Lebanon, Oregon, US
United States Air Force
CSM, 4TH AIR COMMANDO SQDN, 6250TH CBT SPT GROUP, 13TH AF
Ban Nabo, Laos, 12/01/1977
Her mind accepts the worst. But even now, 44 years after her husband’s plane was shot down, her heart perhaps never will.
The C-47 carrying 29-year-old tailgunner Arden Hassenger of Lebanon disappeared over Laos on Christmas Eve, 1965. He had been fighting in Vietnam for almost two months.
Some evidence suggests he may have survived the crash, may have been taken captive and forced to stay in Laos. As recently as 1989, he may have been seen alive. If that’s the case, additional evidence hints, he may have died in Laos just a few years ago. Paperwork received by the family this Wednesday appears to confirm his remains were indeed found.
Sherrie Hassenger, now 71, doesn’t know whether the documented remains were found at the crash site, much later at a Laotian village, or whether they truly belong to her husband at all. She realizes she may never know.
In the end, the mystery doesn’t matter. What does is her love for the father of her three children, for the man who called her “Baby,” whose smile lit her whole world. That man she will remember, at Christmas and always.
The Hassengers had three children: a daughter, Robin, then sons Keith and Mike. Arden began to talk about what he’d do after he retired from the military. Teach math, he decided, and be an architectural draftsman. He started taking college classes, for which the military paid. Then came Vietnam.
Arden became a staff sergeant with the 4th Air Commando Squadron and was assigned as a tailgunner on a C-47, the former WWII transport planes known as “Puff, the Magic Dragon” for the cones of fire their Gatling guns could lay down.
Christmas Eve, 1965. Arden flew out that morning with a crew of six on “Spooky 21,” his particular aircraft, on a covert mission to break up any activity on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Neither the plane nor any of its men ever returned.
“Three days went by, then three weeks, then three months. Then 33 years. “Now it’s been 44 years.”
In 1972, the Air Force, which initially said Arden’s plane went down in South Vietnam and then in the Gulf of Tonkin, sent a letter telling Sherrie the plane actually had been shot down over Laos. Years later, she learned the name of the village closest to the crash site: Ban Nabo.
All the time, she tried to be the wife and mother she believed Arden would have wanted – just in case he came back someday. “I wanted to be the person I was when he left,” she says.
She considered marrying again but found she couldn’t go through with it.
“I’m so proud of him,” she whispers. “Because of him, I’ve had a good life.”