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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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Air America Reunion in San Diego: May 30 to June 3, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012 @ 12:05 AM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

Tuna Barksdale discusses the upcoming 2012 Air America Reunion in San Diego and reflects on his Vietnam War years as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam and as a pilot with Air America in Laos.

The secret war in Laos and link to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), through its ownership of Air America (AAM), is still an enigma to many people, even though the Vietnam War has been over for decades. Despite the mountainous number of declassified documents now available, covering ’55 -’74, and the much-to-do-about-nothing 1990 movie, Air America, for which many AAM pilots still harbor resentment for its bad storytelling, the real stories of what happened in Laos during the war years are best told by the guys who were there, either through their books, online postings or in person.

“When someone gets up and starts telling a story, it begins to snowball from there,” says Mike Barksdale, aka, Mikey Tuna – a Marine Vietnam veteran who flew H-34s and Hueys in Vietnam, and again later with AAM in Laos. Tuna tells me that the next Air America reunion will be in San Diego, CA, May 30-June 3, 2012.

Tuna and wife Janelle live in the San Diego area and will be attending the reunion, and he hopes that some of his AAM buddies will be there too, like Mike La Pierre, Ron Zaperdino and Bob O’Kennon. Judging by past reunions described on www.AirAmerica.org (great website), these functions usually attract a broad range of former AAM family members and friends who were assigned to Vietnam or Laos, such as contract pilots from civilian and former military ranks – usually Marines and Army; Ravens, typically from the Air Force; flight maintenance/mechanics, CIA case officers, and guys who flew for Arizona Helicopters, Bird & Sons and Continental Air Services.


Today, Tuna and I are sitting outside his corporate headquarters on a beautiful San Diego day, having lunch and talking about his flying days during the Vietnam War. Tuna is like most former military pilots – he enjoys sharing highlights of long ago when flying was wild and “O” Club war stories got better with every drink. Tuna does not look back on those years with blame, horror or misgivings. Quite the contrary: “I wouldn’t change those experiences for anything,” says Tuna, who grins and says: “You had to be hard-charging and young.”

Although admitting to being more mellow these days, it will come as no surprise that Tuna hasn’t lost his dry sense of humor — headquarters is actually Shakespeare Pub & Grille near the Little Italy section of downtown San Diego. I’m sipping a glass of wine and he a beer, and we spend most of our time laughing, not crying about the past. “When I told Janelle that we were coming to Shakespeare’s, she thought it was a tacky choice,” laughs Tuna, who at 70 is trim and still maintains his Marine Corps weight. Quick to smile, it is difficult to imagine that 2011 was a rough year, health-wise, for Tuna, who still has that youthful, devilish persona, which surfaces when explaining that he and younger brother Jamey, also a Marine Vietnam veteran who flew A-4s, bought a couple of prop planes years ago and started a company servicing the Navy with slow threat simulation training — that’s when the guys found that Shakespeare’s was a perfect place — then and now — to conduct corporate business.

Tuna was a Captain by the time he made up his mind to leave the Marine Corps in 1970. It was not easy but logical for a guy whose life increasingly focused on flying more and making a living at it –AAM looked like a perfect solution – money over medals but still patriotic.

“I knew that the flying opportunities would be slowing down in Vietnam,” says Tuna, who decided to call AAM when he heard that they were building up their helicopter fleet. After he spoke to a representative in D.C. and took an airline employment test, a call was made to the Operation’s Officer of his last Marine squadron, and Tuna was hired. In Dec 1971 he landed at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) in Thailand, followed three months later by former wife Paula, where they remained for the next three years. They lived among families who were working for the Company– the name given to the CIA, which Tuna says was basically a joke, because all the guys knew it was a CIA operation, even if most Americans did not; however that was about to change. As Tuna was arriving in Laos, the U.S. was holding Senate Hearings in D.C. exposing the secret war to the folks back home in the states.

4 Responses to “Air America Reunion in San Diego: May 30 to June 3, 2012”

  1. Walt Ford says:

    Great story and well told too. Thank you for sharing Elaine.

  2. Thanks, Walt — I have so much respect for Leatherneck Magazine and for you as the Publisher & Editor.

  3. Lawrence (Larry) Karch says:

    A really interesting story. Pretty country Laos. I spent some time overhead in 1969 – both day and night -as a member of VMFA-542.

    But I have to admit that all my time in Laosian airspeace was at 450+ kts. As time went on in ’69, the AAA fire picked up markedly. But OTOH, the trasers gave us more aim points for dropping our cluster bombs which we increasingly carried as the AAA threat increased.

    Nasty weapons those CBUs. I would not wanted to have been an NVA gunner knowing what was going to come raining down when he opened up with his 23mm or 37mm. Have to give the NVA credit for staying the course even as we were decimating them with some pretty horrendous ordnance.

  4. Larry, Thanks for checking in! I know that our Marines in VMFA-542 and other squadrons did a great job of supporting the secret war. You were one of the best in the squadron. Hope to talk with you one of these days about your experiences.

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