Soldier’s family get answers after 49 years

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

About six months ago Amy Berkes got the call she thought for nearly 50 years would never come.

Amy Berkes and family attended the funeral of her father, Col. William Earl Cooper, recently at Arlington Cemetery. Special photo

Just before Christmas the McDonough resident and her siblings were notified by the U.S. government that the remains of her father, who had been classified as missing in action after his plane was shot down in Vietnam in 1966, had been positively identified.

He was coming home.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the story began to change. Some remains were found wrapped in cloth and an old villager in the area took searches to the place where the plane went down. Berkes and her family found out eventually that their father had been dug up and reburied a couple of times by the Soviets and the Chinese for unexplained reasons.

The site was excavated in 1998 and a single bone was found that was deemed in suitable condition for a DNA test. It was sent to Hawaii to be tested against the DNA from Cooper’s two sisters.

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Any and all resources that had been devoted to MIAs were diverted to the remains found inside the World Trade Center.

Fortunately, technology was improving almost on a monthly basis during that time, and when the tests were finally done last August, the remains were determined to be a 99.996-percent match for the DNA of Cooper’s sisters. Shortly after that the family got the call and was told to start making arrangements for his burial.

“It was a shock,” said Berkes. “After 49 years we never thought we’d hear. We hoped but we finally gave up.”

Sadly, Cooper’s wife never got the call. She died in 2005.

One of the sisters whose DNA closed the case died last year. The other one, now 88 and living in LaGrange, attended the funeral April 23 at Arlington National Cemetery.

The family received a final report with the DNA analysis and other fascinating details about the investigation. Pieces of a zipper were found with the remains and matched to the kind of flight suit Cooper wore at the time, and there were a few other artifacts buried with him that helped solve the case. According to Berkes, a government facility in Texas exists just for this purpose, and it has samples of every military accessory dating back to the Civil War available for comparison to artifacts found on the battlefield.

Berkes was impressed with how thorough the process turned out to be.

Col. William Earl Cooper was missing in action for 49 years until his remains were identified last December. Special photo

“I watched TV in 1973 thinking he’d be stepping off that plane,” she said. “I know a lot of other families have never gotten answers. I’m thankful they kept on trying to find these guys.”

Cooper was buried with full military honors and “treated like a dignitary,” his daughter said. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

After nearly a half-century without knowing the whole story, calling the events of the past few months a surprise would be a huge understatement.

“This whole thing just came out of nowhere,” said Berkes. “I had accepted his fate; I just didn’t know the circumstances.

“I’m just glad he’s back here.”