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DNA Tests Link Bones Found in Field to U.S. Aviator Missing in Vietnam War

Air Force 1st Lt. Lee Aaron 'Larry' Adams was 27 when his fighter-bomber was downed in 1966.

June 02, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — In 1982, a Vietnamese farmer plowing his field unearthed two human leg bones and what he thought was a sock. A practicing Buddhist, the farmer took a small piece of bone and placed it in the household ossuary, honoring the dead.

Thus continued the four-decade-long recovery and identification of a fallen American flier that culminated Wednesday in a full military funeral before 40 family members, classmates from high school and the Air Force Academy, and flight-suited pilots from the contemporary Air Force.

Decades of uncertainty were finally over for the family of Air Force 1st Lt. Lee Aaron "Larry" Adams.

Adams' homecoming followed five trips to Quang Binh Province by military forensic specialists, the drawing of blood samples from Adams' two brothers, a full excavation of the site where Adams' F-105D Thunderchief crashed and a mitochondrial DNA analysis that secured the pilot's identity.

Delivering the eulogy Wednesday, nephew Steven Adams, 45, an Assembly of God pastor from Salem, Ore., described his uncle as a dashing figure in the family -- a star 6-foot-4 football player for Willits High School who had a passion for flying and a sensitive side that led him to bring home stray puppies. A favorite family portrait, displayed at the memorial service, showed Larry Adams asleep in a chair with a stray in his lap.

"Then came Vietnam, from which he never came back," said Steven Adams. "Today we finally say, 'Welcome home.' "

Early in the morning on April 19, 1966, Adams dropped the nose of his plane and swooped toward a target in North Vietnam's Quang Binh Province.

He never pulled out. The other pilots on the mission watched as his aircraft exploded in flames upon impact. Adams, 27, was listed as "missing in action."

Former Air Force Flight Surgeon Fred Wood, Adams' roommate at their Thailand base, described Adams as "one of the finest people I've met in my life. A very intelligent, thoughtful man."

Wood, a retired San Francisco urologist, said the two men would stay up late at night discussing the war, about which they both had come to have grave doubts.

"Anytime I've thought of him over the years, I've always thought what a terrible waste his death was," Wood said. "He could have been a college president, anything he wanted."

For the family, said Steven Adams, the crash was "a day of lost or shattered innocence in which the harsh realities of the world became vivid and real." He said both of the flier's parents, Clive Adams, a former principal at Willits High School, and Jessie Adams, an English teacher, became active in the local antiwar movement.

The road to recovering Adams' remains was long and halting, complicated by the terrible force of the crash that left little to recover.

According to Maj. Rumi Nielsen-Green, spokesman for the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Command, the first to arrive at the crash scene were members of a North Vietnamese militia who claimed to have shot down the single-seat fighter-bomber, one of 350 Thunderchiefs lost in the war.

Traveling to Vietnam in 1993, forensic experts from the POW/MIA unit interviewed two Vietnamese informants who said they witnessed the militia shoot down the airplane on April 19, 1966. The witnesses said they recovered human leg bones, which they buried at the site.

Several days later, a farmer told investigators he had uncovered the bones in 1982 while plowing his field. He gave the Americans a small fragment of one of the bones that he had recovered and saved in the ossuary, a container for bones of the dead.

In 1994, another team traveled to Quang Binh and again interviewed witnesses. In 1997, the military DNA laboratory in Maryland -- which keeps blood records for all U.S. military personnel -- extracted a sample from the bone for testing.

Military teams again visited the site in 1998 and in 2004, when a full excavation of the area was conducted. They found nothing. However, a villager living near the site gave the search team fragments of a wristwatch and a signal mirror he said he had recovered years before while scavenging for scrap metal. The aviator's watch and the hand-held mirror, supplied to pilots to signal rescue aircraft, were similar to those used by aviators in 1966.

At the same time, the Maryland laboratory attempted to match the DNA from the bone sample with that of relatives of American pilots known to have crashed in the same area. Two of those who provided blood samples were John and Clive Adams Jr., brothers of the downed flier.

Larry Adams got his pilot's license while still in high school, attended Santa Rosa Junior College and won an appointment to the Air Force Academy, from which he graduated in 1963.

In the Academy yearbook, classmates characterized Adams as a devoted pilot who "is in his glory only with a stick in hand and throttle forward."

In the next three years, Adams won his wings, bought an Austin Healy sports car and got his first assignment to Southeast Asia.

With the DNA tests -- along with the watch and mirror pieces -- investigators thought they finally had enough evidence to close the chapter on the downed pilot. On May 19 of this year, the Pentagon announced that Adams' remains had been positively identified.

John Adams, 75, traveled to Hawaii to collect his brother's cremated remains.

His parents never learned of their middle son's fate. Clive Adams died in 1986, Jessie Adams in 1995. The pilot's younger brother, Clive Jr., died in 2002.

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