ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. -- On a drizzling Wednesday morning, the families heard the names of their loved ones read aloud -- Delbert Olson, Michael Roberts, Denis Anderson, Arthur Buck, Philip Stevens, Richard Mancini, Donald Thoresen, Kenneth Widon and Gale Siow -- and knew with certainty they finally could mourn.
Alive only in photographs and memories for so long, their boys came home.
The families came to Arlington to bury loved ones missing for more than 35 years. The funeral -- which included a horse-drawn caisson, a traditional Navy firing party, and a somber playing of "Taps" -- will let the dead, and perhaps also the living, finally rest in peace.
"This is a day of memories," a Navy chaplain said in a small chapel filled with mourners.
A widow held her husband's wedding band. A sister touched her brother's casket. A daughter, now grown, said good-bye.
Nine Naval aviators, three from Michigan, went to war in southeast Asia more than 35 years ago, flying dangerous and secretive missions into Laos -- where, at the time, officials said there was no fighting. They disappeared on Jan 11, 1968, when their airplane, an OPE2 Neptune, crashed into a mountain.
They were presumed dead.
But all the families had were messages from Western Union, old photographs and hope.
"I never got to say good-bye," said Dana Snyder. She was 8, and her brother was 7, when their father, Cmdr. Del Olson of Arthur, N.D., died.
"When you are a child and you never see the person and never see the remains, you can't conceive that he is really gone," she said. "You still fantasize and want to believe that he still may be alive."
The last picture of the three of them together is preserved in a photo album. In it, Olson, the plane's pilot and executive officer, is wearing his uniform. Snyder, now of Overland Park, Kan., is on one side of him, her arm draped around his shoulder, and her brother, David Olson, now of Prairie Village,Kan. is on the other.
"He didn't want to be left out there and forgotten," Snyder said.
So, she said, they brought him to Arlington, "the most honorable place to be."
Here, among the rolling hills and magnolia trees, 260,000 veterans are buried in long, neat rows and marked with marble headstones. This is the resting place of President John F. Kennedy, at whose grave an eternal flame burns. From this cemetery, you can see the tip of the Washington Monument, pointing toward heaven.
Each year, the federal government spends $100 million to search for U.S. servicemen lost in war, Pentagon spokesman Larry Greer said. Since the Vietnam War ended, 699 missing people have been accounted for. Another 1,884 are presumed dead, but still out there. More are missing from other conflicts: 8,100 from the Korean War and 78,000 from World War II, he said.
The interest in recovering men lost during the Vietnam War is so intense because it was such a controversial conflict, said Lewis Carlson, professor emeritus of history at Western Michigan University.
"There is a cynicism that was not there in World War II," he said.
Mary Schantag, archivist for POW Network, a nonprofit in Skidmore, Mo., has compiled about 5,000 pages of information from public records and published news accounts on missing military personnel and posted them on the Internet.
"The families aren't always comfortable with the information they are getting from the government," she said.
Documents about the OPE2's missions in Laos were not declassified until 1998, family members said.
In fact, the missions were so secretive that crew members were forbidden from discussing them with anyone, Adam Alexander, 73, of Whitefish, Mont., said. The commander of another crew that flew the day the plane crashed, he said he could hear the lost plane's final radio transmission.
"The last thing I heard was: 'I'm going down through a hole in the cloud,' " he said.
"Only God knows," Alexander said.
The missions the VO67 squadron that flew in Laos for less than two years were dangerous because the aircraft were "too big, too slow and too vulnerable," said Michael Walker, 65, of Pensacola, Fla. He was part of another crew of Navy fliers in the same group.
Charlie Tiffany, 58, of Kissimmee, Fla. attended the funeral to pay respects to his best friend in flight training, Lt. j.g. Arthur Buck, of Sandusky, Ohio.
"He was so strong, I saw him pop a football -- made it burst," Tiffany said. "It's funny the things you remember."
Excavation teams began recovering the nine men's remains in 1996. The wreckage was on a steep cliff, which made the effort difficult, Pentagon officials said. And last month, the Pentagon said it recovered as many remains as it could. Bones that could be identified through DNA analysis were returned to the families for burial.
The remains that could not be identified were buried together, at Arlington, in Section 60.
Remains of the crew's mascot, a bull terrier named Snoopy or Seagram, depending on who's talking, also were found. They will be buried somewhere else. Animals, the families were told, are not allowed to be buried at this cemetery, even if they were unofficially part of the crew.
The teams also found camera parts, a Zippo lighter and wedding ring.
Sue Jenkins, of San Marcus, Tex., recognized the ring and wore it on a chain around her neck to the funeral. She and Lt. j.g. Denis Anderson, the 25-year-old copilot, were natives of Hope, Kan., and college sweethearts. They were just four days short of celebrating their first anniversary when the plane crashed.
Dick Stevens, 68, of Commerce Township, and his sister, Joy Warren, 65, of White Lake Township, attended the funeral. They buried their brother, Lt. j.g. Stevens of Twin Lake on June 3, in Dalton in a grave next to his parents that had remained empty for so long.
"It's taken a lot of years," Stevens said.
The funeral was an opportunity for the families, and distant members of the same family, to connect.
Mark Thoresen, 41, and Darlene Long, 64, both of Riverview, attended the funeral to honor their father and ex-husband, Petty Officer 2C Donald Thoresen of Detroit. But they also reunited with Donald Eric Thoresen, 36, of Phoenix, the deceased's son from another marriage.
"One door closes," said Donald Eric Thoresen, "and another one opens."
Suzanne Valenti, 58, of Brighton, said her late mother, Mary Gerigk, clung so tightly to hope that she carried in her purse an inspirational poem and a small calendar on which she marked each day her son, Petty Officer 2C Kenny Widon of Detroit went missing.
Valenti dreamed she would hear a knock at her door, and her older brother would be standing there.
Finally able to touch his casket, she said: "He is resting."
Michigan crew members of the downed Navy OP2E Neptune
LT. J.G. PHILIP P. STEVENS, 25, of Twin Lake grew up in North Muskegon and graduated from North Muskegon High School. He went through Navy ROTC at the University of Minnesota and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He also was a pilot. His remains were buried next to his father and mother in Dalton.
PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DONALD (DONNY) THORESEN, 30, of Detroit died four days before his birthday. After high school, he enlisted in the Army, and later in the Navy. He left behind three children, one of whom has died.
PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS KENNETH (KENNY) H. WIDON, 27, of Detroit attended Pershing High School and followed his older brother into the Navy. He played the violin and ukulele. His sister, Suzanne Valenti, of Brighton still has his violin and many of the letters he wrote to his mother before he died. In one of them, he asked his mother to draft a will for him.
Sources: Interviews with family and POW Network, a nonprofit that compiles information on missing military personnel from public documents and published news accounts; members of the Navy OP2E Neptune crew.