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Fallen but not forgotten: 'It was a hard time'

By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington

John McCain and Ralph Bisz were Navy fighter pilots flying A-4E Skyhawks off the decks of the USS Oriskany about the same time in 1967.

McCain, of course, was shot down over North Vietnam, spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war, and is today the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Bisz was shot down the month before McCain arrived on the Oriskany and was never seen again. *

"Our worst fears were that he was killed," Bisz's cousin and closest living relative, Diane Smith, of West Palm Beach, Fla., said in an interview. "Actually, our worst fears were that he wasn't killed instantly and may have been in fact captured and harmed."

On Aug. 4, 1969, two years to the day after Bisz was shot down, three American POWs were released by Hanoi. They brought with them the names of 42 fellow prisoners.

"One of the names they had memorized was an, oh, I think it was Roger Biff, b-i-f-f, something like that, and that was close enough to give us hope that he in fact might have been a POW," Smith said.

"And in those fuzzy pictures that came out during that time of the prisoners of war in Hanoi, my aunt looked at and felt sure she identified him, but, um, we all wondered. It was a hard time."

Bisz's parents died without ever learning the fate of their only child.

"After all the POWs were released [in 1973], we realized in fact that he was not a POW and probably was, we hoped, killed in action," Smith said.

There the mystery remained until 1988, when the Communist government of Vietnam turned over human remains it said were Bisz's, based on its records of his shootdown and documentation of his burial.

But it took the U.S. government another 20 years to make a conclusive identification.

"It was only recently that the DNA technology has improved to the point where we were able to get usable DNA sequence data," explained Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/Missing Personnel Office.

Smith was stunned when told of the identification.

"I mean, I couldn't speak," she said, her voice trembling with emotion. "It was amazing. I would not have believed the amount of emotion .. um, obviously, it's still coming out .. that came out of me and my younger brothers, all of us.

"I guess you just don't know, you don't know. It's just a closure, it's just a closure. It's an amazing thing to know what really happened."

Lt. Cmdr. Ralph C. Bisz will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Oct. 6, one month before John McCain faces off against Barack Obama in the presidential election.

 

* I asked McCain's Senate and campaign offices if he had ever known Bisz, but I have not received an answer.

 

Click here to view tributes to the 272 U.S. service members killed this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the following 23 casualties from last week:

1. Army Staff Sgt. Du Hai Tran, 30, of Reseda, Calif.

2. Army Lt. Col. James Walton, 41, of Rockville, Md.

3. Army Spc. Anthony Mangano, 36, of Greenlawn, N.Y.

4. Army Sgt. Nelson Rodriguez Ramirez, 22, of Revere, Mass.

5. Army Sgt. Andrew Seabrooks, 36, of Queens, N.Y.

6. Army Capt. Gregory Dalessio, 30, of Cherry Hill, N.J.

7. Army Pfc. Bryan Thomas, 22, of Lake Charles, La.

8. Army Spc. Ryan Connolly, 24, of Vacaville, Calif.

9. Army Chief Warrant Officer Robert Hammett, 39, of Tucson, Ariz.

10. Army Maj. Dwayne Kelley, 48, of Willingboro, N.J.

11. Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Strickland, 25, of Labelle, Fla.

12. Army Spc. Joshua Plocica, 20, of Clarksville, Tenn.

13. Army Sgt. Alejandro Dominguez, 24, of San Diego, Calif.

14. Army Spc. Joel Taylor, 20, of Pinetown, N.C.

15. Army Pfc. James Yohn, 25, of Highspire, Pa.

16. Marine Lt. Col. Max Galeai, 42, of Pago Pago, American Samoa.

17. Marine Capt. Philip Dykeman, 38, of Brockport, N.Y.

18. Marine Cpl. Marcus Preudhomme, 23, of North Miami Beach, Fla.

19. Marine Staff Sgt. Edgar Heredia, 28, of Houston, Texas.

20. Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Hilton, 37, of Livonia, Mich.

21. Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph McKay, 51, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

22. Army Spc. Mark Palmateer, 38, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

23. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Hunsberger, 24, of Goshen, Ind.

Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com. The tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/.