The remains of Air Force Capt. Darrell Spinler, whose plane crashed in Laos in 1967, were recovered last year.
Forty-four years ago, Air Force Capt. Darrell Spinler's aircraft crashed along the banks of the Mekong River in Laos. Despite three separate searches, the body of the Browns Valley, Minn., man was never found and was believed to have been carried away during the annual rainy season.
Last year, though, a team of searchers returned to conduct a full excavation at the riverbank where villagers said the crash occurred. They found aircraft wreckage that included cockpit glass, equipment, personal effects including a rusted nail clipper and the zipper from Spinler's flight suit, and human remains.
Dental X-rays of three teeth confirmed it was the spot where Darrell Spinler died.
Now tiny Browns Valley, population 600, expects to double its size for a day this month, when Darrell Spinler's remains return home for a full military funeral.
Spinler's parents have since passed away, and no close relatives remain in Browns Valley. But the town, a farming community in Traverse County on the border with South Dakota, is bracing to accept a long lost hero back home.
"We've just been trying to do what we can. If we get 600 visitors, it could make a real mess in town. We're just trying to coordinate traffic control and making sure everybody's got a place to go," said Jeff Cadwell, the city administrator.
Dwayne Spinler, who was 6 when his father died, will accompany the remains. His brother, David, will be there as well, along with a large contingent of family members.
Dwayne, who lives in Colorado, said it might be a cliche to say the ceremony will bring closure to the family, but it is a reality.
"That's pretty accurate. It's an appropriate word to describe the situation," he said.
As boys, the two sons held out the smallest hope that their father might someday be found. But as they grew to be men, they knew the possibility was remote.
"We felt a sense of relief that he has finally been identified," Dwayne Spinler said. "There has always been this wonder, in the far reaches of the back of your mind, that you hear of POWs being imprisoned for decades and they show up one day out of nowhere and if that was going to happen to us. But we knew that if he survived the crash and was in prison, as soon as he was no longer a prisoner, he would have gotten back to the United States, damn sure."
According to the U.S. military, Spinler, 29, was aboard an A-1E Skyraider attack aircraft hitting enemy targets along the river on June 21, 1967, when villagers heard a loud explosion just before the plane crashed. Another pilot remained in the area for more than two hours but saw no sign of Spinler. Later accounts said Spinler's aircraft appeared to have been struck by enemy fire, went into a violent roll and crashed.
In 1993, a team of U.S. and Laotian searchers interviewed villagers who said they were witnesses. They said Spinler's body was on the river bank after the crash but likely washed away. The team surveyed the location and found wreckage consistent with Spinler's aircraft. Two years later, U.S. investigators evaluated the case and decided the remains were unrecoverable. Teams who revisited the location in 1999 and 2003 also believed Spinler's remains had likely been carried away by the river.
Spinler's father, Gerald, never recovered from the death of his son, Dwayne Spinler said. He refused to go into a church because the organ music tormented him, and he never had a full night's sleep. Spinler's wife, Darlene, never recovered from the heartbreak caused by her husband's death and died in 1985, Dwayne said.
Darrell Spinler's grandparents and parents are buried at the Valley View Cemetery. Darlene is buried there, too. Since shortly after his 1967 crash, a tombstone has marked what will now become Darrell's actual grave.
The funeral is scheduled for June 18, with a local color guard and a military flyover. The town is planning to make a site at a nearby school available for overflow when the chapel is full at the United Methodist & Presbyterian Church. Buses are being arranged to take people to the cemetery outside town.
"My great-grandparents are buried at the cemetery in Browns Valley, my grandparents are buried at the cemetery in Browns Valley, as is my mother, and then the tombstone for my father is also there. More than likely, when I reach that stage in my life, that's probably where I will be buried, too," Dwayne said.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434
Emilio Campo Jr., 20, of Madelia served as a medic in Iraq. B5
Poll: Who is doing the best job coaching a Minnesota pro sports team?