Mother Clings to Hope 25 Years After Son Vanished in Vietnam : MIA: Jane Gaylor believes her only child still lives, but she doesn’t know if she’ll see him again. She writes him regularly and sends gifts.
Twenty years after the end of the Vietnam War, Jane Duke Gaylor bears its emotional wounds, just as surely as if a bullet had pierced her heart.
She writes to her son faithfully in care of the Vietnamese authorities, even though Charles Duke is among the more than 2,000 men listed as missing and the U.S. government has told her it is unlikely he survived.
“Oh, my God! Every time I try to write to you, I start and then I have to stop for a while. I am not able to see for the tears,” she said in a May, 1994, letter marking the 24th anniversary of his disappearance.
“Somehow, I have the feeling you are still alive. I want to hold you, hug you, kiss you and tell you I love you, my dear only son.”
Duke, a former Air Force aircraft mechanic working as a civilian for the U.S. government in Vietnam, disappeared after riding a motorcycle out of the central highlands town of Pleiku on May 30, 1970. He was 24 years old.
“I have a gut feeling he’s alive,” Gaylor says. “I don’t have that same feeling that I’ll ever see him again.”
Charles Duke and a fellow civilian mechanic, Kit Mark, were last seen as they left Pleiku on their motorcycles to visit a mountain site seven miles away. Information available at the time indicated Viet Cong activity in the region that day, but a helicopter search turned up no traces of the missing men.
In a recent interview, Bill Bell, former head of the U.S. Office for POW-MIA Affairs in Hanoi, said the area around Pleiku had the highest incidence of Americans being lured to capture of any region in Vietnam.
“Most of the cases of guys being lured, they were killed right on the spot,” said Bell, who runs the National Veterans Research Center in Fort Smith, Ark., which conducts research on POWs and MIAs.
It was Bell’s Senate testimony in November, 1991, while still head of the MIA office in Hanoi, that convinced Gaylor more than ever that her government was covering up something.
Bell testified that, based on investigations in Vietnam, at least 10 Americans were left behind during Operation Homecoming, the release of nearly 600 American POWs in 1973. Both President Richard M. Nixon and Vietnamese authorities announced then that all U.S. POWs had been freed.
In closed-door testimony, Bell further identified Charles Duke as one of those left behind, based on composite sketches drawn from descriptions provided by a Vietnamese defector who claimed to have seen three Americans in Hanoi as late as 1979.
That sighting was partially confirmed, Bell said, when Marine Pvt. Robert Garwood, a defector, returned to the United States in 1979. According to Bell, when the Vietnamese defector saw Garwood, he said, “There’s one of the three guys I saw in Hanoi.”
Bell said he then compared the composite sketches of the other two men to photographs of all of the Americans still missing.
“And I came up with one of them as being Jane Gaylor’s son,” he said.
The U.S. government says it has no evidence Vietnam is holding any live American POWs, and the Vietnamese government steadfastly denies it.
But a State Department source leaked Gaylor the closed-door testimony and now, in the twilight of her years, the 74-year-old retired telephone company worker is giving up her own life and much of her savings to keep a vigil for her only child.
“I don’t have anything else to live for,” she said, tears filling her eyes.
The only close relatives Jane Duke Gaylor has left are a sister in Kansas and a niece in Ohio. Except for snapshots, mementos of her son are few--a shoeshine kit and some draftsman’s tools.
Even the letters he wrote home from Vietnam are gone, blown away from a box that broke open in the back of a pickup truck.
“If I don’t work on this, I’m wasting my time, and I don’t have a lot of time,” she said.
Emphysema, arthritis and cataracts have tortured her body, but have not dampened her resolve. Her steady companions at her home in Ravenna, Ohio, are an oxygen machine and a wheelchair--along with a telephone, a photocopier and her trusty Marlboro Lights. The fax machine that had been her lifeline was stolen by burglars when she lived in Texas; she has not been able to afford a replacement.
But despite her failing health and dwindling finances, Gaylor flew halfway around the world to Vietnam on Christmas Day, 1993--a trip that cost her more than $6,000--bearing gifts and cards for her son, and for other men missing in action, from their families.
“Because I think they’re alive over there,” she said. “I know they are.”
