Marine's burial to mark the end of mother's wait

Remains identified 25 years after crash in Gulf of Thailand

May 20, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

NEW CASTLE, Del. -- On May 11, 1975, U.S. Marine Gregory S. Copenhaver called his mother to wish her a happy Mother's Day. He also sent her a charm for her bracelet -- which arrived a few weeks after Copenhaver's helicopter crashed in the Gulf of Thailand, taking his life.

That was a quarter-century ago. But during all those years, Copenhaver's mother, Mary E. Mills, has never been able to say a final goodbye. While presumed dead, Copenhaver was classified as missing in action.

That changed on Thursday, when the Department of Defense identified the Cecil County native's remains, along with those of five other servicemen on his chopper. All six participated in the May 14, 1975, rescue of the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant ship. The operation is considered the last serious conflict of the Vietnam War.

Copenhaver is now officially one of 15 Cecil County residents and one of 1,014 Marylanders killed in Vietnam. His remains are to be delivered to a Rising Sun funeral home Thursday. A memorial service is scheduled for Friday evening, with burial the next day.

Twenty-five years ago, a memorial service was held for Copenhaver at tiny Porter's Grove Missionary Baptist Church. More than 150 people packed the church outside Rising Sun.

The same minister who presided at the first service -- the Rev. Mack Arnold Sr. -- will officiate at the second.

Last night, Mills looked through photos of Copenhaver and described how he and his brother Doug would wander around Rising Sun collecting soda bottles.

"They bought me a sweeper and a coffee table with [money from] pop bottles," she said. "I'm proud of him," said Mills, 69, at her New Castle home. "I was proud of him from Day 1."

Day 1 was in August 1974 when Copenhaver left for boot camp after graduating from Rising Sun High School. The 18-year-old's dream to join the service was a secret he kept from his mother until the night before he left. But it was no surprise to Copenhaver's friends.

Gordon Colby, who graduated with Copenhaver, said the teen began talking of a military career in their junior year of high school. Colby said Copenhaver began going to the school library for pamphlets he used to persuade Colby and three other friends to enlist with him.

"He wanted a career in the service," said Colby.

Colby, who took vo-tech classes with Copenhaver, described his friend as "shy, quiet and reserved." When Copenhaver went for his physical, Colby backed out, deciding to marry his girlfriend rather than join the service.

The other friends enlisted alongside Copenhaver -- one other was killed and the other two returned.

Copenhaver liked motorcycles, a hobby he inherited from his mother's second husband, Robert Mills. Copenhaver's mother said that until his death a decade ago, her husband held out hope that his stepson was alive.

Mills was not so sure and had mixed emotions when military officials visited in March to tell her they were close to identifying her son's remains. Twenty-five years ago, she had endured a similar visit.

Now, she said, "[this] is bringing it all back, all the memories. In some ways, I had closed my mind to it."

Tall and lanky with dark-framed glasses, Copenhaver was nicknamed "Frog" by classmates and, according to his yearbook, he enjoyed cars, girls, hunting and the pursuit of financial success.

Copenhaver was one of three children and, his mother said, a kid who admired his father, who was badly wounded in the Korean War and died in 1970.

In February 1975, after completing boot camp, Copenhaver was sent to infantry training in California, then to Okinawa, Japan.

His battalion was tapped for the Mayaguez rescue mission after the ship was captured and taken by Cambodian troops to the island of Koh Tang.

Copenhaver and the other servicemen were told the crew of the Mayaguez was being held captive on the island, but when they arrived, the boat's crew had been released. The helicopters were ambushed by gunfire.

Sun staff researchers Dee Lyon and Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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