The author’s husband, navy lieutenant Frank Callihan Elkins, disappeared in his A-4 Skyhawk somewhere in Nghe Tinh Province, Vietnam, in October 1966. It took 23 years to find him.
EVERY WAR HAS PRODUCED SOME NUMBER OF MEN WHOSE REMAINS COULD NOT BE RECOVERED. In previous centuries, accurate counts of those missing in action (MIAs) were often unobtainable. When Napoleon Bonaparte embroiled Europe in war, for example, soldiers were recruited as armies advanced. The result was huge numbers of men about whom relatives heard nothing and about whose whereabouts the military cared little.
In this century, the numbers of American MIAs have been reasonably well documented: In World War I there were 2,913 of them; in World War II, almost 79,000; in Korea, 8,200; and in Vietnam, 2,273 remain unaccounted for. Since World War II, reported sightings of prisoners of war (POWs)—with attendant claims that Americans are still being held in captivity—have also been common.
At the end of World War II, the Soviets had seized more than 15,000 Americans from German camps and from Soviet-held areas; although they were repatriated, during the late 1940s, reports persisted that Americans (including a man wearing a “U.S. Navy” tattoo) were being held in Soviet labor camps. In Korea, the Allied command listed 952 Americans believed to be prisoners of Communist forces; these prisoners’ disappearance has never been fully explained. In 1953 a Japanese POW who had been held in the Soviet Union told U.S. officials that he had seen at least a dozen Americans at a labor camp near Khabarovsk. Recently declassified documents indicate that another Japanese POW corroborated this report of American prisoners; this man insisted that he had also met an American who had been convicted of espionage by a Soviet court and sentenced to imprisonment. Whether these Americans were prisoners from an earlier war or men who disappeared during espionage activities in the Cold War is unclear; on June 13, 1952, a U.S. Air Force B-29 flying a secret mission near the Soviet Union had disappeared near Siberia with 12 Americans aboard.
Declassified Pentagon documents from the 1950s also detail persistent reports by refugees and released prisoners that describe American POWs in both the Soviet Union and China. According to the State Department, some of these reports were “so credible” that in 1956 it demanded an accounting from the Soviets. The Pentagon estimated that the Soviet government was holding at least 12 American prisoners—perhaps from the B-29 and from a navy plane that disappeared over the Baltic in 1950. The Soviets insisted, however, that no Americans were in their prisons. Because Cold War missions were classified, the United States never publicly sought the return of these reported prisoners, and their families were never encouraged to make their concerns public. But the Defense and State departments have admitted that evidence suggests these men may have been captured by the Soviets.
The U.S. Army has a secret archive of alleged sightings under the title “American Citizens Detained in the U.S.S.R.” Mark Sauter, an investigative reporter based in Seattle, obtained these records under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The documents detail chilling descriptions of Americans being held—often in poor health—by Communist forces.
Recently, relatives of the two U.S. air crews have begun emulating the activist families of the Vietnam era by organizing pressure groups to look for evidence that Americans were—and may remain—prisoners in the Soviet Union. In only a few months, these families have amassed records of sightings and enlisted the help of senators and congressmen. The Soviet government has already agreed to consider a State Department request for access to archives that may reveal the fate of many alleged Soviet prisoners.
Compared to the numbers of American MIAs from earlier wars, the 2,273 listed from Vietnam seem almost insignificant. The number in relation to the total med—4 percent—also pales compared to some earlier wars: 5.5 percent in World War I, 27 percent in World War II, and 15.1 percent in Korea. It is insignificant, that is, unless you happen to be related to one of them.
Few of their wives or other family members were prepared for the length of time these servicemen would be listed as either POWs or MIAs; no American soldiers had ever officially been held for more than three and one-half years. While the law provides that a person who has been missing for seven years can be presumed dead, this does not apply to MIAs during a time of war. Americans had never fought in such a long war, and no military policy had been established for such an event. A majority of the MIAs in Vietnam were pilots— America’s best and brightest. Exceptional athletes, intellects, and aviators, they had seemed invulnerable. They had not been expected to fall prey to a small, Asian enemy.
