Some­thing went wrong over the Bach Ma Moun­tain in Viet­nam

ovem­ber 28, 1972 - Udorn AFB, Thai­land: The F- 4 Phantom jet lifts off with Cap­tain Jack Har­vey at the con­trols. Flight sur­geon Ma­jor Bobby Jones rides in the back­seat. Ma­jor Jones is on the non- com­bat ‘ hop’ to Da Nang, Viet­nam, for one rea­son, to log t

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - PETE MECCA COLUM­NIST Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. You can reach him at avet­er­ or avet­er­


The F-4 sud­denly dis­ap­pears from the radar screen at Da Nang. Emer­gency sig­nals are heard in the area but res­cue ef­forts are thwarted by heavy mon­soon rains and en­emy ac­tiv­ity. Three days pass be­fore search teams comb the rugged moun­tain ter­rain. They can find no signs of the two air­men; Jack Har­vey and Bobby Jones are never heard from again. Now be­gins a vex­ing and heart­break­ing jour­ney, a jour­ney ex­pe­ri­enced by the fam­i­lies and loved ones of mil­i­tary per­son­nel de­clared MIA: ‘Miss­ing in Ac­tion’. Bobby Jones’ sis­ter, Jo Anne Shirley, lives with a bro­ken heart yet con­tin­ues a frus­trat­ing jour­ney in search of the truth from an un­car­ing bu­reau­cracy, red tape, and in­dif­fer­ent politi­cians. This is her story…and her brother’s.

Jo Anne re­calls, “I was a 25 year old teacher at the time and my hus­band was in med­i­cal school in Au­gusta. My class was on the play­ground when my hus­band showed up at the class door. I knew some­thing was wrong. He said two mil­i­tary men showed up at my mother’s door in Ma­con but she had re­fused to let them speak un­til dad got home. Dad rushed home, and that’s when my par­ents were in­formed that Bobby was fly­ing back­seat in an F-4 when it dis­ap­peared and was now listed as miss­ing in ac­tion.”

Bobby Jones did his in­tern­ship at Salem Hos­pi­tal in Dal­las. His low draft num­ber and fear of be­ing pulled out of res­i­dency by Un­cle Sam in­flu­enced a de­ci­sion to join the Air Force as a Flight Sur­geon. Jo Anne con­tin­ued, “My hus­band and I were in Dal­las be­fore Bobby re­ported for de­ploy­ment. Our fam­ily spent July to­gether and we had a great time. Bobby left in Septem­ber. I re­ceived a cou­ple of let­ters from Bobby and I sent a pack­age of good­ies. That pack­age came back un­opened. I still keep that un­opened pack­age in a spe­cial room for my brother. Bobby had been in Southeast Asia for two months.”

The long or­deal had just be­gun. “We tried to stay pos­i­tive, pray­ing he would at least be ac­counted for; that he would come home one way or the other. Af­ter a year we learned about the Na­tional League of POW-MIA fam­i­lies or­ga­nized in 1970. The gov­ern­ment didn’t tell us about it, they didn’t want us to know, didn’t want the fam­i­lies to be or­ga­nized and putting pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment. Mom and Dad at­tended their next meet­ing. When they re­turned, Dad said, ‘We will never miss a meet­ing. Those peo­ple un­der­stand what we’re go­ing through.’ So I told my hus­band, ‘start sav­ing your money, we’re go­ing too.’ I’ve been to ev­ery meet­ing since.”

Jo Anne’s mother stopped at­tend­ing the meet­ings two years ago; she is now 98 years old. Her dad passed in 1994. Jo Anne con­tin­ued, “We moved back to Ge­or­gia and got very ac­tive in the League. I ran for the board of di­rec­tors and served for 18 years, 15 of those years as chair­man.”

The gov­ern­ment will pay to fly two fam­ily mem­bers to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. each year. The fam­i­lies pay for their own rooms and per­sonal ex­penses. Jo Anne de­scribes the trip, “At least 14 con­gres­sional of­fices hear me pound­ing on their doors. About 50 per­cent of them care; the oth­ers refuse to meet with me. I still visit their of­fices and talk to sup­port per­son­nel, any­one there whose ear I can bend. My best sup­porter was Nathan Deal when he was a con­gress­man. He al­ways met with me. Even to­day if I need his sup­port, Nathan is there. Gen­eral West­more­land came to meet­ings and Newt Gin­grich never missed one. I also met with Con­gress­man Paul Broun. I in­tro­duced my­self. He said, ‘You’re Bobby Jones’ sis­ter, aren’t you?’ I asked how he knew. He replied, ‘Bobby and I at­tended med­i­cal school to­gether. We were golf­ing bud­dies, good friends. Let’s sit down so you can tell me how to help you.’ A hand­ful of politi­cians have been in­cred­i­bly kind, pro­duc­tive; they are the real stand-up type of rep­re­sen­ta­tive.”

Jo Anne has vis­ited Viet­nam three times. “It’s been an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I never thought a girl from Ge­or­gia would meet so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from each coun­try meet with us: Laos, Cam­bo­dia, Viet­nam, and we start in Thai­land. Our em­bassy, civil­ian and mil­i­tary, work out is­sues with other gov­ern­ments, get de­tails on the next ex­ca­va­tion, and iron out diplo­matic is­sues. I meet with our am­bas­sador ev­ery day in the plan­ning stage.”

She’s also met the King of Thai­land. “On one trip we were es­corted by Dick Chil­dress, at that time the num­ber two guy on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. Dick knew every­body in ev­ery gov­ern­ment. When we met the King of Thai­land, the King came out say­ing, ‘Dickie, Dickie, Dickie,’ he had a great con­nec­tion with Dick Chil­dress. But the King looked at me as if say­ing, ‘who is that and why is she here?’ Same thing hap­pened in Laos. I got the same stare when we met with the Lao­tian De­fense Min­is­ter, sort of like, ‘who is she, and why is she here?’ Then we took a chop­per into south­ern Laos, smack dab in the mid­dle of the jun­gle, in the mid­dle of nowhere, a tiny spot called Ta Oy. We spent two nights in tents. The ex­ca­va­tion team works out of Ta Oy.”

The only way in or out of Ta Oy is by chop­per. “The Lao­tian De­fense Min­is­ter and I fi­nally hit it off,” Jo Anne stated. “Back at the Cap­i­tal of Vi­en­tiane he hosted us to a nice restau­rant, com­plete with Lao­tian dancers in their tra­di­tional garb. So, the guy asked me to dance. I laughed, but we danced, as did an­other fe­male in our group with the Lao­tian Am­bas­sador, and the Lao­tian dancers grabbed some kids and danced with them. It was a fun day.”

Fun, in Laos, is rare. Jo Anne re­called, “The next day we flew from Laos to Cam­bo­dia but while we were at the air­port at Vi­en­tiane we saw 3 cas­kets cov­ered with the Amer­i­can flag be­ing read­ied for load­ing onto an­other plane. I thought to my­self, ‘this is why we do this, for all the MIAs still wait­ing to go home.’ As we watched the cas­kets load, the De­fense Min­istry must have seen the ex­pres­sion on my face. He gen­tly touched me and said, ‘you will al­ways be my sis­ter.’”

Time is run­ning out for proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Southeast Asia MIAs. Jo Anne ex­plains, “The MIA fam­i­lies were no­ti­fied about a year ago that the Asian soil is so acidic we only have about a 6 year win­dow be­fore bones of the miss­ing com­pletely erode. We’ve al­ready seen that at cer­tain sites; some­times the bones have DNA, oth­ers do not. We’ll not give up af­ter 6 years, but a pos­i­tive ID will be­come more dif­fi­cult.”

As­ton­ish­ingly, some fam­i­lies refuse to of­fer DNA to help iden­tify MIAs. “We have a mul­ti­tude of prob­lems,” Jo Anne said. “Fam­i­lies re­fus­ing to vol­un­teer DNA, se­ques­tra­tion has cut funds, now the gov­ern­ment has a to­tally new big or­ga­ni­za­tion. The school is still out on the new or­ga­ni­za­tion, but we’ve never had good lead­er­ship in the de­fense POW/MIA of­fice at the Pen­tagon. The guys that work the cases are awe­some, but the lead­er­ship is lack­ing. JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Ac­count­ing Com­mand) at Pearl Har­bor in Hawaii has had hor­ri­ble lead­er­ship in past years. Those peo­ple only cared about play­ing golf and their step­ping stone to a pro­mo­tion. One I did ad­mire was Gen­eral Kelly McKeague. He at- tended ev­ery meet­ing, even in D.C., and we knew he was ded­i­cated. I told him once there was only one thing wrong with him, but there was no way he could cor­rect it. He pleaded with me to tell him his fault, promis­ing he would cor­rect it, but I in­sisted that change was im­pos­si­ble. He begged and begged, so I fi­nally told him, ‘You grad­u­ated from Ge­or­gia Tech.’ The gen­eral’s wife burst out laugh­ing.”

