Death waits for no man, but a plot is reserved for Anthony Giannangeli at the Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs.
The end likely came swiftly for the colonel, who went missing the afternoon of April 2, 1972, over the jungles of Vietnam, when the electronic warfare plane he was aboard took fire and crashed.
His wife's plot will sit adjacent. Mary Louise died of complications of Alzheimer's last summer at age 86, having spiraled downward in a memory care facility during the pandemic.
She never remarried.
Of the colonel's crew of six, at least two survived the initial blast, according to an account from the incident’s lone known survivor, now deceased.
The ultimate fate of the rest of the five crew members is unknown, with all initially classified as missing in action.
What exactly happened that day may always remain a mystery, said Dennis Giannangeli, 64, one of the couple's sons, who lives in Aurora.
“It’s not that you lose hope — there's always hope,” Dennis said. “He could have been a prisoner of war and they just didn’t know where he was at. You always keep that in your mind.
“But then as the years go on, I think everybody is thinking, ‘Yeah, he probably didn’t make it out of that plane.’”
• • •
High school sweethearts in Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, Anthony and Mary Lou married in 1954, as Anthony embarked on his military career.
The couple soon started what would become a large, nomadic family. The Air Force frequently transferred them, from Massachusetts, to Alabama, to Michigan, to Wisconsin and even Goose Bay in Newfoundland before they ended up in Colorado Springs in 1966, stationed at Ent Air Force Base, now the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center off Union Boulevard.
Dennis recalls his dad as a “fairly strict” figure who “wanted to raise us properly.”
But along with the rules, there was adoration.
“He loved his kids, loved his wife,” Dennis recalled. “They loved each other and really took care of their kids. When he was away, he’d make tape recordings and send back tapes. He’d write her letters.”
Though strict, his dad was equally compassionate. He “had a really good sense of humor” and "enjoyed a good joke, a drink after work, family drives, Sunday meals, sporting events, bowling, fishing, painting houses, the stock market and very high quality stereo equipment," Dennis recalled.
“He had some really good friends because he was so kind. He treated everyone so equally, no matter what rank they were at.”
While Anthony worked long hours, Mary Lou masterfully kept the cogs turning at home, raising the children on a single income.
“Having to do that was an amazing feat,” Dennis said. “She was such a strong woman. She was trying to do as much as she could for our family.”
Soon, even more would be asked of her.
“When he’d go away, he’d do survival training,” Dennis recalled of his father. “He’s talking about jumping out of, parachuting out of a plane. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s just what they teach you when you’re in the Air Force,’ not really knowing what he was really doing on these types of aircrafts."
When Anthony deployed to Vietnam in 1971, “I’m not even sure my mom really knew exactly the extent of what he was doing,” Dennis said. “Certainly his parents didn’t. I still assumed, in my mind, he has a desk job.”
His father once mentioned that he jammed plane radars as he used chaff — aluminum strips launched from planes to fool radar — to decorate a family Christmas tree in lieu of tinsel.
And yet “I didn’t really envision it until after the fact, how dangerous some of these missions he was going on were,” Dennis said.
“Piecing all that together was kind of shocking.”
• • •
No good could come of an early morning doorbell ring.
That was Dennis’ thought around 6 a.m. April 3, 1972. Then 15, he and his older brother, Robert, and his younger siblings were at their home in Colorado Springs, getting ready for a day of school at St. Mary's High School and Divine Redeemer Catholic School.
“That door opened, and you see two people standing at the door, dressed in uniform — it didn’t take long to figure it out,” Dennis recalled.
“I knew right away something was wrong. My mom — the look on her face — she really knew.”
The base commander and the chaplain informed Mary Lou that her husband was missing in action.
From then on, the mission was Mary Lou’s.
“As upset as she was, her main thing was getting her kids ready for school,” Dennis recalled. “That was the first thing she wanted to accomplish, and that never changed.
“She just put her head down and went for it. She said, ‘I’m going to get this done and get through it,’ and she did.”
The children arrived slightly late at school that day. Mary Lou had told Dennis to inform the school of the reason for their tardiness.
“'Dennis, here’s what I want you to do: I want you to go into the office and tell them that your dad’s been shot down and is missing in action,'” Dennis recalled his mother saying.
Dennis struggled to impart the knowledge to the head nun, who seemed upset that the children were late — until the words stumbled out of his mouth, accompanied by tears.
“My dad just got shot down and is missing in action — can you tell everybody to say prayers for him?”
When Dennis finally entered class, all eyes were on him.
• • •
Just what happened that day in the skies above Vietnam 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 1980.
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 surface-to-air missiles launched by the North Vietnamese over South Vietnam.
The EB-66 was an outdated bomber converted to pack equipment that could listen to enemy radio signals to gather vital intelligence. Using powerful radio signals, the planes were also able to jam missile targeting gear, thwarting the most important anti-aircraft weapon in the Communist inventory.
Along with another EB-66, "Bat 22," its job was to lead and protect a trio of B-52 bombers. 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.
"No parachutes were witnessed," the account states, adding that one crew member — Hambleton — was eventually rescued.
"The other five crew members are believed to have died in the incident, and their remains were not recovered."
