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Missing 1965 Huey 808 Found In Vietnam

Mystery of missing US helicopter in Vietnam solved 

They pledged to leave no man behind, so for 43 years the mystery of what happened to Huey 808 has tortured veterans of the First Air Cavalry. 

As with so much in life and in death, there was news last week that was joyous and sad and bittersweet for the small community of the Vietnam War’s band of brothers of the Ia Drang Valley.

229 Air Cavalry


Early Dec. 28, 1965, an Army Huey (shown below) helicopter, tail number 63-08808, lifted off from the huge grassy airfield at the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) base at An Khe in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

Two experienced pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Jesse Phelps of Boise, Idaho, and Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancel of Chattanooga, Tenn., were at the controls. Behind them in the doors were crew chief Don Grella of Laurel, Neb., and door gunner Jim Rice of Spartanburg, S.C. 

All four were veterans of the fiercest air assault battle of the war, fought the previous month in the Ia Drang.

Huey 808 was one of 10 birds in a platoon of A Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, led by Capt. Ed 'Too Tall to Fly' Freeman.

Huey Helicopter in Vietnam


Normally, all missions were flown by at least two helicopters, but this one was so brief and so routine and along a route so well-known and marked by the center white line of a familiar highway that Freeman and his boss, Maj. Bruce "Ol’ Snake" Crandall, already at the Landing Zone with the rest of A Company’s 20 helicopters, agreed to waive that requirement and let 808 fly alone.

With that, 808 flew off the face of the Earth. It disappeared without a word on the radio of distress or trouble. 

For weeks, searchers and Huey pilots combed the rugged jungle hills on both sides of the road and the mountain pass. Choppers hovered over every break in the tree cover, peering down or sending crewmen to look.

They found nothing.

The families of the crewmen joined the ranks of those waiting for news, for hope, for some closure of an open wound. More than 1,600 American servicemen are still missing in action in Vietnam.

Last week, the Department of Defense liaison officers who work with MIA families called Ol’ Snake Crandall and surviving family members of the four missing crewmen to confirm that after 43 years, search teams following one of thousands of leads had found and positively identified the wreckage of Huey 808.

In what amounts to almost an archaeological dig, the Joint Task Force — Missing in Action team assigned to this lead also recovered dog tags, other personal artifacts and some human remains. 

The remains will be flown to the Central Identification Library in Hawaii.

'They told us it could take several months to complete that process,' said Shirley Haase of Omaha, Neb., the sister of Grella. 'I only wish my mother was here for this news. She waited for so long.'

The men of Huey 808 will be coming home at last. 

Grieving mothers and fathers have died waiting for news that never came. 

Siblings have grown old. 

Their buddies have never forgotten and never rested in pressing for a resolution to this case.

'Too Tall' Ed Freeman and Ol’ Snake Crandall, his wingman and boss, never missed an opportunity to ask questions or get a little pushy with a government official, even a president of the United States or a North Vietnamese army general, in seeking an answer to the mystery.

'Too Tall' Ed died last summer (2008) in a Boise hospital. In their final farewell visit, he and Crandall, both Medal of Honor recipients, talked about Huey 808, and Bruce promised Ed that he’d keep pushing the search as long as he lived.


Source: Professional Pilots forum posting Apr 2009


The following is from the London Daily Telegraph's account:

The helicopter and its four-man crew failed to return from a routine mission in December 1965, soon after braving enemy fire at the battle of Ia Drang, America's first great clash of arms in Vietnam.

Pilots spent months scouring the jungle looking for traces of a crash site, and for years afterwards, comrades of the lost crew made trips to the steamy hill villages of the Central Highlands looking for clues to what happened.

Four decades on, their prayers have finally been answered. 

A specialist US military unit has returned to Vietnam to excavate a jungle crash site. It found the missing aircraft, and will return the remains of its crew for burial in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside thousands of other servicemen who perished in America's longest war.

Donald Grella US Army

Shirley Haase, 63, brother of Donald Grella (left)who was 25 when he died, said: "This is fantastic news after all these years of being tormented by not knowing what happened to them.

'The loss of my brother has been with me for every day of 43 years. At last we have a chance of knowing what really happened.'

The crew were heroes in one of America's bloodiest battles, which started when 450 infantrymen landed by helicopter in jungle clearings only to discover they were surrounded by an entire North Vietnamese division of 2,000 men. 

It was the bravery of the helicopter crews, who at terrible risk flew supplies and reinforcements in and casualties out, that kept the soldiers alive.

The battle was immortalised by Hollywood in 2002 in a film called We Were Soldiers Once... And Young starring Mel Gibson as infantry commander Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore.

One of the centrepieces of the film is a speech by Lt Col Moore to his men as they prepare to leave for Vietnam in which he promises to 'leave no man behind'..

By the time the battle was over, thousands of Vietnamese troops and more than 300 Americans were dead. Soon afterwards, Huey 808 disappeared on a routine resupply mission. Its crew – mechanic Donald Grella, pilot Jesse Phelps, co-pilot Kenneth Stancil, and gunner Thomas Rice – were the only servicemen to take part in the battle who could not be brought home.

