November 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 the needed hours to maintain his flight surgeon status. The flight is uneventful until about 18 miles out from Da Nang. Something has gone horribly wrong in the vicinity of cloud-covered Bach Ma Mountain.
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 attended 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.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.