Miamisburg man's death in Vietnam, questioned for decades, now has closure

Mark V. Dennis was the first young man from Miamisburg to die in Vietnam. Decades after the war, some in his family are just accepting his death. 

The Dennis family in 1966 — parents Charles and Vera, brother Jerry, sisters Eileen and Anne — was never convinced the flag-draped coffin sent back to them from Vietnam and buried in Miamisburg’s Hillgrove Cemetery held Mark. 

The family was told the remains so little resembled a person — Mark perished in a helicopter crash — that the casket stayed closed for the Aug. 9, 1966 funeral, said Mark’s sister, Eileen Brady. 

“We were warned not to open the coffin. It was nothing we wanted to see,” said Brady, 80, of Largo, Fla.

» RELATED: Vietnam vets honored on 50th anniversary: What was it about? The war by the numbers 

Four years after the funeral, Jerry Dennis made an urgent phone call to his sister. He spotted a photo in Newsweek magazine of an unidentified prisoner of war who resembled Mark, a 1964 Miamisburg High School graduate. 

“It looked so much like Mark,” Brady said. “We were sure it was Mark.” 

Haunted by the face in the photo and with no definitive identification of the body in the Miamisburg grave, the family latched onto hope that Mark, a Navy medic, might still be alive.

Mark V. Dennis of Miamisburg, a Navy medic, was killed July 15, 1966 in Vietnam, but his family held out hope for decades the Miamisburg man was alive due to this photo of a P.O.W. resembling Dennis published in a 1970 issue of Newsweek. Last year, DNA evidence confirmed the remains sent home from Vietnam during the war were indeed those of Dennis. DAYTON JOURNAL HERALD FILE PHOTO

‘POW or corpse?’ 

Unlike the Navy’s version of events, the family held out belief the agile 19-year-old somehow made it out of a Marine CH46 Sea Knight transport helicopter that took enemy fire on July 15, 1966, then burst into flames and exploded onto a hillside.

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“POW or corpse?” read a caption under a photo of Mark along with an August 1971 story of the family’s search for truth in this newspaper.

Jerry Dennis prodded defense officials for the rest of his life and spent a small fortune mounting legal challenges in search of answers along with his sisters. He died in 2002 following his parents’ deaths. 

Just last year, though, DNA tests by the Navy provided the sisters with new evidence: Mark V. Dennis was likely the person buried in Miamisburg after being killed with 12 others in a hellish crash at Dong Ha, South Vietnam. Three survived. 

At least four other helicopters were lost that day in a place to become called “Helicopter Alley.” But just one of the transports exploded on impact, according to a United States Marine Corps Helicopter Association history of the operation.

» RELATED: Remains of missing Marine killed in Vietnam War heading home after 48 years 

At 10 a.m. Thursday, ashes from the remains identified as Hospitalman 3rd Class Mark V. Dennis will be placed alongside his parents at Garden Sanctuary Cemetery Mausoleum in Seminole, Fla. At the same time, he will be remembered locally with a military ceremony at Hillgrove Cemetery in Miamisburg at the original burial site. 

Unknown soldier 

After spotting the Newsweek photograph in November 1970, the Dennis family had doubts and arranged to exhume the remains from the Miamisburg grave. 

Jerry Dennis confronted Navy officials with evidence from the family’s expert witnesses, including a Colorado State University forensic scientist who determined that bones from the grave came up too short and too light to support Mark, once a sturdy lineman for the Miamisburg football team.

» RELATED: Springfield man’s remains to come home 75 years after Pearl Harbor 

The family worked to convince authorities the body was improperly identified. 

“I can’t drop it now,” Jerry told this newspaper at the time. “If Mark is listed as missing in action, our own government is going to negotiate for his release; if he’s listed as killed in action, they will do nothing.” 

Eventually a U.S district judge ordered Mark Dennis’ name transferred from the “killed in action list” to “missing in action.”

» RELATED: Korean War soldier’s remains laid to rest today in Dayton

The Dennis family was confident enough that the body in the grave was not Mark’s that they had the remains reburied at Hillgrove Cemetery in 1971 in Miamisburg as an “Unknown Soldier.” The military service was conducted by clergy of multiple faiths.

Navy medic Mark V. Dennis, the first from region to die in Vietnam, is re-interred in 1971, but the Dennis family called the burial one of an "Unknown Soldier." At the time, the family didn't believe the remains were that of Dennis of Miamisburg. Mark Dennis' brother Jerry Dennis spent decades investigating whether the Navy medic was still alive based on the likeness of Dennis to a POW the family saw pictured in Newsweek in 1970. Last year, DNA testing confirmed the original remains were that of Dennis. DAYTON JOURNAL HERALD FILE PHOTO

The remains were subject to at least three other official investigations, all concluding with the Navy’s original finding: the body sent to Miamisburg in 1966 was Mark Dennis.

» READ MORE: 5 area veterans who have inspired with their stories of battle

Mournful saga 

Anne Moline said she and her brother Mark became best friends after their older siblings left the house. 

“He was very caring young man. He was a medic and hoping to go to medical school to become a doctor,” said Moline, 74, of Arvada, Colo. “He cared about everyone, especially his parents … He had a heck of a sense of humor. He was just a good kid all around.”

» RELATED: 73K-plus fallen service men, women from WWII still unaccounted 

But Moline continues to be troubled since the very day she was handed a telegram in 1966 notifying the family that Mark was dead. The government said it identified the remains by fingerprints. 

“I know what that telegram said about fingerprints. And when it was exhumed, there were no hands,” she said. “That was the very beginning.” 

But the end of a mournful, half-century saga is nearing for Brady and Moline. 

On Tuesday the sisters once again received a flag-draped casket of human remains, this time ceremonially lifted from a commercial flight to Tampa Bay from Omaha where the last government DNA tests on the remains were conducted at Offutt Air Force Base.

The flag-draped casket containing the remains of Mark Dennis is carried by Patriot Guard members as his sisters Eileen Brady, 80, of Largo, Fal., back right, and Anne Moline, 74, of Arvada, Colo., back left,look on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at Tampa International Airport. The remains of their brother Mark Dennis arrived via Southwest Airlines Tuesday. The remains returned to Tampa Bay eight months after the military concluded for the fourth time that they belonged to Dennis. The first time was in July, 1966, just days after Dennis, a Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class, was in a helicopter shot down in Vietnam, making him the first casualty of the war from his small town south of Dayton, Ohio. (Chris Urso/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Photo: Chris Urso/AP

The remains will be cremated before Thursday’s interment, putting an end to any future DNA samples. 

“We’ve made this decision together to end this so that our children and our grandchildren don’t keep going through this,” Moline said. “We decided whatever they said we would accept their word. We just can’t do it any more.”

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Memorial service for Mark V. Dennis

10 a.m., Thursday, April 6 

Hillgrove Cemetery, 1002 E. Central Ave., Miamisburg 

Thursday’s service in Miamisburg will be conducted by Gebhart-Schmidt-Parramore Funeral Home, which handled the original arrangements in 1966. The Rev. Mike Tuttle of Miamisburg Christian Church will officiate. The Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 31, American Legion Post 165, VFW Post 3438 and Ohio Patriot Guard Riders and others plan to participate.

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