"The Strange Disappearance of Lance Cpl. James W. Jackson Jr."
By Ron Martz
Special to the U.S. Veteran Dispatch
September 21 will mark the 25th anniversary of the day Marine Lance Cpl. James W. Jackson Jr. of Atlanta walked into a Navy hospital in Vietnam and vanished into thin air.
Since that day in 1969 there has been absolutely no trace of Jackson nor any indication how or why he was swallowed up the moment he stepped through the doors of the 3rd Medical Battalion hospital in Quang Tri for treatment of a minor shrapnel wound.
Of the more than 2,200 cases of men who are prisoner, missing or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, Jackson's may be the most bizarre. Jackson's disappearance is like the war itself, a riddle without an answer, a mystery without a solution, an unsatisfactory and frustrating end to youth and innocence. It is also an indictment of a system that failed Jackson and his family in 1969 and continues to fail the missing men and their families.
Jackson's case is unique because he was not lost in the jungle while on patrol. He was not in a helicopter or an airplane that crashed or was shot down. He was not part of any special unit or clandestine operation. He did not wander off into the seamier sections of Saigon or Da Nang. He simply walked into a hospital in the middle of the busy Quang Tri Combat Base and vanished from the face of the earth.
"Institutionally, this case in an embarrassment to us," said one Marine casualty assistance officer who worked the Jackson case for several years. "Jackson was the only man I had missing in action in three wars and the matter baffles me as much today as it did at the time," said retired Marine Col. R. R. Hershey, commander of the 4th Marine Regiment in Vietnam.
Capt. Bob Wallace was working at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington in 1969 when the first frantic calls inquiring about Jackson came in. He spent nearly a year working the case, searching for information, consoling family members, trying to piece together parts of a puzzle that simply refused to fit.
"I used to go to bed at night thinking about what might have happened to Jimmy Jackson," said Wallace. "I still wonder what really happened to him."
For Rudeen West, Jackson's mother, the answer is simple. "The Marine Corps lost my son," she said.
"I had prepared myself for the possibility my son might die in Vietnam," she added. "I was ready for him to be wounded or captured or any of the things you expect in war because I was the mother of a Marine. But I wasn't ready for him to be lost without any explanation and that's just what happened." For 17 years after Jackson's disappearance his father and namesake was unable to come to grips with the uncertainty. He wrapped his grief around him like a death shroud and spent his days thinking about his son, his nights dreaming of him. He died in 1986, no closer to an answer than he was the day his son went missing.
Rudeen Jackson remarried several years later but never gave up hope she some day would learn the truth of what happened to her son. But, over the years, she was psychologically bruised and battered from running into brick walls thrown up by the government. When James W. Jackson Sr. died, Rudeen relegated her son's case to dozens of thick files, all of which led nowhere, none of which had the answer for which she was looking.
Jimmy Jackson's life before Vietnam can be easily tracked through interviews with friends and family. His five months in Vietnam can be documented step-by-step through Marine Corps records. The hours leading up to his disappearance can be followed through interviews and depositions given by members of his unit.
But about 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 21, 1969, Jackson seems simply to have ceased to exist. On that day Jackson was a 21-year-old rifleman serving with Lima Co., 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. Lima Co. was on a remote hilltop known as Fire Support Base Russell in northern I Corps northwest of the Rockpile near the DMZ. Scene of some fierce, deadly fighting over the previous year, Russell was being abandoned. This was to be its last day in friendly hands. Demolition charges were being wired to blow the bunkers and trench lines and excess powder bags for the 105mm artillery pieces were being dumped in a pit to be burned.
At some point one of the unit's two Bru scouts is believed to have dropped or thrown a lit cigarette into a pit containing the powder bags. The resulting fire touched off a series of explosions that scattered burning ammunition all over the top of the hill. The two Bru scouts were killed instantly. Two Marines, both badly burned, also died. Fifteen others, including Jimmy Jackson, were wounded.
Hospitalman 3rd Class Lannie Gray, a barrel-chested black musician from Minneapolis, clearly remembers finding Jackson sitting alone and dazed on the side of the hill, his elbows on his knees. A small piece of shrapnel had hit Jackson in the back. Gray could not tell how deep it was, but it was no bigger than the nail on his little finger. The wound appeared to be far less serious than others Gray had treated in the last few minutes.
