Full Name: PETER JR MONGILARDI
Date of Birth: 7/1/1925
Date of Casualty: 6/25/1965
Home of Record: HALEDON, NEW JERSEY
Branch of Service: NAVY
Casualty Country: NORTH VIETNAM
Casualty Province: NZ
NEWS RELEASES from the United States Department of Defense
No. 104-07 IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 29, 2007
Navy Aviator Missing In Action From the Vietnam War Identified
The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
He is Navy Commander Peter Mongilardi Jr., of Haledon, New Jersey. He will be buried on April 11, 2007, at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C.
On June 25, 1965, Mongilardi departed the USS Coral Seain his A-4C Skyhawk on an armed reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam.His flight encountered bad weather and enemy fire over Thanh Hoa Province, causing the wingman to lose visual and radio contact with Mongilardi.Contact was never re-established and the aircraft failed to return to the carrier.
In 1993, a joint U.S.-Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) archival team, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), obtained information concerning the crash while researching documents, artifacts and photographs at the Central Army Museum in Hanoi.Later that year, another joint U.S./S.R.V. team conducted an investigation in Thanh Hoa Province.The team interviewed two local Vietnamese citizens who recalled the crash and said the pilot died in the impact.The men then led the team to the crash site.
In 1994, another joint team excavated the crash site and recovered human remains and pilot-related items, including a belt tip, boot heel, pieces of flight boot and other items worn by the pilot.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used nuclear DNA in the identification of the remains.
The Douglas A4 Skyhawk was a single-seat light attack jet flown by both land-based and carrier squadrons, and was the US Navy's standard light attack aircraft at the outset of the war. It was the only carrier-based aircraft that did not have folding wings as well as the only one which required a ladder for the pilot to enter/exit the cockpit. The Skyhawk was used to fly a wide range of missions throughout Southeast Asia including close air support to American troops on the ground in South Vietnam. Flying from a carrier was dangerous and as many aircraft were lost in “operational incidents” as in combat.
The USS Coral Sea deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin and in November 1964 and participated in the two raids, mission identifier “Flaming Dart,” conducted by American aircraft in retaliation against the North Vietnamese for their reported attack on the USS Maddox. Cmdr. Peter Mongilardi, Jr. commanded Attack Squadron 153 when the carrier first deployed to Southeast Asia. He later was promoted to Commander, Air Group (CAG) of Air Wing 15; of which VA-153 was assigned. After completing it cruise assignment, the USS Coral Sea docked in Japan on it way back home. While in port in Japan, the carrier received orders to return to the South China Sea.
On 27 July 1968, Commander Mongilardi was the pilot of an A4C Skyhawk that launched from the deck of the USS Coral Sea as the section leader in a flight of two on a armed reconnaissance/strike mission over North Vietnam. His wingman was Paul Reyes. A second 2-aircraft section lead by Commander David Leue was briefed at the same time. Cmdr. Leue's wingman was forced to return to the carrier when he was unable to transfer his drop tank so David Leue joined Peter Mongilardi's section for the remainder of the mission. This was the first day of flight operations after the ship returned from Japan to Yankee Station. Weather conditions in their area of operation northwest of Thanh Hoa included broken clouds and scattered rain showers.
As the pilots' searched out targets of opportunity Commander Leue spotted a power plant through the clouds. As he pulled away from the other aircraaaft, he radioed his intent to attack it. Commander Mongilardi ordered him not to strike the plant because it was a denied target under the United States' self imposed rules of engagement. David Leue immediately broke off his attack run, then turned to rejoin the flight. As he did so, Peter Mongilardi radioed “I'm rolling in on a little bridge,” then as he pulled off target, “flak!” David Leue heard the flight leader's aircraft hit by enemy fire as he made his last transmission. The others next heard him take a couple deep breaths while the mike was still keyed. Peter Mongilardi's aircraft was last seen in straight and level flight with no noticeable battle damage.
