HACKENSACK, N.J. – Deep in the Vietnamese jungle, about 20 miles south of Da Nang, a military recovery team has spent weeks scouring a mountainside clearing, searching for the remains of Bogota, N.J., native Albert Graf.
Graf, 24, a Marine 1st lieutenant and navigator, and his pilot, 25-year-old Capt. Jerry Zimmer, were shot down 41 years ago on Aug. 29, 1969, in their F4-B Phantom II jet. Their bodies were never recovered.
For years, they were considered lost forever – until their widows, Marianne Graf Thomas and Elaine Zimmer Davis, made separate visits to Vietnam with experienced guides and realized a staggering fact: The crash site was actually a few miles away from the location on record with the military.
Their research helped to persuade the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC – the agency in charge of locating missing American service members in foreign countries – to reopen the case, which had been in the “No Further Pursuit” category, and send a team to the site.
“I truly believe Al is coming home to us,” said Thomas, who lives in Alabama. “It’s what we have been waiting for, for so long. I know he’s coming home. I don’t doubt that.”
With only a few days of excavation left during this mission, the team has found airplane wreckage and life-support materials, but there has been no sign of any remains, according to a JPAC spokesman. But the site may remain open for future excavations if the anthropologist on the team determines that additional searching is necessary.
The team has covered 550 square meters of ground thus far.
Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in the Department of Defense, said teams frequently visit a crash site several times before they find remains or exhaust all possibilities.
JPAC has had three investigative teams and two recovery teams in Vietnam in recent weeks, searching for a total of 59 missing Americans. Any remains they turn up are examined on site by an American and a Vietnamese anthropologist, and if they determine that the remains are likely American, the Vietnamese government permits the U.S. to take possession and send them to Hawaii for analysis, JPAC spokesman Lt. Col. Wayne Perry said.
The identification process can take months, if not years, depending on the type and condition of the remains, Greer said. The laboratory uses DNA samples from living relatives whenever possible to make comparisons.
Graf was a standout cross-country runner at Bogota Junior/Senior High School, where a running award is named after him. Last year, the borough honored Graf and another Bogota man missing in Vietnam, William Ryan, with a memorial outside Borough Hall, and the high school unveiled a plaque in Graf’s honor.
He and Zimmer were given full military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery last year within weeks of the 40th anniversary of their deaths, and their gravestones stand there side by side.
For Thomas, the funeral last year brought her some much-needed closure. But she still finds it difficult to let go.
She recently moved back to the Marine air station in Beaufort, Ala., where she and Graf were married. Last week, on the 41st anniversary of Graf’s death, she placed a bunch of sunflowers – “A sunflower makes people smile, and Al made people smile,” she said – underneath a Phantom jet parked at the base.
“This was where I was happiest in my entire life,” she said. “I can never re-create what I had, but I’m happy here. This was our home.”
Davis said she is well aware that the odds may be stacked against them, given the amount of time that has passed, the size of the debris field and the type of ordnance that was on the plane.
“Finding remains is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said. “I always knew there was a possibility that there would be nothing left.”
She recently visited the excavation team in Vietnam, and though she wasn’t able to reach the actual crash site because of the difficult terrain, she met the men charged with finding her husband’s remains and thanked them for their efforts.
“After all these years, it feels so good to be doing something for Jerry, and for Al as well,” she said. “I look at our son Craig, and every time I see him, I see Jerry. It’s a very emotional thing.”