On Feb.13, 1995, a group of American Veterans of the War in Vietnam gathered in the courtyard of the Le Thach Government Guest House, a Soviet-era structure in the heart of Hanoi, and prepared to make history.
Washington and Hanoi had not yet established diplomatic relations by exchanging ambassadors, so we were in Hanoi, the capital of our former enemy, with no diplomatic cover, so to speak.
Our group included a journalist from Albuquerque, New Mexico, a two-man television crew from Louisiana, a spinal-cord-injury nurse, and a communications professional. Vietnam Veterans from several states including Ohio, California, Texas, New Jersey, Michigan and Louisiana waited in the courtyard of the guest house for a bus that would take us about 28 miles northeast of the city to Noi Bai Airport.
We had come to Vietnam to deliver personal mementos, maps, photographs, and other war memorabilia taken from dead Vietnamese soldiers by American soldiers 25 years previously.
Our gesture was purely humanitarian and independent of the efforts of either government to resolve the issue of 2600 Americans still listed as missing in action. Our goal was to demonstrate to the Vietnamese that as Veterans, we understood that the families of their 300,000 missing in action (MIA) grieved their missing family members as genuinely as American families grieved theirs.
While in Hanoi, we learned a repatriation ceremony, the transfer of recovered but unidentified remains to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for forensic analysis and identification was scheduled for Feb. 13. We wanted to observe the solemn ceremony, since it was emblematic of our goal.
Late Sunday afternoon, we received word we had been invited by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to observe the ceremony the following morning. Instructions as to time, place, and conduct were explicit and left no room for doubt. We understood the honor of being invited to what to that point had been a closed affair.
This would be the first time in the decade’s long process of searching for, recovery, and transfer of remains to U.S. custody that any non-governmental official, American or Vietnamese, had taken part in a repatriation ceremony.
Six small, red, wooden boxes sat side-by-side on a table before us. Each set of remains was contained in its own box. A forensic anthropologist certified that the remains were human, and sealed the boxes, which wouldn’t be opened again until they were in the secure laboratory in Hawaii. Members of the honor guard carefully and respectfully placed each box in an aluminum transfer case. The lid was clamped on and a folded American flag was placed on top.
Each of us marched silently behind that transfer case, carried by a Joint Services Honor Guard onto sovereign U.S. territory, and watched as the American flag was unfolded and draped over the casket of a missing American. Welcome home! We were part of history.
Shortly after our return home, the Vietnamese opened their archives to U.S. personnel and provided access to former soldiers and citizens. The U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (J-PAC) has established a very successful oral history project that has developed considerable information leading to the recovery and identification of remains.
In November 1995, I was informed that the remains in the aluminum transfer case I escorted aboard that plane eight months earlier had been positively identified as those of Col. Ivan Dale Appleby, U.S. Air Force pilot shot down Oct. 7, 1967. Appleby was from Fresno.