Greetings once again fellow Sky Troopers. I’ll start this months article with my AAR of the April 8 - 9, 2010 Arlington National Cemetery special service for the crew of Huey 808. For those of you that have not followed this story in my earlier columns I shall bring you up to speed.
Our journey to ANC began 45 years ago, 28 Dec 65, when Huey #808 of the 229th AHB lifted off for a routine ten minute DCS flight from the Central Highlands of Vietnam and disappeared into the jungles of II Corps. On board were pilots CWO Kenneth L. STANCIL and CWO Jesse D. PHELPS along with crew chief Sp5. Donald GRELLA, and gunner Sp4 Thomas RICE, all veterans of the Ia Drang Valley battle. The crew would remain missing for over four decades and numerous attempts to find the Huey were unsuccessful. That is until March 2009, when a excavation team set out to find and subsequently found the crew and bird based on information from an April 2006, investigation team. The 2006 U.S. - Vietnamese team led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) found a villager that claimed to have shot down the bird and was able to lead them to a crash site on the side of a 4,700-foot mountain. It took another three years for an excavation team to return to the supposed site, about 10 miles from our old base camp in An Khe.
The forty plus years of not knowing for the four families was full of unanswered questions, disappointment, rumors of sightings, frustration, grieving, loss, determination, but never without hope. New generations of family would learn of the missing loved one and rekindle that hope. Parents would pass without ever knowing.
The journey would finally come to an end this past April as the four families, friends and comrades gathered in Washington DC to witness the crews’ remains laid to rest together at Arlington National Cemetery on a beautiful spring day in a background of cherry blossoms in full bloom. So, this is where my report begins.
There was several reasons why I needed to attend this service. Although I never personally knew any of the crew, I was part the same company, A/229th. I remember listening to the story from the “Old Heads” of the lost bird and have flown the same route they took that morning a number of times. I’ve maintained contact with some of the family members for many years via the Saber / “Silver Wings” sites and visits to DC. But most importantly, I felt that I needed to represent the troopers of the “Wings” group as in a display of respect for the families - We never forgot.
My Virginia sortie to the Arlington Residence Court Hotel in Rosslyn was uneventful. Arriving in time for an early afternoon gathering of the families and veterans. In the lobby I immediately noticed Shirley (the sister of Don GRELLA) and Ron HAASE, Joe GALLOWAY, Bruce and Arlene CRANDALL. Walking through the door behind me was Jon MILLS and Frank MORENO. Within minutes I struck up conversations with Faye Smith, one of Sp4 Thomas Rice’s sisters and Don STANCIL, the brother of CWO Kenneth STANCIL. The next couple of hours was full of introductions, questions and photos from all the generations of the four families as well as the press that accompanied two of the families and local TV folks.
That evening we gathered again. This time at Murphy Funeral Home on Wilson Blvd. to pay tribute to their sacrifice and to honor and remember these men. I thank Fred (A/229th AHB) and Marge ROBINS for the ride to the service. Inside we found four separate Guest Registries, one for each family. Fred, Marge and I made our way to the left rear of the room to sit among the other Stetson bearing troopers. Mr. Kenneth WASHINGTON gave opening remarks followed by Public Affairs Officer Shari LAWRENCE. Then the opportunity to give personal remarks was presented to all. One by one family members, young and seasoned, stood and spoke of their loved one or gave thanks to those responsible for bringing them home again. Some of the veterans, including this writer, took turns to speak to the group. Bruce CRANDALL fought back tears, unsuccessfully, as he stood and gave a very emotional presentation of responsibility and honor for the crew. He made us all proud to have been a part of this very special gathering.
