Government

Final resting place: 51 years later, Davenport Marine's remains will be laid to rest Thursday

Lance Cpl. John Killen III

Iowan killed in Vietnam
Lance Cpl. John Killen III Iowan killed in Vietnam

Mary Boozer of Davenport was 6 years old the summer evening in 1967 when a parish priest and a U.S. Marine Corps official knocked on her parents’ door.

Her brother, Lance Cpl. John Killen III, 18, had been among a Marine reconnaissance team serving in the Vietnam War. His Striker Team was being dropped by helicopter into the jungle June 30 when the chopper was struck by enemy fire and burst into flames.

Three crew members and four of the reconnaissance team survived and were rescued. Killen — Jackie, his family called him — was not among them. He and four others were missing in action.

A funeral Mass without a body was held for Killen at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Davenport, and his mother died in 1978, “not knowing for sure” what happened to her son, Boozer said.

“She never gave up hope that he was alive and being held captive somewhere and that someday he would come in the door.”

Then, in April of this year, Boozer received word that her brother’s remains had been recovered from Vietnam. At 9 a.m. today, she will be at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., to witness a burial with full military honors.

The remains of four others killed in the same crash also will be represented, buried as a group, because it is impossible to differentiate among them, Chuck Prichard, of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said.

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“I am literally almost speechless about how I feel,” Boozer said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of this service with others.

“My biggest regret is that my mother and father and (several) other siblings (who have passed away) won’t be there.”

The back story

The Killen family had just moved to Davenport from Des Moines when John joined the Marines. His father and grandfather were military men, so it made sense for John to follow in their footsteps, sister Rebecca Bailey, of Kingsland, Ga., said.

Of the 12 men in the helicopter when it crashed, seven survived and were rescued, although two later died of their wounds.

In the late 1990s, “the military contacted my dad and let us know his (Killen’s) designation was changed from MIA to KIA because even though they didn’t have a body, a survivor confirmed that he had died,” Boozer said.

That survivor was Jeff Savelkoul, of Minnesota, who had been the helicopter’s radio operator.

The helicopter was coming in for landing and was about 2 feet off the ground when small-arms fire rang out, Savelkoul told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2013.

Then a rocket slammed into the helicopter, severing a fuel line and igniting a fire that filled the chopper with thick, choking smoke.

“Everything was on fire,” Savelkoul said.

The helicopter tried to lift off, but hit treetops and plunged to the ground.

“When we hit the ground, the chopper split open, the air rushed in and it exploded.”

Savelkoul, who was thrown out the door, broke his neck, back, knees, both shoulders and right arm, and fractured his skull in two places. The intense flames burned both his ears off. He spent 13 months in a hospital and underwent 32 surgeries.

By chance, Killen’s sister Bailey “met (Savelkoul) face to face (in 1999), and he said Jackie died that day,” Boozer said.

Military efforts to find remains

Beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. military began systematically revisiting crash sites to excavate for remains, Prichard, of the military accounting agency, said.

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In 1993, a joint United States and Vietnam team investigated where the Striker team had gone down, interviewing villagers who said they discovered an aircraft crash site in 1991 in the nearby forest while searching for wood, according to a news release from the accounting agency. The team surveyed the location and found helicopter-related wreckage.

In 2012, joint recovery teams excavated the site and recovered human remains, material evidence, life support equipment, and aircraft wreckage from the CH-46A helicopter — the big one with two blades, one at the front and the other at the back.

In 2013, the accounting agency and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis, dental analysis, anthropological analysis and circumstantial and material evidence to identify two men. Their remains were buried, one in Wisconsin and one in Arlington.

The remains of three others, including Killen, the helicopter pilot and another Marine from Alabama, were accounted for in 2015, according to the release.

However, Killen’s family did not find out in 2015 because Killen’s two brothers — who had pushed for investigations — had died. When the military couldn’t locate the brothers, the case apparently dropped, Boozer said.

Then, in what Boozer describes as “a miracle” earlier this year, a woman in Des Moines who is concerned about missing servicemen sent a letter to a congressman asking if anything was being done to find Killen.

The congressman shared the letter with the military and in April, the Des Moines woman, Stephanie Meiers — a stranger to the Killen family — received a package asking if she could help the military locate Killen’s survivors.

Meiers “went directly to Facebook and within two hours, I got a phone call from her,” Boozer said.

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Today, the remains of five young men whose lives were forever connected in death 51 years ago will be laid to rest together. (Although two sets of remains already have been buried, those men are included in today’s burial, too, because of possible overlap.)

“I was 6 years old, and I don’t believe I realized the magnitude of what happened,” Boozer said of her brother’s death. “I remember it being a very sad time for our family. Looking back, it almost killed my parents. It was so hard.”

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