Almost 50 years after serving in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, Jerry McLain returned there in service to his nation once again. This time, the veteran soldier was part of an intel-gathering mission looking for the remains of three American servicemen who went missing during the war.
McLain isn’t quite sure why he got the call in October 2016 to participate in the mission. He said he received an email that he’d be getting a call from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, but didn’t take it very seriously. And then that call came, asking him about his Vietnam service and if he’d want to return there to help search for three MIA soldiers.
McLain had seen action in the Que Son Valley during the time the soldiers had gone missing. He thought that might have been why he was contacted.
At first, he wasn’t sure about making the trip. “After all these years,” said McLain, “I didn’t know if I wanted to go back there. When I left Vietnam in April of 1968, in my mind it was a dark, wet, hot and cold place filled with death and danger. I never planned on returning there.”
It was only after talking with his wife Janet that Jerry decided his contributions to the effort could help bring closure to the other families that had lost their loved one. He agreed to go and began his preparations, which included rounds of vaccinations and obtaining a new passport and military visa. The US government paid for all expenses related to the trip, which left for Vietnam in late February of this year.
McLain was concerned about how he’d feel upon arriving back in country, as well as the quality of food and lodging being offered. “I was really surprised when I got there. People were really friendly to Americans, and the accommodations were modern. We had good food and bottled water,” he said.
Jerry was one of three Vietnam veterans making the trip. They were accompanied in the field by a team including Vietnamese military officials, US military advisors, and two translators. The Americans included an aircraft crash investigator, civilian medical doctor equipped to perform surgery in the jungle, if needed, an Army specialist in explosives, and a Navy medic. The drivers were Vietnamese Army officers.
After a rendezvous in Hawaii, where the three American vets met for the first time, they flew to Japan and then on to DaNang. Almost 50 years later, McLain said he found the city of DaNang to be a fully modern city, with a number of hotels dotted along the South China Sea and the Hon River.
The team convened for its field work, driving two hours outside the city to investigate Hill 138, which was the location for firebase LZ Leslie during the war. Over the years, the jungle had retaken the hill, with thousands of pulp trees planted there.
The team was looking for an ammo bunker where SP4 Billy J. Ellis had last been accounted for. His friends saw him wounded during an attack, and he climbed into the bunker, which was then blown up by an enemy satchel charge during an attack on the firebase by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
McLain had done his homework before leaving the states. He obtained battalion records from 1968 that included all radio transmissions made at the time the MIA’s had been lost. The recorded transmissions provided key locations and troop movements to help determine better positions for where the remains might be found. His background work proved very helpful when the team got into the field.
McLain also brought along photographs he’d taken during his time in Vietnam, and they also were of great value. One photo of a large rock with the First Calvary patch painted on it in white paint was taken in 1967, and Jerry knew it was close to the ammo bunker being sought. Through McLain’s photo, a villager helped identify the rock and knew of its location. He took the team to that rock, and the team began its search for metal objects, marking the area with GPS units.
McLain’s team was not permitted to dig more than three inches deep, and was primarily serving in an intel-gathering purpose. However, a second team will be returning to Vietnam to excavate and search for remains, using the information gathered during McLain’s fact-finding mission.
“The government really didn’t have a lot of information about where these guys might have been,” said McLain. “They wanted us to go out there and help put an X on the ground. Our job was to investigate and return with whatever information we could gather.”
Over the next few days, the team returned to the field, this time moving southwest of what had been firebase LZ Ross, where a major battle took place on January 7, 1968. The team was looking for the possible whereabouts of 1st Lt. James M. Stone and PFC Robert S. Trujillo, both of whom were missing in action.
At the site of the battle, there was a group of hooches, with a former Viet Cong soldier still living in one of them. McLain said it was a bit surreal to be sitting under a shade tree, 49 years later, having polite conversation with a man who’d once been his enemy. “He had been in that battle,” McLain explained, “and he described it from his perspective. We were able to confirm his information, based on what we already knew. He had seen the legs of a dead American soldier lying in a trench, and he said they took his jungle boots and then covered him up in the trench with dirt. That was solid intelligence we could go on.” Before leaving, McLain shook hands with the former VC soldier, and called it “one of the highlights of my trip back to Vietnam. We were fortunate to run into that guy.”
McLain believes it’s very possible that the soldier buried in that trench was James Stone. The team was not able to gather any solid information on Robert Trujillo, and was limited in its ability to move into other sectors where he could have been.
“Was it a success? I don’t really know, but I think we got closer to determining where these MIA’s went missing, and that was our goal,” McLain noted. “If they feel they may be able to recover some remains, another team will be sent there to excavate based on the coordinates we have established.”
Would McLain return again to the Que Son Valley, this time to help attempt exhume the remains of missing American soldiers? He’s not ruling it out. “I didn’t know how I’d feel about it all, going back there again after all these years,” he said, “but it was a good experience, and I’m glad I went.”