Paul Reyes followed the flight leader for his own attack run on the little bridge. As he pulled off, he noted intense anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire in the vicinity being directed at them. David Leue radioed Paul Reyes asking, “Where are you?” Paul Reyes responded, “We're by the rain storm and I've lost CAG. I don't know where he is.”
Peter Mongilardi's last known location was approximately 13 miles (22 kilometers) northwest of Thanh Hoa, 3 miles (9 kilometers) northeast of Kien Trung, ½ mile (1 kilometer) south of Mao Ax and 24 miles west of the coastline, Dong Son District, Thanh Hoa Province, North Vietnam. The two remaining flight members initiated an immediate search for their flight leader over a heavily populated open flat area crisscrossed with numerous creeks, rivers and rice fields. They saw no parachute either in the air or on the ground and heard no beeper signal.
Over the next 2 to 3 days an extensive search and rescue (SAR) effort was conducted over the original search area and then extended to include the jungle covered mountains to the north and west of the target area. Air assets used in this massive operation included 15 – A1H's, 10 – F8's, 3 – A3D's and 2 – F4's. Because of the last known heading of Cmdr. Mongilardi's Skyhawk, 70% of the entire SAR area consisted of dense jungle growth and only 30% over the area inundated with water. At the time formal search efforts were terminated, Peter Mongilardi, Jr. was listed Missing in Action. On 19 July 1965, conclusive evidence of death was received and on 23 July Cmdr. Mongilardi's status was changed to Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered. What that conclusive evidence was comprised of is unknown.
During the July 1985 technical meeting between US and Vietnamese personnel discussing the fate of American POW/MIAs, Mr. Cu Dinh Ba, Chief of the Vietnamese Office Seeking Missing Persons, stated his office's personnel had investigated this incident. During the investigation, local residents recalled the crash of an A4C on 25 June 1965. They reported the crewman's remains were smashed to pieces. Because of this, no remains were available to inter. Further, no identification media was found in or near the Skyhawk's wreckage.
In June 1993, Mr. Ba's report was passed to the Vietnamese government in a briefing folder along with other relevant documents during a meeting in DaNang because the Office for Seeking Missing Persons was going to assist in the joint recovery effort of this crash site. Shortly thereafter a site survey was conducted to evaluate the feasibility for excavating the area in the hope of recovering Peter Mongilardi's remains.
In October 1994, a joint American/Vietnamese team under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) fully excavated this crash site. They found and recovered pieces of aircraft wreckage, pilot related items, life support equipment and 4 bone fragments – the largest of these bone fragments is less then 2½ inches long. The 4 bones are “consistent with being human,” but cannot be confirmed to be human. If human, they are believed to be from the long bones of either the arms or legs. Because they are so small, mtDNA technology is not advanced enough to be used in the identification process. The hope is that technical advances in the future will yield the ability to identify these bone fragments and determine conclusively if they constitute the only recoverable mortal remains of Cmdr. Mongilardi.
While the fate of Peter Mongilardi is not in doubt, he has the right to have his remains positively identified and returned to his family, friends and country he so proudly served for a proper burial in his native soil. For other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fate could be quite different.
Peter Mongilardi, Jr. was described by those who served with him as “a superior Air Wing Commander, Naval Officer and warrior.” He was among the very best and brightest this nation sent into combat in the Vietnam War.
Monday, April 09, 2007
BY RUDY LARINI
Courtesy of the Star-Ledger
As the buglers drone out taps and the honor guard stands at attention, Julia Renee Sims will be at her father's gravesite with two pilots who were in his flight group when he was shot down over North Vietnam 42 years ago.
“I can't wait to get my arms around them,” Sims said, her voice choking as she spoke by phone from her home in Virginia Beach.
Sims, her three children, and her 79-year-old mother, Patricia, will gather Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia as her father, Navy Commander Peter Mongilardi, is finally laid to rest.
