Although the Dennis family accepted the coffin with the flag draped over the top, they were not convinced it carried the remains of Mark.
Mark V. Dennis was the youngest son of Charles and Vera Dennis. His father Charles had a sense of humor and decided to give Mark the Roman numeral V as a middle initial since he was the fifth child. Shortly after graduating high school in 1964, Mark enlisted in the Navy, training to be a medic. Mark hoped the medic training would help him in his aspirations to become a missionary after his military service. Although he was initially stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Wasp, he asked to be transferred so he could help with the effort in Vietnam. He was assigned as a medic and acting chaplain to a Marine unit fighting during Operation Hastings. On July 16, 1966, thirteen men boarded a C-47 Chinook helicopter before it lifted in the air. As it was flying over the Quang Tri Province, the helicopter was shot down by enemies.
Mark was identified by the military six days after the attack on the helicopter. The identified remains were sent to the Dennis family in Miamisburg with the distinction of being first Miamisburg resident to die in Vietnam. Although they doubted it was Mark, they buried the remains in Hillgrove Cemetery.
In 1970 a picture changed everything. Jerry Dennis, Mark’s older brother, was thumbing through the pages of Newsweek when he saw a picture that made him stop in his tracks. It was an unidentified Prisoner of War sitting in a cell. The man had a striking resemblance to his Mark. Jerry immediately dialed his sister Eileen and told her to check Newsweek, with no explanation why. It didn’t take long for Eileen to figure out what her brother wanted her to see. The photo made believers out of the entire Dennis family. Jerry lead the quest for answers, convinced that Mark had survived the blast and was alive as a POW. The death certificate showed that Mark was not positively identified, but rather identified through the process of elimination.
With this information, Jerry had the remains exhumed and re-identified by the Navy. Per regulations, the remains were covered by Mark’s uniform, then a blanket. Mark’s dog tag was pinned to the blanket, also per regulations. When Jerry examined the dog tags, he believed they appeared to be too new to be Mark’s tags, and the burn marks did not match a crash burn, but believed instead that the tags looked like they were burned intentionally to appear to be Mark’s. The Navy concluded again that the remains belonged to Mark Dennis, but the family was so confident that the remains were not his that they reburied them at Hillgrove Cemetery as an Unidentified Solider.
Many clues led Jerry to believe his brother was still alive. A privately funded forensic analysis of the remains concluded that the remains were of a man several inches shorter than Mark, burned with regular gasoline and not fuel. When the family was notified of Mark’s death, they were told that he was identified by his fingerprints, but the remains did not include hands. A friend of Mark’s during boot camp told the family that he knew someone from Mark’s unit who was attending to the crash and he said there were only twelve bodies recovered of the thirteen on the helicopter. The man further claimed that he did not find any remains or remnants of uniform from Mark Dennis.
Many bits of information came in, some were helpful, and some were not. Shortly after Jerry first went public in his search for his brother, The US Navy identified the man in the Newsweek photo as Paul E. Galanti, a Navy pilot who had been verified as a POW held in Hanoi. Jerry talked to soldiers who said they witnessed the crash from the ground. One man said he saw two people jump from the helicopter before it crashed and another man said there were five to six people who jumped. The US Navy discredited that account, since the remains of thirteen crash victims were found at the crash site.
As the years went by, Jerry never gave up. He tried to get the Board of Correction of Naval Records to change Mark’s status from “Killed in Action” to “Missing in Action.” This appeal was denied. In 1986, Jerry was at a bar talking to friends about his brother’s case when a man approached him, introducing himself as John King. King told Jerry he had been held in North Vietnam as a POW and knew a man nicknamed “Preacher,” who he thought may have been Mark Dennis. Jerry showed King a picture of his brother and King identified him as the man he knew. Military records later showed there was never any man named John King listed as a Vietnam POW.
Jerry Dennis died in 2002 without ever knowing the truth about his brother’s fate in Vietnam. In 2016, after fifty years of investigation, the Dennis family requested one final examination of the remains purported to be Mark Dennis. This time, advanced DNA extraction technology concluded that the remains in question belonged to Mark Dennis. This was the fourth time these remains had been tested and each time the military identified the same person. His remains were sent to his sister in Florida, cremated, and interred with his parents in Seminole, Florida.
“Many have served. Too many have fallen, but some have never returned. Remember them.” Those are the words inscribed at a war memorial in Miamisburg and echoing in the hearts of Mark’s family and friends.