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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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NOTE:  BLOG POSTS ARE NOT UPDATED, SO INFORMATION MAY HAVE CHANGED OVER TIME.

MY FIRST EXCAVATION

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 @ 03:04 AM  posted by Elaine

Team leader Capt Ernest Nordman, USMC, discusses his current excavation assignment with VFWs Adjutant General Gunner Kent and Senior Vice Commander Richard Eubank.

 I jumped at the opportunity to visit an excavation site outside of Saigon during my mid March trip to Vietnam. I tagged along with the leadership of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), which was a great experience.  The two groups were hosted by JPAC and others, as is customary during their visits to Vietnam.  A lot of Americans don’t realize how much effort they exert on behalf of their respective memberships.  Until recently, I didn’t know the VFW had over 2 million members.  I was humbled to be among both of them!  I urge all Vietnam vets to support their efforts!

The hike was easy — an anomaly for the JPAC team these days, now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  The temperature/humidity was way up there, so I was happy with the short haul.  I was told the teams – both American and Vietnamese — were excavating for two Air Force officers – a pilot and RIO – shot down in an F4C.  Since Jerry and his backseater, Al Graf, were also shot down in an F4, I felt a kinship with the men, and the site was hallowed ground to me.  (Check out the Excavation Site photos in the gallery, too). 

Greeted by Kristen Baker, the anthropologist/leader of the site, I was awestruck by her youth and professionalism.  Kristen explained the dynamics of digging for remains, which involved use of a metal detector to determine the outer perimeter of the site and enabled them to work inward from there.  The digging portion focused mainly on reaching the impact zone of the aircraft.  Kristen told me of her extensive research before each dig to get a sense of the area and all known information about the downed aircraft.

Kristen’s sidekick was team leader Capt Ernest Nordman, a fun guy who clearly reminded me of so many young Marines I’d known in the past – I sensed that he liked results, and probably felt the tougher the challenge, the better!  Kristen and Capt Nordman were based at JPAC headquarters in Hawaii, with several other team members and traveled from one location to another, as assigned, around the globe.  Although Kristen was a civilian employee, Capt Nordman was serving a three-year tour of duty with JPAC.  In fact, the military members — enlisted and officers – came from all services and most had served already in combat and were fulfilling a joint service tour as part of their career advancement.  The JPAC assignment is coveted and not easy to get.  Among the requirements is topnotch physical conditioning.  If you visit JPACs website, you’ll understand why.  Kristen and Capt Nordman both have used their rock climbing training on more than one occasion.

Kristen explained that the locals did the sifting for remains and typically recognized something, such as a bone fragment, quicker than outsiders.  She attributed this to their knowledge of the land, and I soon understood what she meant.  I tried sifting and had no clue what I was looking at, other than it all looked like crushed rock.    As you can imagine, the work is tedious and requires full attention.  

It was Africa hot, so everyone was sweating and happy when it was time to head back to the camp, which was interesting in itself.  About two weeks before an  excavation begins, an advance team goes to each site to clear the area of any potential unexploded ordinance; bring in supplies and hire the locals to build the temporary camps and to work at the site with teams.  The advance team also must negotiate the price of everything fromwages for the locals to removal of a tree that often becomes a “rare” tree.

We wrapped up our visit with a great lunch, featuring a wild boar killed that morning, freshly baked bread from the nearest town and a vegetable of some sort.  Many thanks to Capt. Nordman for helping me survive the toasting ritual, which is a Vietnamese tradition — a little voice in my head kept saying, “Elaine, don’t try to compete,” and for once, I listened. 

I hope the excavation was successful, and our guys finally come home.  My heart goes out to their families.

Note:  Many thanks to Buddy Newell, a civilian language specialist at Det2, for helping me attain press approval from the Vietnamese Foreign Press Ministry to visit the excavation site.   It was an incredible learning experience for me.

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