Mongilardi, a native of Haledon in Passaic County, was the carrier air group commander for the USS Coral Sea on a reconnaissance mission over Thanh Hoa Province when his A-4C Skyhawk was shot down on June 25, 1965, during the early years of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Mongilardi was 39 at the time. Sims was a 12-year-old student at a middle school near the naval base where her father was stationed in Lemoore, California.
“He did not eject. He was in his plane when it went down and it exploded on impact,” she said, citing evidence that would later be uncovered. She speculated that he remained in the cockpit because he may have been wounded or killed by the enemy gunfire.
She said the Navy searched for the missing pilot for several weeks before declaring Mongilardi was presumed killed in action. Back home, the news hit hard.
“Oh my God, it was devastating — absolutely devastating,” Sims said, adding the grief never subsided as the years passed.
“We never put it behind us,” Sims said. “We have lived with this. I have missed my father every single day of my life.”
Mongilardi's remains, just bone fragments, were recovered in 1994, a year after a joint U.S.-Vietnamese expedition had identified the crash site through records, photographs and information obtained from local villagers. Along with the remains, the team also recovered pieces of a flight boot, including a heel, and a belt tip worn by the pilot.
“You can imagine how our family felt when we heard that,” Sims said.
But the remains were not positively identified until January through advanced nuclear DNA technology, ending a 42-year ordeal for Mongilardi's family.
“Now one of my mother's gravest fears and dreads has been put to rest,” Sims said, “that they (the North Vietnamese) did not capture him or imprison him or torture him.”
Mongilardi, an only child, had been raised in Haledon by his maternal aunt and her husband, in whose care he had been placed by his father after his mother, Julia Renee Bajett, died of cancer when he was 7 years old.
A career Navy man who fought in World War II and Korea before Vietnam, Mongilardi had joined the service after graduating from Paterson Central High School in 1942 and spending a year at Cornell University, where he was enrolled in an air cadet program.
“He wanted to fly,” Sims said. “He loved flying.
“My father was a very special, superior pilot who did things other pilots didn't do,” she added, explaining he had met future astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong when they were test pilots before Vietnam.
Mongilardi's hometown of Haledon held a ceremony in his honor at the end of March, dedicating a plaque to the fallen pilot at the borough veterans' memorial. A portrait of Mongilardi, painted by a local artist, also hangs in Borough Hall.
Several friends who grew up with Mongilardi remembered him as smart, but adventurous.
“For one thing, he was one of the intelligent boys in the class, that's for sure,” said Odette Mulrooney of Haledon, a classmate of his from kindergarten through high school.
“He was a shy boy, but he was also a daredevil,” she said. “I rode on the handle bars of his bike once and I would never do that again.”
“Peter was sensitive, fun-loving and interested in so many things,” said another childhood friend, Doris Mortimer of Franklin Lakes, who said Mongilardi had a special affection for science.
At urban Paterson Central, the group of students from Haledon even had their own nickname.
“We were called the ‘Haledon Hicks' because we always said ‘please' and ‘thank you' and opened doors for people,” Mulrooney said.
Miriam Bracco of North Haledon, whose late husband, “Broc,” was a close friend of Mongilardi's, recalled having dinner together with the pilot and his wife during one of Mongilardi's visits to his hometown while on leave.
“He was unassuming, no bravado, not a braggart type,” Bracco said. “And I'm not saying that because he has passed. He really was a nice person.”
Most of Mongilardi's friends learned of his fateful 1965 flight through accounts in a local newspaper.
“We were devastated,” Mulrooney said. “Anybody who knew anything about him was devastated because it was not like him. Whenever he got into something, he could always get out.”
Though Mongilardi's remains were identified in January, Sims said the family decided to bury him Wednesday, which would have been the Mongilardis' 58th wedding anniversary.
“This is going to be the hardest day ever for my mother because this is the funeral of her husband,” Sims said. “But we're all so proud of him and the way we feel is that now he's finally come home.”
