The son of a Green Beret takes a movie camera on his journey to learn about Sgt. Fitts’ last mission.
A short video clip shows a flag-waving young boy, a toddler, really, dressed in a miniature U.S. Army uniform, exact down to the buttons and badges. On his sleeve are sergeant stripes and across his right breast is the white identification tag with “FITTS” stenciled on it. The uniform, of course, is a re-creation—except for one real military item: the Green Beret hat worn by the boy’s father in Vietnam. The clip was filmed shortly after U.S. Special Forces Staff Sgt. Richard A. Fitts was reported missing in action on Nov. 30, 1968.
Richard A. Fitts Jr., just 2 years old when his father disappeared during a covert operation, has only a fleeting memory of that moment and his father. “Junior” was too young to realize that his dad was gone—and, as it turned out, not coming back.
“It was tough growing up without a father, but I didn’t really know him, so it wasn’t something that really impacted me that much,” said Fitts, who is now 53 and lives in father’s hometown, Abington, Massachusetts. “It wasn’t until I became an adult that I began to wonder who he was.”
Fitts began a quest to learn more about that day in 1968 and the life of his father, whose remains were eventually recovered and sent home 21 years after he was killed, then buried in a ceremony with a flag presentation. Along the way, the son decided to record his journey of discovery in an 86-minute documentary, 21 Years–A Folded Flag, which has won awards at film festivals.
“I had never, never done anything like this before,” said Fitts, who is the star, director, narrator and musical director. “I call it guerrilla filming because I just started shooting what I thought was important. I interviewed people who knew my father and guys who served with him. I re-created combat scenes and talked about what it was like learning about this man I don’t really remember. It was a very emotional experience.”
The family had struggled for years to find out what happened to the sergeant. His parents, led to believe their Green Beret son was a prisoner of war, continually pressured the government for more information, only to be told nothing could be released because the mission was “Top Secret: Classified.” Fitts was officially declared dead in 1975 after his wife, Vickie Smith-Fitts, asked the Army to review his case. At the time of his burial with full military honors in Abington in 1990, many of the details were still classified. More information has been coming to light about covert operations in the Vietnam War with the declassification of documents during the mid-1990s and since then.
The Fitts family now knows that the Green Beret was killed in a helicopter shot down while on a secret operation in Laos, which was supposedly off-limits to U.S. troops. The documentary shows President Richard Nixon publicly proclaiming on Sept. 26, 1969, “there are no American combat forces in Laos.”
21 Years–A Folded Flag tells the story of Fitts and the other men in the helicopter who were, in fact, in Laos. Interwoven with that tale is the saga of young Fitts’ mother and grandparents who continually ran into the impenetrable roadblocks of military bureaucracy and secrecy while trying learn the circumstances of the sergeant’s disappearance.
The men in the helicopter were part of the 5th Special Forces Group, attached to MACV-SOG, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observation Group, a top-secret organization of elite units—including Navy SEALs, Air Force special operations squadrons and Marine reconnaissance teams, as well as the Green Berets—that carried out raids and other covert operations. Some SOG reconnaissance teams went into Laos and were never heard from again.
Fitts, born Feb. 23, 1946, in Massachusetts, was watching the funeral for assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when he noticed soldiers in the honor guard wearing dark green caps and announced that he wanted to join them. Fitts enlisted in the Army in 1966 and served in the 6th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He deployed to Vietnam in 1968 and became a part of the 5th Special Forces Group with MACV-SOG. He participated in several secret missions in North Vietnam and Laos as a demolition specialist and team leader.
On Saturday, Nov. 30, 1968, Thanksgiving weekend, Fitts led a team that went into Laos on a sabotage mission. They were to infiltrate enemy supply caches and plant rigged ammunition, mostly mortar rounds, that would explode when used. It was psychological warfare, designed to inflict fear and confusion among the enemy.
Fitts’ SOG team, flying in a transport helicopter supported by Huey gunships, came under heavy fire at about 4,000 feet as it neared the landing zone. The chopper was struck and dropped out of the sky. William Berg Garlow, a door gunner on one of the Hueys, watched as it hit the ground and exploded. He and other witnesses were certain no one survived.
“It went into a dive and did not respond,” Garlow says in the documentary. “There was an initial explosion coming out of the cargo door. It was white phosphorous, not a fuel fire, which I assume was caused by the cargo they had onboard.”
Normally, once a helicopter went down, the Army would have launched a “Bright Light” mission, explained Clyde Sincere, a retired Green Beret major, also interviewed for the documentary. Bright Light was the code name for a MACV-SOG operation involving a small ground team that slipped into enemy territory to rescue the survivors of a downed aircraft.
“The reason we didn’t use a Bright Light was because the Army Security Agency had intercepted messages that the North Vietnamese knew a bird went down and surrounded it,” he said. “There was no chance on God’s earth that anybody survived.”
The other Green Berets killed in the crash were Maj. Samuel K. Toomey III, 1st Lt. Raymond C. Stacks, Staff Sgt. Klaus D. Scholz, Sgt. Arthur E. Bader, Cpl. Gary R. LaBohn and Cpl. Michael H. Mein. Three unidentified South Vietnamese troops also died.
In addition to using on-camera interviews with Vietnam veterans and family members, Fitts enlivens 21 Years-A Folded Flag with actual war footage, photographs and re-created combat scenes. He leads viewers across a patchwork of memories, observations and insights accompanied by moments that are touching, tragic and occasionally humorous with lighthearted, colorful references to “huge cojones” and “another what the ‘F’ moment for me.”
The documentary was produced by Rudy Childs, an independent cinematographer who guided Fitts through the filmmaking process. Childs’ experience with other documentaries and music videos elevated the quality of the production.
21 Years–A Folded Flag had its big-screen premiere on Nov. 28, 2018, at the AMC Loews in Boston Common. Since then, Fitts’ project has been honored at film festivals across the country. It received the best documentary award at the 2019 North Beach American Film Festival in Maryland and an award of recognition at the 2019 Impact Docs Awards.
The documentary was a runner up for Audience Choice Award at the 2018 Ocean City Film Festival in Maryland and was nominated for best cinematography, best editing, best feature and best political statement at the 2019 Action On Film Megafest in Las Vegas. Additionally, it is in the running for awards at numerous festivals this year, including the World Film Festival in Los Angeles in August.
One poignant scene in 21 Years–A Folded Flag comes toward the end when comrades of Green Beret Fitts tell his son the truth the Army would not disclose. In a moment of epiphany, filmmaker Fitts finally knows and understands the man he remembers only from photographs.
“The soldiers he fought with were my father,” Fitts said. “Many of them took me under their wings and guided me. They told me what they remember about their fallen brother.”
The younger Fitts didn’t serve in the military but has taken up the cause of honoring those who did. A street and Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Abington are named for his father. The son often wears a camo outfit with patches similar to those his father wore, along with a Gold Star armband and, of course, the sergeant’s Green Beret.
That hat was a Father’s Day present to the grandfather in 1968. In an audio tape that accompanied the gift, the sergeant said, “When you hold this beret in your hands, you hold me.”
“Why do I wear the beret?” Fitts asks in the documentary. “That beret is my own father.”
For more about the documentary or to purchase a DVD, visit http://www.sperosvideo.com/21-years-a-folded-flag.html.
David Kindy is freelance feature writer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He frequently writes about military history, especially the men and women who served in America’s wars.
This article appeared in the June 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine.