Benton City woman finds peace, decades after father's disappearance in Laos

Tri-City HeraldMay 27, 2013 

— For the first time in 47 years, Robin Hassenger Hobson was able to enjoy Christmas last year.

Her father, Arden K. Hassenger, was a crewman on an Air Force AC-47 gunship that was shot down during a secret mission over Laos on Christmas Eve 1965.

For decades, she and her family didn’t know whether Arden had been killed or captured. His remains finally were identified in 2011 and repatriated in 2012.

“None of them were good Christmases,” said Hobson, a Benton City resident. “Last year was good because it was his first Christmas home.”

Hobson attended two services last year for her father. One was held in July at Arlington National Cemetery for Hassenger and the five other men who died aboard the flight, code-named Spooky 21. It came weeks after another ceremony in Hassenger’s hometown of Lebanon, Ore., where he was buried at a memorial marker that awaited him for decades.

The Patriot Guard Riders gave Hassenger’s remains a motorcycle escort 80 miles from Portland to Lebanon. The ceremony, with full military honors, included a flyover and 21-gun salute.

“It was very bittersweet,” Hobson, 55, said. “I’m sure it gave a lot of people closure. I’m sure my dad would be very, very pleased with that.”

The journey home came with several bumps. Another memorial service had been held in 1977 in Lebanon, after the Air Force declared Spooky 21 crew members killed in action. Hassenger continued receiving promotions, all the way to Chief Master Sergeant, until he was presumed dead.

In 1989, Hassenger’s wife, Sherrie, received a call from an employee in the Air Force’s Missing Persons Division that reported he might have been sighted in Laos.

In 1995, a military team found wreckage that could have been the plane about 70 miles from where they expected to find it. The area was excavated between 2001 and 2011.

Finally, on Sept. 22, 2011, a forensic anthropologist with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii was able to identify a tooth found at the crash site as Hassenger’s.

“It takes a long time, and everybody has to be patient, but, in the end, they do a very good job,” Hassenger said of JPAC.

One thing that gave Hobson and her family comfort was that Hassenger apparently died quickly, in a plane crash, and wasn’t tortured by the enemy.

“From the evidence and everything they brought to my attention, he went down and he didn’t suffer,” she said.

Hassenger’s parents, Howard and Eva, died long before learning of their son’s fate. His mother, in particular, took the loss hard. She went through bouts of depression and suffered a series of strokes before taking her own life while Howard was at work on Aug. 1, 1968.

“We actually believe she died of a broken heart,” Hobson said of her grandmother.

Along with Hobson, Hassenger is survived by his widow and two sons, who all remain in Lebanon. He also has a brother and a sister.

Hobson has fond memories of her father, a career military man. She thinks back on a photo taken when she was around four years old, wearing her nightgown, happy when her father came home with a fistful of sodas.

“It was a special group of guys on that plane,” she said.

Hobson tried going to some POW-MIA update meetings during the long years when her father remained unaccounted for, but found they weren’t for her, she said.

“It’s just too sad, and it pretty much is the same thing all the time,” she said. “But I hope everyone else that is missing a loved one — I hope they will come home to them soon.”

Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricity; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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