A terse announcement from the Pentagon late last month finally ended the unhappy story of the fatal last flight of a Air Force plane known as "Baron 52" and resolved one of the last mysteries about the fate of servicemen missing from the Vietnam War.
The remains of the seven men killed when the reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over Laos in 1973 have been identified and will be interred in a group burial on Jan. 8, the Pentagon said.
If all seven crew members died when the plane went down, then four of them could not have survived and been taken as captives to the Soviet Union. The belief that four of the men were "Moscow bound" has long been held by some prisoner of war activists and members of the MIA lobby, who cited the fate of Baron 52's crew as evidence that Vietnam and its communist allies have still not revealed the truth about Americans who vanished in the war.
The belief was based largely on testimony by former Air Force intelligence sergeant Jerry Mooney that intercepted North Vietnamese radio communications indicated four Americans captured in the region were being transported to the Soviet Union.
The Pentagon has insisted that no one could have survived the shootdown of the plane and that the intercepted conversations were not about the Baron 52 crew. But in the absence of seven sets of remains, Mooney's version of events could not be entirely refuted.
Some members of the victims' families quarrelled with the Pentagon for years, arguing that military authorities told them some crew members might have been able to parachute safely from the aircraft. They said the Defense Department was reluctant to tell what it knew because of the sensitive nature of the flight.
Baron 52 was the code name for an EC-47Q plane that was flying a night spying mission over Laos when it was shot down on Feb. 4, 1973.
That was shortly after the Paris Peace Agreement supposedly ended U.S. participation in the war, at a time when North Vietnam was preparing to release the 591 American captives it acknowledged holding.
According to Mark Sauter and Jim Sanders, authors of "The Men We Left Behind," a 1993 book alleging a POW-MIA cover-up, "the men weren't dead" and the Pentagon knew it.
U.S. officials removed the names of the four presumed survivors from a list of prisoners they expected North Vietnam to hand over because the flight was illegal under the Paris agreement, Sauter and Sanders wrote.
"The names were scratched from the list because they were an inconvenience that would have complicated Henry Kissinger's life," their book said. Kissinger, then secretary of state, had negotiated the Paris Agreements and was responsible for fulfilling President Richard M. Nixon's promise that all U.S. prisoners would be coming home.
Mooney, long retired and living in Montana, repeated his story to a U.S. Senate committee that investigated the fate of the missing Americans in 1992.
But the committee also heard from Pentagon officials who had finally viewed the crash site that no one aboard could have survived. The committee concluded that "there is no firm evidence that links the Baron 52 crew to the single enemy report upon which Mooney apparently based his analysis."
A joint U.S.-Laotian field excavation team recovered the remains from the crash site in 1993.
It took two years of work at the Army's forensic laboratory in Hawaii to identify the victims, the Pentagon announcement said. All members of the Air Force, they were Sgts. Dale Brandenburg, of Capitol Heights; Peter R. Cressman, of Glen Ridge, N.J.; Joseph A. Matejov, of East Meadow, N.Y., and Todd M. Melton, of Milwaukee; 1st Lt. Severo J. Primm III, of New Orleans; Capt. George R. Spitz, of Asheville, N.C.; and Capt. Arthur Bollinger, of Greenville, Ill.
With their identification, the list of servicemen still officially missing from the war stands at 2,162. The vast majority are known to have died and real doubt remains about only a handful of cases.
The Pentagon announced last month after a year-long review that 567 of the open cases have "virtually no possibility that they will ever be resolved" through the finding of remains or other evidence because they were lost at sea or explosions destroyed their remains.