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Four sailors, killed in Vietnam in 1967, laid to rest at Arlington

May. 3, 2013 - 12:07PM   |  

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Four sailors, who died when anti-aircraft fire brought down their helicopter in July 1967 in Ha Nam province of North Vietnam, were buried Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Partial remains of three of the four sailors, including Aviation Anti-submarine Warfare Technician Donald McGrane of Waverly, Iowa, Ensign Donald P. Fry of Los Angeles and Aviation Anti-submarine Warfare Technician William B. Jackson of Stockdale, Texas, were recovered in 1982 and returned to their families. McGrane’s remains were buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Waverly in November 1982. McGrane’s father, Donald “Red” McGrane, died a month later.

A year ago, the remains of Navy Lt. Dennis W. Peterson, the pilot of the aircraft, were recovered and returned to his native Huntington Park, Calif.

Now, after years of examination of human remains recovered by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments, more commingled remains of the four crew members have been identified.

The remains’ condition makes them impossible to separate, Navy officials told the families. So, the four men who fought and died side by side for their country will be put to rest together in the historic military cemetery today.

Many members of McGrane’s family, who have moved away from Iowa, plan to attend, along with family members of the other crew members and their shipmates from the USS Hornet, from which the helicopter took off, and from the USS Constellation, where McGrane was stationed.

“It will be the first time any of us have met in person,” said John McGrane, Donald Paul McGrane’s younger brother, now a Washington, D.C., lawyer. “It will also be a final goodbye.”

After high school, two tours of duty

Donald Paul McGrane was the second of Red and Marlys McGrane’s seven children.

He was a fun-loving child who enjoyed visits to his cousins’ farm near Elma.

“Donald was always the instigator when we got into trouble,” remembered his cousin Patrick Palmersheim, who also served in Vietnam and was director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs from 2002 to 2011.

“He was a good man, but he was mischievous,” Palmersheim recalled. “He always seemed to have access to fireworks.”

McGrane joined the Navy soon after he graduated from high school in Waverly. He enjoyed his service, his brother John recalled, and signed up for a second tour of duty in Vietnam.

On that fateful summer day in 1967, McGrane was on the Constellation. The ship had been losing a lot of aircraft to enemy fire. Rescue missions were being flown off the nearby Hornet.

“The way I remember it, they had just gone out and rescued a downed pilot the day before,” Palmersheim said. “They had another one go down, and that’s when Donald went out.”

Anti-aircraft fire downs helicopter

Peterson was the pilot. McGrane and the two others were aboard for support, to scan the ground for the wreckage and signs of their fellow sailors stranded on the ground in enemy territory.

Peterson took a second pass over the area. Antiaircraft fire blasted the helicopter.

It caught fire and spun to the ground. There were no survivors.

The house of Red and Marlys McGrane fell silent on the day they learned of their son’s death.

A priest and a U.S. Navy officer walked from a dark sedan to the front door of their Waverly home.

“You see those scenes in the movies where they come to the door. It was very much like that,” John remembered.

Donald Paul McGrane was 24 when he died.

John was 16. It took 15 more years, when John was 31, before his brother’s partial remains were returned to Iowa.

Now 62, John will gather today with much of his family. Donald’s and John’s mother died in 2010.

And Donald’s older son, Daniel McGrane, who works with the California Department of Transportation and is 49, won’t be able to attend.

But Donald’s widow, Karen Fischer, will be there. So will another son, Shannon McGrane, a California Highway Patrolman, who was 1 when his father died.

Today’s ceremony will bring remaining family members together again in Donald Paul McGrane’s memory. It also will unite them for the first time with strangers whose only connection is that their loved ones died together in war.

“It brings it all back, in a way,” John said. “It isn’t as intense as it was when it happened, or even in 1982, but you feel it. It’s like an echo.”

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