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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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MIA IN VIETNAM: NEVER SAY NEVER

Friday, May 24, 2013 @ 08:05 AM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

dscn1967

 Hattie Johnson, Head of the POW/MIA Casualty Office for the Marine Corps, and her assistant, Chuck Williams, are busy preparing for the 44th Annual League Meeting, June 13-15, 2013, in Washington, D.C.  For families with loved ones still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, this meeting is a must. (Not pictured is Mike Ryba, a newcomer to Hattie’s team)

 The 44th Annual Meeting of the National POW/MIA League of Families takes place in Washington, D.C., June 13-15, 2013.  By virtue of the meeting’s longevity, leadership and roster of distinguished attendees, it is a big deal for Vietnam War families with loved ones still unaccounted-for in Southeast Asia.  The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) hosts the event that draws 250 to 300 people, including Congressmen, active duty and retired generals and foreign dignitaries, some of whom travel from as far away as Vietnam.  For over 35 years, the League has had its own in-house guiding force, Ann Mills Griffiths, who now serves as Chairman of the Board, and a lot more.

Although the meeting is business-oriented with families seeking answers and case updates, there is a social component in which familiar faces, year after year, make the meeting a “kumbaya” occasion in the best sense of the word, despite the sad premise that brings everyone together.   

ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER OPENS

One of the people that I enjoy seeing at the Annual League meeting is Hattie Johnson, Head of the POW/MIA Casualty Office for the Marine Corps — even though the reference to “casualty office” takes me back to the worst day of my life when I learned that my first husband, Capt Jerry Zimmer, an F-4 pilot shot down in Vietnam on August 29, 1969, was not coming home. A young Marine Corps Captain, making his first ever casualty call, showed up at my door and was just as devastated, trying to deliver the news, as I was to hear it.  Now 40 years later, it would be an honor to welcome Hattie into my home, as a friend, or as a casualty officer, with news that Jerry’s remains were identified and coming home for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

In fact, the best part of her job is “the day I call you and tell you he is coming home,” says Hattie, during a recent conversation, from her office at Marine Corps Base Quantico.  Regardless of the years that have transpired or the specific past war that was fought, when the remains of an MIA Marine have been identified, Hattie calls the Primary Next of Kin (PNOK) – if known – to arrange a time when she can visit the PNOKs home and present a final briefing on their loved one’s case.

Conveying the message is not always as easy as it might seem, since families may have given up hope and moved on – literally — to a different location.  Hattie interfaces with all the different groups involved in the MIA process, especially DPMO and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), and almost always tracks down the PNOK eventually or locates a surviving family member.

 THE WAIT IS OVER

Marine Corps Pfc. Daniel A. Benedett of Seattle, WA, missing from the Vietnam War, was buried May 14, 2013, in Arlington National Cemetery, along with 12 other servicemen from the same crash — all but three were Marines. Scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) used circumstantial evidence and DNA to account for  Benedett’s remains.  On May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge gunboats captured the S.S. Mayaguez in the Gulf of Thailand, approximately 60 nautical miles off the coast of Cambodia. When efforts to secure the release of the ship and its crew failed, U.S. military forces began a rescue mission, sending in helicopters that came under heavy enemy fire, and the one with Benedett crashed into the surf with him and 25 others aboard.  Thirteen were rescued at sea, leaving Benedett and 12 other service members previously unaccounted-for.  (Photo:  Seattle Times)

NOT FORGOTTEN

Logging thousands of miles, Hattie travels throughout the United States – 50 to 60 days a year to conduct family notifications, and consequently is a critical component in the closure process.  Hattie takes her job seriously and never forgets a case, but no doubt remembers even the smallest details that were particularly unique, as in the case of 1st Sgt George Humphrey,  a 29 year-old Marine killed in action in WWI, who finally came home on June 23, 2009.  “It was the oldest briefing I have ever done,” said Hattie, clearly amazed at the details that began to unfold as she learned more about the case from anthropologists at JPACs Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), located at Hickam AFB in Honolulu.  Before Hattie conducts a briefing, she does her homework.

“When I receive an Identification Book, I become a family member,” said Hattie, who tries to focus on the details that a sister, wife or distant relative might want to know – even when there is a long generational gap between the MIA and surviving family members.   She also knows that briefings can be emotional.  “All of us cry – I think it’s a happy and sad reaction.” Hattie explains that most families never expect that a loved one’s remains will be found.

Since the Humphrey case was a large media event, Hattie was able to discuss the case, but normally she would adhere to Department of Defense (DoD) privacy policies by not releasing information to third parties.  “The only thing we can provide to other people is whatever is on the Internet or on JPACs and DPMOs websites,” she said.  In the case of Vietnam War MIAs, some families still live in the same homes, as once shared by their missing loved ones, and prefer not to have their addresses, telephone numbers or other details released to the general public.  When people call to inquire about the status of an MIA case, Hattie suggests that they “Google the name, since buddies may have written about him.”

Indeed, Humphrey’s story captured national media attention, and with good reason.  According to Hattie and others, young Humphrey was serving with the 6th Marine Regiment that was part of the first, U.S.-led offensive at St. Mihiel, in northern France, under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing.  The unit was caught in the middle of a contentious battle and Humphrey was killed instantly when a German bullet penetrated his flimsy steel helmet.  Thanks to a French relic hunter, Humphrey’s remains were returned to the United States, where they underwent a year of forensic testing in JPACs laboratory.

