Jimmy Caniford, whose plane was shot down in Laos 36 years ago.

Vietnam vet's remains found 36 years later

Burial to be at Arlington National Cemetary

By Kevin Lollar • klollar@news-press.com • April 23, 2008





Diane Di Loreto, of Alva looks at a picture of her brother, Jimmy Caniford, whose plane was shot down in Laos 36 years ago.


Jimmy Caniford would have been 60 in August.

     But, instead of growing into middle age, getting married, having kids and grand kids, Caniford died when his aircraft was shot down over Laos on March 29, 1972, five months before his 24th birthday.
     His body was not recovered, and for 36 years, he was listed as missing in action.
Last month, Caniford’s family learned his remains had been recovered at the crash site. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
     “This means we’ll finally have a place to go where he’s going to be,” Caniford’s father Jim of Fort Myers said. “The overworked expression ‘closure’ is the one I want to use. It’s a finalization of the unknown we’ve lived with for so many years.”
     As soon as he graduated from Middletown High School in Frederick County, Md., Jimmy Caniford enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 17 — he had to get written permission from his parents.
     After basic training, he volunteered to fight in Vietnam.
As an AC-130 Hercules gunship illuminator operator, Staff Sgt. Caniford flew missions over Vietnam out of the Philippines — the AC-130’s primary missions were close air support and armed reconnaissance; the illuminator operator’s job was to shoot illumination flares, watch for enemy anti-aircraft positions and drop smoke to mark targets for F-4D fighters.
     When his enlistment was up, Caniford re-upped and was assigned to the 16th Special Operations Squadron at Ubon Air Force Base in Thailand.

“He believed 120 percent that we were doing the right thing in Vietnam,” said Caniford’s sister Diana DiLoreto, 58, of Alva. “He felt we were making a huge difference. If somebody didn’t believe it and talked to him, he changed their mind.”

On March 29, 1972, Caniford’s plane, whose call sign was Spectre 13, took off for a night mission over North Vietnamese supply routes in Laos.

At about 3 a.m., Spectre 13 was attacking an enemy convoy when it was hit by a surface-to-air missile.

Spectre 13 crashed in the jungle, and the pilot of an F-4D flying low over the burning wreckage saw no sign of survivors.

Less than an hour after the crash, a Forward Air Controller arrived at the site to control search and rescue efforts.

The Caniford family received word March 30 Jimmy Caniford’s plane had been shot down.

Jimmy Caniford’s youngest sister, Shelly, was living with her parents; Diana lived three blocks away; their father was at work; their mother was at their grandmother’s house, painting the kitchen.

“The Air Force knocked at my parents’ door, and my sister knew immediately something had happened to Jimmy,” DiLoreto said. “She called me to get our grandmother’s address. I was still sleepy and didn’t ask why.

“Then she called back. She was crying hysterically and said Jimmy’s plane had been shot down. I flew out of bed, dressed in about a minute and ran to the house.”

By 6 p.m. March 30, none of the Spectre 13 crew had been found, and the search was called off. All 14 crewmen were listed as missing in action.

“Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, and years into decades,” DiLoreto said. “You live with hope. You rely on your faith. Every day you still carry a glimmer of hope. Without it, you’re letting your brother down. When we were told they’d found Jimmy, it was: OK, we can blow out that light.”

Before the Canifords could blow out the light, however, they endured 36 years of uncertainty.

Seven years after Spectre 13 was shot down, Jimmy Caniford was officially pronounced dead and his name went up on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In February 1986, a team from the United States and Laos excavated the crash site and recovered remains of nine crewmen, none of them Caniford’s.

“Mom got sick after Jimmy was shot down; her health deteriorated,” DiLoreto said. “She said the only way she could live with this is to pray he died rather than being a prisoner. But the next day, she’d say if he’s a prisoner, he might get out. It was constant turmoil. You have to live with it. You have to find a way to cope.”

Finally, on March 18, the Canifords received word a recent excavation of Spectre 13’s crash site had recovered Jimmy Caniford’s remains.

“I always thought it would be nice if we had a place to put flowers on a grave,” DiLoreto said. “I really didn’t think this would happen in my parents’ lifetime. I thought he’d greet them in heaven or something.”

Although Jimmy Caniford’s remains have been recovered, and his family can now use the overworked expression “closure,” they still feel the turmoil and will always grieve for the young man who would have been 60 in August.

“Growing up, Jimmy was my best friend,” DiLoreto said. “He was a great brother and a great man. He would have been a great father.

“If he had a dollar in his pocket, he bought you something. He was very unselfish. Obviously he was unselfish: He gave his life for what