Chris Hepler was 28 months old when his father, an Air Force staff sergeant from Glenside, was killed in the Vietnam War battle of Kham Duc on May 12, 1968.
He was a man of 27 in 1993 when Vietnamese civilians led U.S. investigators to the place where his father went down in the explosion and crash of a C-130 cargo plane.
He is now 42, a father himself, the mayor of Oliver Springs, Tenn.
Finally, his dad is coming home.
The Department of Defense announced yesterday that after years of work at the crash site and at a medical laboratory in Hawaii, it had identified the remains of Frank M. Hepler and five other men who perished in the crash during one of the most intense battles of the war.
Sgt. Hepler, the son of a Philadelphia dentist, a football player and long-jumper at Springfield Township High School, will be buried with the other men Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery.
"The fact that he will have a final resting place - I guess that is some closure," the son said last night on the phone from the hills of East Tennessee, where he works as a radiological safety officer and leads his town of 3,300 people.
An only child, Chris Hepler said he doesn't remember his dad. But his father's pictures were all over the house when he was growing up - on the wall, on the dresser, on the coffee table.
His parents had met when both were in uniform at Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, N.Y. He was born when they were stationed at McGuire Air Force Base. His dad, going off for his second battle tour in Vietnam, had suggested that his wife move in with her parents in Tennessee while he was away.
He said that his mother, who remarried only last year, would often say he reminded her of his father, also about 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds - "a certain look that I might give or a phrase that I might say."
One time, as a young man, he mentioned to his mother that his favorite movie was
Cool Hand Luke.
His mother stopped dead. That was his father's favorite, too, she said.
Chris Hepler never had much of his father's that was personal. Last year, though, military officials came to the house with two dental crowns that had been found among his father's remains. He put them in a safe, to hold forever.
As many as 17 family members, including his father's sister, who lives in Ocean City, N.J., will attend the funeral Thursday.
Remains of all six men, which are mingled, will be buried as a group in one coffin.
Hepler was the flight engineer on the plane. The others were identified as Maj. Bernard L. Bucher of Eureka, Ill.; Maj. John L. McElroy of Eminence, Ky.; First Lt. Stephen C. Moreland of Los Angeles; Army Capt. Warren R. Orr Jr. of Kewanee, Ill.; and Air Force Airman First Class George W. Long of Medicine Lodge, Kan.
Chis Hepler's mother, Joyce Hepler Fox, said the burial of her first husband also meant "closure for me."
"I'm glad this happened in my lifetime," she said. "I was 24 when he was killed, and now I am 65."