RALEIGH, N.C. — The names of the missing sound out in a solemn, rhythmic roll call, like the chiming of a church bell after a funeral.
Frederick Lewis Cristman. Salisbury. U.S. Army.
Carter Avery Howell. Fayetteville. U.S. Air Force.
There is no answer, only the cadence of the next name.
Wayne Vaster Wilson. Thomasville. U.S. Marine Corps.
Eric Parker Brice. Rocky Mount. U.S. Navy.
For the past 27 years – longer than many of these men were alive – people who never knew them have gathered to call out their names at noon on the first Saturday of each month, by candlelight at Christmas, and every Memorial Day.
This ritual is conducted at the state Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Raleigh. It was dedicated in May 1987 on the Capitol grounds to honor some 216,000 North Carolinians who served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, including an estimated 1,609 who died there.
Sometimes, 300 people show up. Other times, fewer than a dozen are present to hear the names that will be read aloud again Monday.
Phillip Rogerson Wellons. Raleigh. U.S. Air Force.
Edward Dean Brown Jr. Charlotte. U.S. Navy.
The ceremony is over in less than 15 minutes. It used to take longer. When Marine Corps Gen. Alfred Gray came to speak at the dedication of the bronze monument in 1987, he told members of N.C. Vietnam Veterans Inc. they should do something on a regular basis to honor those who had not been accounted for since the war ended in 1975.
There were 62 names, then, of North Carolina service members whose deaths could not be confirmed after they were captured or went missing in the war. Since then, 21 sets of remains have been repatriated and identified, the most recent in 2010.
Today, 41 names are on the MIA list.
Luther Harris Howard. Hamlet. U.S. Army.
Joseph N. Hargrove. Mount Olive. U.S. Marine Corps.
It was Lance Cpl. Hargrove’s 24th birthday when he landed on the Cambodian island of Koh Tang on May 15, 1975, as part of a mission to rescue the crew of an American merchant vessel that had been seized by the Khmer Rouge navy off the Cambodian coast.
In what is generally considered the last battle of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford ordered the military to reclaim the S.S. Mayaguez and invade the island – where the 40 crew members were thought to be held.
Just as a contingent of Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force troops made its move on Koh Tang, the Khmer Rouge released the hostage crew from another island where they were being held. On Koh Tang, the Americans met with fierce resistance and could not easily withdraw.
According to military accounts, the Cambodians shot down four U.S. helicopters and damaged five more, killing 14 Americans. More troops were sent in to extract dozens of Americans who were trapped on Koh Tang.
After repeated efforts during the 14-hour battle, Air Force helicopters landed on the beach and rescued 129 Marines. But in the darkness, confusion and gunfire, a three-man machine-gun team that included Joseph Hargrove was inadvertently left behind.
In a 2001 book about the Mayaguez Incident called “The Last Battle,” author and researcher Ralph Wetterhahn concluded that Hargrove was likely found by the Khmer Rouge after the battle, executed, and buried on the island.
Hargrove’s teammates are believed to have been captured later, taken to the mainland and executed there.
Cary Turner of Beautancus, a small community in Duplin County, has worked since 2007 to try to find the remains of Hargrove, his cousin, and bring them home. Turner has made two trips to Koh Tang, sifting through the dirt with his own hands hoping to find bits of cloth, bone, teeth – anything that could be identified as Hargrove’s.
He now believes that the Joint POW/MIA Command, charged with accounting for Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from past conflicts, recovered Hargrove’s remains in 2008 but won’t identify and release them for burial.
“Too much publicity,” Turner guesses. “The government doesn’t want people to start asking a lot of questions again about the Mayaguez Incident.”
So Hargrove’s name is read aloud every first Saturday, along with the 40 others.
Litchfield Patterson Huie. Warsaw. U.S. Navy.
Edwin David Palmgren. Winston-Salem. U.S. Air Force.
Turner is glad somebody cares enough to speak their names, on warm sunny days and cold rainy ones, when war is in the news and when it seems just a minor distraction.
“I really appreciate that they remember – not just Joseph, but all of them,” Turner said.
Bill Dixon of Raleigh, president of N.C. Vietnam Veterans Inc., didn’t get involved in veterans issues until a couple of decades ago because of the stigma once associated with the Vietnam War. A former Army engineer who served in Saigon, he returned last week from his second trip to Vietnam with a group of fellow veterans to build a playground for needy children there.
Dixon is 69 now. He doesn’t know how many name-reading ceremonies he has attended, or how many he has left to do. He has already talked to his children about carrying on the ceremonies when he’s gone.
He has lined up others to help. Different veterans groups rotate through the year to come and read the names: American Legion Post 297, Rolling Thunder chapters 4 and 7, the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“It’s important to continue to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Dixon said. “This nation’s got a lot of problems, but we’re still the best country there is, and it’s all because of the soldier. Not because of the politicians, not because of the teachers, not the preachers or the priests. It’s the American soldier.
“We’ll keep doing this until they all come home.”