Our Mission:

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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INSIDE RURAL VIETNAM — HOME OF JERRY’S CRASH SITE

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 @ 06:08 AM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

 

L-R:  Du’s son, Vinh; granddaughter, Thao; grandson, Nguyen; daughter-in-law, Huyen; Elaine; wife, Yen; and Du, have graciously opened their home to me on several occasions.

NO LONGER ENEMIES

It has taken me a while to realize that my visits to Vietnam have been a positive factor in the constant challenge of reliving Jerry’s death while working on his case. Certainly the in-country JPAC leadership and field teams, working hard to find our loved ones, have provided a comfort zone and connection to people of like mind and culture in this faraway country. However, my transformation seems to have come gradually from people of so-called unlike mind and of a very different culture.

Whenever I return to Vietnam, as I did in May 2012, one of the most important stops on my itinerary is at the village of Son Vien, located in the valley below Jerry’s and Al’s crash site. Depending upon road conditions, the drive from Hoi An usually takes an hour or more, riding along bumpy roads into the back country of the Central Highlands. My guide and translator, Hoa (pronounced, whar), always contacts Du – a village elder –in advance to let him know that the American woman is coming to visit his family. Du is the former Viet Cong soldier, who led us to Jerry’s crash site three years ago, and I always look forward to this part of my time in country. Inevitably, when our driver begins the final lap of our journey, Du appears from out of nowhere on his motorbike, motioning us to follow him home.

It is heartwarming to be greeted by Du’s wife, son, daughter-in-law and two small grandchildren, all of whom line the entryway of their traditional rural home, welcoming me in a low-key manner that typifies the Vietnamese culture.  A few neighbors appear, as do a gaggle of chickens and other free-ranging animals.  We all gather around the kitchen table, while the children spend a little time staring at the interloper, keeping a safe distance, until I reach into my bag and produce a treat.  Asking for permission from their parents, I cautiously give them some candy, worried that the smallest will choke on the candy’s taffy-like consistency.  While everyone is all smiles, I am secretly holding my breath, praying that he doesn’t choke.  Within seconds the candy has disappeared — thank God, with no need for the Heimlich maneuver — and I have become their best friend.

A little candy works wonders with children around the world, as it did with Thao, 4, and Nguyen, 2.

It is apparent that everyone is now relaxed in my presence, and this is a good feeling.  We have graduated beyond discussing Jerry, since Du’s role was finished sometime ago; yet, he knows that I am visiting because of his help.  Although I am unable to communicate through language, I do a pretty good job of getting my point across with facial and hand gestures, until I’m rescued by Hoa, who begins translating.  Language is never a problem for her, even though dialects differ throughout Vietnam. 

DOOR-TO-DOOR SEARCH PAYS OFF

Hoa migrated from Hanoi to Da Nang decades ago.  In her mid 50s, Hoa is fluent in five languages and handles all in-country dialects easily. Interestingly, Hoa has worked with Vietnam Tourism for 20 years and along the way linked up with my friend, Doug Reese – a former Army officer who lived in-country until recently.  In 2008, Hoa and Doug went door-to-door in the village, whereupon they met Du, and the rest – as they say – is history.  But without Hoa, Doug and Du, it is highly likely that Jerry’s case would still be in the “No Further Pursuit” category. 

I often bring Du a gift as an expression of my appreciation for our friendship.  This time I brought him a small video camera, and although the directions looked complicated, he understood the basic concept right away.  I don’t know what eventually becomes of the few items that I’ve given Du, but the important thing is that I get to express my gratitude without adopting the family, so to speak.

 (R) Hoa listens to Du before translating his comments. She has accompanied me on several occasions. In the background is Qui, a neighbor who usually stops by when I am visiting.

I rarely ever allow myself to cry in front of people, but laughing is fair game, and on this occasion I was not the only one who found humor in some of our conversations. After presenting the video camera, Du asked if I had received his letters, and I quickly responded affirmatively.  I then decided to tell him that since they were written in Vietnamese, my husband, Ron, usually took them to work for translation.   Not wanting to bother the same person each time, Ron would ask different people to translate.  When a female colleague translated the last letter, Ron said she stopped and looked at him very seriously and asked if his wife had two husbands – one in Vietnam and the other [Ron] in the United States (I think something was lost in the translation.)  Ron thought it was hilarious, as did Du’s family, all of whom laughed harder than I’d ever heard before.  

 As Hoa and I were preparing to leave, Du steered me in the direction of the living room, where we often gathered in the past, and pointed to a group of framed photos, hanging from the highest point on one of the walls.  Among the photos were images of him being honored with a ceremony in Hanoi for finding the remains of an NVA soldier, which were later returned to the soldier’s family. However, several images were taken in 2009 on the day that he led us to Jerry’s crash site after four decades of not knowing where his aircraft – and possibly his remains – might be located. 

Hanging high on a wall in Du’s home, located in the small, rural village of Son Vien in Quang Nam Province, are a series of photos, some of which depict the day when the former Viet Cong soldier led us to Jerry’s and Al’s crash site deep within the Que Son Mtns.

That evening I hosted Du and his friend, Bay, along with Doug and Hoa for dinner and a night in Hoi An with retired Lt Col Gene Mares, who had hiked to the site and accompanied me on the trip that changed the course of events in Jerry’s and Al’s case.  It was apparent that the photos had become a major part of Du’s legacy.   And in a very different way, they had also become a part of mine, too.

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