Feb. 26 in the Houston Chronicle

The headstone was first to go.

It was in the way of men digging up a mass grave this month dedicated to the crew of an EC-47Q reconnaissance plane at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.

The electronic surveillance plane left Pleiku Airbase in the Republic of Vietnam Feb. 5, 1969. About 20 miles northwest of Chavanne, Laos, the crew made its last radio contact at 8:10 a.m. It missed a scheduled stop at noon, and a search began that’s continued by family today.

The crash site in the Laotian jungle was first found that fall and analyses of the bones concluded they came from just five to seven men. Convinced the whole crew died in the crash, the military engraved 10 names in the granite headstone at Jefferson Barracks.

The U.S. military still cannot account for 1,654 Americans lost in the Vietnam conflict, and the remains of thousands more never have been recovered.

One Houston family is among those hoping the disinterred grave and DNA exemplars they provided to the military finally will let them know whose bones made it home.

“I would hope that I would find out definitely that my husband was indeed dead,” said Cindy Burke, widow of Capt. Walter Burke. “I’m sure that after all this time he is, but I would like a final closure.”

Military records show an officer closed the case in 1969 although a report submitted to him said the whole crew was not accounted for in the recovered remains.

In 1995, a recovery team searching for a different crash site found Walter’s dog tag, promising Cindy in a 1996 letter that they would return it once a full dig was completed at the site. It’s not clear why, but that never happened.

When the son of Sgt. Louis Clever, Paul, received a copy of the dog tag letter from Cindy’s daughter, he contacted the Air Force Mortuary Affairs office. The chief of the Past Conflicts Branch found the dog tag in Hawaii, helped return it to the Burke family in November, and now is organizing the disinterment and DNA testing.

“A lot of years ago my mom felt dismissed, that they didn’t value the situation and just wanted to be done with it,” said Lauren Branch, Burke’s daughter. “I think just telling her that he’s not forgotten about, I think that meant a lot to her.”

Read the full story at HoustonChronicle.com.

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