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.”
Next week: Jo Anne’s journey takes her around the globe.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us