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Remains of Bakersfield naval aviator identified after 52 years of uncertainty

The handsome young aviator had all the promise in the world.

James B. Mills, a Bakersfield High and Cal Berkeley graduate turned U.S. Navy radar intercept operator was barely 26 when he and pilot, James Bauder, lifted off the deck of the USS Coral Sea on an armed reconnaissance mission over what was then known as North Vietnam.

It was past midnight on Sept. 21, 1966 when their F-4B Phantom fighter jet disappeared from radar.

The crew's wingman never saw the plane go down. No distress call was heard. No missiles or anti-aircraft artillery were observed and no explosions were seen. The extensive aerial searches that followed yielded no clues.

There was only blackness.

Barely a week ago, and more than a half-century after Mills was listed as missing in action, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — charged with searching for and identifying the remains of American service members lost during wartime — officially determined that the remains of Navy Cmdr. Mills had been positively identified after being found in shallow water off the coast of Vietnam.

The news came like a bombshell to the family. Relief. Joy. Wonder. And yet, sober knowledge that Jimmy, as his friends and family still call him, did indeed lose his life on that dark Vietnamese night 

"After all those years had passed, we never thought we'd know anything," said Mills' sister Ann Mills Griffiths, who since 1978 has headed the National League of POW/MIA Families.

"They came to tell me here in my office," she said in a phone call from her workplace in Falls Church, Va. "I was astounded. There were no tears. It was joy, totally."

For decades, the Mills and Bauder families had lived with a haunting uncertainty. The MIA status of their loved ones offered no closure, no sure knowledge of whether the men were alive or dead.

Had they been captured? Tortured? Left to live out their lives hidden away in a prison?

Then, several years ago, a Vietnamese fisherman snagged his net on something.

It was the wreckage of a military jet.

During the summer of 2011, Mills' sisters, Ann, Judie Mills Taber, and brother, Bill Mills, learned that the frame of the crew's cockpit canopy had been recovered from the site.

The discovery represented the first major breakthrough in the case, and surviving family members were heartened by the unexpected find.

Investigators also discovered what they believed might be partial human remains at the apparent crash site, bone material that could open the door to DNA testing. But the findings proved to be animal bones.

Then last year a fragment of bone — a femur — that had been found in June near the crash site was found to be a match to a sample of mitochondrial DNA submitted years earlier by Bauder’s younger sister, Jane.

More than a half-century after his plane disappeared, the pilot had been found. 

The development was encouraging, Taber, who lives in La Habra, said last year.

"Every time a discovery is made, every time someone who has been missing is accounted for, the rest of us are rejoicing."

This summer, the Mills sisters can truly rejoice. And they have a lot of people to thank.

The process, the years of painstaking work it took to find and identify the two missing aviators is astonishing.

Between 1993 and 2003, the loss of the Bauder/Mills aircraft was investigated 15 times, with no success, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said in a news release.

In 2006, the investigation led to a possible underwater crash site. Five underwater investigations were required in order to determine the aircraft wreckage correlated to the lost Phantom. Then, in 2011, the Air Force Life Science Equipment Laboratory, now an element of the accounting agency, was able to positively identify the recovered wreckage as the Bauder/Mills aircraft.

Alejandro "Alex" Villalva, a Department of Defense forensic analyst, remembers examining high-resolution photos of the frame of a rear canopy from an F-4B Phantom.

"It wasn't much," Villalva recalled this week. "The canopy had sat almost completely buried in silt and sediment for decades. Only a small amount of paint was visible."

But through his professional research and study of this one significant artifact, Villalva was able to confirm that the previously unknown loss site was the very same F-4B fighter aircraft that carried Mills and Bauder off the deck of their ship that fateful night.

As a 25-year Army veteran, Villalva said he "can think of no greater honor than being part of the effort responsible for bringing home my brothers in arms."

Between 2010 and 2017, in the waters immediately off Quynh Phuong Village, Quynh Luu District, Nghe An Province, Vietnam, underwater recovery teams from the agency conducted excavations of the submerged aircraft crash site. During the excavations, numerous pieces of aircraft wreckage, consistent with the Bauder/Mills aircraft, were found, as well as possible bone material.

The remains found were identified as Mills' pilot, Bauder.

In June of this year, a team conducted another excavation. Additional remains were found. Through mitochondrial DNA analysis and anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence, the agency said, the remains were positively identified.

Jim Mills had finally been found, after resting at a crash site off the coast of Vietnam for 52 years.

Had he lived, he would have turned 78 this Friday.

Happy birthday, Jimmy.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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