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Home at last: Remains of Cranston airman lost in Vietnam return to RI

Tinker Honor Guard members regularly practice how to drape, remove and fold a flag from a casket. A training casket and flag in their Bldg. 244 office are reliable tools preparing them for actual funerals. (Margo Wright/U.S. Air Force)

Under a humid sky that threatened rain, a passenger jet descended onto a runway at T.F. Green Airport on Thursday afternoon, carrying the body of a decorated Rhode Island serviceman who’d been missing for more than half a century.

It had taken Fredric Moore Mellor 53 years and a little over two months to come home. The 30-year-old Air Force pilot from Cranston had disappeared after his plane was shot down during a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam on Aug. 13, 1965.

His wife, Theresia, never remarried. His daughter, Linda, who was 5 when her father disappeared, now cares for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Neither was able to make the journey from their home in San Diego. But Mellor’s extended family in Rhode Island, where he was born and raised, waited at the tarmac to welcome him back.

Mellor had been commissioned in August 1956 and flew for the Air Force up until his death in the jungles of North Vietnam. After his disappearance, the Air Force awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor and the Purple Heart Medal and Air Medal, and promoted him posthumously to colonel in 1977.

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A fellow airman was escorting him home. Air Force Col. Chad Ellsworth, from Hanscom Air Force Base, in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Ellsworth was assigned to escort Mellor’s remains throughout his travels, to the burial on Friday morning at Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter.

High-ranking members of the Air Force waited on the tarmac to witness Mellor’s return, along with members of the state police, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the airport police, and a representative of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s office.

At 12:05 p.m., Delta Flight 2225, an MD-90 twin-engine plane with an American flag painted on either side, touched down. Honor guards from the Hanscom Air Force Base and U.S. Customs and Border Protection stood ready. As the plane taxied to the gate, military officers and law-enforcement personnel saluted, and Mellor’s friends and relatives placed their hands over their hearts.

Passengers on the right side of the plane opened their shades as the cargo hold was opened, and the casket containing the remains of Colonel Mellor was drawn forward.

People watched from the plane, some holding up their phones, some holding their hands to their faces, as an American flag was draped over the casket. Mellor’s family was led forward first, to stand beside his casket and pay their respects. And then the honor guard from Hanscom, Mellor’s pallbearers, stepped forward to carry the casket to the hearse.

There was no sound, other than the roar of the jet engines, the whoosh of wind, the sound of the honor guards’ shoes on the tarmac. All on the tarmac — the airport workers, military and law enforcement, family and friends, the funeral director and attendants — watched in silence as Mellor’s flag-draped casket was carried past.

The journey of decades was over in minutes.

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There are 1,594 American servicemen and civilians who are still missing from the Vietnam War. However, advances in technology have been closing that gap and helping identify remains, said Edward G. Conway, Air Force mortuary specialist.

That was true in Mellor’s case.

Mellor was assigned to the 20th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron in Vietnam. The Air Force said he was on temporary duty with the 15th Reconnaissance Task Force on Aug. 13, 1965, and was flying the lead RF-101C aircraft on a mission to conduct photo and visual reconnaissance of a suspected surface-to-air missile site in Son La Province, in what was at the time the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

His plane was shot down, but Mellor survived and tried to escape the enemy. There was radio contact at first, but searchers couldn’t find him or his plane.

The Air Force said that, later, North Vietnamese witnesses claimed they either saw or participated in the downing of an American aircraft and the capture and death of its pilot that same day, according to the Air Force.

In November 1991, four witnesses returned to the site and found remains and personal effects. They were turned over to U.S. investigators in 1992, said Conway, but they were unable to identify the pilot.

This year was the turning point.

When U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Hanoi in January, he was presented with the identification of two U.S. servicemen from the Vietnam War. One belonged to Mellor, said Conway.

Advances in DNA science made the difference.

Just months ago, scientists at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis and anthropological and isotopic analysis to identify Mellor. The science told them that the remains belonged to a serviceman who was born and raised in New England, Conway said.

Linda Mellor said the Air Force contacted her in July to tell her that her father had been identified. She said they told her that searchers were excavating again in the area where his plane had been shot down, and had uncovered his remains.

The military is seeing more cases like this, where science is helping to solve decades-old mysteries.

That means that some families somewhere would be getting long-awaited answers. And the ceremonial dignified arrival would take place again, for someone else.

The door closed on Mellor’s casket inside the black Air Force hearse. His relatives and friends got into limos. The state police, Cranston police, Providence police, officers from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the motorcyclists in the Patriot Guard Riders waited to escort the hearse.

Rain began to spatter as the hearse pulled away from the tarmac.

“You’re home, buddy,” said U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Arthur Floru.

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© 2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.