31 January 2007:
After being listed among the Vietnam War's missing in action for more than 40 years, U.S. Navy Commander Peter Mongilardi Jr., will soon be buried among many of the nation's most honored military heroes.
In June 1965, Mongilardi, a 39-year-old pilot and a Haledon resident, was shot down over Thanh Hoa Province in North Vietnam while flying an A-4C Skyhawk on a reconnaissance mission. It was the early stages of Operation Rolling Thunder, a concentrated series of aerial strikes on the enemy's industry and transportation systems.
On Monday, the Pentagon's MIA office announced that skeletal remains recovered from the crash site nearly 13 years ago were proven to belong to Mongilardi through DNA testing.
“It demonstrates once again that these men are not forgotten,” said Larry Greer, public affairs director for the Department of Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office, known as DPMO.
Mongilardi will be given full military honors when he is interred at Arlington National Cemetery on April 11, 2007, according to a DPMO statement.
To Julia Renee Sims, Mongilardi's daughter who was 12 years old when he was shot down, the definitive end at Arlington would offer little comfort for a loss she has endured for 42 years.
“It's just the saddest thing that we grew up without our dad. And I still cannot talk about my dad without breaking down. I've missed him every day,” Sims said in a telephone interview on Monday. “I'm proud that my children can see my dad being honored. My kids would tell you he's a legend. They all have pictures of him in their houses. He's still a very important person in our lives, and they never even knew him.”
Sims lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with her husband, George, and her three children. Her mother, Mongilardi's widow, Patricia, lives nearby.
Sims remembers her father as the good-looking, elegant man with a dry sense of humor who could mimic anybody, and who took her hiking in Yosemite National Park on their last vacation together.
Mongilardi also had a technical mind that would relish the science that made it possible to confirm that the remains found at the crash site in March 1994 belonged to him, she said.
Over the summer, Sims, her mother, and her brother, Raoul Mongilardi of Los Angeles submitted DNA samples for a new test that used nuclear DNA – as opposed to mitochondrial DNA that required samples from a woman in Mongilardi's maternal bloodline.
With the test results, Mongilardi's survivors had a bit of solace in knowing exactly what happened to him.
“My family was so relieved that my dad was not captured and tortured. That was my mother's biggest fear,” Sims said.
But Sims could not ignore the DPMO's announcement about her father coming after a weekend of demonstrations in Washington, D.C., against U.S. involvement in the Iraq war.
“It's so relevant with what's going on now,” Sims said of the confirmation of her father's fate. “We cannot keep getting into these wars. The politicians have got to start listening to the people.”
Friday, May 19, 2006
By KAREN KELLER
COURTESY OF THE HERALD NEWS
In December 1965, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier named the Coral Sea embarked from the sunny shores of Alameda, Calif., sailing toward enemy territory — the Bay of Tonkin in Vietnam.
Tall, lanky career flier and Haledon resident Peter Mongilardi Jr., posed for a photo with a small group of friends under the red steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. As the chief pilot, Cmdr. Mongilardi would soon be leading the 100 pilots onboard that day in massive airstrikes on Vietnam.
Only one of the men in the photo would make it out alive. It wasn't Mongilardi.
He died when his A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot down during a bridge-bombing mission on June 25, 1966.
Now, four decades later, the senior pilot's case still hasn't been closed, and the U.S. Navy's Casualty Assistance Division calls it a particularly difficult and intriguing one.
What the division believes to be Mongilardi's skeletal remains were found in 1994, through the Navy's Hololulu-based Missing in Action investigative team.
Most of the remains were handed over to Mongilardi's wife and his two children, who performed a burial, according to the Navy office, which did not release their names.
But the Navy still hasn't conclusively matched the remains to Mongilardi.
A decade ago, at the crash site west of Thanh Shoa in North Vietnam, the Navy's investigative team found remnants of a one-man jet, and much of the pilot's gear.