Friday morning we made our way to the chapel located on the grounds of ANC. Chaplain Lt. Col. Kenneth GODFREY talked of the history and actions of the crew of #808; of family members passing never knowing what became of their son; of the extended search for the crew and how their fellow troopers never forgot them. As the flag-covered coffin containing remains of the crew was loaded onto the horse drawn carriage for the one mile joinery to the gravesite, mourners began placing their vehicle in the procession line. Some, including Walter “Doc” ROBERTS, elected to walk behind the caisson. By the time the last car left the chapel the procession was almost halfway to the designation. As we made our way along the winding paths among the headstone covered hills the silence of the procession is broken only by the rhythmic clip-clop of the caisson horses and the trees responding to a brisk breeze.
When the last of the procession joined those already at the gravesite four Army Blackhawk helicopters began to bear down on us. As the ground shaking gaggle flew over the site, mourners began to clap and veterans saluted. Chaplin GODFREY officiated at the site and was followed by the Honor Guard 21-gun salute and taps.
A reception followed at the Arlington Residence Court. After refreshments a remarkable and unforgettable event took place. Navy Chief Petty Officer Troy HANSON, who flew to Arlington from Oklahoma to honor the crew, addressed the assembled group of family, friends and warriors. He was one of the volunteer JPAC excavating team members at the Vietnam crash site. He gave the group a first hand, detailed account of the dig. Telling us that there was a large boulder about 300 yards down the side of the 4,700-foot mountain. From that spot he could see that the top of the trees had been clipped off at some point. He suspects the Huey broke off the top of the trees before it crashed into the boulder. The actual excavation site was located about 100 yards below the boulder as corrosion would cause debris to travel downhill. But the jungle site was so moist that the surrounding trees had to be removed to allow sunlight to dry out the ground before work could begin. The team would spend 18 days on that mountain digging and sifting. They had their high and low points. But about 10 days into the dig someone yelled, “DOG TAG!” As the tag was quickly cleaned it would bear the name of Donald GRELLA. At that point HANSON said, “An adrenaline rush took over and a new sense of urgency took place“. The team went on to find three 229th “Winged Warrior” pins, aviator sunglasses, an empty glass Coke bottle and human remains including 23 teeth. Also found was a lot of ammunition. The projectiles separated from the casings. That indicates an after crash fire took place. HANSON’s sincere and emotional report kept the group in awe. For most of us, this was the first time we heard such details. After a question and answer period CPO HANSON received a standing ovation from all in that room.
So now everyone from that battalion has come home. Closure for the families, closure for all the “Winged Assault” that have never forgotten their brothers, the missing crew of Huey 808. Writers note: You can also find a short article about Huey 808 in the next issue of Flight Journal. Also a special thanks to Al RHOADES, C/229th 1968/69 for supplying the family members with “Stacked Deck” patches and unit crest. It was an honor for me to attend.
A/229th AHB - Vietnam
Please post the memorial information on your site as requested by the four families of the crew of Huey 808. It is important that we get as many 229th Sky Troopers out at possible.
The dates, visitation the evening of April 8 at Murphy Funeral Home, 4510 Wilson Ave. Arlington, Va. Calling hours 1800 to 2000. And the service/burial on April 9; Old Chapel Ft. Myers 1100 hours. Service will transition to Arlington Cemetery.
They were hopeful that the 229th might plan something for the evening of April 9 that would give all family members attending an opportunity to meet the 229th folks and have a little conversation. I don't really see that in the makes at this time, but perhaps the hotel where the families will be staying (Arlington Residence Court) will be able to provide us with a room where anyone interested - family members, aviation, and infantry, etc.) could gather (come and go) either the afternoon or evening of the 9th after the service. In any case, I appreciate you getting the word out that the families of crew 808 will be in Arlington and would love to talk with us. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to close the final chapter of the 229th service in Vietnam. Everyone has come home.
I am trying to contact BG Walter Davis, one of the last 229th Regimental commanders before our beloved 229th was disbanded a few years ago. During my visit to Ft. Bragg in July of 2002, when a Huey was dedicated in the names of the missing crew of 808. Davis expressed interest in attending any service if the crew was ever found. That pedestal mounted Huey memorial demonstrates that the 229th family, alumni and active, beyond Vietnam, cares about and remembers it’s own.
