The remains of 12 servicemen listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War have been identified and are returning home, 37 years after they died in a fierce battle near the Laos-Vietnam border, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.
The 11 Marines and one Army soldier are the largest group of MIAs identified since the war, according to the military.
“Now we don’t have to wonder anymore,” said Steven Fritsch of Cromwell, Conn., who will bury his older brother Sunday at St. John’s Catholic Church in Cromwell.
He said the news has been “bittersweet” for his parents.
“Obviously now they have to bury their son, and who ever wants to do that?” he said. “But at least they know he’s not just missing, he actually died in battle.”
Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas W. Fritsch and four others will be buried by their families. The other seven will be buried as a group in Arlington National Cemetery in October, said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s missing personnel office.
Villagers, survivors help investigators
The Marines were killed during a 10-hour battle on May 9, 1968, on a football field-sized area in South Vietnam, Greer said. He said villagers, former Vietnamese soldiers and American survivors helped investigators narrow their search to three excavations in 1998 and 1999, where they recovered the remains and other personal materials.
Since then, they have been working to identify the remains through DNA and other forensic tools, he said.
“We really feel very fortunate that we do have some remains coming home to us, and we are welcoming him home,” said Brenda Scott, whose brother, Lance Cpl. Donald W. Mitchell, of Princeton, Ky., was among the recovered MIAs.
Mother ‘feels finally at peace’
Their father, Herman Mitchell, died in 1998 without knowing his son’s fate. Their mother, Marjorie Mitchell, is now 80 and “feels finally at peace,” Scott said.
Mitchell’s funeral is scheduled for Aug. 27, more than three dozen years after his family prepared for it.
“We’ve had this family plot since 1968 with a monument ready for him to come home,” Scott said.
Carol Fordahl remembered her former boyfriend, Army Sgt. Glenn E. Miller, as a young man with a crew cut who serenaded her with his guitar from her roof top and mailed her fresh cherries for her birthday. She still has the pearl ring and charm bracelet that the Green Beret from Oakland, Calif., gave her.
“I still miss him to this day,” she said. “I just wish he had been able to come back. He had a lot to offer. He was an exceptional person and a really, really good friend.”
Letter from a dead brother
Marine Pfc. Robert Lopez of Albuquerque, N.M, had written a letter from Vietnam that reached his family a few days before they were informed he was missing in action. In it, the young man fresh out of high school talked about bathing in a river, his sister Margaret Coplen said.
“He said he at least felt he was halfway clean,” she said. “It was in a river, so he said when he came out, he was covered with leeches. I was just crying when I had read that.”
In addition to Fritsch, Lopez, Miller and Mitchell, the servicemen identified were Marine Cpl. Gerald E. King of Knoxville, Tenn.; Lance Cpls. Joseph F. Cook of Foxboro, Mass., and Raymond T. Heyne of Mason, Wis.; and Pfcs. Thomas J. Blackman of Racine, Wis., Paul S. Czerwonka of Stoughton, Mass., Barry L. Hempel of Garden Grove, Calif., William D. McGonigle of Wichita, Kan., and Lance Cpl. James R. Sargent, of Anawalt, W.Va.