“The weather had had its toll for 40 years, so there's not this proverbial aircraft wing sticking out of the ground saying ‘I am here,'” said Alejandro Villalva, a Vietnam historian at the Casualty Assistance Division, who was assigned Mongilardi's case in 1994.
Yet, the division, located in Millington, Tenn., managed to find an unusual amount of circumstantial evidence — a nylon harness, clothing with Mongilardi's name on it — which led to a positive identification.
But the Navy doesn't consider the case closed until DNA from the remains are matched with DNA from a relative from Mongilardi's maternal line.
The Navy has been seeking such relatives for a decade. Blood needs to be drawn from a female related to Mongilardi's mother in order to match the DNA in the skeletal remains identified as the pilot's. Female relatives are needed because maternal DNA copies are found more easily in skeletal remains, said Kenneth Terry, head of the division's Prisoner Of War/Missing In Action branch.
The U.S. Navy recently contacted the Passaic County Historical Society for help, saying 10 years hasn't netted any new information, said Norman Rutan, a researcher at the society.
In Haledon, the public library has exhibited for several years a glass-case memorial to Mongilardi, with bullet casings fired at his funeral, said Judie Erk, library director.
“He was the most gentle, nicest guy you'd ever want to meet,” said Bunny Kuiken, borough historian, who knew Mongilardi. She said his mother died when he was 7, which is probably complicating the search for the pilot's maternal relatives.
“We thought the entire world of Pete,” said Coral Sea pilot Wendell Rivers, who is 78 and lives in San Antonio.
Rivers was in the photo under the Golden Gate Bridge.
8 April 2007:
Courtesy of the Virginia Pilot
The bones were broken and weathered, their edges softened by three decades of tropical rain: four pieces, the largest about 3 inches, tip to tip.
They were mixed in the silty loam of a Vietnamese hillside with the wreckage of a Navy jet. Most of the debris had been dragged off by scavengers, but what remained included pieces of belt, parachute and boot sole. The pilot had not ejected.
A team sifting through the crash site found shards stamped with serial numbers that corresponded not just to an A-4 Skyhawk, an attack jet flown by the hundreds in Southeast Asia, but to a specific plane known to have crashed with a specific man aboard.
So in 1994, the Defense Department told the pilot's widow and children that after 29 years, his Skyhawk was no longer missing, and his fate was all but certain.
The Pentagon stopped short of saying it had found the man himself. The artifacts were circumstantial; it would take stronger evidence to strike the former Norfolk and Virginia Beach resident from the roster of the lost.
It came down to the bones, which were so small and worn that experts couldn't be sure they were even human. They sat boxed on a laboratory shelf. Years passed.
Until last August, when they finally gave up a name.
That Commander Peter Mongilardi Jr. will be buried Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery is testament to a science beyond reach just two years ago: coaxing old bones to yield nuclear DNA – the chain of amino acids unique to each of us, that resides in our every cell, that makes us who we are.
Nuclear DNA has been used for years to determine paternity, prosecute rapists and free the wrongly convicted, but not to identify remains of any real vintage. Just a single copy is contained in a cell's fragile nucleus, and it degrades quickly.
Last summer, however, scientists at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., perfected a technique for extracting minute amounts of broken genetic material from the collapsed nuclei of aged cells and for copying it into a sample big enough to test. Mongilardi's was one of the first two cases they cracked using the new procedure.
His funeral will be a tribute to perseverance as well, for Mongilardi's loss came early in America's Vietnam experience – on June 25, 1965, as the North Vietnamese were ringing their cities with missile batteries that would claim scores of U.S. planes later in the war.
A week shy of 40, the commander was among the senior-most aviators in country that Friday afternoon: He'd flown war planes since just after World War II, led an A-4 squadron aboard the carrier Coral Sea, and had recently taken command of the ship's entire air wing.
He was in one of three Skyhawks on an armed reconnaissance mission near Thanh Hoa, a port city on the Gulf of Tonkin, when he spotted a small bridge and rolled out of formation to take it out. His wingman saw him disappear behind a veil of heavy rain, at the same moment, the sky erupted in the blossoming smoke of anti-aircraft fire.