CERTAINLY I THOUGHT MY HUSBAND, U.S. NAVY LIEUTENANT FRANK CALLIHAN ELKINS, was immune to MiGs and SAMs. Married for only nine months, he was 27 and I was 22 when his A-4 Skyhawk disappeared during a flight from its vessel, the USS Oriskany. I still believed that death was for other people. When I received the notification on October 13, 1966, I had just returned from spending two weeks with Frank in the Philippines and Hong Kong. He had December orders to a test squadron in China Lake, California; I was residing with my parents while I waited out his Vietnam tour. When the casualty assistance officer arrived, I answered the doorbell in a blue floral housecoat, half-awake and half-smiling: I knew that this man would be embarrassed when he learned he had delivered his message to the wrong wife.
The officer told me that Frank had been killed. After making a telephone call to report that he had delivered his message, he returned to say that he had misunderstood the original communication: Frank was only missing. Eager to see this as portentous, I interpreted the whole episode as additional proof that Frank was invulnerable.
Because Frank’s father had a serious heart condition, I immediately contacted my brother-in-law and asked him to break the news to his parents. I didn’t want them to receive the same misinformation I had. I could not cry but was shivering cold, despite the numerous quilts my parents wrapped around me. I seemed to be watching myself participate in conversations, observing these events as though they were happening to someone else.
While official policy demanded that such news be delivered in person by an officer of equal or higher rank, practice—as in my case—sometimes fell short of the ideal. No matter how it bungled the delivery of such news, the Pentagon assumed that families of MIAs in the Vietnam War would maintain the official expected silence—the traditional stiff upper lip that guaranteed a husband’s continued military success—as they had done in past wars.
The Korean War was the first one in which the behavior of POWs under stress had been blamed on the prisoners rather than on their captors. Suspected of conspiring with the enemy and succumbing to Communist brainwashing (this was during the McCarthy era), the Korean POW became a symbol of national dishonor, although the number of Americans who chose not to return—21—was small when compared to the 88,000 Chinese and North Korean prisoners who refused repatriation (more than half of those who fell into American hands).
Consequently, the U.S. military code of conduct used in the 1960s insisted that a captive conduct himself as a fighting man rather than as a powerless prisoner. The code was designed to produce soldiers who could resist torture, remain silent, and attempt escape against overwhelming odds and under brutal conditions. As part of this doctrine, pilots who were being prepared to fly over Vietnam were sent to a week-long survival school in which they were beaten, forced to curl up in a tiny black box for hours, and verbally assaulted if they failed to escape from their “captors.” When he returned from this week of “captivity” in March 1966, Frank had bruises on most of his body and slept for a hill 24 hours from exhaustion. While many of the simulations were classified and therefore not subjects he could discuss, he confided that he had found the solitary confinement most difficult. To occupy his mind during these seemingly endless episodes, Frank had imagined happy scenes from his childhood and of his return home.
I soon found that equal stoicism was expected of military wives. The official policy was to give us as little information as possible so that we could not harm our husbands with any indiscretion. The government ensured our silence through effective manipulation of our concern for our husbands’ safety. The navy’s telegrams and other communications insisted that because my husband might be “held by hostile force against his will,” “for his safety” I should reply to inquiries from outside sources by revealing “only his name, rank, file number, and date of birth.” These were exactly the orders given to Frank during his survival training.
Determined not to compromise him in any way, I began a period of intense, silent waiting. My own needs for comforting were subordinated to government policy which, for most of the period of 1966—68, insisted that secrecy was in the MIAs’ best interest. Designed to protect national policy without considering their effect on family members, the government’s instructions did not include tips on how to survive this silent vigil. No one suggested that I might find psychological counseling helpful. No one offered to explain what Frank’s chances for survival might be. No one offered suggestions as to what I should do–except wait in silence. Treatment of MIA wives during the recent Persian Gulf War seems to indicate that this atavistic attitude toward the exigencies of military wives remains relatively unchanged—even though American soldiers now are instructed to give transparently false “confessions,” rather than simply remain silent, if they are captured.