Gray unwrapped a battle dressing, put the thick gauze side on the wound, then tied the loose ends around Jackson's chest.
"Are you all right now?" Gray said.
"Yeh," Jackson said, nodding his head slowly.
"Can you make it down the hill to the LZ?"
"If you can't, just be cool and I'll be back to get you."
Gray ran back up the hill, looking for more wounded. He had no concerns about Jackson. The wound appeared to be minor. The wounded were gathered on an LZ below the crest of the hill, away from the fires and explosions. When the CH-46 Sea Knight medevac choppers came in the most seriously wounded were sent out first. Jackson was among the last to leave.
Jackson was carried onto the helicopter by his platoon sergeant and the company radio operator, both of whom knew him well. There were four other casualties on the helicopter, two with heat exhaustion. One of them was a wiry, red-haired Marine from Florida, Pfc. Steve Jackson. Gray was told to accompany the wounded to the hospital to tend to the heat casualties. He went around the helicopter checking the condition of each patient during the 15-minute flight. All gave him a thumb's up.
When the helicopter touched down at 3rd Medical Battalion a dozen Navy corpsmen rushed from behind the blast barrier that protected the door to the emergency room and hopped aboard.
Two corpsmen lifted Jimmy Jackson to his feet and helped him walk slowly out the back of the helicopter. Steve Jackson went out next, also assisted by two corpsmen. The other three casualties were carried out on stretchers before the corpsmen came to assist Gray, who had suffered minor burns on his legs during the fires and explosions on the hilltop earlier that morning. "I'm not hurt," Gray told them. "I can make it on my own." Gray relaxed and took a deep breath. No one had died. He had delivered all his patients to the hospital in good shape. It was time to find a shower, some hot food and a bed. Tomorrow it was back to the bush. Gray looked out the rear of the helicopter and saw his patients being assisted around the corner of the blast barrier and into the emergency room.
Lance Cpl. James W. Jackson Jr., a corpsman on each arm, turned the corner and went into the hospital. It was the last time anyone saw him alive.
It was six weeks before it was discovered Jackson was missing. His parents thought he was with his unit. His unit thought he was in the hospital. The hospital had no record of him so had no reason to look for him.
Not until parents and friends began calling and writing Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, asking why Jackson had not written, was a search initiated. The initial search showed he was not with his unit, not in the hospital at Quang Tri and not on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose. He was, in fact, nowhere to be found in Vietnam.
The Marines were confident they would find Jackson. The Marine Corps does not lose people. The Army might. The Navy might. The Air Force might. Never the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps takes care of its own. It is drilled into a Marine's brain from the moment he arrives at boot camp that Marines look out for one another. Marines don't abandon fellow Marines, especially on the battlefield.
The search for Jackson was hindered by several factors, not the least of which was that the 4th Marines were ordered to pack up and ship back to Okinawa. A regimental retrograde took precedence over a search for one lost or missing Marine.
An Article 32 investigation, the military equivalent of a grand jury probe, was ordered to ascertain what had happened to Jackson. For two months the board of inquiry interviewed dozens of witnesses and brought in records from Lima Co. and 3rd Medical Battalion. But the more the investigating officers learned the more they became confused.
The came down to these basic questions:
If Jackson had somehow been killed in the explosions and left on the hill, why were there five key witnesses who swore they either helped put him on the helicopter or saw him on it? The board considered a conspiracy by the five or mass hypnosis, then discarded both possibilities. If Jackson had gotten to the hospital, why was there no record of him? It's possible he could have been confused with Steve Jackson in the crush of patients. But even if that had happened, what became of him after that?
If he had been misidentified and had died at 3rd Med or on the hospital ship, why hadn't he been caught in one of the administrative safety nets? Even if his body had been misidentified, there should have been an excess body somewhere. If he had been captured by the NVA or the Viet Cong, why were there no reports of his captivity? None of it made any sense.
On January 10, 1970, the board of inquiry issued its report. It said the facts were these:
* Lance Cpl. James W. Jackson Jr. was wounded on September 21, 1969 at Fire Support Base Russell.
* Jackson's wound was treated by corpsman Lannie Gray.
* Jackson was placed aboard a helicopter with Steve Jackson and Gray and taken to the hospital at 3rd Medical Battalion, Quang Tri.
* Jackson was seen being assisted into the triage room at 3rd Med by two unidentified corpsmen.
