HONOLULU, Hawaii — The remains of seven servicemen killed during a helicopter crash while searching for Vietnam War victims returned home Friday.
The Americans died along with nine Vietnamese last Saturday when their Russian-built MI-17 helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded mountain in central Quang Binh province, about 250 miles south of Hanoi. The team was scouting excavations for six MIA crash sites next month.
Silence cloaked the Hickam Air Force base tarmac as the seven flag-wrapped coffins were carried from a C-17 transport.
"They made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and we must all be grateful for men and women in the armed services who willingly put their lives at risk," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington.
Family members will be able to retrieve the bodies early next week, said Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, spokesman for the Hawaii-based MIA task force.
Earlier Friday, U.S. officials held a repatriation ceremony in Hanoi for the American victims. "All these men are heroes. They gave their lives for something they believed in," said U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson.
As each coffin was carried aboard the C-17 at Hanoi's airport, dozens of American and Vietnamese mourners held their hands over their hearts or at their brows in salute.
The ceremony was a haunting replica of those held every time the MIA task force has recovered remains of soldiers who died decades ago during the Vietnam War.
When the plane arrived in Guam for refueling for the flight to Honolulu, a brief tribute was held.
"These men died doing their duty. These men died in faithful service to a grateful nation," said Childress, who accompanied the bodies from Hanoi. "This is a sad moment for us, but it is an honor to be able to bring these service members back to the United States."
A decision on whether the May excavations will be suspended or canceled will be made next week, he said.
Killed in the crash were the outgoing head of the Hanoi MIA unit, Army Lt. Col. Rennie Cory Jr., 43, of Fayetteville, N.C.; as well as the man who was to replace him in July, Lt. Col. George D. "Marty" Martin III, 40, of Hopkins, S.C.
The other American victims were Air Force Maj. Charles E. Lewis of Las Cruces, N.M.; Master Sgt. Steven L. Moser of San Diego; Tech. Sgt. Robert M. Flynn of Huntsville, Ala.; Navy Chief Petty Officer Pedro Juan Gonzalez of Buckeye, Ariz.; and Army Sgt. 1st Class Tommy James Murphy of Dawson, Ga.
The United States has made accounting for the 1,981 Americans still listed as missing in action from the Indochina War — including 1,448 in Vietnam — a top priority in its relationship with its former enemy.
Saturday's fatalities were the task force's first since it began operations in 1992. The Hanoi detachment is one of five in the region. Washington spends about $6 million a year on the searches.
Since 1973, the task force has recovered and returned the remains of 604 American service members.