Crandall, Galloway and many others will be on hand as well. My articles in the SABER have generated a lot of interest and questions.
Over the past decade you may remember me writing about and answering inquires concerning the disappearance of Huey #63-08808 and her crew of four; CWO Jesse PHELPS of Boise, Idaho, and CWO Kenneth STANCIEL of Chattanooga, Tenn., crew chief Donald GRELLA of Laurel, Neb., and door gunner Thomas RICE Jr. of Spartanburg, S.C. all vanished into II Corps on 28 Dec 65. All four men veterans who fought the previous month in the Ia Drang Valley battle. Well news has come that the remains of the crew and bird have been found. Shirley HAASE of Omaha, Neb., the sister of crew chief Donald GRELLA called me to confirm the news. Shirley shared, “The confirmation that this crash site is 808 and the recovery of evidence is, indeed, very good news. We still don't know if they will be able to identify all four crew members. I have talked with JPAC and found out the only human remains they have are teeth. That is not really a surprise since bones deteriorate much more quickly that teeth. The enamel on the teeth preserves them. The bad thing about only having teeth is that, unless there is other material evidence to prove or at least strongly suggest a particular person died at the site (such as dog tags, belt buckle, etc.), teeth alone don't necessarily prove that person died at the site. One can loose teeth at the time of a crash site and still survive to walk away, be captured, etc. I also have been told that they only have one set of dog tags. I don't know which crew member they belong to. I don't know the specifics of what other material evidence they may or may not have. I am not trying to be pessimistic, but I want it clear that, although finding the site, etc. is clearly a giant step forward, it is too early to rejoice to the fullest. There is much yet to be learned, confirmed, or ruled out with the analysis of what they brought back. That, I have been told, will take months. I guess I would say this......be optimistic but cautiously optimistic. Also, pray......a lot! The coordinates of the crash site are BR 58157 36806.
The fate of this crew and Huey has been one of the most repeated and concerned subject since I've been writing this column, both in terms of email and phone calls. No less then 22 times I've responded to your inquires related to Huey #63-08808 and her missing crew.
The story of the last flight of #808, a Huey of A/229th, was kept alive during our time in Vietnam thanks to the rotation system. As new members arrived in the company the stories of the missing crew, all veterans of the Ia Drang Valley - Lz X-Ray fight, were kept alive. Transferring from the old to the new with every rotation. Perhaps why I never forgot the loss is do to the date, my 19th birthday. As a member of the company, I too was told the story shortly after my arrival. Casualties of war I would think as a younger person. But as one grows older, and has their own family, it causes a change in mindset. I don't know how I could handle the thought of a missing son or family member, not knowing the whereabouts for decades. Age and family makes you realize the anguish and grieving of the mothers, fathers and family of our missing. The battalion lost 107 men during the war and 2 taken POW. All came home except the crew of Huey #808. But that's about to change.
A lot of rumors and incorrect information as been posted on the Internet over the years. One, seven years ago, even stated that Huey #808 was found intact and required only a fresh battery and fuel to be flown off the hidden jungle spot. Buzzer!
The bird containing two experienced pilots, CWO Jesse PHELPS of Boise, Idaho and CWO Kenneth STANCIL of Chattanooga, TN with to crew members; crew chief Donald GRELLA of Laurel, Neb and door gunner Thomas RICE Jr. of Spartanburg, SC., was reported missing 28 Dec 66 after lifting off from our base camp in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. What transpired with this "Ash and Trash" flight was explained by the late Cpt. Ed FREEMAN,MOH recipient and platoon leader for CWO Jesse PHELPS. "The reason CWO PHELPS was selected to fly this mission was because he was the most qualified to fly by instrumentation. The crew stayed at An Khe so they could get a good nights rest as the "routine" flight would be difficult because of weather and darkness. The morning of 28 Dec, they departed from An Khe with a cargo of ammunition and hot food for the troops at a camp near Qui Nhon. They were in the air and on the way. There was no contact after that, they just vanished". I've traveled that route from Camp Radcliff to Qui Nhon and back several times. East over Hwy 19, thought the high An Khe pass and into the valley. But never in darkness or IFR conditions.