* Jimmy Jackson disappeared.
The board decided Jackson had simply vanished without explanation. There were theories about what had happened to him, although none was particularly plausible. For a while the board members even toyed with the idea of devising their own explanation for the disappearance, then thought better of it. They didn't want to have that hanging over their heads in case Jackson came walking out of the jungle some day.
In the end, the board members decided to tell the truth, and the truth was they didn't know what had happened. Nor did anyone else. They found their distance from Jackson's family to be comforting. They had no desire to explain their findings because there was no way to explain them. How do you tell a mother the Marine Corps has lost her son? And lost him not in combat, as one might expect of a Marine, but in a hospital?
Over the next year, Rudeen became a fixture at Headquarters Marine Corps. She wrote frequently and called at least once a week to inquire of Jimmy's case. The answer was always the same: there is no answer. Rudeen was demanding, but in a non-threatening manner. She helped minimize the embarrassment the Marine Corps felt at losing her son by downplaying her criticism of the institution in the hopes it one day might find an answer. Many of the Marines who dealt with her came to sympathize with her and her plight. She became "Ma Jackson," they became her surrogate Marine sons while they worked on Jimmy's case. In October 1970, Rudeen went to Washington to attend the first meeting of a newly formed organization for the families of missing men called the National League of Families of Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
Jackson's disappearance is like the war itself, a riddle without an answer, a mystery without a solution, an unsatisfactory and frustrating end to youth and innocence. Most of the members were wives or mothers of pilots known to be held prisoner by the North Vietnamese and Rudeen found herself ostracized. Many of the pilots' relatives wanted nothing to do with this poor millworker's daughter from Atlanta, especially when they learned she was the mother of a common mud Marine.
There was also a separation between relatives who knew their sons or husbands were being held prisoner, and those, like Rudeen who had loved ones who were unaccounted for. But Rudeen persevered, because she felt the organization might provide some muscle that would help her force open doors in the byzantine Pentagon bureaucracy.
At that first meeting, Sen. Ted Kennedy showed up to lend his support to the wives of the prisoner pilots. The young wives clustered around him, giggling and trying to catch the attention of the rich young senator from Massachusetts. Rudeen pushed through the crowd until she stood in front of Kennedy. "Senator Kennedy, who do you think you can do about our MIAs?" she demanded in a voice she barely recognized as her own. "I don't know. What's an MIA?" Kennedy stammered. Rudeen grabbed Kennedy by the lapels of his suit coat and pulled him closer to ensure she had his full attention. "MIA means missing in action and don't you forget it. Now, do you know anything we can do about it?" "No ma'm, I don't," Kennedy replied before his stunned aides recovered and moved in to rescue him. For the next 10 years Rudeen continued to press her son's case. But she had long since reached the point of diminishing returns. Each new casualty officer brought less and less interest. The Jackson case quickly devolved into ancient history.
On September 14, 1979, Rudeen's 60th birthday, one week shy of the 10th anniversary of Jimmy's disappearance, the Marine Corps held a status hearing on the case. Although Rudeen made an impassioned plea to keep Jimmy's case alive because of its unusual nature, the hearing officers were unmoved. They knew little of the case except what they had read in the file. Like every other service the Marine Corps was trying to rid itself of the ghosts of Vietnam. Jimmy Jackson was a ghost that could haunt them forever. The burden of proof fell to Rudeen. Although the government had no proof Jimmy Jackson was dead, Rudeen could offer no proof he was alive. On August 7, 1980, Jackson, by then promoted to Gunnery Sgt., was declared dead. The death certificate lists no cause of death. It says simply that because there is no evidence he is alive, he must be dead.
Within weeks a ceremony was held at the National Cemetery in Marietta, Ga., for Jackson. A government-issued headstone was placed over an empty grave. Rudeen attended the ceremony but found little solace in it or the flag she received. She was more convinced than ever that her son was killed not by the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, but by an insensitive pen-wielding bureaucrat. Semper Fidelis would never mean the same again. Always faithful, but only to a point.
Ron Martz writes on military affairs and international security issues for the Atlanta Constitution. A former Marine, he has written about the POW/MIA issue for 15 years. He is the co-author of two books: "Disposable Patriot: Revelations of a Soldier in America's Secret Wars," and "Solitary Survivor: The Story of America's First POW in Southeast Asia," the latter to be published early next year.
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