I was left in the hands of whatever emotional support I could find—primarily a group of navy wives who generously called me from their homes in California to extend what comfort they could spare from their concern about their own husbands. I now realize how emotionally costly this solace must have been; surely I must have reminded these women that their husbands could suffer Frank’s fate at any moment. No wonder they sometimes presented me with unfounded rumors and speculations.
Except for my cousin Shirley, whose husband was also a pilot on the USS Oriskany, no one in my immediate family or community knew what to say or do. My parents live on a farm in rural Tennessee; the nearest town, Pikeville, has a population of about 1,000 people. I soon found that even though I had remained silent, most of these people knew about my husband’s status and wanted to help. However, no one had provided any of us with a script for appropriate behavior. I couldn’t understand why people kept arriving with casseroles, pies, and cakes—rural custom following a death. On the other hand, a friend of my father’s who had been a POW in World War II returned home after everyone but his immediate family had given up hope; Clint’s experiences, known by everyone in our community, became the repeated “evidence” they could offer that Frank would survive. But I needed no assurance of that. Within a few weeks I insisted that my father install another telephone line so that I could be reached immediately when Frank came tap-dancing out of the jungle. I was certain that my teenage brothers’ constant conversations were responsible for the delay in news about Frank.
On October 26, 1966, fire broke out on the USS Oriskany, and many of Frank’s friends were killed. One friend, Bill Johnson, had already sent me Frank’s diary, which I carefully stored away for Frank; he had kept it with the intention of writing a novel about his Vietnam experience. Bill was killed in the fire before he could ship the rest of Frank’s gear. The navy finally forwarded Frank’s belongings, many items—including the typewriter I had given him and a surprise Christmas gift that I knew he had purchased for me in Hong Kong—were missing. The navy was unhelpful in retrieving these items, which I had embroidered with sentimental significance.
By December I had become accustomed to the fact that my presence often made other people uncomfortable. I had lost 20 pounds, and had nearly perfected the role of zombie. I remained intent, however, on fooling myself: I was convinced that I was helping Frank by staring at my special phone, willing it to ring. Finally, my first bout with Crohn’s disease, a chronic ailment that is exacerbated by stress, forced me to spend Christmas week in the hospital. My doctor convinced me that I might die if I continued to do nothing but wait. Even I knew my death wouldn’t help Frank.
So I decided to get on with plans we had made prior to his disappearance. We both had wanted to become English professors, and I took my first step toward that goal by enrolling in graduate school. A large number of other MIA wives also earned degrees while they waited for their husbands’ return. Initially we were not entitled to benefits mandated by the GI Bill because we weren’t widows, and we were not allowed to collect our husbands’ full salaries; the Defense Department required that a percentage be held in savings. Eventually, when the length of time men were listed as MIA continued beyond that of earlier wars, wives who persisted were given full benefits. But I did not apply because neither my casualty assistance officer nor my monthly updates from the navy informed me that I was eligible. Instead I held part-time jobs to finance my studies.
I was still under government orders not to reveal my husband’s status, and so when I was asked about the wedding ring I wore, I’d reply, “My husband’s in Vietnam.” I often didn’t like the immediate response that statement received: an almost instantaneous look of pity, or, rarely, a diatribe about how reprehensible U.S. activities in Vietnam were.
Within a year of Frank’s disappearance, the government negotiated with the North Vietnamese to allow wives to send letters and, eventually, packages to their missing husbands. Soon, navy communiqués detailed what could be included in the monthly letters (good news and cheer) and what could not (the war or any other bad news). Last year the navy returned one of my letters; it had “been found” in materials that they received from the North Vietnamese. Speaking encouragingly about Frank’s family and my continuing education, the letter closes with this:
What else can I say? I love you and am here waiting. And will be. I do live chiefly by longing, cherishing our past, trusting in our future, but I endure. I keep a thousand experiences to share with you; buy records I know you’ll want to hear, books you’ll want to read, and clothes I think you’ll like. You are the controlling force in my life. I hope you are able to have me with you as much as I have you here. Oh, Frank, I love you so much! I pray I can be worthy of such love.
