Volusia veterans want to see more action on missing Americans

By JOHN SPRAGENS Jr.

Vietnam veteran Herb Pierce has a blunt response to suggestions the United States might open diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam.

"My opinion is: No bodies, no trade," he says.

Like many other veterans of the war that ended in 1975, he thinks 14 years is too long to wait for word of the fate of Americans missing in action.

Now a 41-year-old driver for United Parcel Service, the South Daytonan fought in the jungles of central Vietnam 20 years ago with the Army's Americal Division.

He thinks the lines U.S. and Vietnamese diplomats have drawn between "humanitarian" and political issues -- the search for MIAs on the one hand and issues like trade and diplomatic ties on the other -- is a fiction.

"I don't think the Vietnamese deal in that kind of thing," he says. "I don't think they would do it (search for MIAs) just for humanitarian reasons. If they were humanitarians, they would have returned (the missing men) or their bodies long ago."

Similar sentiments ripple around a table at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in DeBarry, where a dozen Vietnam vets have gathered to discuss the issue. Many wear bracelets with the names of missing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

The bracelet on Ron Baldwin's wrist carries the name of Barry D. Murphy, a Special Forces soldier from Florida, missing in Cambodia since 1969.

"He ain't dead," Baldwin insists, with the passion that has earned him the nickname "Preacher." Baldwin acknowledges he has no evidence Murphy is alive, but says, "I just have a feeling. I know."

Baldwin, 43, spent his hitch in Vietnam building bunkers within sight of the line dividing North and South Vietnam, working in a construction unit of the Navy's Seabees. Now the DeLand resident works for the state Department of Transportation and is president of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club in DeLand.

"I don't believe our government is doing everything they can (to find the missing men), and I know their government (the Vietnamese) is not," Baldwin says.

"If the Vietnamese government wants to prove they aren't holding any of our brothers (as prisoners of war), they need to let us go see for ourselves," he says, "Otherwise they'll have to put up with our dissent."

Even for someone like Jeff Culpepper of Port Orange, who says the idea of opening diplomatic relations with Vietnam "doesn't make me feel bad at all," the question of what happened to the more than 2,300 missing men is a nagging concern.

Culpepper, 43, was a Marine who survived one of the war's most famous battles -- the siege of the outpost at Khe Sanh in central Vietnam. Today he is a warehouse manager for a wholesale distributor in Ormond Beach.

"I'm still a veteran," Culpepper says. He knows how little sometimes separated those now missing from those who returned. So he can't abandon the hope that some of the missing men may still be alive.

"I've got to keep that spark there," he says.

John Allen, 42, now a DeLand insurance agent, came all too close to being one of the missing.

He still has vivid memories of falling, watching his machine gun and his helicopter spinning through the air above him, after the chopper met a curtain of bullets as it tried to rescue a long-range reconnaissance patrol from a "hot" landing zone in the mountains of central Vietnam.

Allen's right arm was nearly severed four inches below the shoulder, the bone shattered by a bullet. He spent five months and two days in a succession of military hospitals while doctors and nurses patched his arm back together and treated the burns on his face and one leg.

Yet he has equally strong memories of a Vietnamese family he met during the five months before he sustained his "million dollar wound."

His main contact in the family was a girl he knew as Lot -- a teenager he says was sharp as a tack, "13 going on 22" -- who organized a crew of boys about 10 to 12 years old, equipped with buckets and brushes to clean out helicopters at the river near his base.

She invited him to have dinner with her family, and after some hesitation, he accepted.

In their home, a tiny shed of corrugated steel no bigger than a modest American living room, Lot's grandmother introduced him to Vietnamese home cooking and the pungent Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc mam.

"I don't know if they had food to spare," Allen says, "but they put on a feed."

He also remembers the startling beauty of the mountains he saw on patrol near the small town of Dak To, about 250 miles south of Danang, near Vietnam's border with Laos.

"It was 10 or 11 in the morning," Allen recalls. "I was humping up the hill with a 55-pound pack and a machine gun. Then we topped the hill, came over a saddle in the ridge, and at the far end of the valley there was a double waterfall. Just then I saw a cloud of parrots flying over."

It appeared untouched, as if human beings had never been there. But in fact the jungle beauty concealed North Vietnamese soldiers and the area was regarded as a particularly hostile one for American troops.

Though he admits to mixed feelings about the idea, Allen sometimes thinks about going back to Vietnam.

"I'd like to see Dak To when it's not threatening," he says.

Allen also sees no reason the United States should not reopen economic ties with Vietnam.

"How long would we keep an embargo?" he asks. "Three hundred years?"

"The country doesn't need to be as poor as it is," Allen says. "If we can help the economy -- if it will spread down to the people -- we should. They struggle so hard to exist. It's just not fair."


Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 12, 1989


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