31 years after death, U.S. flier is buried

Missing major's B-52 shot down over Hanoi

December 20, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes and Laurie Willis | Stephanie Hanes and Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Thirty-one years to the day after Maj. Richard W. Cooper Jr.'s B-52 went down in flames over Hanoi and four of his crew mates were captured, his remains -- finally identified -- were buried yesterday in Arlington National Cemetery.

"I still love him, and I miss him," Cooper's sister, Connie Saxton, 63, of Salisbury, said last night. "I think of him very often, but it's particularly sad at this time of the year. He was only two years younger than me, and we were very close."

For years, the Salisbury man and one of his crew were listed among the thousands of soldiers missing in Vietnam, leaving friends and family to wonder what had happened after the men's bomber was downed by a surface-to-air missile.

Four other crew mates were taken prisoner and paraded in front of news cameras. They were released after 101 days. But for decades, there was no word of Cooper.

In recent months the Defense Department used mitochondrial DNA testing to identify the remains of Cooper's crew mate found near the site of the crash. Yesterday, the military announced publicly that it had found Cooper, whose captain's stripes where found in the wreckage.

"We were elated," said Mildred Alexander, the wife of Fernando Alexander, the plane's radar navigator. "It brought closure to a long-standing wound."

From her home in California, Mildred Alexander said that the four surviving members of the crew had remained close. One died about a year and a half ago, she said.

The three living survivors of the crash, including her husband, traveled to Arlington yesterday for Cooper's memorial. In October, Fernando Alexander went to Louisiana to attend services for Chief Master Sgt. Charlie Poole, the other crew member whose remains were identified.

Members of Cooper's family also attended, standing by as a B-52 flew over the funeral service.

Cooper's daughter, Jennifer, born five months after her father was declared missing, gave a eulogy.

"It was a very moving ceremony," said Jonathan Cooper, Richard Cooper's younger brother, who traveled from Albany, N.Y., for the service. "She made it very personal -- about trying to know her dad, even though she never knew him, ... about how much she honored her mother for raising two daughters single-handedly and about just how proud she was of the sacrifice he made for his country."

Although the formal ceremony at Arlington yesterday may have given closure, there have been hints for years that Poole and Cooper did not survive the crash -- the second B-52 downing of the "Linebacker II" air offensive, President Richard M. Nixon's attempt in the waning days of the war to bomb the North Vietnamese into peace negotiations.

As early as the mid-1990s, military officials thought they had found the two Air Force men. According to the military, photographs in a Vietnam museum and interviews with Vietnamese informants led U.S. investigators to a pond near Hanoi.

In 1995, a U.S.-Vietnamese task force drained the pond and excavated the site, according to the military. There, investigators found the wreckage of the B-52, as well as personal items from the crew and human remains.

"The crash site was so large that a second excavation was conducted in early 1996," the Department of Defense said in a release issued yesterday.

In that excavation, the military collected more remains.

Yesterday, the Department of Defense said that "anthropological analysis of the remains" and "mitochondrial DNA matches" confirmed the identifications of Poole and Cooper.

Defense Department spokeswoman Michelle Shortencarrier said last night that she did not know when, exactly, the military performed the DNA testing.

Mitochondrial DNA testing is a new technology that can create a genetic profile of a person from bone or hair samples.

According to the Daily Times of Salisbury, Cooper graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1965, and joined the military in 1967.

Jonathan Cooper said his brother had worked for the Department of Agriculture before he joined the service.

By Dec. 19, 1972, Cooper had a 2 1/2 -year-old daughter and another on the way. He had "melded" with fatherhood, his brother said, and was happier than ever.

He was also starting to question the war, his brother said. "He tried to be tough and macho on the surface, but he tended to be sensitive and felt things deeply," he said.

Cooper was 30 when he died.

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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