When the aircraft as determined to be overdue a massive search effort began almost immediately. The official air search went on for three or four days. But in reality, at went on for months by individual Huey pilots who flew anywhere near that route, looking, always looking for a trace of #808. A ground search was conducted in various areas, but some areas were not accessible, due to the jungle and swampy conditions. Eventually we moved to the I Corps AO and that brought an end the our searches.
So what became of #808 and her missing crew? Well the mystery of this bird has been solved. She has been found and earlier this year the remains were positively identified and will soon be returned to the families who have waited almost 44 years for them to come home.
I met Shirley HAASE, the sister of crew chief Don GRELLA, and her husband, Ron, also a Vietnam vet from Omaha about ten years ago in DC. We've stayed in touch and exchange any information concerning #808. She has devoted much of the last ten years of her life to search for her brother. Ten long, emotional, frustrating years. And I credit Shirley for solving the mystery of #808 and the discovery of this bird. A decade ago Shirley began urging U.S. search teams to take another look at the brother's MIA case. Spending thousands of hours searching the Internet for help and answers. She and Ron made 11 trips to Washington for the annual meeting between the National League of POW/MIA Families. With a lot of perseverance and an equal amount of frustration Shirley has waded through considerable government bureaucracy in attempting to find someone to take responsibility to push forward the search for her missing brother. Each branch of service has a casualty office in Washington that maintain files on those missing. All searches are coordinated by the Joint Task Force for Full Accountably. Communication between offices is not always great as personnel routinely rotate in and out of jobs. Another new face. In 2006 Shirley urged searchers to check out a 21-year-old tip that a villager had seen an American helicopter shot down in 1965 or 1966 in the area where #808 may have gone missing.
Shirley best describes what she believes happened in a recent email. "The location of the actual crash site was BR 58643 36819. This fits with information I received from a pilot from HQs & HQs company who told me he was in the air that morning and heard 808 transmit that the pass was socked in and they were heading south to try to go around. He even sent me his flight record to prove that he was in the air that morning. Several people told me that it was reasonable that this pilot, being in the air, could have heard that transmission even though others in 808's unit who were on the ground on the other side of the mountains did not hear it. Unfortunately, there were no tower records to be found for me to ever confirm that they (the tower) did or did not hear that transmission. He also told me that he learned the following day that 808 was missing and that he had wondered all these years whether or not they were ever found. He contacted me with this information after reading an article about 808's crew in the Army Times a few years ago.
As for what happened to the crew......I have to believe that they were shot down. I say that because our investigators were in this area early in 2006 to investigate a lead in our file (in there since 1985) from a refugee saying she had heard of a helicopter crash site and that the helicopter had a picture of a flying horse on it and the numbers 3-8088 (our tail number with two numbers transposed). She gave very general coordinates. Investigators had never been able to locate this informant to take them to the site, thus it had not ever been visited. Also, from 2000 to 2006, Vietnam had this area closed to our investigators. During that time, the government promised us that if and when the area ever opened to them again (which it did in 2006), they would attempt to find the site, with or without the informant. Before they tried to actually locate the crash site in 2006, the investigators interviewed villagers in the area and found a villager who said he had shot down a helicopter in the area early in 1966 and that he still had the award his government had given him for that shoot down. When he produced the document, it was dated December 1965. He also said that he and a friend had visited the crash site a couple times after the shoot down. His friend was able to lead the investigative team to the site where they confirmed that it was a UH1 helicopter, although, at that time, they could not confirm that it was our helicopter. The site was approved for excavation in September 2006 but the excavation did not actually get done until March 2009 when they found enough to be sure it was our crash site and to identify the 4 crew members. Based on the above information and the very real possibility that the site would never have been found had this villager and his friend not told of the shoot down and ultimately lead our team to the site, I am convinced that they were shot down."
