Buried at the Bottom of the World

When people die serving their country, to what lengths must a government go to recover the bodies?

James Robbins (front row, right) poses with some of his shipmates. Behind him are Lopez (to the left) and Hendersin (to the right). (Courtesy Lopez Family)
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“We just decided it was a physical impossibility,” explains Commander Mike Maus, deputy chief of public affairs at Atlantic Fleet. “There’s a greater risk going after it than [there is] getting it. If it’s reasonable to do, we’ll do it. But if it’s not feasible, you’re better off just leaving it where it is.” The Navy estimated the operation would cost $32 million. Ken Terry calls the estimate “ridiculous.”

And so, 60 years after Max Lopez, Wendell Hendersin, and Fred Williams died in service to the United States, it seems to come down to this: How much is a body worth? Must the Navy try to satisfy every family’s deep cultural and emotional need to bid farewell to the remains of a loved one? Or can the service with a long tradition of burial at sea decide that recovery is just too costly? Lieutenant Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman at JPAC, says, “We have 80,000 still MIA from World War II and we have a budget. Do you spend all your money on one site and forgo hundreds of others?”

Fabik and Robbins, now 80, feel betrayed by Admiral Hoewing and the Navy they served for so many years. “He told me he was going to do it and then he retired,” Robbins says. And the relatives of the dead men aren’t giving up. Betty Jean Spencer, Hendersin’s 80-year-old sister, recalls that during the 2004 presidential campaign, what were thought to be the remains of Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s younger brother were recovered from Laos; why not her brother? Says Kate Beebe, Fred Williams’ niece: “Somebody should try to get them. We go everywhere in the world looking for oil, but we can’t retrieve those bodies? I think this should be one of the Navy’s priorities, to bring back the remains.”
Beebe, Spencer, Fabik, and Robbins are writing letters to the White House, their senators, the Navy. “I’m not going to stop until those men are home,” says Fabik.

All of this is unsettling to Ken Terry, of the Navy’s casualty office. “We know where the wreckage is,” he says. “Recovering those men would be feasible. It’s expensive, but it’s the right thing to do. When that plane crashed, it was 10 miles from the coast. Now it’s three, so the wreckage and the remains are slowly sliding to the coast and soon will fall off. I leave you with that.”

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