The Fanning Case:
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
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
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
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
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.
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.