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After 50 years, MIA pilot's wedding ring and bone fragments found in Vietnam pond

By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 26, 2017

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Two U.S. Navy planes came in fast over a bridge in Dong Phong Thuong, North Vietnam. It was June 1965.

Cloud cover forced them to descend extremely low. The enemy was waiting.

Heavy ground fire erupted and the plane of Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Crosby of San Diego was on fire as it plummeted toward a fish pond.

The RF-8A reconnaissance aircraft rolled before it crashed, spraying up water and mud.

Crosby, a 31-year-old father of four, was listed as killed in action, though his body remained missing. It left his wife to grieve, pick up the pieces and provide a life for their children.

Deborah Crosby — 6 years old when her dad died, the family’s only daughter — always felt a void in her chest, especially on each Memorial Day, when people mourn at the graves of the fallen.

“It wasn’t something we talked about,” she remembered last week. “It was something we all carried in our hearts quietly.”

It was a terrible story to shoulder over the years.

“My dad’s plane was shot down, and that’s the end of the story. And, he’s there. That always hurt me,” Deborah Crosby said.

But today, May 26, 2017, Frederick Crosby’s remains will be brought home to San Diego — thanks to the tenacity of his daughter, the long memory of the U.S. Defense Department and the will of the taxpayers to keep searching for troops missing in action.

The flag-draped coffin should arrive at Lindbergh Field around noon.

The decorated pilot will be buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Sunday, virtually within eyeshot of the Point Loma house where his children grew up.

His headstone will read “He is home.”

On the back of it, the name of his widow, Mary, will be etched. She died in 2002 and never remarried.

Her side will bear the inscription, “Wherest thou goest, so go I.” It’s from a pendant that Mary Crosby wore around her neck, made from pilot wings.

———

Deborah Crosby didn’t start inquiring about her father’s remains until the 1990s.

The family had left the topic alone before then, in part because of high anti-war sentiment in the nation.

In 1973, nearly 600 American prisoners of war returned from Vietnam in Operation Homecoming. Deborah Crosby remembers looking at the list of names.

Her father’s wasn’t on it.

Eventually, her aging paternal grandmother urged her to launch the search. She said Frederick Crosby should be brought home and buried.

Deborah Crosby called the Navy’s casualty office, but officials said they would give information only to the next of kin — her mother.

Mary Crosby and her oldest son, Doug, saw the issue as closed. They had met with Frederick’s wingman after the crash.

“They felt, don’t get your hopes up. There are probably no remains to recover because of the way the crash happened,” Deborah Crosby told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “I was never told that, so I guess I just wasn’t limited by that statement.”

She contacted the Library of Congress for the declassified files. The discoveries there opened the eyes of this Navy daughter.

She found the coordinates of the crash site, which she mapped out on Google. There were tantalizing reports from the ground.

“They said something about the grass is not growing there because of the damage from the fuel from the aircraft crash,” she recalled.

Deborah Crosby was inspired enough to attend an annual meeting of the National League of P.O.W./M.I.A. Families.

The Virginia-based nonprofit advocacy group has its roots in the late 1960s in Coronado with the families of Navy POWs in Vietnam. It’s credited with focusing the nation’s attention on the plight of missing troops and prisoners of war, a mission it continues to carry forth today.

Crosby learned that the Defense Department’s recovery branch, now consolidated as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, had conducted investigations and interviews as early as 1993 to search for Lt. Cmdr. Crosby’s remains.

There were two sites: One, where the Navy thought the RF-8A went down. Another, where Vietnam villagers said the aircraft crashed.

In the end, they found an 89-year-old resident who witnessed the plane going down. The man was close enough to be splashed with mud upon impact.

He even kept a piece of the RF-8A’s broken glass in his home. The bulk of the wreckage was hauled away by North Vietnamese authorities.

Deborah Crosby also learned that she needed to get DNA from her aunt, her father’s sister. The mitochondrial DNA from the female side is most helpful in identification of remains.

With that to go on, a Defense Department team excavated the fish pond between October and December 2015. They used buckets to empty the pond and then sifted through the mud.

After five decades, they were still there: Crosby’s wedding ring, his lighter, pieces of his uniform and some bone fragments.

Three days before Memorial Day last year, Deborah Crosby got the call.

At a defense lab in Hawaii, the DNA was a match.

“My heart is so much lighter,” Deborah Crosby, who now lives in New York, said last week. “I feel a tremendous amount of relief that he’s been returned.”

———

More than 1,600 Americans who served in the Vietnam War are still missing or unaccounted for.

Since 1973, the United States has recovered 1,035 from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China.

The Defense Department has long spent more than $100 million a year on recovery efforts for its missing troops. In 2016, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency had a $115 million budget and more than 600 employees.

That amount covers annual recovery expeditions, including to Vietnam with the cooperation of the Vietnamese government. Anthropologists, medics and hundreds of hired hands in Vietnam are included.

Pilots such as Lt. Cmdr. Crosby, and Navy and Air Force air crews, make up a large portion of the still-missing population.

