Every Memorial Day, I take out a scrapbook my grandmother made over 40 years ago. Each page is filled with headshots of young men with stiff Air Force hats clamped to their heads, their newly-buzzed hair just visible above formal collars. Some gaze at the camera confidently, their broad shoulders filling the frame, while others appear too young for the uniforms buttoned around their necks. Under every face is the exhortation: WHERE IS HE? My uncle's face is on page three.
According to an eyewitness report, on the night of March 28, 1972, Edwin "Jack" Pearce and his 14-man crew boarded the AC-130 gunship "Prometheus" in the darkness of Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base bound for an armed reconnaissance mission over Laos. The slow-moving gunship was accompanied by 4-FE flying escorts, and it's from the vantage point of one of their pilots that the last known whereabouts of my uncle are recorded: It's 3 a.m. in Savannakhet, and Jack is in the narrow gunner's seat, his weapon trained on the jungle below. The pilot reports "three closely spaced surface-to-air-missile (SAM) firings and an unidentified radio transmission 'SAM.'" The sky lights up as the second SAM collides with Prometheus and she explodes in the sky, sending the burning remains tumbling to the ground.
A fifteen-second [emergency] beeper signal was heard from the vicinity of the burning aircraft approximately ten minutes after impact. The exact location of the signals could not be determined, no parachutes were observed, and repeated passes over the crash site revealed no indication of survivors.
The next morning, in the small town of Milford, Pennsylvania, an Air Force representative knocked on Eddie and Rosemary Pearce's door to tell them that their son -- whom they thought had been serving his second tour of duty in Thailand, out of harm's way -- had been shot from a plane flying over neutral Laos and was considered missing in action (MIA).
My grandparents refused to believe that their firstborn had died in the crash. After all, a 19-year-old Eddie Pearce had boarded a B-17 bound for Germany in World War II and, after parachuting out of a burning plane, survived two years in Stalag 17 prison camp. If he could make it home, so could his son.
An eyewitness account of Jack's crash from a different perspective gave my grandparents renewed hope. A Laotian man who had been aboard one of the 30 trucks carrying supplies across the Ho Chi Minh trail that night told an Air Force representative that the AC-130 made five passes over his group, setting several trucks in his convoy on fire. On its fifth pass, the gunship was hit by 37 MM anti-aircraft fire and erupted in flames.
[The AC-130] turned southward and crashed approximately 10 km south... nine crewmembers of the downed aircraft had been rescued by Laotian civilians living near the crash site.
My grandfather retired early from the Pennsylvania State Police force to devote himself full-time to the search for his son. He became State MIA Chairman for Veteran's Affairs and Northeast Coordinator for the National League of Families, a group composed of the family and loved ones of missing men. It was at a League meeting in Washington in December 1972 that my grandfather stood up in a crowded conference room and asked President Nixon if the peace agreement ending the Vietnam War would include Laos. He replied, "All of Southeast Asia."
There is a photograph of my grandmother standing alone at a podium. She is in tears as she speaks about her son at a "Freedom Tree" dedication ceremony in Milford, PA, on October 13, 1973 -- while her husband is halfway around the world in Vientiane. The next day, the Royal Lao and Pathet Lao release their list of prisoners of war. It is 30 years to the day Eddie was shot down during World War II and taken prisoner.
Jack's name is not on the list.
When the Paris Peace Agreements are signed in Washington on January 27, 1973, they make no mention of Laos or the U.S. soldiers missing there. My former POW MIA grandfather and his wife begin to spend their weekends protesting in D.C. and their weekdays at the kitchen table, making calls and writing letters to anyone who would listen. In these letters, perfectly preserved by my grandmother, her small cursive hand corrects, crosses through and joins my grandfather's as they write to newspapers, government and embassy officials and even presidents searching for answers about their son:
Although I spent over 600 days as a POW of the Nazis in WWII and one of my sons is still unaccounted for in S/E Asia after 12 years, I believe this system of government is the best ever created by man...[but] deceitful is the nation that, having heroes, betrays them.
On July 26, 1979, Rosemary and Eddie received word that their son's status, in the absence of further information, had been moved from MIA to KIA, that his "death is presumed to have occurred for the purpose of termination of pay and allowances..." The letter offered a lump sum to Rosemary Pearce for $20,000.
Without a body to bury, my grandparents refuse to accept it.
The volatile political situation in Laos prevents excavation of the crash site until 1984. A joint Laotian and Air Force team identify a single tooth they find amongst the debris as Jack's and claim it as evidence of his death. My grandparents reject this, too.
Stories that some of the men survived the crash continue to swirl; the inscribed wedding band of crew member Curtis Miller is recovered by a reporter and returned to his family and the dog tags of another crewman, Robert Simmons, are anonymously mailed to the U.S. embassy in Laos. Tests reveal no fire residue on the tags, further fueling the belief that not all of the men died in the crash.
