MICHAEL JOHNSON/Livingston County News
Joe Christiano of Mount Morris with the ID bracelet of someone who shares his name, a Vietnam War airman who was declared missing in action.
Missing in Action
Joe Christiano ends vigil for MIA officer who shares his name
Joe Christiano of Mount Morris is a man who holds service to his country, and those who served in time of war, sacrosanct.
A military veteran of the Korean War era, Joe is a devoted and active member of American Legion Harvey L. Brady Post 354 — among many services he has rendered his community.
During the time Joe served as elected trustee and then mayor of the Village of Mount Morris, he played an instrumental role in fostering the creation of the Veterans Memorial Park and — what he is most proud of — in officially naming Main Street, the segment of State Route 36 through the village, as the ‘Mount Morris Veterans Memorial Highway’.
On Christmas Eve, 1965 Joe Christiano of Mount Morris learned he had a namesake serving in Vietnam. It was Lt. Joseph Christiano of Rochester, an airman. He was no relation.
Lt. Christiano was, according to the 6 O’Clock News TV broadcast, missing in action when his plane failed to return from a mission. A search & rescue effort had been mounted from DaNang, but would be abandoned on the day after Christmas, when no trace of the aircraft or crew could be found.
Christiano was a 43 year old USAF serviceman whose career spanned World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Joe vividly remembers the Christmas Eve broadcast, including an interview with the airman’s wife — also similar in name. She was Josephine Christiano, which happens to be Joe’s sister’s name.
Learning someone with your own name has died on what ought to be one of the year’s most joyous days gave Joe pause to think, and reflect that he was still on earth, and grateful for men like Lt. Christiano and his crew, who gave all, that the rest of us might pursue this good life.
That sense of gratitude never leaves Joe.
And then there was the gift of the bracelet.
In the manner of Vietnam POW and MIA remembrance jewelry, it is emblazoned with the name of the serviceman and the date of his disappearance: “Lt.Col. Joseph Christiano, 12-24-65.” (Christiano received the promotion to ‘Lt.Col.’ after being declared as missing.)
Joe didn’t purchase the bracelet. Two years ago he came to it by way of a friend, Joe Hubbard, who claims he didn’t purchase it either, but that his wife “found it in a drawer.” Whatever the origin, it seemed to be an appropriate gift for Joe, who, over the past four-and-a-half decades, has given frequent thought to his namesake.
Joe cleaned off the rust and tarnish but didn’t wear the bracelet.
Not until he heard the Channel 13 TV broadcast on April 9.
Now Joe has taken to wearing it everywhere.
Channel 13 reported that 98 teeth and bone fragments, a watch, ring and pennies have been recovered from the site in Laos where Lt. Col. Joseph Christiano’s AC47D ‘Spooky 21’ aircraft went down at 1050 hours on 12-24-65.
While the bones are not adequate for conclusive DNA testing, dental records have been correlated with tooth fragments to confirm that they belong to M.Sgt. Larry Thorton, one of the crew’s gunners.
This collection of evidence is deemed sufficient proof that the scattered remains collectively belong to the six-man crew. In addition to Thorton of Idaho Falls and Christiano, who was navigator, the crew consisted of pilot Lt.Col. Derrell Jeffords of Phoenix, co-pilot Capt. Dennis Eilers of Cedar Rapids, flight engineer T.Sgt. Kevin Colwell of Glen Cove, and gunner S.Sgt. Arden Hassenger of Lebanon, Or. The men ranged in age from 30 to 45 and all but one were married.
Barbara Annechino, one of Joe and Josephine’s five children, told Channel 13 that the diligent recovery work performed by volunteers, and the evidence they had discovered, “truly brought us peace.”
The remains of the six man crew will be buried in a common grave at Arlington National Cemetery in July.
When a prisoner of war or serviceman missing in action is found and returned to his family — be he found alive or only as remains — tradition calls for bracelet wearers to return their bracelets to the family.
Joe plans to write a short letter of explanation to Barbara Annechino, whom he has never contacted before, and will return his bracelet in the same parcel.
In December 1965, the AC47D, nicknamed ‘Spooky,’ was a recently introduced modification of the Douglas C-47 with a row of three automatic guns, capable of firing 18,000 rounds per minute, mounted on the left side of the fuselage. The aircraft was designed for nocturnal raiding and was capable of concentrating its strike over a very small area while maneuvering in tight pylon turns. As an offensive weapon, the AC47D proved effective, but it was unfortunately susceptible to anti-aircraft fire.
The United States conducted the war in Laos as a necessary parallel to the war in Vietnam, since enemy Vietnamese were constantly supplied by a sophisticated highway, tunnel and depot system in Laos. However overt, the Laotian war demanded covert status, being deemed a violation of Geneva Convention Accords by international consensus.
Because there was never an official “war” with Laos, that nation was not included in the negotiations ending U.S. involvement in the southeast Asia. There has never been any formal arrangement for returning U.S. war prisoners captured in Laos.
Indeed, as a historic fact, not one single American held in Laos has ever been released by the Laotian government, nor is there any record of successful escapes.
Some military researchers suspect that as many as 600 hundred American prisoners may have been abandoned by their government in Laos after 1973; that some of these prisoners may still be alive in southeast Asia or other parts of the world.
Should we debunk these researchers as crackpots or take their ideas seriously?
Today there is a theoretical agreement with the government of Laos that the United States has the right to claim the remains of military personnel discovered at the crash sites of their aircraft. However, there are no agreements pertaining to captured personnel, alive or dead, who may have bailed from a disabled craft.
Since there is no conclusive evidence that the remains at the Spooky 21 crash site include all six crew members, it is disconcerting to hear reports suggesting that three of the crew may have survived and were taken prisoner.
On Sept. 13, 1968, a propaganda radio broadcast from Puerto Rico supposedly named Christiano and his pilot Jeffords with two other captives. They were reported among “several dozen captured airman” whom the Pathet Lao were “treating correctly.”
In 1989 Arden Hassenger’s wife was provided with “report” information suggesting her husband had been sighted alive in Laos.
The late Czech General Jan Sejna, who defected from communist Czechoslovakia in February 1968, allegedly had firsthand knowledge that close to 100 Americans in good physical condition were transferred from Vietnam to Russia via Czechoslovakia. He claimed to have monitored the program that processed them and observed their arrival and temporary confinement.