40 Years After The Vietnam War, Families Still Search For Answers
NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base." A version of this story has appeared on KPBS.org.
It's been more than four decades since Elaine Zimmer Davis got the knock on her door that no Marine wife wants to hear.
"And I didn't want to open it because I knew, I knew what was coming," she says.
Her husband's F-4 Phantom plane had been shot down over a remote mountainside in Vietnam. It was August 29, 1969. Witnesses described a fiery crash. The 25 year-old Marine pilot was "killed in action, no body recovered," they told her.
"Later, members of his squadron came to see me," she says. "They said, 'Elaine, we could have put him MIA. We didn't want you to be waiting years for him to come back.'"
Capt. Jerry Zimmer was later reclassified to MIA: missing in action.
"If they did not come home, they then became MIAs," Elaine explains.
She says she spent years wondering if he might still be alive.
"I thought, 'He's out there.' But inside I think there was sort of that push-pull, feeling that he couldn't have survived," she says.
Jerry Zimmer's unknown fate is shared with 1,600 other Vietnam service members who remain unaccounted for. The U.S. government set up a command after the war ended to investigate MIA cases. They've recovered the remains of 900 service members. Jerry's case was unsolved and stamped "no further pursuit."
Back in the states, life went on for Elaine and their 2-year-old son, Craig. They moved across the country from Rhode Island to Tustin, Calif. It's where she met Ron Davis, a Marine helicopter pilot just back from Vietnam.
"We met sort of accidentally. And within the next year we were married," she says.
Over the years she had another son. She also completed college and enjoyed being a wife and stay at home mom. The family eventually settled in San Diego.
But Elaine says a part of her remained unsettled. After accompanying her husband on a business trip to Vietnam in 2004, she began a quest to bring Jerry's remains home.
Researching and writing about Jerry's case became her full-time job.
"Maybe if I can bring home his remains – no matter when – I can feel like I did something for him," she says.
The family took multiple trips to Vietnam to search for evidence. They interviewed locals and documented their findings to present to the U.S. government.
Ron Davis is a former FBI agent who is using his investigation skills to try to find Jerry's remains.
"I'm a Marine and he's a Marine and just from the pure brotherhood of Marines I'm very pleased to be assisting," he says.
The government has reopened the case. Elaine says another excavation of the crash site is planned. Results could come this year.
"Right now, there is a small portion that they have nailed down as where remains — perhaps with his body in portions of the aircraft – where they slid down the mountain," she says.
Mountaineers will be required to search the 80-degree cliff. If remains are found, they will be sent to the Air Force for review and analysis, she says.
"I think having his remains come back and he's here," says Jerry's son Craig, now 47. "I think that would do a lot for our family."
He says his mom's search for closure has been an opening for him to learn more about his father.
"My mom pulled out this chest of letters, of mementos of all kinds of things that were 40 years in the past and the thing that was the most awe-inspiring was she had these tapes," he says.
"So it's daddy telling you goodbye for now, Craigy. And just behave yourself and I'll be seeing you pretty soon, Craigy," Jerry says in one of those tapes.
Craig says his father is a hard person to live up to.
"He was a farmer, small town. He got into an Ivy League university, he became a naval aviator with the Marine Corps, he was a father, a husband, a son" Craig says. "he's somebody that I hold in a regard, and I think it's a big part of who I am and who I try to be with my children as well."
Forty years after the Vietnam War concluded on April 30, 1975, Elaine says it may finally end for her.
"Maybe now he'll come home," she says.
Jerry's remains, if found, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago this week. For Elaine Zimmer Davis, it's not over yet. Her husband was a Marine fighter pilot. His plane was shot down over Vietnam, and she's still searching for his remains. She's not alone. Her son wants to learn more about his father, and her second husband, who also served in that war, is helping. Susan Murphy with member station KPBS in San Diego has their story.
SUSAN MURPHY, BYLINE: It's been more than four decades since Elaine Zimmer Davis got the knock on her door.
