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MIA Families Won’t Let the Nation Forget

Times Staff Writer

How long, how long must we linger?

How long, how long must we wait?

We are here because of man’s folly,

But how long must we suffer this fate?

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E. C. Mills penned the song for Lt. Cmdr. James B. Mills 14 years ago in the hope that it would help bring his son home from a Vietnamese jungle prison.

Mills, the first director of the National League of Families of Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, died four years ago without ever knowing whether his son had died when his F-4 Phantom disappeared on a bombing mission over Vietnam, or was alive and praying for rescue more than a decade later.

Now Lois Mills, the widow and mother, carries on the wait.

It has now been 18 years. “I have dreamed that he came walking through the door, at church. I dreamed that he came walking down the middle aisle at church one time,” says Mills, who lives alone now in a Brea mobile home park.

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“I think the reason I had that in my mind what was when we were back in Washington, in ’74 or ’75, we were at a veterans’ group in Alexandria and this woman came up to me afterwards, and she said, ‘Mrs. Mills, I know a family in Germany whose son was missing for many, many years, and they never had a word.’ He was in Russia, and, she said, one day he walked through the door, 16 years later. So she said, ‘Do not give up!’ And that has just stayed with me so much that--you know, not to give up.”

Mills is one of an estimated 14 Orange County families whose sons, brothers, husbands or fathers disappeared in Vietnam and were never adequately accounted for. Mills’ daughter, Judy Taber of La Habra, is coordinator of a Southern California chapter of the national league that includes more than 180 families.

Sharing and Company

At a time when national awareness of the Missing In Action issue has waned, the families find comfort in carrying on the search together. They share any reports of missing men being seen in Southeast Asia; they write letters to members of Congress and keep candlelight vigils each year before Christmas to remind the world of the last, small hope they carry about men who have been officially declared dead.

“Nixon, Ford and Carter have repeatedly said there are no live Americans in Southeast Asia. You can’t turn around and say to people that we believe there are some there. They look at you as though you’re nuts. If our President has said there are no more over there, how can there be?” asks Errol Bond of Fullerton, whose son, Air Force Capt. Ronald Bond, disappeared over Laos in 1971.

The Reagan Administration has recognized that current evidence “precludes ruling out . . . the possibility” that Americans are being held in captivity, and that has given MIA families renewed confidence and sparked renewed activism during the past four years. Families who had long ago given up hope have begun attending meetings again, Taber said.

U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), a longtime supporter of efforts to account for missing American servicemen, plans to visit Hanoi during the next few months, primarily to seek information on the MIAs.

“I am just convinced, and always have been, that a handful of men were left behind. It’s the darkest page in American history,” said Dornan, who still wears a bracelet bearing the name of a close friend, Air Force Col. David Hrdlicka, who at one point was known to be a prisoner in Laos. “We want to let them know there that this is a poisonous situation, and there will never be any kind of rapprochement unless this issue is resolved,” he said.

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Details of Last Missions

Though the stories of how their loved ones disappeared are years old, the missing men’s families remember every detail from the hours spent scanning casualty reports, flight logs, search records --some of them with still-classified information inked out by the federal government--anything that might provide a clue.

Jack Fleckenstein remembers Valentine’s Day, 1969, when his stepson, Lt. Cmdr. Larry Stevens, flew his last mission near Tchepone, Laos:

“As far as I’ve been able to figure out, he had a little over 30 combat missions before he went down,” Fleckenstein said. “It was 10 o’clock at night. They flew over the target site at 10,000 feet, they made a slow, climbing turn to 14,000 feet, then they started their bombing run. About 40 seconds into the bombing run, Cmdr. Meehan, the flight leader, felt a terrible jolt, and he noticed a flash on the canopy to the left rear of him: that was Larry’s plane being hit. Both planes were hit at the same time, in the same barrage.

“Larry’s plane was seen to hit the ground. There were two other planes in the area. One was an A-6 Invader with an automatic tracking indicator . . . . The A-6 had two men on it, the pilot and an observer, and the observation plane had one. All three of those men saw Larry’s plane go into the ground. They described the point of impact as gently rolling hills, no vegetation, and his plane hit toward the bottom of the valley.

“About two to three minutes after the plane hit the ground, all three of the people in the area picked up a 5-to-10-second beeper signal, and this, they assume, came from Larry. They tried to get a directional fix on it, but it was too short for that. Larry never made a radio transmission; however, in the official report that we got, his squadron commander said that under the circumstances, he felt the chances were extremely good that Larry was able to bail out, even though there was no parachute sighted because it was a dark night.”

Those reports are all the Fleckensteins have had to go on.

Mills said she still vividly recalls the night she heard that her son’s plane had disappeared with no more clue than the word “What . . .” transmitted over the radio before it faded from the radar screen.

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“The football coach, who was a very dear friend of ours, was a naval officer and on duty that night, so he came with the casualty officer,” she says. “In fact, the coach called and asked if he could come by, and my husband thought it was something about football because my husband happened to be president of the California Interscholastic Federation at that moment . . . but when he didn’t get there real quickly--because he only lived about 10 minutes from us--then I came out of the bedroom and I said, ‘Honey, he’s a naval officer.’ That’s how we knew.”

For others, the memories are not so vivid. Deborah Robertson Bardsley, a graduate of Foothill High School, Tustin, was only 12 when her father, Col. John L. Robertson, was shot down in 1966.

“It’s really interesting because I don’t remember day-to-day things,” she says. “But I certainly have memories that I’ve kept through all these years. They’re little things, crazy things, that I think in a normal childhood might not be the things you would remember.

“I remember when he came to talk to my class when I was in grade school, and I was very proud of him because being a fighter pilot, he was very adventurous and brave, and he came in his full flight suit, and to me, I was so proud to have him as my father, and I thought I was much luckier than other people who have fathers who are doctors and lawyers, or something else.

Didn’t Speak of Father

“Now, I see people who have fathers who are doctors or lawyers still have their fathers, or at least know where they are.”

Only recently has she been able to talk about her feelings. “It was a very difficult kind of childhood, and it was very hard for us to explain about our father, and for many years, especially since the war was very unpopular, we didn’t talk about it. We kept it a secret.”

Now, family members say they have a different kind of problem, that of making others remember a chapter in history that many would prefer to forget.

“Do you know what we get all the time? ‘What’s POW MIA?’ ” says Bond. “I have this belt with POW MIA on it, and I went to the store, and this young kid says, ‘what’s POW MIA? Is that a new rock group?’ ”

Mills, whose car is usually plastered with POW MIA bumper stickers, says she came out of the optometrist’s office several months ago and found her bumpers bare. “It was the strangest thing,” she says.

“I came out, and I couldn’t see my car, because that’s the way I usually find it, with the stickers. Then I realized that somebody had ripped them all off my car, and I don’t know how in the world they ever got them off. I about died. I said, how could they do it? If I wanted to take them off, I could never even get them off! And the only thing I can figure out is it was a hot day, and maybe some kid came along that didn’t know what it meant or anything . . . .”


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