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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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Posts Tagged ‘S.S. Mayaguez’

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.

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