Rereading these words today, I am embarrassed by how closely they follow navy guidelines. Had he received this letter, I suspect Frank might have found it disconcerting. To anyone who knows my independent nature, it sounds as artificial as the deliberately staged confessions of captured American fliers during the recent Persian Gulf War. Coming from someone who, prior to her marriage, had negotiated an agreement that she didn’t have to be the kind of military wife who held squadron teas and luncheons and would be free to pursue a career, this letter sounds suspect. But it illustrates just how fully I had adopted the official government role.
Whenever the government’s rules changed, I followed the new orders. Every two months I could send Frank a six-and-a-half-pound package. Suggested contents included toothpaste, playing cards, vitamins, socks, underwear, soap, canned meat, bouillon cubes, raisins, candy, cheeses, and photographs. I remember how apprehensive I was the first time I also included cigars, an item not mentioned on the list.
About once a month I received a letter that detailed any changes of policy. With each letter, the government’s insistence on silence about MIAs grew increasingly irritating. Why couldn’t I talk about my husband? Why was I being treated as though Frank and I had done something shameful? And although I had been asked to remain silent, information about me was being used by politicians. Many of them were not interested in Frank’s fate or mine so much as in furthering their careers. My local congressman, Bill Brock, told a story in his local campaign speeches about my asking him for help (which, following navy guidelines, I had stressed should remain confidential); he colored both my request and the possibility of what he could do to appeal to local voters.
In 1969 I joined the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia—an organization founded by the families, but fundamentally upholding government policy and receiving government support and encouragement. The league’s primary spokeswoman was Sybil Stockdale, the wife of Commander James Stockdale, who was a frequently photographed prisoner and had been the commander of the first air wing of the USS Oriskany. She supported the government’s argument that we must win the war to free the prisoners. Angered by my congressman’s actions, I had written to Allard Lowenstein, the congressman who started the dump-Johnson campaign and who had been a mentor of Frank’s at the University of North Carolina, asking for his help and suggestions. I tried to arrange a meeting between Lowenstein and Stockdale, but she refused to cooperate because of his antiwar stance. I have always suspected that her actions were being dictated by government policy, but I have no way of knowing how much official advice she received or followed.
I often resented the rhetoric of war protesters as well. The Saturday Review published a letter from a writer who called the first prisoners released by the North Vietnamese in 1969 “obscene biological charades” who wear their uniforms like “the skin of a predator.” I responded with a letter of my own, which the magazine also printed. Yet I continued to talk to people like Cora Weiss, co-chair of the left-wing Committee of Liaison, whom I asked for help in establishing communications with the North Vietnamese.
From these disparate sources I tried to piece together a realistic picture, one that would allow me to act in Frank’s interest. It became clear to me that the POW-MIA issue was being presented as an excuse to continue an otherwise unpopular war; the missing were being used to justify our increased bombing. Repeatedly calling attention to Hanoi’s refusal to abide by the Geneva Convention, President Nixon’s speeches included his promise to continue the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia “until the prisoners of war are freed.”
Al Lowenstein suggested that my going public might actually help Frank, rather than harm him. He put me in touch with John Siegenthaler, the editor of the Nashville Tennessean. (By this time I had moved to Nashville and enrolled at Vanderbilt University in another master’s degree program). Siegenthaler sent Kathy Sawyer to interview me, and she wrote a story that the paper timed to appear on the third anniversary of Frank’s disappearance.
The government did not object. For reasons never clearly stated, its policy had changed. After the release of the first three prisoners in 1969, the word went out through our monthly newsletters from the military, through our casualty assistance officers, and through the National League of Families that now we could take our suffering to the public. At league meetings we were asked to conduct letter-writing campaigns to show the Vietnamese what the people in the villages of America thought of their treatment of prisoners. Businessman H. Ross Perot spoke at these meetings, garnering support for his attempts to take food and supplies to the prisoners. The Pentagon encouraged us to woo the media to mobilize world opinion against the North Vietnamese. In an international contest for moral approval and goodwill our government started calling attention to North Vietnam’s refusal to follow the rules of the Geneva Convention.
