Wartime has always managed to produce its fair share of unsolved mysteries. Behind all of the fighting, bloodshed, and spectacular stories in the media there can be other weirdness going on in the background. Back during the Vietnam War we have such a mystery, revolving about who would at first seem to be just an ordinary soldier. Born Sept. 21, 1946, in Miamisburg, Ohio, the youngest of five children, Mark V. Dennis was sort of the All-American boy next door. Described as smart, popular, and funny, he was also a football star in high school, and upon graduating in 1964 he had the future set out before him. That future would end up leading to the U.S. Navy, into which he enlisted soon after graduating and where he trained to be a medic, planning to go on to be a missionary after his military service. He would serve aboard the carrier USS Wasp, working his way up to the rank of Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class, until in 1966 he was assigned as a medic and acting chaplain to a Marine unit fighting in Quang Tri Province, in Vietnam. It a turn of events that would set in motion one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Vietnam War, which still has not been adequately solved.
The place where Dennis found himself was a hot zone at the time. He was going into the region during the intense fighting of a battle called Operation Hastings, which was meant to push the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces back across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the line that separated North Vietnam from South Vietnam. On July 15, 1966, Dennis reportedly boarded a CH-46 “Chinook” helicopter along with 15 Marines, but as they came into their landing zone they took heavy ground fire, sending the helicopter to careen to the ground and crash, allegedly exploding into a ball of flame as it did so. When rescuers arrived, they were surprised that three of the men had survived, as they had not expected that anyone could have made it through such a spectacular crash. Unfortunately for Dennis’ family, he was not among the ones that walked away. Or so they say.
The remains were sent back to his family in Ohio, but were described as being so charred and damaged beyond recognition that it was recommended that the funeral be a closed casket affair. It was for that reason that they buried their son without even being able to see him one last time, but when he was lowered into the ground during a graveside memorial at Hillgrove Cemetery with full military honors there was no reason to doubt that it was their beloved son and sibling they were laying to rest. And that was that. It was just another of countless tragic deaths and body bags that the Vietnam War was producing, and all the family could do in the coming years was try to move on and accept that Mark was gone. But that changed one day in 1970, when quite by accident a discovery would be made that would cast doubt over everything they thought they knew about Mark’s fate.
Mark’s brother, Jerry Dennis, was casually flipping through the November 30, 1970 issue of Newsweek Magazine when he came upon a page that made him gasp in astonishment. There before him, placed within an article on POWs of the Vietnam War, was a picture of a young man simply labelled “unidentified American POW,” but to Jerry he was not unidentified at all. It was Mark, he was sure of it. The man in the photo looked exactly like him, and all of the family agreed, with Mark’s sister, Brady, saying of it, “There was a picture of an American prisoner in a Vietnam prison, just sitting on a bunk. It looked exactly like Mark. It couldn’t have looked more like Mark if it was Mark.” It was exciting news, as if it really was him then it meant that he had not died in that helicopter crash after all, that he was potentially still alive somewhere. They were so sure that the man in the photo was Mark that they immediately went about arranging to have the remains exhumed and examined, starting the next chapter in their bizarre odyssey.
They sent off the remains to be analyzed by two different independent laboratories, which would both turn up some of the same anomalies. Intensive forensic analysis showed that not only were the remains of an individual much shorter than the 6’0 Mark, but they were also determined to have come from an Asian man. This, along with various other observations on the remains, convinced the family that the remains they had buried years ago were not those of Mark Dennis. In fact, they suspected that the military had simply taken the remains of a dead North Vietnamese soldier and tried to pass them off as Mark. But why, and where was the real Mark Dennis? No one knew, and they were left to wonder. Jerry Dennis began a crusade to find out, tracking down any information he could and interviewing witnesses and people who had known his brother. He would find even more oddities that made it even more mysterious still.
Testimony from the survivors of the helicopter crash would claim that two men had bailed out of the aircraft before it had gone down, meaning that they would not have been among the dead. Rather oddly, it would also come to his attention that all of the deceased had indeed been found in the wreckage, contradicting the story given by the crash survivors, and not only that, but that all of the bodies found had been positively identified except for Mark’s, and it was through process of elimination that it had been presumed to be him. Still another veteran who had served with Mark told the family that he had never gotten on that helicopter at all. What was going on here? Whatever it was, all of this was enough to convince Mark’s family that he was a POW, and they requested that the U.S. Navy change his status from “killed in action” to “missing in action.”
There would be other developments that would make it even more confusing and mysterious still. It would turn out that the man in the picture in Newsweek had actually been identified as a US Navy Lt. Paul E. Galanti, who was being held at the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam. The military would even prove this by showing the Dennis’ other pictures taken of Galanti in his prison cell and pictures of him before being deployed to Vietnam. The Dennis’ would concede that they had perhaps made a mistake, and that it was just a man who looked as if he could be Mark’s twin, but they still were not convinced that he had died in that crash, and they were sure that the remains they had buried were not Mark’s. The U.S. military then exhumed the remains once again and did their own analysis, coming to the conclusion that they were indeed Mark’s, directly contradicting everything they had been told by two independent forensic laboratories. How could this be?
The final weird clue would come in 1986, when James met a man named John King, who claimed to be an ex-POW who had been held in the same prison as Mark Dennis. He would say that Mark had been the Chaplain of the men, which fit in with his desire to be a missionary, and he even produced a picture of Mark, who he said the other men called “Preacher.” Once again, the man in the photo was the spitting image of Mark, yet this lead would dry up when contact with King was lost. The mystery would remain for some years more, until a series of findings would seemingly solve the case. The case would feature on the hit TV show Unsolved Mysteries, after which it would be determined that King was likely a fraudster. After that there were more analyses done on the mysterious remains with more modern technology that showed that X-rays of Mark’s spine matched the curvature of the spine of the 1966 remains from the crash. In 2016, the U.S. military also tested the remains yet again with DNA testing, and insisted that they were those of Mark Dennis. The Dennis family would then grudgingly accept this conclusion, more out of a desire for a sense of closure and to put the never-ending search for answers behind them. They had the remains cremated for good and buried in a ceremony with full military honors.
Officially, the case is closed, but there are still lingering doubts among many who have followed the case and even among Dennis family members, as well as stubborn details, discrepancies, and loose ends that have never really felt completely tied up. Why is it that there was so much data that showed the remains weren’t from Dennis, only to have the military continually deny this and finally get their way? What about the testimonies of those who had been with him? What are we to make of that? If that body was that of Dennis it is certainly weird, and if it wasn’t, then what happened to him and why were the remains passed off as his? Although the strange case of Mark V. Dennis has officially been laid to rest, it seems as if not everyone is satisfied, and it will likely be speculated on and debated for some time to come.