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LI man's remains found in Laos after 46 years

Vietnam Vet. William Colwell's remains were just found

Vietnam Vet. William Colwell's remains were just found in Laos after his plane went down back in 1965. Famigliette sisters Ann and Susan Famigliette- Shilling talk about their lost uncle at their home where they receive the news of him being missing in Glen Cove, NY. (May 16, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

On the morning of Christmas Eve 1965, a blue Air Force sedan pulled up to a home on Fairmont Place in Glen Cove.

Ann Famigliette, 17, stood by the front steps as two uniformed officers emerged from the car. She knew immediately the news would not be good. Her beloved uncle, Tech. Sgt. William Kevin Colwell, was missing in Vietnam.

For all the years since then, Famigliette, who still lives in the Fairmont Place house, wondered what had become of her uncle, who had been a surrogate father to her when her own father became seriously ill when she was a child. Long after the American involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973, no answers came and the family lived with the loss and the mystery.

In March, 46 years and four months after Colwell vanished, word of his fate finally came.

Colwell, who left Long Island to serve in Vietnam, disappeared after his plane took off from an air base at Da Nang. Based on effects recovered two years ago from the jungles of Laos, Air Force officials concluded that Colwell perished when the AC-47 "Spooky" gunship he had been flying crashed and burned in Savannakhet province on the Vietnam border. He was 44 at the time of his disappearance.

With his remains finally located, members of his family have scheduled a Requiem Mass for Colwell at 1 p.m. Saturday in St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Glen Cove. On a weekend when America celebrates Memorial Day and the sacrifices of its soldiers, Colwell will be remembered as one of those who gave his life in a time of war.


Didn't accept his death

"For the first 10 years, I actually thought he was going to be found and everything was going to be OK, that he would just walk through the door one day," Famigliette said, recalling her years of waiting.

"And as the years moved on, the loss was worse and worse," said Famigliette, who was a longtime aide to former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi. "I guess the wounds got deeper and deeper."

Until his remains were positively identified at a forensic lab in Hawaii, Colwell had been among the more than 1,660 Americans still listed as missing from the Vietnam War. Of those, at least 20 from Long Island remain unaccounted for. They are men from Southampton to Hicksville.

Pressured by veterans groups who worry that fading memories and the deaths of battle buddies will make it harder to locate the nation's Vietnam War missing, Congress has mandated that the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command roughly quadruple the rate at which it recovers missing remains, to 400 cases per year.

In 2010, a team of researchers from the command recovered bits of human remains from a jungle crash site in Laos. In March, researchers positively linked the remains to the long missing Colwell.

A beefy Glen Cove resident, Colwell had joined the Army during World War II, then served with the Air Force during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

Famigliette's father had been institutionalized for Alzheimer's-like symptoms when she and her sister, Susan Schilling, were still children. Colwell, whose parents lived nearby, helped look after them as best he could.

"I and my sister grew up without a father, and he took his place," she said. "So it was very hard for us.

"There was always something missing in my life, an aching, a great void that was left by him," Famigliette said. "He would always check up on me when he was around, and would always send me dolls whenever he went somewhere overseas."


Little left from his life

Today, only scraps of the Vietnam veteran's life remain. Colwell's wife, Ingrid, who moved to Georgia to escape her grief, perished in a fire two years after his death. The last of Colwell's three siblings died 11 years ago, still wondering what had become of the elder brother they called "Kevey." He had no children.

In the same Glen Cove living room that grim officers visited that Christmas Eve morning, Colwell's smiling image looks back from faded photographs that line a table near the door.

A Distinguished Flying Cross rests in a display case, an award Colwell earned two weeks before his death; he and fellow crew members, orbiting in the night above a downed U.S. helicopter crew, had used a blizzard of machine gun fire to keep Viet Cong troops from advancing.

A flight jacket he had left behind, a treasured remnant that Schilling wore proudly after he disappeared, was lost years ago when a friend borrowed it one Halloween.

Colwell, who was promoted after his disappearance to chief master sergeant, will be buried during a July 9 ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, along with the remains of his five crew members, which were commingled during the fiery 1965 crash.

"I'm glad he's home, I'm glad he's going to have a huge service at Arlington," Famigliette said. "It's going to be nice closure. I just wish his siblings had been here. But I've always said he was waiting for them in heaven."


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