The Washington Post
Found in the mud of Vietnam, relic garners family’s gratitude
Former senator Jim Webb is instrumental in recovery of dog tag lost 6 decades ago
Cpl. Larry Hughes lost his military dog tag while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam nearly 60 years ago.
He never mentioned his missing tag, said his son Carl Hughes.
“He was a man of few words — he never talked about his service,” said Hughes, 44. “When he came home, he just put it all behind him and moved forward with his life.”
Which is why Hughes was completely floored when he got word that his dad’s tag had recently been found on a farmer’s keychain in a small Vietnamese village.
“We were amazed at how everything fell into place to get the tag back to us,” said Hughes, explaining that his father died in 2019.
The story of how Larry Hughes’s family received his dog tag on Feb. 17 was four months in the making and involves former U.S. senator Jim Webb of Virginia, 30 college students and a Vietnamese rice paddy farmer.
Webb, also a former secretary of the Navy, took the Notre Dame students late last year on an 11-day tour of Vietnam based on his own war experiences. Webb was a platoon commander and first lieutenant in the war, and now is a distinguished fellow at the Notre Dame International Security Center.
One of the group’s stops was at the abandoned An Hoa airstrip. The area around the airstrip was known during the Vietnam War as the “Arizona Territory” — a region of intense and bloody combat.
Webb, 77, said he’d fought there with the Marines in 1969 SEE DOG TAG ON B3
and 1970 and wanted to show students some old battlefield sites.
“I wanted them to understand what it was like to fight on the ground during the Vietnam War,” Webb said. “The Marines lost 14,490 men during the war and more than 7,000 of them died in the An Hoa Basin.”
While the group was exploring the area around the airstrip, a villager approached them on a bicycle, he said.
“He told us he had a dog tag that he kept on his keychain,” said Webb, who speaks Vietnamese.
Webb took a close look at the tag and saw the name “L.A. Hughes.” The tag also included Hughes’s blood type and service number and listed his religion as Baptist.
Michael Desch, international relations professor at the University of Notre Dame, was also with Webb leading the tour.
Desch, 62, said he offered to pay the man $20 for the dog tag, and the man agreed.
“He said he’d picked up a lot of dog tags working in rice paddies over the years, and that he’d found this one in the mud,” Desch said. “Twenty bucks seemed like a good deal to get it back. It would have been worth it, no matter what.”
Webb said he would look into tracking down Hughes or his family members as soon as the group returned to the United States.
“Here we were standing on this airstrip where Marines had fought and died, and along comes this dog tag after all these years,” Webb said. “To me, it was symbolic. He represented every Marine. I wanted to find his family for every Marine who fought in Vietnam.”
With help from the Marines’ U.S. Senate Liaison office, Webb learned that Larry Hughes was buried in a veterans cemetery in Inglis, Fla., about 90 miles north of Tampa, where he grew up.
In late December, a Marine caseworker called the mayor of Inglis, Michael Andrew White, and that led to finding people in the community who remembered the Hughes family, including Hughes’s two sons, Webb said.
Carl Hughes confirmed that his dad was a rifleman at An Hoa Combat Base in the Quang Nam province near Danang — the same area where Webb had fought.
Although White never knew Larry Hughes, he was all in to help.
“It was a great feeling for us all to know that he was going to be recognized,” White said, noting that Ingles is a town of about 1,500 residents.
Hughes, who worked as a boilermaker for most of his life, died at age 72 after suffering a heart attack, said Carl Hughes.
“He never mentioned his service when I was growing up, but a few years ago, I took my dad to a traveling exhibit of the Vietnam Wall,” Hughes said. “My dad was looking at the names when he spotted the name of somebody he knew. He sat there in silence for five minutes, just staring at the wall.”
“I could tell it meant something to him, but I let him be because those were his private thoughts,” said Hughes, also a former Marine. “My father was an extremely humble and quiet man.”
Last week, the Hughes family, including Larry Hughes’s sister, Patricia Hughes Prickett, gathered at the Inglis Town Hall to collect his dog tag that had been lost for almost six decades.
“My brother was treated terribly and called a baby killer when he came home from the war,” said Prickett, 70. “This ceremony to honor him so many years later brought tears to my eyes.”
“It was like Larry had come home for a visit,” she said. “To have his dog tag come to us from miles away, around the world? I could barely believe it.”
In the weeks before the ceremony, Webb took the tag to a frame shop near his home in Falls Church, Va., and had it framed with a photo of the Notre Dame students and Hughes’s combat ribbons.
“I’m so glad we found this family — they know how important this moment is for all Marines,” he said. “It’s the ethos of all Marines that we do not forget our own.”
Carl Hughes said the framed dog tag is now hanging on a wall at his home, where he can look at it every day.
“At some point, I’m going to get a duplicate made of the dog tag and hang it from the rearview mirror in my truck,” he said. “I’m really grateful that the man who found it was willing to give it up.”
“It’s back where it belongs now,” Hughes said.