Kathy’s well-written, sensitive articles received a lot of attention, and many of my fellow graduate students seemed shocked to learn that my husband was an MIA. Generally, they were kind and supportive. But I received a number of phone calls from heavy breathers who offered to help me out with my sex life, and others who offered to find Frank for me using a variety of methods that ranged from witchcraft to prayer. When I was interviewed on local television and radio shows, I was surprised by the questions some interviewers and callers asked. They seemed more interested in knowing intimate details about my life than in learning about the MIA situation.
Many people just wanted me to look pretty, vulnerable, and sad; they certainly didn’t want me to have a political opinion. Privately, I had felt for some time that the war was wrong—both morally and practically—but I hesitated to express these sentiments because I feared such remarks might have serious repercussions for Frank, or might be used as propaganda tactics against other POWs. So I remained officially silent about my doubts.
In the spring of 1970, encouraged by both our government and the trips other wives had made, I went to Paris. Calling at the North Vietnamese consulate at 2 rue le Verrier, the two translators I had found through the American embassy and I were greeted civilly and allowed to enter. But a Vietnamese gentleman, who never told me his name, insisted that we should “ask President Nixon” about my husband’s whereabouts, and he asked us to leave.
I was struck by the contrast between the elegance of the American embassy and the shabbiness of the North Vietnamese consulate. This was my first encounter with Vietnamese people, and I was also humbled by their small physical stature. By comparison, I felt Brobdingnagian, insensitive, and clumsy. The difference in our size seemed, somehow, a metaphor for the war in which America’s superior numbers and strength were becoming liabilities.
When I returned to the States, I continued to criticize Hanoi’s policy concerning prisoners. But often my speeches, and those of other wives of MIAs, were used for other political purposes. (In fact, the number of MIAs itself was, from the beginning, a highly politicized question. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly claims that of the 2,273 servicemen listed today, the Defense Department has recognized 1,101 as killed in action, since the time of their disappearance. This marks the first time in American military history that registered KIAs were added to the MIA figures.) At a Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting, when the local commander suggested that he and members of the audience should “go over to Arkansas and whip Fulbright’s ass for this little lady and her husband,” I announced that I was not present to support the continuance of the war in Vietnam or to attack those people who opposed it; I had come only to express my concern about the prisoners. My audience became quiet and unresponsive. No one spoke to me afterward.
The National League of Families meeting held in Washington in July 1970 crystallized my decision to pursue my own course and ignore the one our government was dictating. When Vice President Spiro Agnew made an appearance to address the members, I didn’t stand; the rather stout woman beside me started tapping me on the shoulder with her handbag, increasing the force with each tap. At last I stood up, and left—both the meeting and the organization. I had had it with everyone’s political agenda. I wanted no part of a group whose allegiance precluded questioning such leaders as Nixon and Agnew.
By this time President Nixon, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and other administration officials had escalated the frequency of their claims that we must remain in Southeast Asia to ensure the release of American POWs. The navy was not happy with my public statements that the “identification, treatment, and release of prisoners should be handled as a separate issue.”
In March 1971 I decided to move to Paris and make daily visits to the North Vietnamese consulate, vowing to stay until they told me something about Frank’s status. Before my departure the navy sent an official to caution me about my action and about any statements that I might make: “The foreign press may misinterpret your remarks if you say anything critical about the war, and you don’t want your husband to be hurt by your carelessness.” He also advised me to watch out for suspicious people who might want to kidnap me.
So commenced a series of days in Paris that always began with a trip to the North Vietnamese consulate. The French police guarding the consulate would often nudge each other and say, “C’est la femme. Encore, eh?” Usually, a Frenchwoman of about 45 with blue-black hair and bright red lips, dressed in a white blouse and black skirt, would come to the door demanding in French, “Who’s there? What do you want?” I would respond, “It’s Madame Elkins. I would like to ask you about my husband.” Her “We can’t give you any information; go away!” would follow.
