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.
NOTE: BLOG POSTS ARE NOT UPDATED, SO INFORMATION MAY HAVE CHANGED OVER TIME.
ARRIVAL AT CAMP SAILFISH
Flashback — Vietnam War: Retired Maj Gen Wayne Rollings, a Marine 2nd Lt. in 1969, hung out the door of a USMC CH-46 over the Que Son Mountain jungle on Aug 29th, with his “Sailfish” Recon team, waiting for the F4s to roll in and clear a landing zone so that he and his men could be inserted into “Indian Country” by helicopter. The F4s from VMFA 542 in Danang arrived first, with Jerry serving as the flight leader and Maj Jack Gagen as his wingman – Jack had just arrived in country for his second tour and was getting reoriented to the area. Jerry was completing his first bombing run, when his aircraft was hit and drove into the area’s mountainous terrain. Neither he nor his RIO, 1st Lt. Al Graf, were ever seen again.
41 Years Later — Peacetime Vietnam: It’s Aug 20, 2010 – just 9 days before the anniversary of Jerry’s and Al’s death. I’ve just arrived at JPACs base camp, located below the guys’ crash site in the village of Son Vien. This is where the American team and its Vietnamese counterpart, both of whom are working on the excavation, will be living until the first week of September. I have dreamt of this moment for a long time but had no idea what it would feel like, or if I’d be able to keep it together long enough to thank everyone for their efforts. But the people who do this work, whether military or civilian, are extraordinary —they made it easy for me.
I was greeted by approximately 15 guys who knew of my plans to visit the base camp. They were all in various states of relaxation after another long day of work at the site. My eyes met LtC Todd Emoto, the Commander of JPACs Det2 in Hanoi. Todd, along with Linguist Buddy Newell, had flown down to host the dinner meeting. Unfortunately, I took one look at Todd and could tell that he was sick and belonged in bed. Buddy was doing his best to prop up Todd, as was everyone else. Having known Todd since the beginning of our search for Jerry, I felt bad, but he hung in.
Soon I began meeting all of the team members, most of whom had come in from Hawaii, JPACs headquarters. Todd was right—it was a great excavation team, led by anthropologist Sean Tallman—a young, bright guy from the state of Washington. We stood in a casual circle, and I thanked all the guys for their efforts, and I asked a few basic questions of Sean, who was very open and not at all disappointed with their efforts, thus far.
Although no remains had been discovered, as of that day, the team had found more life support gear, bomb fragments and pieces of fabric that appeared to be from the guys’ flight suits. As I’ve said in previous blogs, an excavation is a tedious process. Sean believes that they are in the right area, so they’ll keep digging and sifting, hoping to hit the jackpot. I have full confidence in the team, but this won’t be a slam-dunk effort.
The next person in the pecking order, behind Sean, is the team leader. Capt Joe Hamer had been assigned to Jerry’s case, and I was looking forward to meeting him. I spotted Joe immediately—he was not in uniform but looked like a Marine—check out the attached photo! He walked up and gave me a hug, and that’s how it began. Eventually, Joe led me into a one-room building that the team was using for supplies and group meetings. There on the wall was the familiar POW/MIA flag, with a few new twists. Spread across the bottom portion of the flag was “Camp Sailfish.” I “got it” immediately and was awestruck by the thoughtfulness that went into creating the special effects. If Wayne Rollings is reading this blog, I’m sure he’ll agree!
I eventually learned that Major Ed Nevgloski, who recently finished his tour as Deputy Commander of JPACs Det2 in Hanoi, had told Joe about our case. Joe, in turn, did some research, which included a visit to my blog, and found the declassified Sailfish document, filed by 2nd Lt. Rollings, four decades earlier. That’s how Sailfish made its way back to Vietnam. Thank you, Joe!
After digesting the Sailfish connection, there was more. Joe’s dad, Bob Hamer, was also a Marine and long-time friend of Olie North, one of the first people, who along with Dewey Clarridge, offered to help with Jerry’s case. In addition, Joe explained that his dad had spent 26 years in the FBI, working Organized Crime—primarily undercover, infiltrating a huge range of groups, from the Mafia to drug syndicates to NAMBLA – North American Man/Boy Love Association.
Joe said that his dad had been attached to the FBIs San Diego Field office at one point in his career. Ironically, my husband, Ron, a former Marine and FBI agent, was attached to the San Diego office at the same time, and remembered Bob! Talk about coincidences!
The trip has been great, and I am heading for Hanoi tomorrow to meet the guys in JPACs Joint Operations Center. Please stay tuned.