Friday was a homecoming.
It wasn't the homecoming Dennis Giannangeli had always longed for — one that would reunite his father, Anthony Giannangeli, with his bride, Mary Louise, and their six children. The family has spent decades waiting and wondering since the colonel's plane took fire and crashed over the jungles of Vietnam in 1972.
But it was a homecoming nonetheless, as the ashes of the well loved Mary Lou were interred at the Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs — next to an empty vault and a memorial stone for her husband, whose remains have never been found.
For Dennis, it was closure.
As much closure as he may ever get.
"I still hold out hope they may find his remains some day," Dennis said of his father, who was stationed at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs when the Air Force sent him to war.
"I know, as unlikely as it is, there's still a possibility. But I think the closure we get is we know mom and dad are together now."
The Friday memorial service was the first chance to formally mourn the all-but-certain passing of Anthony and the death of Mary Lou, who died of complications of Alzheimer's during the summer of 2020 at age 86, having spiraled downward in a memory care facility during the pandemic.
Mary Lou and the children had always held out hope that Anthony would return, or at least his remains.
But with the family matriarch gone and the pandemic finally permitting, the time came Friday to bid both farewell — together.
"She's reunited with our dad; people are reunited here," Dennis said. "That would make my mom very happy."
The end likely came swiftly for the colonel, who went missing the afternoon of April 2, 1972. Just what happened in the skies that day has been the subject of much speculation, and even books and movies — "The Rescue of Bat 21," a book released in 1998, and, more famously, Hollywood's "Bat-21," starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover, released in 1988.
Such works focus on the recovery of Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton, a fellow electronics warfare officer with, as one Vietnam veteran and writer put it, "a head full of highly sensitive information that would make him a prized catch for Communists." Hambleton was recovered nearly 12 days after the attack, having parachuted from his craft and landing in the middle of enemy territory during North Vietnam's Easter Offensive.
Hambleton's rescue was the largest in Air Force history at the time, and reportedly the largest air rescue effort of the war. It cost the lives of approximately 10 troops, with the number being debated and muddied by the fact that some involved went missing in action.
Such accounts make little of the fate of the five others in Hambleton's plane, including Anthony, an electronic warfare officer with the 388th Fighter Wing's 42nd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron.
On April 2, 1972, a Douglas EB-66 Destroyer, call sign "Bat 21," took off from Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base shortly before 2 p.m. local, with a mission of intercepting and thwarting missiles launched by the North Vietnamese over South Vietnam.
Aside from Anthony, on board Bat 21 were Maj. Wayne Bolte, pilot; Hambleton, navigator; and electronic warfare officers Maj. Henry Serex, Lt. Col. Charles Levis and 1st Lt. Robin Gatwood.
At one point a missile was spotted detonating near Bat 21, causing flames to trail from both wings.
"'Bat 21' then broke into pieces and crashed," according to the U.S. military's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Present at the Friday memorial service and in the skies that day was Bill Jankowski, a pilot who, on the day of loss, was a first lieutenant flying almost directly below Bat 21.
It was a day of low visibility due to heavy cloud cover that allowed the North Vietnamese Army to move armor battalions into the dematerialized zone (DMZ) along with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
"I was up flying and all of the sudden I heard a SAM call, 'SAM DMZ,''" Jankowski recalled Friday.
He saw the contrail of a missile "all of the sudden end in an explosion in the sky" followed by "a ball of flames, just circling."
"It went into the clouds, and all of the sudden a plume of black smoke came up."
"A day I'll never forget," he said. "I can close my eyes and still see it all. From what I saw with the airplane burning, and as much it was on fire, my opinion is that nobody else got out of the airplane."
Also in attendance Friday was Darrel Whitcomb, author of "The Rescue of Bat 21." A retired Air Force Reserve colonel, he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1969 and went on to fly combat missions over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. His squadron was heavily involved in the search and rescue operation for Hambleton.
The mission of Bat 21 was "an important mission because we were leaving the war," Whitcomb said after Friday's service.
"None of us wanted to be the last guy lost, the last one left behind," he said. "So when rescues would occur, we would all pitch in; we would all help out. It was part of who we were. It was a moral imperative that we do that."
For Dennis, Friday was the first chance to meet Whitcomb as well as then-Capt. Harold Icke, who participated in search and rescue missions for Hambleton.
And he was able to reunite with Jankowski, an Oklahoman whom he met only weeks before at a Denver-area restaurant after reaching out to him.
"I said — and this has always bugged me — 'Do you think that they didn’t suffer too much? Like it happened, something exploded early, knocked him out so they didn’t feel anything?'" Dennis recalled asking Jankowski.
"He says, 'Yeah, I kinda think maybe no one suffered a lot.' That makes me feel better."
Dennis gazed heavenward Friday with a melancholy smile as a missing man formation flew over the cemetery — perhaps a final salute to a father who may never return home.
With men like Jankowski, Whitcomb and Icke now in his family's lives, "pieces have come together," he said.
"People get to talk to them, and they get to hear stories, and it brings you back," Dennis said. "And I think it brings closure in some ways.
"They were all pilots fighting in a horrible war, and it's an honor just to meet them."
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