40 Years After The Vietnam War, Families Still Search For Answers
NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base."A version of this story has appeared on KPBS.org.
It's been more than four decades since Elaine Zimmer Davis got the knock on her door that no Marine wife wants to hear.
"And I didn't want to open it because I knew, I knew what was coming," she says.
Her husband's F-4 Phantom plane had been shot down over a remote mountainside in Vietnam. It was August 29, 1969. Witnesses described a fiery crash. The 25 year-old Marine pilot was "killed in action, no body recovered," they told her.
"Later, members of his squadron came to see me," she says. "They said, 'Elaine, we could have put him MIA. We didn't want you to be waiting years for him to come back.'"
Capt. Jerry Zimmer was later reclassified to MIA: missing in action.
"If they did not come home, they then became MIAs," Elaine explains.
She says she spent years wondering if he might still be alive.
"I thought, 'He's out there.' But inside I think there was sort of that push-pull, feeling that he couldn't have survived," she says.
Jerry Zimmer's unknown fate is shared with 1,600 other Vietnam service members who remain unaccounted for. The U.S. government set up a command after the war ended to investigate MIA cases. They've recovered the remains of 900 service members. Jerry's case was unsolved and stamped "no further pursuit."
Back in the states, life went on for Elaine and their 2-year-old son, Craig. They moved across the country from Rhode Island to Tustin, Calif. It's where she met Ron Davis, a Marine helicopter pilot just back from Vietnam.
"We met sort of accidentally. And within the next year we were married," she says.
Over the years she had another son. She also completed college and enjoyed being a wife and stay at home mom. The family eventually settled in San Diego.
But Elaine says a part of her remained unsettled. After accompanying her husband on a business trip to Vietnam in 2004, she began a quest to bring Jerry's remains home.
Researching and writing about Jerry's case became her full-time job.
"Maybe if I can bring home his remains – no matter when – I can feel like I did something for him," she says.
The family took multiple trips to Vietnam to search for evidence. They interviewed locals and documented their findings to present to the U.S. government.
Ron Davis is a former FBI agent who is using his investigation skills to try to find Jerry's remains.
"I'm a Marine and he's a Marine and just from the pure brotherhood of Marines I'm very pleased to be assisting," he says.
The government has reopened the case. Elaine says another excavation of the crash site is planned. Results could come this year.
"Right now, there is a small portion that they have nailed down as where remains — perhaps with his body in portions of the aircraft – where they slid down the mountain," she says.
Mountaineers will be required to search the 80-degree cliff. If remains are found, they will be sent to the Air Force for review and analysis, she says.
"I think having his remains come back and he's here," says Jerry's son Craig, now 47. "I think that would do a lot for our family."
He says his mom's search for closure has been an opening for him to learn more about his father.
"My mom pulled out this chest of letters, of mementos of all kinds of things that were 40 years in the past and the thing that was the most awe-inspiring was she had these tapes," he says.
"So it's daddy telling you goodbye for now, Craigy. And just behave yourself and I'll be seeing you pretty soon, Craigy," Jerry says in one of those tapes.
Craig says his father is a hard person to live up to.
"He was a farmer, small town. He got into an Ivy League university, he became a naval aviator with the Marine Corps, he was a father, a husband, a son" Craig says. "he's somebody that I hold in a regard, and I think it's a big part of who I am and who I try to be with my children as well."
Forty years after the Vietnam War concluded on April 30, 1975, Elaine says it may finally end for her.
"Maybe now he'll come home," she says.
Jerry's remains, if found, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Copyright 2020 KPBS Radio. To see more, visit KPBS Radio.