NEVER SAY NEVER

1stSgt George Humphrey, USMC, was killed in action on Sept 15, 1918, in WWI, on a battlefield in northern France.  Humphrey’s remains were repatriated to the United States in 2009, and after extensive forensic testing for identification, he was interred a year later in Arlington National Cemetery.  Hattie’s advice:  “Never say never.”

The material evidence was nothing short of an anthropologist’s dream, consisting of the clothing and gear Humphrey was wearing at the time of his death – the rusted helmet still covered his intact skull; his chest area contained clips of rifle ammunition;  boots were still on his feet; and his favorite homemade pipe, 14-carat gold fountain pen and dog tags were also with him.  Hattie tracked down Humphrey’s extended family members, and they were thrilled to welcome a distant, long-lost cousin back home after being MIA for 92 years.  One of the cousins was an 85-year-old woman, who was very sharp, according to Hattie, and showed her pictures of Humphrey’s parents during the briefing.  Humphrey was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on June 23, 2010.

WAITING

Jerry's son, Craig, kneels before his father's memorial stone, during the 40th Memorial Service in Arlington Nat'l Cemetery, 8/20/2009

Jerry’s and my son, Craig, at Jerry’s 40th Memorial Service, August 20, 2009, in Arlington National Cemetery.  This section is devoted to our deceased military whose remains have not been found.  However, if Jerry’s remains are found, he will be interred in Arlington’s burial section, and the above gravestone will be moved to that location.

 TEAM EFFORT

Under the leadership of Scientific Director Dr. Thomas Holland, the CIL manages MIA cases from past wars with anthropologists and other experts working together to determine identifications.  The CIL conducts a variety of forensic tests and, whenever possible, works with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) at Dover AFB in Delaware.  AFDIL Deputy Director James Canik  frequently helps the CIL bring a case to fruition.

“When DNA is involved as part of the ID process, a forensic scientist always travels with me,” said Hattie, explaining that she never knows who will be at the briefing, recalling the time when a pathologist showed up.  When Hattie expressed concern about briefing the Town Coroner, he laughed at the conclusion of the session and said:  “Hattie you can work for me any day.”

No case is closed until the CIL deems that an MIA has been scientifically identified, family notified and remains made available for disposition in accordance with a family’s wishes.  Hattie’s office is involved at some level, every step of the way.

No matter what happens in the resolution of Jerry’s case, most of us with unaccounted-for loved ones from the Vietnam War understand that remains will almost certainly be in poor condition and few in number at this point in history – nothing like the Humphrey case – because of the acidic soil in Southeast Asia; however, our family would gratefully accept whatever is available, and Hattie would be the perfect person to deliver the news.

The big four – Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps – all have their own casualty offices that handle POW/MIA cases.  And while there are standard DoD guidelines, each service develops its own program.  The Marine Corps fields two branches – one for current day casualties and the other for past wartime casualties.  Hattie has been in both branches but now works strictly for Marine Corps families with loved ones missing from WWII, Korea, Vietnam War, Cold War and Iraq.

Families with MIAs from other past wars also have annual meetings, but the upcoming League Meeting is all about MIAs from the Vietnam War, and it is often where introductions are made between casualty officers and family members.

FAMILY AFFAIR

I first met Hattie in July 2010 at the Crystal City Hyatt at the 41st Annual League Meeting, where the event is traditionally held.  Her office is tasked with arranging transportation and briefings for Marine Corps families attending the event.   I did not know much about Hattie, except that we had spoken on the telephone leading up to the meeting.   I walked into a small crowded, over-heated room, to meet JPACs Steve Thompson to receive a briefing on Jerry’s case.  There was Hattie waiting for her Marine Corp family member — yours truly — to arrive at the designated time for my meeting with Steve (I got lost in the maze of meeting rooms and was late).  Hattie, along with her casualty assistant, Chuck Williams, a retired Marine MSgt, gave me a warm welcome, and soon the “Zimmer Davis” clan officially became one of Hattie’s families, along with approximately 4,000 others in her case files.  Also, Steve has become as much a friend as a case officer, which describes the interaction that takes place over time between MIA families and others who assist in our quest to bring home loved ones.

Maneuvering the DoD  system , as it applies to MIAs from past wars, is not for military neophytes, which is why people like Hattie are invaluable; she may not have seen it all, but undoubtedly she has heard it all, during her first career with the Army, serving primarily as a court reporter.   Hattie retired as an Army  1stSgt after 22 years, before joining the “Marine Corps” as a civilian on May 18, 1999.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Hattie dropped out of the University of Tennessee, after a family emergency.  Instead of returning to college, she followed a girlfriend into an Army Recruiting Station and began a career that took her to Germany for over 10 years; Seoul, Korea, for a year; and other duty stations, as well.  “I wanted to travel,” Hattie told me, and her dream came true.  She eventually married an Army soldier and together they raised a family.  No problem with long-distance relationships, since  the Army usually assigned Hattie first, because of her MOS as a court reporter – one of only 133 during that era – and then assigned her husband to the same duty station.  Hattie explained that the Army frequently crossed-trained soldiers, so she also worked casualty cases during her career.

Ready to return to the workforce after a breather, Hattie heard that the Marine Corps was looking for a “special person” to handle casualty cases, so she answered the call – no surprise that the Marine Corps hired this special lady.  That was nearly 15 years ago.

As our conversation was coming to an end, I told Hattie that I wasn’t giving up, but my hopes of finding Jerry’s remains were dwindling.  Hattie’s response:  “There are family members who have given up hope, because it has been so long,” said Hattie.  But when you do what I do, I always think about 1stSgt. Humphrey and tell people, never say never — I’ve seen it happen.”

 

 

 

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