Closure at last

TORONTO – It may remain an open question whether the family of Navy Corpsman Ron Manning, killed during the later part of the Vietnam War, will ever really find true closure.

Twice his remains have been identified by the Department of Defense through DNA analysis, and twice Ron Manning’s remains have been returned home, once in 2000 and again in 2012. Now a third reminder of Manning’s death has surfaced for the family, but this could well be the last time that provides closure, according to some family members.

On May 15 the presumed remains of Manning and 12 Marines believed killed in an incident involving the Khmer Rouge and the U.S.S. Mayaguez in May of 1975 off the waters of Cambodia were laid to rest is a single coffin drawn by a team of horses in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Toronto family, including his parents, Jim and Donna Manning, were notified the remains couldn’t be identified through DNA but were presumed to be that of their son and 12 other soldiers killed. It had taken advancements in DNA technology from the first homecoming in 2000 to the second in 2012, where Ron Manning’s remains ultimately would be interred at Toronto Union Cemetery. But the memories of friends and family of the 21-year old serviceman killed young in life remain strong.

“If mom and dad were well, they would have flown to (Arlington for the ceremony),” said Paige Blasko, sister of Ron Manning.

She said the military had offered to pay expenses to attend the event, and 10 out of 13 families had representatives at the ceremony, said Blasko.

“We knew this could be a possibility,” said Stacey Berger, sister of Ron Manning, on the military discovering additional remains.

“This is final,” said Blasko. “This is the last time.”

The fate of Manning remained unknown, but he was presumed missing in action during a rescue attempt during an attempt to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez, a merchant ship hijacked by Khmer Rouge naval forces in the Gulf of Thailand. Manning’s fate at the time was unknown, and he was officially listed as missing in action until remains were identified by the Navy in 2000. Manning’s remains were returned to Toronto.

According to Task Force Omega’s website, an advocacy organization that tracks American military personnel killed or missing in action, Manning was killed during the attempt to rescue the civilian crew of 39 captured by the Cambodians after so ordered by then-President Gerald Ford.

“President Ford ordered a carrier battle group, comprised of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea with guided missile destroyer escorts U.S.S. Harold E. Holt and the U.S.S. Henry B. Wilson into the Gulf of Thailand,” the website’s synopsis of the incident reads. “In addition, the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines deployed to Utapao, Thailand, as part of a 1,100-Marine assault force. The Air Force also prepared aircraft for a possible strike/rescue mission.

When three days of intense negotiations between the two governments completely broke down, President Ford ordered a military rescue operation. At the time the rescue plan was initiated, U.S. intelligence personnel believed some or all of the Mayaguez crew had been taken back to Koh Tang Island. Intelligence personnel also estimated there were only 20 to 40 lightly armed Khmer troops on the island.”

The island instead was heavily guarded and a firefight left 18 Marines and Navy personnel listed as missing in action. It wasn’t until 1995 the first of three teams from the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting was allowed onto Koh Tang Island to search for the remains of the 18 Americans who lost their lives during the battle. During excavations near the battle, human remains of nine of those Americans were found and subsequently identified, according to the website.

In April of 2012 additional remains were escorted into the city by the city’s safety forces. Blasko said at first the family wanted to keep the homecoming a private affair, but it soon became impossible.

“We knew (more remains could be identified and returned to the family),” Blasko said of the second homecoming. “We were trying to keep it private.”

the family was allowed to travel to Pittsburgh and lead a procession from the airport to Toronto. It was Donna and Jim Manning Sr. who insisted their son be buried in Toronto rather than Arlington, she added.

“We could have buried Ronnie at Arlington, but mom and dad wanted him here,” said Blasko, adding on May 9 her brother would have turned 59 years old.

The first homecoming was difficult enough, but the second in 2012 was even more heartbreaking for their parents, according to Berger.

“The second time was really hard on my dad,” she said. “But I think all of us (brothers and sisters) who had kids by the time of the (second homecoming) got to be a part of it. They knew about their uncle, but they got to see that he was loved.”

“There isn’t a day go by we don’t think of him,” said Lisa Skidmore, Manning’s sister, adding they all wondered what he what have grown up to become or would he get married or have children. “At the time (of his death), he was studying to be a doctor.”

“This is closure now – this is the final time,” said Jim “Bo” Manning Jr. of the latest development. “I’m thankful dad has been around for the whole thing.”

The family thanked the community for its respect for Manning’s homecomings and those who have supported the family.