Over 200 relatives of POW-MIAs had already come knocking on this door, but I was the first to make it a daily activity. If I knew foreign visitors were likely to be present at the consulate, I would try to time my visit to coincide—making an effort to embarrass the North Vietnamese. Occasionally I would be given admittance and admonished to “go home and tell President Nixon to stop bombing our country. Then you’ll get your answer.” Sometimes members of the North Vietnamese delegation would yell at me and criticize American bombing; at other times they would apologize and look genuinely moved by my request.
Once I asked the secretary, directly, if Frank was dead. Lowering her eyes, she replied, “Oui. ” But she would provide me with no additional information. I explained that it would be to her advantage to give me all the information she had on all the men so that President Nixon would have fewer names to use as an excuse for keeping our troops in Vietnam, but she refused. Eventually she began greeting me with “Bonjour, Madame Elkins,” but I never obtained the audience I requested with Delegate General Vo Van Sung.
Sometimes I tried to get the secretary to pass him copies of articles that Kathy Sawyer had written about me for the Tennessean, notes explaining my position and my plans to return every day, and cards with my address and phone number. Occasionally the secretary would give me pamphlets that restated her instructions to me in English. The details changed, but these conversations always ended with my standing in the shadows before a closed door and saying, “A demain.”
Because I had great sympathy and respect for these people, this adversarial role was especially stressful for me. I certainly couldn’t blame the North Vietnarnese for shooting down Frank’s plane when he had been bombing their country. Sometimes I would run into members of the delegation in shops. If I spoke, they usually refused to acknowledge me. I suspect they feared I was a little crazy. Perhaps I was.
Other wives of MIAs or POWs would arrive for short stays in Paris, and I would sometimes accompany them to make their requests. After almost three months, the North Vietnamese delegation must have realized that I was there to stay. They finally admitted me and told me that Frank was dead. But when I asked them to put the information in writing, they refused, saying that all the other wives would then come to Paris and harass them.
By March 1971 the North Vietnamese had begun returning letters addressed to men whose names were not included on the official POW list released to Senator Edward M. Kennedy in December 1970. Stamped “KUONG NGUOI NAHAN TRÁLAI” (this person unknown), my returned letters seemed more official than any information I had received from American sources about Frank. The Defense Department suggested that North Vietnam was reinforcing its contention that the list was complete and final, but insisted that our government would not accept letter or package returns as evidence of the fate of MIAs. Frank Sieverts, an assistant to the secretary of state, maintained that the men’s status would not be changed without concrete proof.
My wait for news about Frank continued, and remaining in Paris was more comfortable than returning home. I was relieved to be anonymous, free from people who asked about my husband’s status:
“Have you heard anything yet?”
“Guess you never will, huh? Bless your heart. It’s such a pity.”
Though well-intentioned, such remarks—sometimes coming from the mouths of complete strangers—always left me fighting back tears. I was also tired of the either-or stance that everyone seemed to insist upon when discussing the war. Simultaneously caring about my husband’s return and wanting our troops to withdraw did not seem incongruous to me. I was amazed at how angry hawks could become when I refused to denounce the North Vietnamese, and at how upset doves became when I wouldn’t criticize the men who were fighting.
But I had begun to realize that Frank might not return, and I began editing his diary for publication—an act I had not attempted earlier because I believed he would use it himself, as the basis for a novel. Publishing his diary now seemed my responsibility. Editing his writings during 1972, I thought I had finally achieved some catharsis. I hoped that writing its prologue had also provided me with closure. When the book was published in the fall of 1973, I returned to the United States to push its sales—and discovered that the public that had once seemed so eager to know about the war had become largely apathetic. They did not want to be reminded of our national defeat.
Almost a year after the return of the 591 POWs in early 1973, I left Paris for San Francisco. Feeling that I had done all I could to ascertain Frank’s fate, I hoped the government would now assume its responsibility for finding him. After all, it had promised to bring him home when the war was over.