Throughout the '80s, private citizens like Jack Bailey and ex-Green beret James G. "Bo" Gritz make international headlines with promises to go where the government won't to "bring our men home." My grandmother cuts and saves every article.
One morning, my grandfather falls while getting up from the breakfast table. He has two more strokes in quick succession that render him unable to speak.
In October and November of 2005, another joint excavation team returns to the crash site in Laos, this time armed with DNA-based identification technology. Their report states the site had to be re-cleared during the recovery process because "the vegetation had grown about a meter high over the intervening 13 weeks." In a place where the thickness of the encroaching jungle threatens to erase all traces of the past, their tools unearth what they later identify as parts of boots, safety vests -- and human bone among the weeds. The excavation is stopped early due to "time constraints."
Back in the U.S, my 83-year-old grandfather is living in a VA hospital and running out of time. On New Year's Eve 2006, surrounded by his wife and three surviving children, he dies.
Without Eddie, my grandmother's health quickly deteriorates. She moves in with my mother, who is battling her own health issues as her breast cancer spreads to her bones and brain. My mother goes to bed every night with the prayer book her father had carried in Stalag 17 beside her. The title page is inscribed: "There are more things in this world wrought by prayer than this old world has ever dreamed of."
And after 36 years of searching, doubt, and the excruciating wait for an answer, the countless prayers were answered. My mother's voice on the line is shaky when she calls me: "It's Jack. They think they've found something."
On September 20, 2008, I stand behind my mother and grandmother as they hold hands before the tiny box about to be lowered into the ground. It contains a single bone, identified as Jack's by a rare mtDNA mutation matching one in blood samples drawn from my mother and grandmother.
A far-off droning sound turns into a rib-shaking thrum. The 30-odd assembled guests at the funeral look up at the sky as the thick underbelly of an AC-130 passes overhead. I think of my uncle, the same age as I am now, flying over the jungles of Savannakhet. I think of the man in the truck below him that he is trying to kill, watching the night sky suddenly fill with light and the sound of gunfire. I think of my grandfather at age 19, parachuting into an unknown future.
Three volleys of shots pierce the sky over Pennsylvania, commemorating the dead.
My mother wrote the inscription on the gravestone my uncle and grandfather now share:
Separated by a generation fought in different wars, both shot down from the skies. The father, a prisoner of war, returned to fall in love, raise five children and live a long life.
The son's remains were returned thirty-six years after he was shot down, to be laid to rest with his father, who had never stopped searching for him.
PHOTOS: WWII POW Father And Missing Son Reunited After 36 Years
My grandmother kept meticulous scrapbooks of clippings, photos and letters chronicling her and her husband's search for their eldest son, Jack. L-R: "Trooper Presses Mission To Find Son Lost in 1972 Combat in Laos," Scranton Tribune, May 1, 1975; "Father Tells of Heartbreaking Search for MIAs," Times Herald Record, October 26, 1973; Photograph of my Grandmother at "Freedom Tree" Dedication for Jack on October 13, 1973; Photograph of Rosemary and Ed on their honeymoon in New York, 1946; "Families of MIAs Begin Vigil in Laos," Air Force Times, October 17, 1973; A postcard from my Grandfather to my Grandmother from Thailand dated October 10, 1973; An invitation to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand; Photos of my Grandfather's 1973 trip to Bangkok; "Pearce Returns From Laos Encouraged And Optimistic," publication unknown, 1973.
Edwin "Eddie" Pearce enlisted in the U.S. arm in July of 1942, one month after his high school graduation.
The top photograph shows the crew of my Grandfather's plane. They were shot down on October 14, 1943 on their 12th combat mission while bombing Bavarian Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories in Hitler's Germany. The men had been rushed out to the front so fast that they hadn't been trained to use their parachutes. My grandfather would later recall falling through the air, frantically trying to pull the string on his chute, while all around him, floating U.S. Airmen were encircled by German planes "herding the men like sheep in the sky." The photo below of their plane, "Patches" (so-called for the many dents it received in the name of duty), was taken by U.S. press corps right before the shoot-down and was used in newsreels that were played in movie theaters across the country.
My grandfather had a perfect comb-over even into his 80s (when, I'll admit, there was little to comb), but for this particular photograph -- taken by German guards in the POW camp Stalag XVII -- Eddie told his grandchildren that he had pushed his hair in front of his face to disguise himself so he'd have a better chance of going unnoticed if he ever escaped. When the Hollywood film"Stalag 17" came out in 1953, he told his children that the film's depiction of living conditions in the camp was "very accurate," with one glaring exception: In the film, the escapees hid out in the water tower. In real life, they escaped notice by hiding under the latrines.
My grandfather dated all three of the Johnson sisters before proposing to my grandmother, at far left.
This is the hand-colored high school graduation photograph that my grandmother signed and gave to her future husband for safekeeping.
This photo was taken just after my grandparents were married on January 20, 1947. They are standing on the doorstep of the home they would share for nearly 60 years.
