My first husband, Capt. Jerry Zimmer, was an F4B Phantom jet pilot, whose aircraft was shot down on August 29, 1969, approximately 20 miles South of Da Nang, Vietnam, after six months in country. Neither Jerry nor his navigator, 1st Lt. Al Graf, was able to eject, before the aircraft crashed into the Que Son Mountains. Initially Jerry and Al were classified as Killed in Action/No Body Recovered (KIA/NBR). Years later, both Marines were listed as MIA, along with other service members whose bodies were never recovered.
Jerry has been gone nearly a half century, and hope for recovering his remains had run out a long time ago. However, in recent years our family became involved with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), now merged with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and learned that Jerry’s and Al’s remains might, in fact, be recoverable, so we are doing everything possible to support their efforts to make this happen and bring our guys home where they belong.
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Archive for March, 2010
My trip to the village of Son Vien below Jerry’s crash site was very worthwhile, not because I learned a lot more about the crash, but because it gave me an opportunity to understand the people who live in the area and how the war impacted their lives.
Last time, I was able to talk with Mr. Du without the presence of a policeman, but that was not the case this time — the village policeman sat in on our conversation which changed the atmosphere. (Last year that policeman was supposed to be present, as well, but he was getting married on the day we visited. I reminded the policeman that I had given him a wedding gift).
Nevertheless, Du told me that the police had visited his home after I left last year and wanted to know about our conversation; consequently, he planned to make a report about my visit this time. I also learned that Du is a communist, which is a big honor for Vietnamese, especially from the rural sectors. There are perks for members of the Party, but I would guess that they vary according to stature.
I was surprised when Du showed us a dog tag on his key ring that Gene and Bill said looked very authentic. The name engraved on it was “Duffy, G.H. G. R., USMC, Lutheran, 2474841.” When I get home, I will try to learn more about this Marine, but if anyone reading this blog recognizes his name, let me know. Since Du is the village elder, I know his stature was earned early-on for his “work” as a Viet Cong — I had been told that those guys are revered by their countrymen. I think Mr. Du was a tough guy in his earlier days, because it’s apparent that he still holds sway.
As we sat talking, with Anh translating, it was apparent that our conversation was lackluster, especially when I tried to get specific about his role as a Viet Cong. I asked if the Americans had come through his village, to which he answered “no.” I gathered that discussion was off limits. I also asked about unexploded ordinance and the possible danger involved. According to Anh, he said there was no ordinance. Yet, while the guys were hiking around the mountainside, Mr. Bay indicated that the Vietnamese government would not allow anyone to go into the mountains for several years after the war ended because of unexploded ordinance.
Signing off from Hanoi
After spending a week traveling to Saigon, Danang and Hoi An, I am now in Hanoi. I’ve had a few computer challenges, but they seem to be resolved at the moment. Weather has been humid throughout Vietnam, but particularly hot in Saigon and the Danang area. The big issue, however, has been the time difference – as always. The noise level is somewhat distracting, too, because of the overwhelming number of motorbikes – everywhere. I’m sitting in my hotel room, and the sound of grinding gears and honking horns now seems inherent in the everyday life of Vietnamese people. Thank God, it quiets down about 10 p.m. The wake-up call comes at 6 a.m., when the motor madness begins again, except in Hoi An, where the roosters chime in, as well.
Many thanks go to Gene Mares for accompanying me to Vietnam again. We covered a lot of ground in about four days – several flights, hotel changes and the usual logistical nightmares. The highlight was our visit to the village of Son Vien, located below Jerry’s crash site. After 40 years, it is still so difficult to face the mountain and realize I’m looking at the place where Jerry’s plane went down. There is a feeling of helplessness, standing there and wondering if we’ll ever be able to bring his remains home. Believe me, without a group like JPAC, this would be almost impossible to achieve. My heart goes out to all families whose loved ones still have not returned home from Vietnam.
Although I wasn’t able to hike around the area with Gene, he was accompanied by Bill Ervin – a retired Marine who lives in Danang with his Vietnamese wife, Anh. Also along was Bill and Anh’s friend, Girouard, a Canadian who has lived in Vietnam for nearly a decade, teaching Vietnamese to foreign students at a university in Hanoi. Mr Bay and his son, Cuong, both of whom Gene and I had met on our last trip to the area, served as guides, and Girouard as the interpreter.
One of the funniest questions that the Vietnamese asked the guys was about their political party affiliations: “Are you Democrats or Republicans?” they asked. Since Girouard was a Canadian, he wasn’t in the running, but Gene said it was a 50-50 split between him and Bill. The Vietnamese said they liked President Bush, which was interesting.
On the subject of remains, Mr. Bay said he was pretty convinced that remains will be found when the site is excavated. I have learned not to pay too much attention to specifics, such as what body parts were buried years ago, because time has a way of distorting facts. While the guys were walking, Bay pointed out spider holes, which were very difficult to detect, but obviously still existed after all these years – interesting to me, when you consider that erosion hasn’t destroyed these one-man foxholes that probably cover miles of territory throughout Quang Nam province. Mr. Du later showed us a spider hole that extended a huge distance behind his house. He referred to it as a bomb shelter, but as a former Viet Cong, it was a spider hole to me.
While the guys hiked, I stayed at the village with Mr. Du and met more members of his family. Bill’s wife, Anh, served as my interpreter. Translation is always a problem, because the dialects in the rural areas can be more difficult for an interpreter to understand. Last time, I thought Mr. Du had five children, but it seems that he actually has four. His home apparently is considered above the norm, even though by our standards, it would be very modest with its cement floors and basic furnishings. He showed me a picture of his family that was taken during Tet, when they gather each year. Most of them were married with children and worked for the provincial government in Tam Ky. I had sent him some photos that I took last year of his family and other villagers, so he showed me the booklet. He had coated them in plastic for protection and indicated that he would like a camera. I gave him enough money to buy one as a gift from me; however, I am always very careful not to throw money around in the village or anywhere else in Vietnam. I also knew that Mr. Du wanted some money to buy communication gear for the public meeting house, which amounted to about $300. (It is not uncommon for Americans to help the Vietnamese in rebuilding their communities.)
Mr. Du had sent me photos of his 17 year-old daughter, who is a very pretty girl and interested in attending college in the United States. I explained the difficulty because of expense and language barrier, etc. Anh and Ed told me later that Vietnamese parents all want their kids to attend college in the United States. Ron and I actually had talked with some of our Vietnamese friends in San Diego before I left for Vietnam, and they said that the communists had the money to pay cash in the USA for their kid’s education and to buy homes near their schools with cash, as well.
Signing off from Hanoi.