Then came closure

Tooth found in Vietnam ends years of doubt for missing Md. man's family

May 25, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

When the decades of not knowing finally ended, Jimmy Caniford's photo sat in its usual spot on a shelf opposite his parents' living room sofa - a portrait of the warrior, forever 23 and fighting the Vietnam War.

In the picture, Caniford strikes a pose brimming with machismo. His flight helmet is tucked under his left arm; his right arm dangles close to a pistol on his hip. Tall, handsome and jug-eared, he eyes the camera as if he's about to swagger out of the frame.

The man in the picture bears little resemblance to the baby-faced 17-year-old who joined the Air Force in 1966, fresh out of Middletown High near Frederick, and then re-upped despite the worsening war. "This is what I do," he told his father.

To the end he remained a jokester. A month before he vanished, he'd affected cool nonchalance in a letter home, despite writing from the world's hottest fire zone. "Hi!" he wrote, "That's about all I can think of right now to say."

In March 1972, not long after that photo was snapped, a North Vietnamese missile blew his plane out of the night sky over the jungle in Laos, near the Vietnam border. All 14 crew members, it appeared, perished.

But Jimmy's body was never found, and with no body, James Caniford was not willing to close the book on his son. And why should he concede to the most grievous loss a man can endure if there was any chance at all that Jimmy had survived?

Of course, his insistence on clinging to some long-shot hope only forced on him another anguish, namely, not knowing what had happened to his only son. Had he been captured? Tortured? Brainwashed? Later killed at the enemy's hands?

As the years rolled by - as family members aged, moved, changed jobs, retired, got sick, saw the country embark on three new wars - he worried more and more that he'd go to his grave without the knowledge he craved.

On March 20, everything changed. The Air Force called to report that Jimmy Caniford was no longer missing in action. Remains recently unearthed at the crash site had been identified as his. Finally, on Wednesday, Jimmy will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In an instant, the discovery seemed to clear the ambiguity that had hung over those close to Jimmy. It also extinguished - or seemed to - the hope that had flickered, if dimly, all these years.

What's left of the 6-foot-5 airman is not a skeleton, or part of one, only the merest residue of a man. All that the Air Force could locate of Jimmy was a maxillary first molar from the upper right side of his mouth. After 36 years, a single tooth has emerged from the ground.

The question for those left behind was whether it was enough to give them certainty.

Night in 1972

As soon as Staff Sgt. Ken Felty heard that Caniford's plane had not made it back to the airbase at Ubon, Thailand, he did something he'd never done. He chugged 8 ounces of whiskey straight, then chased it with 8 more ounces of vodka.

Hours later, he woke to the shrieks of the Thai woman cleaning the barracks, who'd found him passed out on the floor and assumed he was dead.

Felty and Caniford were not buddies; they barely knew each other. But what occurred in the wee hours on March 29, 1972, had nothing to do with friendship, just happenstance.

Caniford and Felty had the same job on different AC-130 gunships. They were known as "illuminator operators." While others on the plane used sophisticated sensors to search for targets on the ground, the IO lay on his belly partway over an open hatch at the rear of the plane and scanned for enemy fire. If he saw danger he'd warn the pilot through a headset.

Lumbering along at 250 miles an hour, the ungainly, four-engine gunships made fat targets, all the more so because of their steady orbiting. For that reason, they flew night missions with F4 fighter jet escorts.

Felty and Caniford were flying on runs over Laos, which the American military had begun secretly bombing in 1964. Their aim was to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a path snaking from Vietnam into Laos and back into Vietnam, which communist forces used to move men and arms south.

By 1972, the Americans still had not managed to shut down the trail despite the most intense bombing in history.

That March evening at Ubon, Felty was munching a hotdog in the flight line when Caniford joined him. They chatted before heading to their respective planes for another harrowing night. Lately their missions had grown increasingly dangerous as the North Vietnamese had bolstered their air defenses.

Shortly after takeoff, Felty's gunship developed a glitch with the radar-detection device it used to locate missile launchers. With that malfunction, it was deemed too dangerous to send Felty's AC-130 into the heavily defended sector where it had been sent to patrol. Commanders at Ubon diverted it to a less fortified sector, switching its mission with that of Spectre 13.

The IO in Spectre 13 was Jimmy Caniford.

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