Mickey Olmstead and his sister, Dixie, dug their crude walking sticks into the water buffalo path and plowed forward, determined to reach the top of a mountain in Vietnam that has been the source of 37 years worth of tears and questions.
For two hours, the siblings from Texas pulled themselves up the steep slope until finally reaching a small clearing on top. Large chunks of rich earth were eaten away inside a crater the size of a small house -- the site where they believe their father died when his plane crashed Oct. 17, 1965, during the Vietnam War.
The two were among about 60 Americans from 24 states on a two-week journey to try to retrace the last moments of their loved ones’ lives.
It’s the first trip that Sons and Daughters in Touch, based in Arlington, Va., has made to the communist country after three years of planning.
The group included not only sons and daughters, but widows, siblings, nurses who performed triage during the war and about 20 veterans of the conflict, including a priest.
Each came to confront the places that have haunted them for years -- from sites in the Mekong Delta to Khe Sanh, Da Nang and the former demilitarized zone.
It was believed to be the largest such trip of its kind and a first chance for many to connect with the fathers they never knew.
“Everybody has a different childhood. In mine, I didn’t have a father,” said Dixie Olmstead George, 40, of Irving, Texas. “In the ‘60s, everybody was married. They didn’t divorce. At that time, everybody had a two-parent family, they had a station wagon and I was so different. And then I get on an airplane with 60 people and they were all different too, just like me.”
George has no memories of her father, who died when she was 3. But, she says, she has grown up feeling his presence. She said his absence has also shaped her life, made her stronger and given her a desire to be a loving mother to her three sons.
None of her father’s remains were recovered, and George said she and her brother -- who was 5 at the time of the crash -- have really never stopped grieving.
“I’m grateful because I think it’s all just got to come out,” said George, sobbing into a tissue on her way to the mountain. “I’ve been wondering all of my life what I can do to get rid of this burden, and so I guess this is it.”
The family has limited knowledge about what happened that day. They know that Navy Cmdr. Stanley Olmstead completed his mission of bombing Vietnam’s supply lines, and that he and his navigator were on their way back when ground fire struck the nose of the F-4 fighter jet. The 31-year-old pilot’s helmet flew off and he slumped over in his seat, unconscious or dead. Seconds later, a fireball erupted from Phuong Vang mountain.
Olmstead and his navigator, Porter Halyburton, were listed as killed in action. But a few years later, the family learned that Halyburton had ejected from the plane and was a prisoner of war.
“That raised the hopes again -- ‘Well, if Porter is a prisoner of war, then there’s a chance that my dad is still alive too,’ ” George said. “So again your hopes are up; you don’t know what to think.”
But after the war ended in 1975, Stanley Olmstead didn’t come home.
The crash site has recently been investigated by a team of officials that locate American soldiers’ remains, but it has not yet been excavated. It also has not positively been identified as the spot where Olmstead crashed. But others, including Halyburton, have no doubt that it’s the right place, situated about 80 miles northeast of Hanoi.
Nothing remains of the aircraft, which was picked apart by villagers scavenging for metal. But beneath a layer of dry leaves and dirt, the siblings uncovered a few rusty parts and shreds of rubber -- small physical connections they say will remind them of the day they found peace on the mountain.
A makeshift shrine now stands inside the crater with a simple metal cross and a black-and-white picture of their dad. Photos of the four grandsons he never met are taped to the back. A stainless steel missing-in-action bracelet is buried as a grave marker.
“I never thought in a million years that we would actually be here, but there’s just more feelings and emotions here right now than I can really articulate,” said Mickey Olmstead, 43, of Austin. “I guess this is something I’ve really dreamed about since I was a little boy. I feel like I’ve done all I can -- or at least tried to -- to honor my father.”