Airman brings home an MIA of 50 years

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cheyenne A. Powers
  • 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Not every service member makes it home from U.S. conflicts with other countries. Some of America's servicemen have been missing in action for over 50 years. Yet, even though it's been half a century since some of these conflicts, the U.S. is still doing whatever it takes to bring those who were missing in action home. One Airman from D-M helped do just this during a Defense POW MIA (prisoner of war missing in action) Accounting Agency mission.

While stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Henry Crankshaw, now with the 755th Operation Support Squadron NCO in charge of aircrew flight equipment quality assurance, made it clear to his supervision that he wanted to volunteer for one of these missions. After a seven month deployment and a month on temporary duty the opportunity came up for Crankshaw to serve as a life support investigator for recovery team 3 from 12 May to 18 June, 2014.

Team 3 consisted of U.S. Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines serving as linguists, communication specialists, a photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, a supply sergeant and medical technicians as well as a civilian anthropologist. The team convened in Hawaii where the DPAA training is located.

"Upon meeting our team we started briefing as a team to build the cohesion then it broke off in separate training based on our role," Crankshaw said. "We also had to go through the mountaineering intro because our site was on a side of the mountain. There was no easy way to get up it or down without climbing gear."

Crankshaw and his team were assigned to a Cessna O-1F Bird Dog aircraft crash site located in the Quang Tri Province of Vietnam.

"We knew we were looking for part of an O-1F, so I was provided with all the technical data that I would need for my career field as well as civilian tech manuals and military tech manuals that could help me possibly identify a part of the aircraft," Crankshaw said.

Following the training, Crankshaw was responsible for grocery shopping for nonperishable foods to last a month.

"We were given two giant totes that we had to fill with food, clothing and all our gear," Crankshaw said. "I got canned chicken, tuna, tortillas, barbecue and hot sauce, drink mixes, crackers, and chips and microwavable meals. We didn't have a lot of variety because it had to be something we could easily make."

The team traveled on a 15 hour flight to Da Nang, Vietnam, where they were given a day to rest and adjust to the climate. Then they drove to Khe Sanh to meet their Vietnamese counterparts and to be flown by a helicopter out to their camp site. While waiting Crankshaw was able to teach local children how to throw a football and play with a Frisbee disc.

"You see the Time photos of the year where military members are playing soccer with the kids in Iraq or Afghanistan and you never think 'hey that could be me one day,' so getting to do it was amazing," Crankshaw said.

Finally after four days of travelling the team arrived to their base camp near La Lay Village, Da Krong District, Quang Tri Province. The camp only had a generator with a microwave, a field latrine, and a shower hooked to a water buffalo that the team had to pump water into daily and treat it.

Once the team was settled in they began their mission to recover the O-1F crash site. The team was searching for aircraft remnants, life support equipment, personal affects and human remains belonging to the U.S. Air Force pilot that had crashed the O-1F there nearly 50 years ago.

Every day the team would start their day at 6 a.m. with a safety briefing followed by breakfast. Then the team would gear up and start the two mile hike on a narrow animal path that increased in elevation along the way. Once they arrived at the base of the mountain they would hydrate, eat and put on climbing gear, then they would have to cross a river in order to climb up the mountain. The hike would take 30 minutes to reach the crash site.

"I would usually carry between 50 to 70 pounds because of my life science investigator equipment and any evidence that we found at the site," Crankshaw said.

For the first few days Crankshaw and his team cleared brush around the site to be able to get to the ground. Crankshaw said they had to be very careful in case any evidence was stuck to the foliage. After the site was cleared they began to dig.

The team would shovel dirt into buckets then create a bucket brigade to carry it to screening stations. There two to three people would sift the dirt through a chicken wire screen. Each piece that didn't go though would be inspected to determine if it would be classified as evidence, then it would be put into a separate bucket.

"It was very methodical," Crankshaw said. "You could not lose a grain of sand."

At the end of each dig it was Crankshaw's job to take the evidence out of the buckets, put it into Ziploc bags and haul it to the base camp. There, he, the anthropologist and the photographer would go through the evidence to determine what it was. The team's would end each day by eating dinner, talking amongst themselves and then going to bed.

This routine continued thoughout the duration of the mission. A couple times the team had down days due to inclimate weather and potential safety hazards. The terrain the team worked on was rocky and narrow making it easy for someone to slip during inclimate weather.

"If we had to medivac someone out we would need to carry them in a skid for two miles to reach the landing pad," Crankshaw said. "In order to do that we would cross the same river twice, go down a hill and up two hills."

One day during the recovery mission the team found what they believed to be possible human remains. However, the article was the size of a quarter. Crankshaw said due to the acidity of the soil any human remains would be eaten away by it. Animals also posed a potential threat to destroy any evidence at the site.

"It really was a needle in a hay stack to find human remains there," Crankshaw said. "There was no guarantee we would find any."

The anthropologist determined the article discovered was possible human remains. Further tests conducted at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Hawaii, would confirm.

"The remains we brought back from my crash site were identified as the person we were looking for, an Air Force pilot Capt. Richard Whitesides, I'll never forget his name," Crankshaw said.

Crankshaw described how there was a back seat passenger in the O-1F they were recovering that was captured immediately after the crash. The passenger was Army Capt. Floyd James "Jim" Thompson, the longest known held POW during the Vietnam war. He had written a book about his experiences that Crankshaw read. 

"It was an amazing life experience to not only locate the missing pilot of 50 years, but to know there was a back seat passenger that got out alive and to read his story at the site," Crankshaw said. "I was in awe the more I found out."

At the end of the book Thompson wrote that he wished he could have gone back to the site but unfortunately the site wasn't located till after he passed.

"This was kind of our way to tribute him in my mind to be back there," Crankshaw said.

At the end of the mission Crankshaw participated in the dignified transfer of the missing pilot. It was part of the casket detail for the Air Force member to bring the casket to the C-17 Globemaster.

"It was amazing to know the family had closure and I was a part of it," Crankshaw said. "It was a very indescribable moment, now I look back on the pictures and it's something that will stick with me forever."

After the excavation and screening of 136 square meters, Crankshaw and his team were able to recover part of the pilots glasses along with the quarter sized piece of remains.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat. They could ask me tomorrow to go and I would, it was an amazing time," Crankshaw said.

On Jan 30, 2015, the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office, the Joint Prisoner of War Missing in Action Accounting Command, and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory were all consolidated to form the DPAA. This agency effectively increases the number of missing service personnel accounted for from past conflicts and ensures timely and accurate information is communicated to their families. For more information about the DPAA vist,