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QUESTIONS ANSWERED, QUEST ENDS Missing no more



Published: Fri, May 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By IAN HILL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

CANFIELD -- After 34 years of uncertainty, the remains of former Youngstown resident Jerry Degnan have finally been turned over to his family.

Degnan was a civilian who disappeared in South Vietnam in August 1967 after a military helicopter crash. He was considered missing until earlier this year.

On Wednesday Degnan's remains were released to his brother, Ronald Degnan of Canfield.

"I'm glad that there is an end and my family's back together," Ronald said.

Details sketchy: Both Ronald and his wife, Denise, said the release of the remains helped them gain some closure. However, Ronald also stressed that he still does not know all the details behind his brother's disappearance.

"That's probably the biggest question in your mind. ... Just what happened?" Ronald said.

Ronald said his family first became worried about Jerry in early August 1967, after they sent him a present for his birthday. At the time Jerry was working for Decca Navigator System Inc., which had an office in Saigon.

Both Ronald and Jerry were born in Youngstown and are graduates of Austintown Fitch High School. Jerry also received a bachelor's degree from Youngstown State University.

They did not have any other siblings, and their father died the year before Jerry left for Vietnam.

Civilian job: Jerry's job was to train U.S. military helicopter pilots to use a new navigation system. The training occurred at military bases throughout Vietnam.

Ronald said Jerry hoped to one day become a commercial pilot, and he had taken the job with Decca in 1966 in an effort to gain more flying experience.

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was beginning to escalate.

"I have to believe he knew he would be in the middle of the bad fighting," Ronald said. "It didn't seem to faze him. He never said he wanted to back out."

Ronald said that Jerry sent his family an audiotaped greeting every week. However, he never sent his family a greeting to thank them for his birthday package.

Jerry turned 29 years old on Aug. 3, 1967.

What happened: According to U.S. military documents Ronald and Denise received earlier this year, Jerry was one of six passengers aboard an Army helicopter that collided with a U.S. military plane on Aug. 9, 1967, east of Saigon. The collision occurred about 1,800 feet above the ground, and the pilot of the plane parachuted to safety.

No one on the helicopter survived.

Ronald said that when he and his family didn't receive a greeting from Jerry after his birthday, they began to worry. They contacted officials from Decca and the U.S. State Department, who said they had no information about Jerry.

Weeks, months, and years passed without any word about Jerry. Yet Ronald said his family still believed that they would one day see Jerry alive.

Then, as the war ended in the 1970s, "all the hopes went away," Ronald said.

Declared dead: Jerry was declared dead in 1973 by the U.S. District Court in Cleveland. A memorial service was held in his honor in 1973.

Yet the declaration didn't stop Ronald and his family from contacting the U.S. State Department for information.

"It was just an ongoing thing," Ronald said. "We kept asking, and they kept telling us they knew nothing."

Jerry was eventually listed as Missing in Action on the Vietnam War memorial in downtown Youngstown.

Important call: Ronald said he still didn't know the details of Jerry's death in August 2000, when he received a call from Bob Moves at the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Moves asked Ronald for a blood sample.

Four months later Moves called again. This time he wanted a sample from another of Jerry's relatives. Ronald's mother had died in 1999, so he went to an uncle in Canada for the sample.

"I sort of had a feeling that something was coming along, but you don't know what," Ronald said. He added that neither Moves nor the state department told him that they were close to identifying his brother's remains.

"They don't want to get your hopes up," Denise said.

Jerry's body had been found soon after the crash. However, he was not carrying anything that identified him as Jerry Degnan.

Moves used the blood samples and X-rays to identify Jerry's body. In March, Ronald received word that his brother had been identified, along with an account of the crash.

"You never accept it until you have the proof," Denise said.

Keep up hope: Ronald praised Moves' work to identify Jerry. Both Ronald and Denise also said that relatives of missing Vietnam veterans should not give up hope that their loved ones will be identified.

A private funeral for Jerry will take place at a later date in Canfield.




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