SAN FRANCISCO — Army Sgt. Timothy J. Jacobsen will finally be laid to rest today in the small Northern California town of Ferndale, his remains placed in the empty grave that has been marked by his tombstone since May 17, 1972.
That date -- a year and a day after he went missing in Vietnam -- was when the U.S. government officially declared him dead.
Jacobsen was on an assault mission near Hue in 1971 when his helicopter came under heavy fire, struck a line of trees and exploded.
Uncertainty about his fate long prompted speculation that he might have survived and been taken prisoner.
But after many years of searching, a joint American and Vietnamese team found his remains in 2006 buried near the crash site.
The remains were identified based on dental records by a U.S. military forensics laboratory in Hawaii earlier this year and flown to California this week.
"It's closure we never thought we would ever have," said Joyce Fisher, Jacobsen's eldest sister. "It's something that never goes away. People say it gets better with time, but it really doesn't, at least in this case. We thought about him every day."
The family declined to have Jacobsen buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Instead, a small, private funeral will be held today at the cemetery where members of four generations of his family are buried in Ferndale, Jacobsen's hometown of about 1,300 residents, south of Eureka.
"We want to bring him home and put him to rest where he belongs and do it quietly," Fisher said.
Jacobsen was one of eight children -- two boys and six girls.
His family remembers him as a daredevil who had a penchant for getting into scrapes and emerging unscathed. Before he was drafted into the Army, he was the top bull rider in Humboldt County.
"He was such a vibrant person," Fisher said. "He'd fall in a [manure] pile and he'd come out smelling like a rose."
Jacobsen was due to return home from Vietnam in a month when his helicopter went down. He was 21.
A few days after the crash, a search-and-rescue team reached the site and recovered the remains of some of the South Vietnamese troops who were on board.
But other bodies were trapped under the wreckage and none of the Americans were recovered, according to an account released by the Pentagon.
In 1994 and 1995, joint American-Vietnamese teams located the crash site and recovered more remains, but again were unsuccessful in finding the Americans.
In 2002, a new team interviewed local residents, who led the searchers to two re-burial sites. In 2006, another group excavated the graves and found human remains in one.
The forensic examination took many months, but Jacobsen was eventually identified from teeth found in the grave. The other three American soldiers remain missing.
The search for Americans missing in action in the Vietnam War has long been a high priority for the U.S. government.
In 1986, the Vietnamese government agreed to allow a U.S. excavation team back into the country. American officials say the joint effort has been key to improving relations between the two countries.
The federal government will spend about $106 million this year on the search for missing Americans, primarily from the Vietnam War, officials said.
Since the search effort began, the remains of 894 missing Americans, including some civilians, have been recovered, identified and returned to their families.
About 1,750 Americans are still listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War. Most are believed to be in Vietnam, but hundreds are thought to be in Cambodia and Laos. As many as five pilots are believed to have gone down in Chinese territory near Vietnam.
The U.S. government has long considered it very unlikely that any of the missing Americans are still alive.
Of the 3 million Vietnamese estimated to have died in the conflict, about 1 million remain missing.
Recovering their remains and returning them to their hometowns has not been a priority for the Vietnamese government.
Cindy McWhorter, another of Jacobsen's sisters, said the family never expected to learn his fate. For years, some family members clung to the possibility that he had survived and was being held prisoner.
"I remember my mom and dad really hanging on to that tightly," said McWhorter, who was 14 when her brother's chopper went down. "It would be horrible if he was captured, but at least he would still be alive.
"When you are desperate, you will hang on to anything," she said. "You just want to believe so badly that your loved one is not gone."
McWhorter said the evidence is clear that there were no survivors in the helicopter crash, and praised the government for giving the family an answer after so long.
"We feel so glad that Tim was found, and so thankful the military kept searching," she said. "It really feels like a miracle. But it's bittersweet. It brings up the sadness and pain of losing someone you love all over again."