MIA Facts Site

The Fanning Case:
More Misinformation

Summary:  This is a short article on the case of a Marine Corps aviator who died when his aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam.  This case is a favorite of the "MIA activists."  Search the web for "Major Hugh Fanning" and read the articles there.  Read this one.  Make up your own mind.

Summary of loss

On October 31, 1967, Capt. Hugh M.  Fanning and bombardier/navigator Capt. Stephen J. Kott were on a mission over North Vietnam as number two in a flight of two aircraft on a night electronics support mission.  At about 1:50 a.m., Fanning indicated he was approaching the target.   At 2:02 a.m., the flight leader observed a bright orange flash in the vicinity of the target area and in the estimated position of Fanning's aircraft which he estimated to be about 15 miles east of Hanoi at an altitude of 100-500 feet.  No distress calls or beepers were heard.  Nothing further was heard from either Fanning or Kott; they were never observed or heard from in the Vietnamese prison system; and, neither of them returned at Operation Homecoming in spring, 1973.

Whose remains are these?

In August 1984, the Vietnamese returned remains that they claimed were of Fanning and Kott.  (See this article for information on Vietnamese collection of US remains and this article for a completed study of the topic.)  The remains were "co-mingled" -- that is, remains of the two men were returned in the same container.  US forensic specialists were able to separate the remains; while a fair amount of skeletal remains were present for one man, only a few bones were present for the other.  The greater quantity of remains was determined to be  Capt. Kott and eventually the remaining small quantity of bones were determined to be the remains of Capt. Fanning.  In 1984, Capt. Fanning's remains were buried.

Then, in 1985, the saga began anew.  Capt. Fanning's wife, upon reviewing his forensic file, felt that he could not have been identified from such a small quantity of remains.  The remains were exhumed and examined by an individual selected by Mrs. Fanning who stated that the remains could not be scientifically linked to anyone, including Capt. Fanning.

The Fanning case became something of a major cause among the MIA activists who cited this case as an attempt by the government to force an identification.  I will not go into details of the who-did-or-said-what during this period -- you can find that on any number of MIA activist web sites.  However, this abbreviated chronology will give readers the flavor of what has happened in this case.

July 1985:  Mrs. Fanning viewed her husband's casualty file at USMC HQ.

September 1985:  Mrs. Fanning had the remains disinterred and examined by a civilian anthropologist.

July 1986:  Mrs. Fanning requested a review of her husband's case.

October 1987:  The Central Identification Laboratory - Hawaii (CIL-HI) determined there was insufficient evidence to support the original identification and agreed to re-evaluate.

November 1989:  After re-evaluating the case, CIL-HI affirms the remains as those of Major Fanning (he was promoted to Major in absentia).

December 1990:  The Armed Forces Identification Review Board (AFIRB), after reviewing the CIL-HI file and information provided by anthropologists retained by Mrs. Fanning, approved the identification.

18 June 1991: Mrs. Fanning indicated non-acceptance of the identification.

28 June 1991:  Major Fanning's mother accepted the AFIRB identification and directed burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

12 July 1991: At the request of Senator Bob Smith, the Commandant of the Marine Corps delayed the burial.

15 July 1991:  Bone samples were taken from the remains for mitochondrial DNA testing.  (Why had mtDNA testing not been used before?  Because prior to this time, mtDNA testing was still in the test stages.  By mid-1991, procedures, equipment, databases, and processes were in place to use mtDNA testing as a method of confirming identification.)

16 July 1991:  DNA samples were obtained from Major Fanning's mother, father, and two sisters.  Read this article for background on mtDNA testing and the association of mtDNA with the maternal parent.

16 August 1991:  The Armed Forces Medical Examiner's office released a preliminary report on the DNA testing.  Read that report  at this link.

6 September 1991:  The Armed Forces Medical Examiner's office released the final results of the mtDNA testing:  DNA samples from Major Fanning's mother and two sisters "exactly matched" mtDNA obtained from the seven bones previously identified as Major Fanning.  (mtDNA from the bones all matched, proving that these bones were all from the same person.)  I have posted the 6 September 1991  memorandum from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner to the Commandant, US Marine Corps at this link -- I recommend readers read the memorandum for themselves.  The memo is three pages and each page is a jpeg file -- may take a minute or two to load -- also, the copy quality is not the best.

In conclusion

Continued misinformation

There continues to be misinformation spread about the Fanning case.  Take for example this fairy tale from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Kathryn Fanning ... sought to have (her husband's) remains subjected to a DNA test in 1992 - which ... was finally ordered by the Marine Corps. The tests were publicly declared to be positive, Fanning said, but notes to the file on intenal documents indicate inconclusive results. Each of the bones that were eventually returned to Fanning, she said, had been completely drilled out to remove any marrow which she might use for an independent DNA test. (Fort Worth Star Telegram, Jan. 9, 1994, Tommy Denton column).

There are at least three errors of fact is this article -- which one finds posted on several "MIA activist" web sites. 

bulletFirst, the DNA testing was in 1991, not 1992. 
bulletSecond, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request for the Fanning file and received it; there are no notes indicating "inconclusive results."   Of course, it is possible that by "inconclusive results" the author is referring to the preliminary report (16 Aug 91).   If this is the case, why did the author of the article -- or whoever gave him his information -- not tell the entire story and provide the final mtDNA test report (6 Sep 91)?  Just wondering.
bulletThird, we are talking here about dried skeletal remains -- dry human bones.  The idea that "marrow" would be in dried, decades-old bones is absurd -- and no one drilled out anything.   Further, mtDNA is extracted from the bone, not from non-existent marrow. 

One more memo

Finally, there is a continued attempt to associate the Kott-Fanning loss with various intelligence reports.  "MIA researcher" Roger Hall claims that he found intercepted signal communications indicating that Kott and Fanning were captured and taken to China.  None of this has any basis in fact, yet these claims continue to surface.   In July 1991, Mrs. Fanning wrote to Senator David Boren, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  In her letter, she told Senator Boren of claims by various "MIA activists" that her husband had been captured and sent to China.  Senator Boren sent the letter to the Defense Intelligence Agency for a response.  This link is a copy of the letter from DIA to Senator Boren.  The letter is self-explanatory.