Once the war ended, however, public interest in the MIA issue also ended. After the prisoners returned, leadership of the National League of Families shifted from wives to other family members of MIAs. E.H. Mills, the father of Lieutenant Commander James Mills (shot down on September 21, 1966), became the director in 1973, and he was eventually succeeded by his daughter Ann Mills Griffiths. Her 14-year reign has produced various critics and at least one splinter group, directed by Dolores Alfond, who insists that Griffiths has responded less to the needs of the families than to those of the government. Many MIA family members now echo my earlier suspicions that the league is basically a government organization. (During the Nixon administration, its long-distance telephone bill was paid out of White House funds.) In February 1991, Colonel Millard Peck, a highly decorated veteran, quit his post as chief of the POW-MIA unit of the Defense Intelligence Agency, contending that the official government “mind-set to debunk” evidence of live MIAs is encouraged by Griffiths, whom he describes as “adamantly opposed to any initiative to actually get to the heart of the problem.” He accused Griffiths of sabotaging POW-MIA investigations.
During the mid-1970s the league did little to slow down the speed with which the government began perfunctorily changing MIA status to “presumed finding of death” (PROD). In December 1976 a House panel determined, later with President Carter’s agreement, that no live MIAs remained in Southeast Asia. In March 1977 a presidential commission traveled to Hanoi; it subsequently agreed with a House select committee that the Vietnamese were acting in good faith to “repatriate” the remains of all American MIAs. The government provided wives and family members with no explanation for these decisions. Because they were made by our government, we were simply expected to assume they were trustworthy.
These announcements only confirmed my suspicions that Frank had been used as a pawn. I became convinced that our government would make no more real efforts to recover him—alive or dead. And I realized how powerless I remained.
The navy changed Frank’s status to PFOD on October 31, 1977; the telegram arrived at my door in Oakland along with a group of young trick-or-treaters. The following year Frank’s family and I held a memorial service for him at the National Cemetery in Wilmington, North Carolina. By 1978 the Pentagon had declared all MIAs to be PFODs, except for Colonel Charles E. Shelton of the air force, who remains listed as a POW for symbolic reasons. His wife took her own life in October 1990. She left no explanation, but friends suggest that her suicide was a result of battling about POW-MIA issues for more than 20 years. To me, her action seems as symbolic as her husband’s status. [Editor’s note: The last official POW-MIA, Colonel Charles E. Shelton, USAF, was declared dead by the Pentagon in September 1994.]
In 1983 President Reagan announced that the MIAs were a high priority for his administration. He sent delegations to Vietnam, and 150 sets of remains were identified and returned. The military’s Joint Casualty Resolution Center at Barbers Point in Hawaii, established in the 1970s, increased its efforts to recover remains and make identifications. In 1985 Vietnam turned over the remains of another five persons believed to be MIAs; in 1988 the first joint American-Vietnamese team uncovered two more sets of MIA remains.
But no one had asked me for additional information about Frank, and by the time another 12, silent years had gone by I felt sure that I would never know his exact whereabouts. Consequently, I was unprepared for the telephone call I received from the navy in December 1989 asking me if I “happened to have” a copy of my husband’s dental X-rays.
“Well…uh…we have a piece of a jawbone and some teeth that we think may have belonged to him.”
My anger at the unfeeling language obscured my initial shock. How could this stranger choose his words so carelessly, ignoring their possible effect upon me? But his tone of voice indicated that he was not so unfeeling as his choice of words implied. He explained that Frank was only one of several men who were being considered as the possible source for a box of remains that the North Vietnamese had turned over to American authorities in June. I suggested that he contact my husband’s family. Then, as I had during the previous 23 years, I tried to remain calm as I confronted this latest unexpected reminder of Frank and of my own, irretrievable loss.
On January 22, 1990, exactly 24 years from the day I married Frank, the navy notified me that these remains had been positively identified as his. (The bones included those of the torso, legs, and a part of the lower jawbone that seemed to be broken. No bones were available from the rest of the face and head or the feet and hands.) If I regarded the pathologists’ reports as “inconclusive,” I would have the “option” to arrange for someone else to review the paperwork and remains to provide “quality assurance” of this decision.
