFA team recommended this site not be excavated due to the serious logistic, operational and recovery problems, a full scale excavation operation was initiated a year later. During the excavation, aircraft wreckage, survival gear and human remains including teeth and literally hundreds of bone fragments were recovered.

On 8 June 1994, a Vietnamese citizen turned over an unspecified number of bone fragments to JTFFA's Detachment 2 in Hanoi and reported that another resident of Son La Province had remains and material evidence belonging to men aboard this C130E. Later that month JTFFA team members traveled to Son La Province to investigate this report further. At that time they received some remains, but believed the villager(s) had chosen to hold either remains and/or material evidence back from those they considered outsiders. The Vietnamese Border Defense Forces representative agreed to continue the investigation noting that "local people considered US and Central Vietnamese outsiders." According to the JTFFA site report, the remains recovered by the Son La People's Committee were repatriated to US control on 13 February 1995.

By August 1997, the search for the crewmen of the C130E took another unusual turn. Another Vietnamese presented Detachment 2 with a rubbing of a military dogtag for Col. Fisher. She said some close friends are holding identification tags and a skull at their home. She said she would return to their homes and encourage the friends to turn in the remains. She also told them she repeatedly dreamed she would meet a man with American remains who would ask for her help. She went on to say the man approached her on a Hanoi street and gave her a dogtag rubbing, then asked her to take it to Detachment 2. She said she did not know the man's name, and he never contacted her again.

In January 1998, yet another Vietnamese reported to Detachment 2 that a relative found remains and an ID tag in Tuan Chau District. He said he was holding other remains associated with this incident. As proof he presented them with a computer-printed replica of Col. Fisher's dogtag and a inch bone fragment. He said he had the real dogtag and a full set of remains. Upon examination by the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI), the bone fragment was determined to be Mongoloid.

Six months later, in June 1998, the same Vietnamese who made the January report adjusted it. He said he went to a wedding in Thuan Chau Village, and his nephew told him local residents had the remains of an American soldier. His nephew took him to another village where he was shown several large pieces of bone. He thought they were American due to their size and the presence of an identification tag. These people told him they bought the remains from an ethnic Hmong. When queried about the man and village, he said he could not remember the name or the village and could not contact his nephew by telephone.

The remains turned over by the Vietnamese were combined with the remains recovered during the crash site excavation, which was closed on 13 December 1993. All the remains were transported to CIL-HI for examination. Of the 11 men on board the C130E, both dental and mt-DNA were used to positively identify Edward Darcy, Wayne Eckley and James Williams. Frank Parker and Donald Fisher were positively identified by mt-DNA only. According to CIL-HI analysis, no individual association could be made between hundreds of fragments and specific crewmen. The fragments were fractured in a manner consistent with an aircraft crash and were all in a similar state of preservation. Consequently, these individually unidentifiable remains were grouped as remains "from an incident involving" 11 men. While CIL-HI made this determination for the entire crew on 9 March 2000, the announcement was not made public until the US Air Force had the opportunity to contact all of the crewmen's families. All remains were turned over for burial on 6 November 2000. On 15 November 2000, these remains were interred in a group burial in one casket in Arlington National Cemetery under a headstone bearing all 11 crewmen's names.

The families of Charles P. Claxon, Gerald G. Van Burin, Edwin N. Observe Jr., Donald E. Fisher, Frank C. Parker III, Gordon J. Weans, Jean P. Clapper, Wayne A. Beckley, Jack McCrary, Edward J. Dray, and James R. Williams finally have the peace of mind and know within reason where their loved ones are buried. For other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fate could be quite different.

Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of our government has received American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Pilots and aircrews were called upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.