Among the remains at the site they found a slightly bent but still-discernible dog tag bearing the name, blood type and religion of Donald GRELLA, Shirley’s brother.
Shirley now has conformation that the flight carrying her brother's remains will arrive in Omaha about 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 26, 2009. She and Ron will be on the same flight. The Patriot Guard Riders will escort the hearse from Omaha to Hasemann Funeral Home in Laurel, Nebraska after the arrival. His memorial/funeral service will be held on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 11:00 a.m. at the Laurel/Concord High School in Laurel Nebraska. Visitation will be Friday evening, Oct 2 at United Lutheran Church in Laurel.
CWO Jesse "Don" PHELPS was 28 years old when #808 vanished. He left behind his 26-year-old wife, Dee and four young children. Dee, who lives with her second husband in Lowman, Idaho is planning a memorial service when Don Phelps' remains are finally sent home to Idaho. She plans to bury Don in the Boise veterans cemetery where is kids can visit.
CWO Kenneth STANCIL will be buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery. CWO Stancil's daughter, Renee WELLS, was 8 years old when her father was declared Killed/Body not Recovered. She will drive down from her home in Brentwood, TN for the arrival of the her father's remains.
E5 Donald Carroll GRELLA had just turned 25 a few weeks prior to his death. He had one sibling, Shirley, a 19-year-old nursing student. Don loved Elvis, fishing in Logan Creek and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The town awaits his return home.
Specialist 4 Thomas RICE Jr. of Spartanburg, S.C. was 23 years of age and #808's door gunner when he was reported MIA in Dec of 1965. He left behind a wife and daughter who was an infant when he vanished. Faye SMITH, one of Thomas' five remaining brothers and sister said a ceremony with full military rites will be held at Arlington National Cemetery, although no date has been set as of the this writing.
This finding will provide some long over due closure to four families and many former comrades of the 1st Air Cav. With the identification of these four fellow sky trooper the number of MIA's still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia will drop to 1,733. Let's hope they all have a sister like Shirley HAASE who never gave up or lost hope in finding her brother.
A/229th AHB - Vietnam
By Military Columnist
Joseph L. Galloway
A 43-year search for a lost helicopter in Vietnam ends
As with so much in life and in death, there was news last week that was joyous and sad and bittersweet for the small
community of the Vietnam War’s band of brothers of the Ia Drang Valley.
Early Dec. 28, 1965, an 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, Chief Warrant Officer Jesse Phelps of Boise, Idaho, and Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancel of
Chattanooga, Tenn., were at the controls. Behind them in the doors were crew chief Don Grella of Laurel, Neb., and door
gunner Jim Rice of Spartanburg, S.C.
All four were 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”
Normally, all missions were flown by at least two helicopters, but this one was so brief and so routine and along a route
well-known and marked by the center white line of a familiar highway that Freeman and his boss, Maj. Bruce “Ol’
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.
For weeks, searchers and Huey pilots combed the rugged jungle hills on both sides of the road and the mountain pass. Choppers
hovered over every break in the tree cover, peering down or sending crewmen to look.
They found nothing.
The families of the crewmen joined the ranks of those waiting for news, for hope, for some closure of an open wound. More
than 1,600 American servicemen are still missing in action in Vietnam.
Last 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
had found and positively identified the wreckage of Huey 808.
In what amounts to almost an archaeological dig, the Joint Task Force — Missing in Action team assigned to this lead also
recovered dog tags, other personal artifacts and some human remains.
The remains will be flown to the Central Identification Library in Hawaii.
“They told us it could take several months to complete that process,” said Shirley Haase of Omaha, Neb., the sister of
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
an answer to the mystery.
Too Tall Ed died last summer in a Boise 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.
Joseph L. Galloway is a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers.
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