“(Recovery) was something they were largely able to do in ground-combat situations. It was harder for pilots and air crews who were shot down, particularly if it was over enemy territory,” said Michael Allen, a professor of modern U.S. history at Northwestern University and author of “Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs and the Unending Vietnam War.”

Recovery efforts hit their stride in the 1990s after relations between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments began to normalize.

The introduction of DNA evidence, also starting in the mid-1990s, has been essential to the program’s success, allowing defense officials to authenticate finds that would have been too uncertain in the past.

“The vast majority of these men were lost in very traumatic incidents — shot out of the sky at high rates of speed. And then, being exposed to the elements in a tropical environment for going on 50 years now,” Allen said. “In most cases there are very, very little remains left to recover. Absent DNA, you are essentially making a circumstantial case.”

What’s left now are the most difficult and labor-intensive cases, according to Allen.

“All the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked, so to speak,” he said.

But in the eyes of Ann Mills-Griffiths, longtime leader of the National League of POW/MIA Families?, the Crosby homecoming shows that it can still be done.

“A man is finally being brought home. The family has peace of mind,” said Mills-Griffiths, whose brother is still missing from Vietnam.

“We’ve done it a lot of times,” she said. “A lot of families have gotten answers because the league didn’t give up and walk out.”

———

Lt. Cmdr. Crosby and the men he flew with knew they were facing losses.

It was 1965, the early part of the air war in Vietnam, called Operation Rolling Thunder.

“That’s where you see some of the most intense air-to-air combat of the war. A lot of losses,” said Hill Goodspeed, historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum.

Crosby was deployed on the Bon Homme Richard, an Essex-class aircraft carrier operating off the coast of Vietnam.

His was the first of 14 Bon Homme Richard aircraft shot down during the ship’s 1965 to 1966 cruise, in addition to three noncombat losses, according to the naval aviation museum.

Nine of those pilots were killed, two became prisoners of war and six were rescued.

Crosby’s mission was almost designed to be dangerous.

His unarmed reconnaissance plane had to fly low enough for its cameras to capture photographic evidence of damaged caused by bombs dropped from other U.S. planes. The RF-8A pilots had speed on their side, but timing was against them.

“They were coming in low and fast on an enemy who is already spun up because he’s already been attacked,” said Karl Zingheim, historian at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. “They were bearing the full brunt of the attack so they could bring the intelligence to bring back to the (aircraft) carrier.”

The North Vietnamese were prepared with their ground fire: medium- and heavy-caliber guns such as the 37mm, 57mm, 85mm and 100mm, supplied by the Soviets and Chinese.

As in Crosby’s case, it was anti-aircraft artillery that shot down the majority of Navy aircraft over North Vietnam, Goodspeed said.

F-8 fighter planes flew as escorts for their reconnaissance brethren. Their job was to scare off enemy pilots, said San Diegan Bob Pearl, a former F-8 pilot who performed that mission.

But, Pearl said, “You can’t do much about ground fire.”

Hearing about an MIA pilot being returned after five decades, it’s astounding, he said.

“It always hits you in the gut.” …

Mary Crosby didn’t talk much about her late husband’s death, her daughter remembers.

Instead, she took action. First there was a job as a hotel events coordinator. Eventually, Mary Crosby launched a San Diego talent agency that supplied actors for local commercials.

Raising a family alone wasn’t easy. Deborah Crosby remembers that her mother had trouble opening credit card accounts at first.

“Mom was a very strong woman, and she decided she was going to have to pull it all together,” her daughter said. “She managed. She definitely provided a beautiful life for us and a beautiful home.”

But after awhile, they didn’t feel like a military family.

There was no gravestone at a national cemetery. No military honors. Mary Crosby accepted her husband’s posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross medal with little fanfare.

Now that will be partially rectified.

“It means a lot to my family for my dad to get the military honors that he deserves. He’s truly an American hero,” Deborah Crosby said Thursday.

“And it’s just so wonderful that he’s going to be home at last.”

Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Crosby’s Distinguished Flying Cross citation

“The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander Frederick Peter Crosby (NSN: 0-509126), United States Navy, for heroism and extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as pilot of a jet photographic aircraft in Light Photographic Squadron SIXTY-THREE, Detachment ECHO, serving aboard U.S.S. BON HOMME RICHARD (CVA-31), on 1 June 1965.

“Lieutenant Commander Crosby was leader of a two-plane flight launched from the carrier to conduct bomb damage assessment photography against a heavily-defended bridge site at Dong Phong Thuong, North Vietnam.

“Lieutenant Commander Crosby, because of cloud coverage at the target area, executed his run at an extremely low altitude in the face of heavy enemy ground fire. After completing the run, his aircraft was hit by hostile fire and crashed.

“His courageous and selfless devotion to duty throughout the run were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

jen.steele@sduniontribune.com

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
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This undated photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Lt. Commander Frederick P. Crosby in his official Navy portrait.
U.S. NAVY VIA AP

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