By John C. Ensslin
The Rocky Mountain News
December 19, 2007
Mike Jefferson remembers the day in April 1969 when he learned that his older brother, Perry, an Air Force major, had disappeared during a reconnaissance flight over the mountains of Vietnam.
At the time, Mike Jefferson was working on a metal reclamation project in Lewistown, Pa. – a job he nearly lost because he insisted on rushing to Chicago before his father, Perry G. Jefferson, was notified by the military that his son was missing in action.
He got there, but not quite in time. His father, Jefferson said, never quite got over the loss and the uncertainty that continued to surround his son’s fate.
But two months ago the Air Force calledm upon the family once again, this time to let them know that the remains of the 37-year- old Northglenn Air Force officer had been recovered and verified.
Wife became an activist
The news was welcome but bittersweet, Jefferson said Tuesday while sitting at his dining room table, which was covered with photos and yellowed newspaper clippings about his brother.
“It’s amazing,” the 68-year-old retired engineer said. “I wish it would have happened while my father was still alive. It really dragged him down. He had lost my mother and then my brother.”
The elder Jefferson died about 16 years ago.
Perry Jefferson’s wife, Sylvia, a former magazine model, died about five years ago. She had become an activist in the movement to find out what happened to prisoners of war who didn’t return and other military personnel missing in action.
At one point, she and a delegation of relatives of missing servicemen traveled to Paris, hoping to press their case with representatives of the North Vietnamese government, to no avail.
Summers in Colorado
Perry Henry Jefferson was born in Indiana in August 1931.
As kids, he and his brother Mike would travel to Colorado every summer to an old logging cabin their grandmother owned near Grant. His brother loved the Colorado mountains, and his fascination with old mines may have sparked his interest in geology.
After graduating from Southern Methodist University, Perry hired on with Aramco and spent two years working on oil field projects in the Middle East.
To fulfill his military obligation, he signed on with the Colorado Air National Guard as a technician and squadron intelligence officer.
Fatal last ride
Perry was an outgoing, fun-loving person who had found his true calling in the Air Force, his younger brother recalled.
“Every letter I got from him was positive,” Mike Jefferson said. “He enjoyed what he was doing, probably for the first time. He probably would have re-upped and gone back, if he had come back.”
Jefferson read from one letter his brother sent him, dated Sept. 21, 1968.
“Things have been pretty hectic over here. Went through jungle survival school from the 10th to the 16th. Believe it or not, camping out in the jungle is fun in a weird sort of way.”
He also wrote of a trip to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines: “I had great trip. It was nice to get good food for a change. The change of scenery was good for my morale. Bikinis. Mini-skirts. Etc.”
On April 3, 1969, Perry was near the end of his tour of duty in Vietnam when he and pilot Arthur G. Eklund flew out on a single-engine O-1 Bird Dog airplane from Phan Rang air base in Ninh Thuan province.
“He was going to take a joy ride. One last shot,” his brother said.
During the flight, Eklund radioed their location over the mountainous region of Ninh Thuan. It was the last anyone heard from them.
Remains turned over
A three-day search-and-rescue mission followed, but eventually was curtailed by hostile threats in the area.
In 1984, a former member of the Vietnamese air force turned over to a U.S. official human remains he said were from one of two U.S. pilots whose aircraft was shot down.
A decade later, a joint U.S.- Vietnamese team led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command interviewed two witnesses who said the aircraft crashed into a mountainside. The pilots died and were buried at the site.
The team excavated the crash site and found aircraft wreckage but no human remains.
In 2000, the remains turned over in 1984 were identified as Eklund’s. The next year, a Vietnamese national living in California turned over to officials human remains that he said were recovered at a crash site.
They were identified this year as Perry Jefferson’s.
While Mike Jefferson said he is baffled why his brother’s remains were not turned over sooner, he takes some comfort in knowing now that his brother died in the crash and not as a prisoner of war.
Perry Jefferson also is survived by two stepchildren.
His remains will be buried April 3 at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.
Aussie Returns Home from Vietnam
By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA (Reuters) – The remains of an Australian soldier killed during the Vietnam War were returned home to a ceremonial welcome on Wednesday, 36 years after his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire.
Lance Corporal John Gillespie, a 24-year-old army medic, died on April 17, 1971, when his helicopter crashed and caught ablaze after coming under fire during a medical evacuation in the Minh Dam Mountains of southern Phuoc Tuy province.
“From one soldier to another, I say to Lance Corporal John Gillespie, welcome home mate,” said Major-General Richard Wilson of the Australian Defence Force as Gillespie’s body was brought home in a flag-draped coffin.
Gillespie’s widow, Carmel Hendrie, and daughter, Fiona Pike, who was aged 2 when her father was killed, were among family members to see the body taken from a military aircraft at an air force base south of Melbourne.
“We’re just so happy that he’s home on home soil, and that we can go and say hello,” Hendrie said.
“Fiona said something very poignant to me the other day: ‘Mum, I’ve got something to touch’, which before she’s never, ever, ever had.”
Gillespie’s legs were pinned under the helicopter. After a search failed to find the body the next day, it was assumed to have been consumed by fire.
But an Australian veterans search team found the crash site in 2004 and the body was discovered last month.
“The helicopter burned beyond recognition, so to find him was extremely fortunate,” Ron Coxon, president of Australia’s Vietnam Veterans’ Association, told local television.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, first sent soldiers to Vietnam in 1962 and by the time the last troops left in 1973, more than 50,000 Australian soldiers, air force and navy personnel had served there. A total of 520 died in the war, while almost 2,400 were wounded.
The remains of another three Australian soldiers are yet to be recovered from Vietnam battlefields.
Gillespie was to be buried in a private non-military service in Melbourne.