Jo Anne re­ceives strong fam­ily sup­port. “My hus­band and other brother said, ‘you go any­where, do what you need to do.’ Over the years we’ve spent about two hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars. I’ve also been blessed with friends like the dy­namo Tommy Clack and Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Ser­vice Com­mis­sioner Pete Wheeler. Those two have gone above and be­yond the call of duty to help me.”

Jo Anne has never vis­ited her brother’s crash site. “Board mem­bers are not al­lowed to do that; we do not go to our own crash sites in or­der to avoid com­plaints of ne­glect­ing other sites. Once when I was in Viet­nam the chop­per we were on flew near Bach Ma Moun­tain. An em­bassy of­fi­cial on the chop­per pointed out the moun­tain but was cov­ered in clouds. Same thing on the re­turn trip, the moun­tain was sur­rounded by clouds. That made me re­al­ize how Bobby’s F-4 could have so eas­ily dis­ap­peared into Bach Ma Moun­tain.”

Re­solve equates to re­sults: Jo Anne stated, “It pays to have a big mouth and ask ques­tions. I asked for the dialog from air traf­fic con­trol at Da Nang. By do­ing so I found out 2 air­craft were in the area when Bobby dis­ap­peared. One landed, then some­one asked, ‘where is Hunter 11?’ (Bobby’s F-4). They thought both planes had landed then re­al­ized Hunter 11 was miss­ing and fi­nally sent out the search party. An­other in­ci­dent, a friend came home from Viet­nam a few weeks af­ter my brother’s plane dis­ap­peared and told my par­ents an­other plane had taken pho­tos of Bobby’s crash site. So I started ask­ing ques­tions.… ‘Where are th­ese pho­tos?’… Well, the mil­i­tary peo­ple looked at me like, ‘What are you talk­ing about?’ I told them pho­tos ex­isted, I knew that for a fact.”

The mil­i­tary re­searched. Lo and be­hold, they found the miss­ing pho­tos. Jo Anne read the riot act to the mil­i­tary hi­er­ar­chy, “I told them, ‘here’s the deal, when you get the pho­tos I want my own copies be­cause ob­vi­ously you can’t keep up with your own stuff. And chances are you’ll prob­a­bly need my copies again!’ I got my copies. I’ve loaned those copies back to the mil­i­tary….twice.”

Ex­ca­va­tion of lower Bach Ma Moun­tain be­gan in 1997. “That’s about 25 years af­ter the crash. The idea of ex­ca­vat­ing be­low the crash site was that de­bris had prob­a­bly been washed down the many ravines and gorges by a dozen moun­tain streams. They found noth­ing. In 2006 they went back for an­other dig. I de­manded pho­tos be taken. So, they’re walk­ing around in the jun­gle and right there, lodged in the root of a tree, was a blood chit.” (Blood chits are pieces of fab­ric about a foot square with sur­vival or friendly mes­sages in about 6 dif­fer­ent lan­guages. Num­bers are on the bot­tom of the fab­ric. When an air­man is is­sued a flight vest th­ese num­bers are en­tered into a data base). Jo Anne con­tin­ued, “The num­bers on the chit cor­re­lated with Bobby’s num­bers. They’ve found pieces of the F-4 but no hu­man re­mains. My fam­ily re­ceived the blood chit 36 years to the day of Bobby’s crash. It was a very emo­tional time.”

Con­nect­ing pieces of the puz­zle, the mil­i­tary be­lieves Bobby went down with the air­craft. Jo Anne wants to know, “Then where are the re­mains? I be­lieve some­one dis­cov­ered the bod­ies and buried them, but that in­di­vid­ual or peo­ple have ei­ther moved from the area or they are dead by now. The odds are not good for us to re­cover any re­mains.”

Her fi­nal thoughts: “We are in a race against time; soil acid­ity, lack of fund­ing, the lo­cal pop­u­lace mov­ing into and build­ing in ar­eas that were once bat­tle­fields. The mil­i­tary wants to bring our boys home, but mil­i­tary morale has de­te­ri­o­rated in our armed forces due to pol­i­tics. Our mil­i­tary is in a fight for its own life. When our sol­diers are sent into Harm’s Way they need to know they will be brought home, one way or the other. Yes, I would like Bobby to come home, but my con­cern is for the peo­ple serv­ing to­day….not in the past.”

Ap­prox­i­mate num­ber of the un­re­cov­ered: World War II – 73,800. Korea – 7,800. Viet­nam – 1,600. The Cold War – 126.

MAIN: Bach Ma Moun­tain; INSET: Ma­jor Bobby Jones

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