Accounts, however, vary.
According to "The Rescue of Bat 21," by Darrel D. Whitcomb, the first missile hit below where Hambleton was seated, directly behind the pilot — EB-66s did not have a copilot seat.
"As the aircraft began to drop out of control, the pilot gave Hambleton a hand signal to eject," Whitcomb wrote, citing an interview with Hambleton, who never spoke to the Giannangeli family despite attempts to contact him. "As he rose in the ejection seat, he looked down and saw the pilot looking up at him.
"A few seconds later, he heard another loud explosion."
That sound was likely the aircraft exploding or a second missile, concluded Hambleton, who did not witness the source of the sound as he descended to the ground "with pieces of the aircraft falling around him."
Hambleton went down in a "populated and hotly contested, generally flat jungle" about six miles northwest of Dong Ha, about 12 miles south of the demarcation line, which split the warring halves of Vietnam. Bat 22 was maneuvering to avoid missiles and did not see Bat 21 go down. U.S. personnel later intercepted intelligence from the Vietnam People's Army suggesting that multiple parachutes were reported, according to an account by Task Force Omega, a nonprofit seeking accounting for and return of all American POWs and MIAs.
Early reports to the family also seemed to suggest the possibility that multiple airmen had escaped the craft. However, the second parachute likely belonged to a troop on another airplane exiting to aid with search and rescue efforts, Dennis said, calling the federal agency's account "a little bit off and a little bit too simple."
Hambleton aside, voice contact was never established with the crew members of Bat 21.
Dennis has located a pilot who was flying about 5,000 feet below Bat 21 that day and eventually became the on-scene commander for search and rescue efforts. He hopes to soon visit the man in Oklahoma and receive a full account.
It may be the closest thing to closure he gets.
• • •
Answers never came for Mary Lou.
“She was really hopeful," Dennis said. "She really did think there was a possibility he could be a POW. In the back of our minds, we really did think that, too. You heard stories. He could be in any village, or a small little prisoner camp. It’s not like he had to be at Hanoi. He could be anywhere."
Seven years after her husband went missing, Mary Lou gave in to pressure from the military to reclassify him from missing in action to killed in action, a move that resulted in less money for her, Dennis said.
“We probably should have fought harder” to keep MIA status, Dennis said. “But I think she just said, ‘Enough’s enough. If you want to do KIA, get it over with.'
“From that point on, I think it became more of a, ‘Someday, I hope they can bring his remains home.'”
Mary Lou spent her days raising six children, working and spending time with friends. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs while working part time and, eventually, became a history and English teacher in District 11 in Colorado Springs.
Even while working and attending college, “she’d still show up at your events or activities,” he said. “You kind of wonder how she did it.”
"She enjoyed teaching, helping others, eating out, a movie, TV shows, the symphony, trips with friends, planting flowers, animals, babies, the daily newspaper, tai chi, Nordstrom and, of course, church," Dennis recalled.
Mary Lou was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2016. In 2018, her children moved her from Colorado Springs to an assisted living facility in Englewood, and to a memory care unit at the same facility the following year.
Then, COVID hit.
A large outbreak killed nearly a third of the approximately 20 residents in Mary Lou's unit, Dennis said. “COVID didn’t kill her, but it definitely contributed to” her death in July of last year via the isolation that ensued, Dennis said.
When the facility closed to visitors, her children brought a ladder to her window, climbing two stories in a bid to communicate with her.
“She was waving us in, basically saying, ‘Why can’t you come in?’” he recalled. “Not being able to see her kids in person was probably very confusing for her, and a very lonely time for her.”
With Mary Lou declining rapidly, her children put their collective foot down with the facility’s management.
“We had just told them, ‘Hey, we’re going in. We don’t care what we have to wear, what we have to do,’” Dennis said, his voice wavering.
Decked head to toe in full personal protective equipment, all but one of her children were able to see her within a day of her passing.
Her death brought a confounding mix of sorrow and joy, Dennis said.
“Seeing what she had to go through in her final couple of years, just knowing she was back with him — especially after all these years of not knowing and wondering …
"She never remarried and she hardly dated. She was just waiting for him to come home some day. Now they’re finally back together. It’s such a good feeling, you know, that it finally happened.”
• • •
This September — more than a year after her passing, due to COVID precautions — Mary Lou will finally be laid to rest at the Air Force Academy’s cemetery, with a headstone next to a memorial stone for her husband, atop an empty grave.
After Mary Lou's death, Dennis petitioned for the burial site at the academy, given the family’s close ties with cadets who became role models shortly after the colonel went missing.
The petition was granted.
Anthony will receive full military honors.
Should his remains be found — another search is slated for later this year — the family could choose to move both Anthony and Mary Lou to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where Anthony could again receive full military honors.
Dennis and his siblings will spend this Memorial Day, as they do every day, reflecting on two Americans who gave their last full measure — one likely in a fiery crash over the skies of Vietnam, and another in the painful decades that ensued.
“Heroes — I call them both heroes,” Dennis said.
“It’s easy to call our dad a hero. But our mom was, too. For what she did, to raise us — in my mind, what a true hero, to do that. What a wonderful woman.”