ELAINE ZIMMER DAVIS: And I didn't want to open it because I knew. I knew what was coming.
MURPHY: A Marine captain gave her the news. Her husband's F-4 Phantom had been shot down over a remote mountainside in Vietnam. It happened August 29, 1969. Witnesses described a fiery crash. Her husband, captain Jerry Zimmer, was killed in action. Nobody recovered.
E. DAVIS: Later, members of his squadron came to see me. They said, Elaine, we could have put him MIA. This was the guys, and they said, we didn't want you to be waiting years.
MURPHY: Life went on for Elaine Zimmer. Her husband was 25 when he was shot down. The couple had a son, Craig, who was 2. Elaine moved the family across the country from Rhode Island to Southern California. A few months later, she met Ron Davis, a Marine helicopter pilot just back from Vietnam.
E. DAVIS: We met sort of accidentally. And within the next year, we were married.
MURPHY: Over the years, she had another son. She completed college, worked as a freelance writer and a stay-at-home mom. Years passed. Then, word from the military, Captain Zimmer's status was being re-classified to MIA, missing in action. Elaine says the news made her start wondering again if he might still be alive.
E. DAVIS: I thought, he's out there. But inside, I think there was that sort of push-pull, you know, feeling that, you know, he couldn't have survived.
MURPHY: Elaine says a part of her remains unsettled. In 2004, she went with her husband on a business trip to Vietnam. After that, she began her quest to bring Jerry Zimmer's remains home.
E. DAVIS: Maybe if I can bring home his remains, no matter when, I can feel like I did something for him.
MURPHY: Her husband, Ron Davis, is the one helping her bring her first husband back.
RON DAVIS: Some people say, well, it seem like this would be hard on me, but it's really not. It just seems like the right thing to do. I'm a Marine, and he's a Marine. And just from the pure brotherhood of Marines, I'm very pleased to be assisting.
MURPHY: Captain Zimmer was one of about 2,600 Vietnam service members who were listed as MIA. Over the years, the U.S. recovered the remains of more than 900 listed as missing. Jerry Zimmer's case was not resolved and stamped no further pursuit. So his family took up the chase. Davis is a former FBI agent.
R. DAVIS: I really know how to do a good investigation. So I was able to put together a report that they could understand and see that we had good evidence why they should re-open the case.
MURPHY: The family took several trips to Vietnam to search for crash site evidence and interview villagers. They trudged through rough terrain and layers of bureaucracy. Ron Davis created a three-dimensional map pinpointing what he says is the debris field. The government did re-open the case. A survey of the crash site is underway, and results could be completed this year.
CRAIG ZIMMER: I think having his remains come back and he's here, I think that would do a lot for our family.
MURPHY: That's Craig Zimmer, Jerry Zimmer's son. He's 47 now, and his mom's search for closure has been a chance for him to learn more about his father.
C. ZIMMER: He's a hard person to live up to (laughter) because, I mean, he was a farmer, small town. He got into an Ivy League university. He became a naval aviator with the Marine Corps.
MURPHY: His mom had spent years shielding Craig. She didn't want him to be an MIA son always wondering what had happened to his father. Finally, she opened up.
C. ZIMMER: My mom pulled out this chest of letters, of mementos, of all kinds of things that were 40 years in the past. And the thing that was the most awe-inspiring was she had these tapes.
MURPHY: Tapes his father had sent home from Vietnam.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)
JERRY ZIMMER: So it's Daddy telling you goodbye for now, Craigy. And just behave yourself, and I'll be seeing you pretty soon, Craigy.
MURPHY: If Captain Jerry Zimmer does finally come home, if his remains are found, the family will have them buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)
J. ZIMMER: Take good care of Mommy, and make her behave herself. Keep close watch on her. Take care of her, and remember Daddy's still thinking of you all the time.
MURPHY: For NPR News, I'm Susan Murphy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.