Kennewick MIA's family finally gets answers after 45 years

Almost 45 years after her brother's warplane was shot down over North Vietnam, Terri Francisco-Farrell of Kennewick finally has learned the details of his death and has hopes of one day seeing him buried with military honors.

"We are so pleased that after all these years we have resolution," Francisco-Farrell said.

Her brother, 1st Lt. San D. Francisco, was lost Nov. 25, 1968, when the F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber he co-piloted was shot down. She didn't learn the details of her brother's demise until last month, after Quang Binh province finally was opened to investigators.

A Vietnamese team recently spoke with witnesses, including a commander of ground forces during the war, who recalled the day Francisco's plane was shot down.

The commander said two U.S. Air Force crew members parachuted. The pilot, a lieutenant colonel, was killed resisting capture. Francisco, who later was promoted to major, landed hard, breaking both legs, and was captured.

Francisco's captors immediately came under attack by U.S. warplanes during rescue efforts. The North Vietnamese troops jumped into a protective trench, leaving the disabled Francisco fatally exposed as the planes dropped cluster bombs on the area.

The Vietnamese buried Francisco nearby. Because U.S. pilots were valued for propaganda purposes, his body was exhumed and photographed three days later, then reburied in the same grave.

The witness who recounted these events told the Vietnamese investigators they would be able to lead them to the gravesite. Follow-up interviews are scheduled Tuesday. A search for the gravesite could take place later this summer.

Francisco-Farrell, who was 16 at the time of her brother's death, said he would be 69 years old now. He was a 1962 graduate of Kennewick High School.

"This is the biggest break we've had in 45 years," she said. "We're totally excited. It's closure -- we know the truth now."

Her brother had flown the requisite 100 combat missions for his tour of duty and was scheduled to return home in a few days when he crashed, Francisco-Farrell said.

The date of the crash -- Nov. 25 -- turned every Thanksgiving into a somber occasion for decades, she said. Her parents, Harry and Esther, died years ago, never knowing the circumstances of the loss of their son.

Francisco-Farrell and her sister, Becky Francisco, also of Kennewick, say they knew for sure that their brother was gone in 1984, when their mother lay dying in the hospital and said she saw him.

"I wish my parents were here to know this," Francisco-Farrell said.

The sisters offered "heartfelt thanks" to U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell for pushing the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command for action on their brother's case.

They also are grateful to Francisco-Farrell's co-workers at the HAMMER training center at Hanford, who took up a collection last year to send the sisters to a National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in South Asia conference. Conversations at that conference turned up five new leads, they said.

They hope their brother will soon be laid to rest, hopefully at Arlington National Cemetery.

"It's time for us to bring him home," Becky Francisco said.

Jim Van Nostrand, Herald assistant managing editor-digital, contributed to this report.