When Vietnam re-established diplomatic relations with the United States in the 1990s, family members of the lost crew and fellow veterans started lobbying for a search.

Bruce Crandall and Ed 'Too Tall to Fly' Freeman – whose nickname came from his unusual height for a pilot flying in a cramped helicopter – were a major and captain respectively in 1965.

They returned to Vietnam in 1993 to try to find out what had happened to the crew they had commanded, sometimes enlisting the help of their former North Vietnamese enemies.

                                             Hueys returning to base after an attack sortie. Print available from Robert Mason Prints


As with so much in life and in death, there was news last week that was joyous and sad and bittersweet for the small community of the Vietnam War’s band of brothers of the Ia Drang Valley.


Early Dec. 28, 1965, an Army Huey helicopter, tail number 63-08808, lifted off from the huge grassy airfield at the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) base at An Khe in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

Two experienced pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Jesse Phelps of Boise, Idaho, and Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancel of Chattanooga, Tenn., were at the controls. Behind them in the doors were crew chief Don Grella of Laurel, Neb., and door gunner Jim Rice of Spartanburg, S.C. 

All four were veterans of the fiercest air assault battle of the war, fought the previous month in the Ia Drang.

Huey 808 was one of 10 birds in a platoon of A Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, led by Capt. Ed "Too Tall to Fly" Freeman.

Normally, all missions were flown by at least two helicopters, but this one was so brief and so routine and along a route so well-known and marked by the center white line of a familiar highway that Freeman and his boss, Maj. Bruce "Ol’ Snake" Crandall, already at the Landing Zone with the rest of A Company’s 20 helicopters, agreed to waive that requirement and let 808 fly alone.

With that, 808 flew off the face of the Earth. It disappeared without a word on the radio of distress or trouble. 

For weeks, searchers and Huey pilots combed the rugged jungle hills on both sides of the road and the mountain pass. Choppers hovered over every break in the tree cover, peering down or sending crewmen to look.

They found nothing.

The families of the crewmen joined the ranks of those waiting for news, for hope, for some closure of an open wound. More than 1,600 American servicemen are still missing in action in Vietnam.

Last week, the Department of Defense liaison officers who work with MIA families called Ol’ Snake Crandall and surviving family members of the four missing crewmen to confirm that after 43 years, search teams following one of thousands of leads had found and positively identified the wreckage of Huey 808.

In what amounts to almost an archaeological dig, the Joint Task Force — Missing in Action team assigned to this lead also recovered dog tags, other personal artifacts and some human remains. 

The remains will be flown to the Central Identification Library in Hawaii.

"They told us it could take several months to complete that process," said Shirley Haase of Omaha, Neb., the sister of Grella. "I only wish my mother was here for this news. She waited for so long."

The men of Huey 808 will be coming home at last. 

Grieving mothers and fathers have died waiting for news that never came. 

Siblings have grown old. 

Their buddies have never forgotten and never rested in pressing for a resolution to this case.

Too Tall Ed Freeman and Ol’ Snake Crandall, his wingman and boss, never missed an opportunity to ask questions or get a little pushy with a government official, even a president of the United States or a North Vietnamese army general, in seeking an answer to the mystery.

Too Tall Ed died last summer in a Boise hospital. In their final farewell visit, he and Crandall, both Medal of Honor recipients, talked about Huey 808, and Bruce promised Ed that he’d keep pushing the search as long as he lived.

Joseph Galloway, a journalist who covered the battle and afterwards wrote the book that We Were Soldiers was based on, said: 'They were especially troubled by the loss and the mystery of what happened, and concerned by the families waiting for some kind of resolution for over four decades.

'I went on a trip to Vietnam and the battlefield with Bruce Crandall and Hal Moore in 1993, and they asked every North Vietnamese general and officer we met for help finding the missing bird.

'Some of the Vietnamese veterans were helpful; they talked to local officials at all our stops in the Central Highlands and on the battlefields.'

Hopes were raised in 1999 when a refugee reported seeing a crashed helicopter in the jungle with a horse painted on the tail fin, which sounded like Huey 808.

In 2006, a mission from the American military's Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, found a villager who had shot down a helicopter in late 1965 and described where it was.

JPAC's excavations resemble archaeological digs, with teams sifting through jungle soil in a search for dog tags and personal effects as well as bones. After decades in the acidic soil of the jungle, the only human remains found at the 808 crash site were teeth which have been sent to JPAC's forensic laboratory in Hawaii for identification.

Mrs Haase said that the tiny town of Laurel in Nebraska, population 1,000, where she grew up with her brother, had never forgotten him.

She said: 'It was ironic that they died after surviving that terrible battle. I have reread his letters from the time and they describe the horror of war, but he believed in that mission.

'My mother spent her whole life praying that they would bring Don home during her lifetime, but she died in 2006 so she never got her wish.

'I am so happy that they have found the crash site, but we will still have to wait a few months for a positive forensic identification. For years I have wondered if my brother was taken prisoner or whether he tried to escape into the jungle. Knowing how he died and attending his burial in the United States would give us some closure.'


Source: Nick Meo, Daily Telegraph (28 May 2009)


SY 11 Nov 2015 *

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Last Modified: 29 January 2016, 14:58