The search began later that day.
Mongilardi's memorial service at Fort Myer's Old Post Chapel, a few steps outside Arlington's gates, will testify to patience and resiliency, too. His family's snapshots recount the days since he vanished: black-and-whites of his daughter and son as teens. Color portraits of his children grown and married. Grandchildren. His wife, Patricia Perrine, during the 23 years before she remarried.
She was just out of high school and living in Norfolk's Broad Creek Village when they met at a party. The young ensign made a good first impression – he was lean, sharp-eyed and funny, a well-read math whiz with an engineering degree from Cornell. He stood a hair over 6 feet tall and drove a Cadillac convertible.
“He was in a beautiful cashmere sweater – I can see it still – gray slacks and loafers,” Pat recalled. “I had never seen anyone so darling, or so Italian.”
Half Italian, actually – Mongilardi's mother was French, which would prove significant decades later.
They married in New Jersey after a year's courtship, she in a tailored navy suit that matched his dress blues, then took up the nomadic life of a young Navy couple, Quonset Point, R.I.; Kingsville, Texas, where Mongilardi shipped out for Korea and daughter Julie was born in 1952; Jacksonville, Fla.; Carmel, Calif., where son Raoul came along in 1957.
Mongilardi got a Norfolk billet at what was then called the Armed Forces Staff College, and they built a house in Virginia Beach's Thalia area. Two years later, after he completed a stint at sea, they moved on to Patuxent River, Md., where Pete tested jets.
One day, he ran into trouble more than five miles up and had to eject over the Chesapeake Bay. An Eastern Shore farmer fished him out of the drink; Mongilardi came to with the man's dog licking his face. He flew in an air show later the same week.
“My husband was going to stay in until his flying days were over and then he was going to get out,” Pat said. “The thought of a desk job just drove him crazy.”
In Lemoore, Calif., Mongilardi made C.O. of an attack squadron, and in late 1964 shipped out on the Coral Sea. Pat and the children found the base there “absolutely the worst place to be, a depressing environment,” and for good reason: Husbands and fathers were working halfway around the world, in a place most Americans couldn't find on a map, and a growing number of them weren't coming home.
“When we would see a moving van pull up at a house,” Mongilardi's daughter, now Julie Sims, said, “we knew somebody's dad had died.”
When a chaplain brought word of Pete's disappearance, a grieving Pat moved the family back to Virginia Beach, bought a small house in Bay Colony and suffered through nightmares “that he crashed and got out and was injured, and that they took him.
“I prayed that didn't happen,” she said. “I finally talked to a friend of Pete's. He said, ‘Pat, I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. Do not entertain any thought at all that Pete is coming home because we know for a fact that he went in.'
“His friends would stop by, and they all agreed about it: ‘Don't think that he's coming back. Get on with your life.' They were very up front.”
The war ended. The children grew into adulthood. In 1992, the United States began sending teams of soldiers and scientists back into Vietnam to account for the 2,583 men who had not returned from the fighting.
The following April, one such team studied photographs in Hanoi's Central Armed Forces Museum, much of which is devoted to what the Vietnamese call “the American War.” Among them were seven pictures depicting the wreckage of an A-4 shot down near Thanh Hoa.
Six months later, in October 1993, investigators spoke to witnesses who'd seen the A-4 smack into a field of sugar cane and explode. The locals took them to the site, where the investigators found that time and weather had all but erased the jet's impact crater. They found nothing but scraps of cloth, metal and rubber.
One night, as she lay in bed, Pat sensed a presence in her room.
“There's a particular smell to a flight suit, and that smell came to me so powerfully,” she recalled. “I had the feeling he was at the foot of my bed. I didn't see anything, but I felt that presence.
“I lay there, stiff, for an hour, so as to not dispel that feeling.”