Last Christmas, unable to return, she sent her son a holiday message, as she has for a quarter-century, this one reflecting on what kind of mother she had been.
“Dear Son,” it said, “did I tell you to laugh--to dance--to sing--to be as happy as possible. . . . Did I tell you the challenge of being a man. . . . The need to achieve and the need to be strong--and the need to be tender.
“Always keep love at the center, letting it be the star by which you set your sails. If I told you or taught you some of these things, I am humbly grateful.”
Gaylor can be just as feisty as she is gentle, prodding and pleading her case in stacks of letters, memos and faxes sent to Presidents, senators and generals.
She was among the relatives of MIAs who confronted President George Bush during a meeting three years ago. Her photo was splashed across newspapers all over the country, showing her holding up a photo of Charles.
“No more lies! Tell the truth! Release the files!” she chanted along with other MIA relatives.
A year ago, Gaylor chained herself to the White House fence in the wheelchair she sometimes uses. She was arrested, jailed briefly and fined $50.
In the years since her son was declared missing, she has moved from Houston to El Dorado, Kan., to Arlington, Tex., and, in late summer, to Ravenna, in her quest for family and friends who will listen to her.
“People don’t understand. They don’t know the truth. I couldn’t talk about my son,” she said.
“The people in the church, when I would talk about it, they would say, ‘Jane, you’ve got to get on with your life. You’re ruining your health.’ If I didn’t try to find my son, I would really ruin my health. If they were in my shoes . . . and that was their son, they would do the same thing I’m doing.”
But even though the passing years have lengthened the odds against her son’s survival and discouraged so many others, time has not diminished Gaylor’s love, loss, resolve or hope.
Even though she moved from Houston five years ago, she maintains a directory listing there dating back to her first marriage--Charles and Jane Duke--since that’s where she was living when her son disappeared. She fears he would not know her by the name she took on by marrying Garland Gaylor, who died in 1990.
In the event of her death, her missing child is listed as her beneficiary.
“My will states that any monies that I have left should be put in an escrow, interest-bearing account to save for 10 years,” Gaylor said. “And if they return his remains, a bone or a tooth, I don’t accept that unless I’m positive. If they say they can prove to me that he died, then I don’t need anything. I don’t believe I’m chasing ghosts.”
In response to queries from Gaylor through her congressman, the Defense Department said in a September, 1994, letter that both Garwood and the Vietnamese defector, a mortician, were unable to positively identify her son from photos shown them.
“To date, the United States government has been unsuccessful in its attempt to correlate the mortician’s and Garwood’s descriptions to unaccounted for Americans,” the Pentagon said. “A live sighting investigation was conducted. The results were negative. Based on existing information, it is most likely that Mr. Duke did not survive.”
The State Department informed Gaylor that in January, 1994, less than a month after she visited Hanoi, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese search team around Pleiku interviewed a villager who said he and two other militiamen shot and killed two white men in civilian clothing riding motorcycles on a dirt road.
The militiaman put the time as March or April, 1970, however--not May.
According to the investigators, the militiaman said he and his colleagues were frightened by the men’s sudden appearance and, not knowing whether they were armed, opened fire.
Fearing others might be following behind, the militiaman said they set fire to the bikes, but left the bodies in plain sight as they hurriedly escaped.
The U.S.-Vietnamese investigative team searched the area but found no evidence of remains or a burial site.
“The [Defense Department] has responded to numerous inquiries and requests for information from Mrs. Gaylor and continues to pursue any and all such information to achieve the fullest possible accounting for all persons listed as unaccounted for in Southeast Asia,” the letter said. “Should our investigative efforts concerning Mr. Duke reveal any new information, we will immediately inform Mrs. Gaylor.”
At one desperate point during her vigil, Charles Duke’s mother decided death was the only thing that could end her grief.
So in 1983, on Memorial Day weekend, she went to the drugstore and filled a prescription for painkillers.
“I went home and took them all,” she recalls.
Her second husband, alerted by neighbors who were unable to raise her when they phoned and knocked on her door, found her unconscious.
“I almost did it,” she said, “but God didn’t want me to go. He didn’t want me yet. He had business for me to do.”