A few days later, members of Frank’s family and I met with military officials to review their evidence. They explained that the government research group reached their decision based on a combination of evidence. First they looked for the names of all of the men who were listed as having disappeared in the area of Dien Chau District, Nghe Tinh Province—the area from which the bones had been recovered. Using a section of the pelvic bone to determine the age of the person at death, they were able to narrow the possibilities even more. By measuring the torso and leg bones, they were also able to estimate the person’s height. Because of the prominent muscle insertion in the bones, the pathologists were certain that the person had had an unusually muscular build. Frank’s medical records show that he had a 42-inch chest, 31-inch waist, and 22-inch thigh and could military-press 200 pounds; he had begun lifting weights when he was in high school, an activity that he continued. Using information from the computer data base of missing persons’ dental records, they narrowed the possibilities to three men. And while they were able to obtain dental X- rays on all of the men except Frank, none of their X-rays fitted the dental work remaining on the lower jawbone. Although no X-rays of Frank’s teeth were available, the dental charts showing his fillings and earlier extractions matched those of the jawbone. So he filled the description in every possible way, as did no one else who had disappeared within a 50-mile radius of the site.
With the recounting of each explanation, I was asked if I wanted to see photographs of the bones or medical records substantiating each claim. At first I could only respond, “I don’t know yet. Wait a minute, and I’ll let you know.” Then I would tell myself that I had to look or continue to doubt their judgment. Each decision to look at the evidence became a little easier, and I managed to get through the afternoon without embarrassing any of us by becoming hysterical. Frank’s family told me later that if I had not agreed to look at the photographs they would have done so; they also felt we needed to look to be able to know.
At first I did wonder if the remains were really Frank’s. But because I had put no pressure on our government since the early 1970s, its decision to assign them to him, rather than to the husband of a more insistent seems to serve no ulterior purpose. The government had nothing to gain by returning Frank’s remains; this made its analysis more convincing to me. I can imagine no other motivation for this vicissitude. Frank and I were just lucky.
Frank appears to have died in the crash of his plane. The fragmentation of the bones and the broken jaw make this the likeliest explanation. The bones were encrusted with dirt since Vietnamese bury the dead directly in the ground without a coffin and then, approximately three years later, after the flesh has rotted away, dig up the bones and place them in a smaller grave. This process also partly accounts for the missing smaller bones. When this ritual was explained to me, it was described as something the Vietnamese do because of their “superstitions” about the dead. I couldn’t help thinking that we characterize our own practices in such matters, really no more civilized, as “respect for the dead.”
I was touched that the Vietnamese had gone to such trouble to bury someone who had been bombing their country. Their humane customs are partly responsible for my having Frank’s remains for reburial. And I was beginning to discover how grateful I was.
FRANK’S WAS ONE OF 10 SETS OF MIA REMAINS IDENTIFIED AND RETURNED TO THE U.S. MAINLAND for interment in 1990. They were shipped to Travis Air Force Base and in late February brought home to North Carolina, where our families held a private, quiet interment in the National Cemetery in Wilmington. Knowing the whereabouts of Frank’s remains has helped me begin a healing process I was helpless to effect earlier. Unconsciously, I had been unable to forgive myself for “deserting” him, for failing to negotiate the labyrinth of government policies and foreign terrains. My earlier insistence that his final whereabouts did not matter had been dishonest. I had been diminishing the importance of what I could not change. Now I can draw comfort from envisioning his grave site, from having a specific physical location that automatically comes to mind when I think of him. His flesh had already become part of Vietnam, but his bones no longer lie—like those of Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge—uncoffined and unmarked beneath “foreign constellations.” MHQ
MARILYN ELKINS is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles. Frank Elkin’s diary, The Heart of a Man, which she edited, was republished by the Naval Institute press in 1991. It is now also available as a Dell paperback.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: MIA
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