In March 1994, an American and Vietnamese recovery mission descended on the field, stripped away the sugar cane, and for 12 days excavated the crash site with picks and shovels, sifting the dug-up dirt through quarter-inch screens. It left with bits of airplane and pieces of “life support,” the equipment a pilot wears in flight – lap belt, torso harness, parachute, life preserver, inflatable G-suit – and two .38-caliber bullets, standard issue to Navy pilots.
They also found the bones.
The artifacts made their way to the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu, then and now the largest forensic lab in the world, staffed by Army regulars and civilian anthropologists who venture to the planet's remotest corners in a quest for the missing. Its scientists are rightly famed for closing decades-old cases with scant remains.
Even they could do little with the four tiny bone fragments.
Numbers from the aircraft parts told a compelling story, however: The wreckage was that of an A-4C, the same model Mongilardi flew. His was the only plane of that series to go down near Thanh Hoa. And the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio reported that the crash was “non survivable.”
It was enough to prompt the government to notify Mongilardi's family that his probable crash site had been found.
“That helped us a lot,” Sims said. “We finally knew that his plane had gone in and exploded on impact, and that he hadn't ejected.”
It was not enough to repatriate his remains.
For that, the lab and the pilot's family had to wait for a technology that didn't yet exist.
At the heart of that technology was deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, a molecule that resembles a corkscrewed ladder and that serves as the genetic blueprint of every living thing. Human cells contain two kinds of DNA. The more familiar, nuclear, is housed in a cell's command center and is composed of material from both parents.
Identical twins aside, a person's nuclear DNA is one of a kind, and thus an unparalleled tool in establishing identity. Its fragility has made it all but useless, however, in identifying remains from the Vietnam War. In cases of such vintage, scientists instead have tapped another type of DNA, found in a cell's mitochondria, the power plants that covert simple sugars into energy.
Mitochondria are thick-walled and tough. They're also plentiful – each cell hosts a crowd of them, and is thus packed with multiple copies of mitochondrial DNA. This material – in shorthand, “mtDNA ” – has proved startlingly hardy: In 1997, scientists announced they had extracted a sample from a bone estimated to be more than 40,000 years old, and with it proved that modern humans had not descended from Neanderthals.
Researchers also used mtDNA to identify a cache of Russian bones as those of the country's last royal family, executed by Bolsheviks in 1918, and to remove U.S. Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, lost over South Vietnam in 1970, from Arlington's Tomb of the Unknowns.
There's just one catch: mtDNA is not one of a kind. It is inherited solely from one's mother and passes from generation to generation unchanged; a person's mtDNA is a carbon copy of Mom's, and her mother's, and her mother's mother's.
This can prove an advantage in some experiments, such as tracing humans back to a single “mitochondrial Eve,” the foremother of all humans, who lived in sub-Saharan Africa more than 140,000 years ago. American scientists pulled off that nifty piece of work in 1987.
In placing names on the graves of American servicemen, however, it's a limitation. Seemingly unrelated people who share a female forebear, perhaps centuries in the past, can have matching mtDNA. In at least one Vietnam-era case, two occupants of the same crashed aircraft have been found to match.
Its maternal source presents a further complication: Mongilardi's closest biological relatives – his children – carried only Pat's mtDNA. Finding his mitochondrial match would mean exploring his mother's bloodline for living aunts, uncles and cousins.
In January 2000, scientists at the Hawaii lab removed a sample about the weight of a nickel from the remains recovered at Thanh Hoa and shipped it to Rockville's Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, among the most technically advanced such facilities on the planet.
Its staff had no trouble extracting an mtDNA sequence from the sample, but as Defense officials soon learned, Mongilardi was an only child, and his mother died when he was a toddler. She was French. Her family history was a blank.
“They employed a gene alogist to do the work,” said James J. Canik, the DNA lab's deputy director, “and that person just struck out.”
