49 Veterans Days. Tri-City-area Air Force major still not home from Vietnam

San D. Francisco’s sister talks about the quest to bring him home

Terri Francisco-Farrell talks with the Herald in 2017 about her brother.
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Terri Francisco-Farrell talks with the Herald in 2017 about her brother.

A vibrant purple streak colors the front of Terri Francisco-Farrell’s blond hair.

She’s vowed to keep her hair the same shade as her brother’s Purple Heart medal until he comes home.

Air Force Maj. San D. Francisco, a Burbank native and 1962 graduate of Kennewick High, is one of 1,602 American servicemen still missing in Vietnam.

Saturday will be the 49th Veterans Day that his younger sisters, Francisco-Farrell and Becky Francisco, both of Kennewick, will observe without knowing where their brother’s body lies.

Francisco-Farrell has not given up hope he will be found. Excavations are planned of areas where his body may have been buried.

“It is when, not if, we bring him home,” Francisco-Farrell said.

Shot down over Vietnam

Francisco had joined ROTC as a junior at what is now Central Washington University in Ellensburg. After graduation in 1966 he spent two years in Air Force training.

On Nov. 25, 1968, he was a first lieutenant copiloting an F-4 Phantom jet fighter on a reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

His fighter was shot down. Both pilot and copilot survived, but Francisco had two broken legs, his sister said.

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Air Force 1st Lt. San D. Francisco Courtesy Terri Francisco-Farrell

The pilot was killed resisting capture.

There was garbled radio contact for about 30 minutes after the plane went down, but it is not known if it was Francisco or the pilot, Francisco-Farrell said.

Vietnamese witnesses say that as Francisco was being taken into captivity, he was hit by shrapnel from American bombs, his sisters have been told.

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A partially completed excavation site where Major San D. Francisco may have been buried after his plane in the Quang Binh province of the former North Vietnam is shown. Courtesy Terri Francisco-Ferrell

However, Franciso-Farrell said she has doubts about the validity of reports from paid witnesses who were paid for information.

Francisco’s body was buried in a bomb crater. Several days later, it was dug up so photographs could be taken for Vietnamese Army propaganda.

About 35 witnesses came forward in 2013-14, many of them now in their 70s and 80s, to provide information to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Francisco-Farrell considers her family fortunate. She is not aware of another family who had 35 witnesses come forward.

Sifting through details

Investigators picked out two initial sites where the most witnesses thought Francisco might have been buried in the Quang Binh province in the former North Vietnam. Landmarks have changed in Vietnam’s thick vegetation during almost a half-century, making finding the exact location difficult.

U.S. military members and local Vietnamese have finished excavating the first site, painstakingly checking 575 square yards of land down to as deep as 4.5 feet.

Soil was carefully sieved to look for any remains or evidence that could be linked to Francisco.

“These (excavations) are very labor intensive,” Francisco-Farrell said. “It’s not an easy task. … They are out there with leaches, bugs, snakes. They sleep in tents for 45 days at a pop.”

Bomb fragments and metal were found, but nothing that could be linked to Francisco.

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Preparations are made for the excavation of a site where Air Force Major San D. Francisco may have been buried in the Quang Binh province of the former North Vietnam. Courtesy Terri Francisco-Ferrell

Crews started excavating the second site this summer, working for a scheduled 45 days.

There was some urgency to get it done because the landowner built a house on stilts on the site, Francisco-Farrell said.

Crews were able to dig up about 117 square yards, and what they found was consistent with the account that the Vietnamese witnesses gave, Francisco-Farrell said.

Bomb fragments, anti-aircraft shell casings and two 37-millimeter projectiles were excavated, she said.

An update, a hope and a need

The first weekend of this month, Francisco’s sisters went to Boise for a family member update conference by the DOD’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

There, Francisco-Farrell was encouraged to learn that the agency is committed to excavating a third site if her brother’s remains are not found when the the second site’s excavation is completed.

She also was videotaped at the conference talking about Francisco.

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Terri Francisco-Farrel poses for a photo holding a shadow box with a photo of her brother, San D. Francisco, his medals and U.S. flag. The far left medal is the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement in aerial flight. Francisco was in the Air Force and been missing since he was shot down in the former North Vietnam on Nov 25, 1968. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

The recording will be shared with the workers doing the excavation work to help them know who they are looking for and keep them engaged, she said.

Just 16 when he died, she remembers him as laid back but a trickster. It could be hard to tell, with his poker face, if he was serious or not — until he would break out in a big smile.

Her main worry now is whether Congress will continue to pay for the work to recover not only Francisco, but other American service members who have fallen overseas.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., was briefed by the Pentagon earlier this month about the need to continue investing money for excavations and progress on the search her brother, Francisco-Farrell said.

Continuing uninterrupted excavations of those missing in action from the Vietnam War era is particularly important, because witnesses are still alive to provide information, she said.

On Thursday, Francisco-Farrell was at the Veterans Appreciation Fair and Stand Down at the Southridge Event Center in Kennewick, sharing information about her brother.

“I want people to know it is not a lost cause,” she said. “I believe they are doing everything they can.”

On Veterans Day, Francisco-Farrell says she and her sister will be thinking of their older brother, who would have been 73 this year.

Maybe next year — the 50th Veterans Day since his plane was shot down — he will be home.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews