Forty-seven years after Dennis Eilers and an air crew of five others were shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War, the Quad-City area soldier’s family will get their chance to say a final good-bye.
On Christmas Eve 1965, his Tipton, Iowa, family’s life was turned upside down with news of the aircraft’s crash. Eilers, who had always dreamed of being a pilot, had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force four years earlier and had been sent overseas one month before his AC-47 gunship was shot down.
Listed initially as missing in action, his status was changed to killed in action in 1977. However, without a body to bury and no crash site discovered, his family was always left wondering, his brother, Dean Eilers, said Saturday from his Tipton home.
But in April, that all changed when Eilers’ family was notified of a discovery in a rice paddy in Laos. More than 10 years after a recovery team first found the site of the crash – with no plane or personal effects in sight — the team finally had proof that this was the six-man crew’s crash site, his brother said.
“My nephew, Curt, called me,” he said, recalling how military personnel met the family at his nephew’s home in Naperville, Ill. “They described everything that they found. They found a tooth — somebody else’s on the crew, and that was the main identifier.
“There were no airplane parts or wings or anything left; the villagers had used them.”
According to Eilers, the team found belts, watches and rings but could not identify who they belonged to. They also found bone fragments. “They couldn’t use DNA on them because they were too deteriorated,” he said.
“I’m very surprised that they could look so long for 10 years off and on. They had two or three sites in the same area,” he said.
“Laos has not always been friendly to us in coming in and doing this; that’s why it has taken so long,” said David Fry of Fry Funeral Home, Tipton, which is in charge of local arrangements. “Wherever this recovery group goes, they have been so diligent and purposeful to make the effort. You have to respect the people who do this.”
After hearing the news the family had long waited for, Eilers said “For a couple days, it was very odd. You feel different. I guess now after more than a month like that, you know its going to be closure now.”
Eilers, who was just 22 when his older brother went missing, remembers years of wondering and hoping. “You just don’t know at the very beginning if he was captured or a prisoner. Or you think he might have escaped for the first couple of years.”
Their parents died long before getting any real answers. Walter Eilers died in 1978, while Leone passed away in 1998.
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Dennis Eilers was 27 years old, married and the father of two sons — Curt and Brett — when the aircraft, known as “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “Spooky,” went missing.
At the time of the crash, he held the rank of first lieutenant, but while MIA he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. “That was helpful for his family at the time (due to the benefits they received),” Dean Eilers said.
Now with their mystery solved, the family will join the Tipton community in a memorial service for Eilers at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at First United Church of Christ, where the family belonged. The funeral procession will go to the Tipton Masonic Cemetery, where the family first put up a headstone in 1977 in Eilers’ memory.
The remains of the crew found by the recovery team will be buried later in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Expected to join the local service and procession are members of the U.S. Air Force, Iowa Reps. Dave Loebsack and Jeff Kaufmann, and the Patriot Guard. A request also has been made for a fly-over by the U.S. Air Force. The congressmen will join Dean Eilers, Curt Eilers, and his daughter, Shana, as pallbearers.
“This is a small town coming together to remember and pay tribute,” Dean Eilers said. “Actually, I think it will be more than a small town coming together.”