The techniques for mtDNA extraction were improving by the month: What had required 5 grams of bone in 2000 soon took just a twenty-fifth that amount. Had researchers tracked down a hairbrush that Mongilardi's mother had used, or even a pair of her eyeglasses, they might have acquired enough hair or skin cells to settle the case.
Having nothing to work with, they put it aside.
As it happened, though, advances pioneered at the Rockville lab were not restricted to mtDNA. Some researchers devoted their attention to nuclear DNA, seeking a way to use the tiny amounts of genetic material that might survive in bones 40, 50, even 60 years old.
The problem was daunting. As Canik put it: “If you had a 55-gallon drum filled with water and you dropped a single microliter of DNA into this drum, you know the DNA is in that drum somewhere – but how many times would you have to dip into the drum before you found enough to analyze?”
The lab's scientists eventually adopted a technique used in mtDNA analysis called the polymerase chain reaction, in which tiny strands of DNA are duplicated using a complex recipe of heat and chemical solutions. Contamination is a constant danger, but if it's kept clean as it is copied time and again, a sample can yield enough nuclear DNA to be compared with others.
“We're pushing the technology to levels that most labs can't even dream about,” Canik said. “If you'd asked me 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, whether it was possible, I would have told you no.”
Un known to his widow and children, Mongilardi's case became a test of the new process last year, along with that of a second man – James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern, a celebrated CIA pilot shot down while supplying the French at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, in 1954.
Pete Mongilardi's nuclear DNA sequence – the coding for his dark hair, his green eyes, the expressive face with which he could make his wife and children laugh, his perfect vision and good teeth, the nerves that enabled him to tail-hook hundreds of times on aircraft carriers – appeared as a chain of blotches on the lab's charts.
In Virginia Beach, packages arrived for Pat and Julia containing cotton swabs they were to scrape against the inside of their mouths for saliva and skin cells, and small plastic bags in which to seal them afterward. Raoul, living in California, got one as well. The lab sequenced the DNA on the swabs.
Comparisons yielded all but irrefutable proof the bones were those of the lost pilot: The lab figured the odds at 9.87 billion to 1.
A second test compared the bones' Y-chromosome DNA, a type of nuclear coding handed down from fathers to sons, with Raoul's. Like mtDNA, it is unique to families, not individuals, but the resulting match led the lab to amend its oddsmaking. The chances that the bones were not Mongilardi's were 1.1 trillion to 1.
The Rockville lab reported its findings to the Central Identification Laboratory on Aug. 3. On Aug. 25, the Hawaii lab's scientific director, Thomas D. Holland, officially identified the remains as those of Peter Mongilardi Jr.
On Wednesday, after a brief church service, a casket containing the four bone fragments, a set of Navy dress blues, and Mongilardi's decorations will be carried to a horse-drawn caisson to the pilot's grave site, where it will be buried at last under a headstone bearing the commander's name.
A flight of F/A-18 Hornets from Oceana Naval Air Station is expected to streak overhead in tribute. A squad of riflemen will fire a salute.
“I've been crying about my dad all these years,” Julie Sims said. “That's been such a big part of my identity.
“I'm not happy,” she said. “I'm preparing my father's funeral. But this is the end. It's final. And everything has been in limbo our whole lives.”
Even as a 41-year puzzle ends at Arlington, seven American teams will be digging for other remains in Vietnam. Five teams will have just returned from a month of searching and digging in Laos. Nine investigators will have just arrived home from Korea.
Over in Washington ‘s Maryland suburbs, the DNA lab's scientists will be working on some of the 700 to 800 cases they expect to handle this year involving the lost from America's past wars.
From Southeast Asia alone, there are 1,787 still to go.
MONGILARDI, PETER JR
CDR US NAVY
WORLD WAR II, KOREA, VIETNAM
- DATE OF BIRTH: 07/01/1925
- DATE OF DEATH: 06/25/1965
- BURIED AT: SECTION 66 SITE 36
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Reviewed by: Michael Howard