Here, my Grandfather holds his namesake, Edwin Jack, on his right hip, and his second-eldest son, Mike, on his left (Mike would be serving in the Navy in Spain when his brother was shot down over Laos). Rosie and Eddie would have three more children: Bob, Linda (my mother, the only girl) and Kim. Eddie was a very involved father, spending hours drawing pictures with his children and telling them stories, though he was most known for his "thumb removal" trick, which he performed to the terror and delight of children and grandchildren alike.
Eddie giving Rosemary a squeeze. She's wearing a homemade dress as they pose in the backyard of their house. It's likely that Jack took this picture.
Jack was a strong student and dominated the conversation at Pearce family dinners in high school with his funny stories and gentle teasing of his younger siblings.
Jack loved cars (and speeding -- in high school, he crashed his father's brand new two-door, red-roofed Plymouth Fury going over 100 miles an hour). While home on leave from Vietnam, Jack bought the yellow 1970 Camaro in this picture. After he signed up for a second tour of duty, he tried to bring his dream car back to the dealer -- he had barely gotten to drive it, and the odometer only read 1,700 miles. But when the car salesman learned that Jack was heading back to Vietnam, he only offered him half of what he bought it for. My Uncle Kim recalls that his older brother struggled with how soldiers were treated at home -- the first thing Jack saw upon reaching U.S. soil after his first tour of duty was a group of anti-war protestors burning the flag at the airport.
A photograph of my grandmother, in tears, speaking about her son at a "Freedom Tree" Dedication Ceremony in Milford, PA, on October 13, 1973. Her husband wasn't there to see her; Eddie was halfway around the world in Laos. The following day, he was to witness the release of POW lists from the Royal Lao and Pathet Lao. In a letter to the editor of a POW publication, my Grandfather described the eerie significance the date held for him: I flew to Laos, at my own expense, to be present when the Royal Lao and Pathet Lao were going to release the list of POWs each side held. The date was October 14, 1973 -- 30 years to the day that I was shot down during WW II.
At the July, 1976 meeting of the National League of Families in Washington, my grandmother realized one of the files for a crewman on her son's plane contained a paper that was not in any of the 13 other missing mens' -- a DIA report stating that a rallier, or informer, witnessed the shoot down and reported that nine men were rescued from the crash by Lao villagers. When Rosemary requested that the document be copied, Air Force personnel denied her request and the paper's owner was then told the document had been removed from her son's file. After much fighting, the document was restored.
My mother (a freshman in college when this picture was taken) and her brother, Kim, at a POW/MIA protest in Washington. After Jack was declared MIA, My grandparents drove to the Capitol every weekend to participate in rallies and protest and were sometimes joined by their children.
My grandmother marching on JFK Plaza in the 1970s.
At the time Jack was shot down, three of the Pearce's four sons were serving in the military: Mike in the Navy in Spain and Bob in the Marines in Italy. Kim, the youngest (pictured here at a protest in Washington, D.C.) was not yet old enough to join. Kim never did join the military, and grew up to become a successful painter. After the death of his own child, Stacey, at age 18, he become known for his paintings memorializing people's loved ones, which he gives as gifts to their grieving families.
My Grandparents In 1993, as I remember them.
At the time of my grandfather's death, Jack's fate was stil unknown. The local paper ran a three-page spread on his search for his son. Pictured: "An Extraordinary LIfe," The Gazette, January 13, 2006; Photo of my Grandmother, mother and Uncle Kim from Tree Dediction Ceremony, October 13, 1973; newspaper article on my Grandfather's October 1973 trip to Laos; my Grandmother's handwritten list of income from a 1974 bake sale to benefit The National League of Families; a photo of my grandparents in their backyard with my mother, Linda, and my Uncle Kim.
This is one of the many binders my Grandmother filled with images, pamphlets, clippings and statistics on men Missing in Action in Vietnam. Also pictured: Department of Defense Form 1300 listing Jack's status change from Missing In Action (MIA) to Killed In Action (KIA); postcards from my Grandfather to my Grandmother during his travels to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam; Program from October 1973 Tree Dedication Ceremony; A photograph of my Grandmother breaking down into tears at the 1973 ceremony as she speaks to the guests about her son.
On June 17, 2010, the unidentified mixed remains of Jack's crew were brought to Arlington National Cemetery for a group burial. Jack's separate remains were interred next to his father's at a private ceremony in Milford, PA on September 20, 2008.
Surviving family members at the June 17, 2010 ceremony at Arlington accepted medals and flags folded over the shared coffin during the ceremony. Here, my grandmother, age 84 and in a wheelchair, is presented with a flag and Jack's medals.
"I am fortunate to have lived a long life. It seems that most of my adult life has been spent searching for answers about Jack and hoping that he would come home and walk through my door. After thirty-six years, it is very difficult to accept the death of my son, but is is a comfort to know that he is finally been brought home and at rest with his father." -Rosemary Pearce
VIDEO: Rosemary Pearce Celebrates Her First Memorial Day With Closure
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