CEDAR FALLS — Nancy Whitford Eger was 11 when her father, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence William Whitford Jr. of Cedar Falls, a reconnaissance pilot, went missing in action over Laos during the Vietnam War on Nov. 2, 1969.
Nearly a half century later, she has received word her father’s crash and burial sites may have been discovered. She is the only surviving family member. Her brother, mother and grandparents and an uncle are deceased. Her grandfather, L.W. “Mon” Whitford, was a longtime University of Northern Iowa baseball coach.
The answers she’s been waiting decades for now seem so close, yet so far. A couple of challenges remain: cooperation with the Laotian government and funding for the military agency charged with finding his remains, along with several hundred Americans still missing in Laos.
A breakthough may be possible. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Laos in September.
Eger is drafting a letter appealing to the president for action.
She’s been working with U.S. Rep. Samuel Johnson, R-Texas, a former Vietnam POW, to present the issue to the president. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also is working with Johnson.
“With all due respect, Mr. President, I urge you to work diligently with the Laotian government so that we can bring these missing men home,” Eger, who lives near Atlanta, wrote. “I know we are so close, and for me, it will be 47 years on Nov. 2, and I cannot give up until we bring my dad home. I must keep the promise I made to my mother and give him the military burial he deserves. Just as important, I need to bring him home for me.”
According to the federal Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), there are still more than 1,600 American military personnel listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War including more than 300 in Laos. Three are pilots from the Cedar Valley. In addition to Whitford, they include U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Ayers of Waterloo, shot down April 16, 1970; and U.S. Navy Capt. Paul Milius of Waverly, downed in February 1968 as he held the controls while six crew mates parachuted to safety. Whitford’s navigator, U.S. Air Force Capt. Patrick H. Carroll of Michigan, also is missing.
Whitford, a member of the Misty Fast Forward Air Command, or “Misty FACs,” flew low under hostile fire to scout enemy positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. On one mission, comrades said, Whitford helped rescue two downed crewmen.
Grassley and Johnson sent a letter to Obama on Friday asking the president to raise the POW-MIA issue with the Laotian government during his visit in hopes of bringing about greater cooperation in determining the fate of service members who went missing there during the war.
Three Democrats and three Republicans, in addition to Republicans Grassley and Johnson, are signatories to the letter to the president. They including former Vietnam POW U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and U.S. 1st Dist. Rep. Rod Blum of Dubuque. Others include U.S. Reps. Billy Long, R-Mo. and Tim Walz, D-Minn.; and U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
“I understand the need for family members to have closure and a better understanding of what happened as their loved ones gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” Grassley said. “Congress and the president ought to do whatever we can to help.”
In correspondence with Eger, Johnson’s staff indicated some of the challenges in finding remains stem from the Communist Lao government’s restrictions on the size and number of DPAA recovery crews and the time they are allowed to work, frequently in remote areas.
In her letter to the president, Eger asks Obama to work with the Laotian government to ease those restrictions. It’s hoped he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, himself a Vietnam veteran, can raise those issues as the U.S. discusses other issues, such as unexploded U.S. ordnance from the war still on the ground.
Another key is making sure the DPAA has adequate resources. Eger and other POW/MIA family members have been told Department of Defense funding for the DPAA has been proposed for reduction in 2017; they are urging members of Congress to ensure adequate funding.
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, who flew nearly 250 combat missions during Vietnam, served with Whitford and authored two books about the unit, said the Vietnamese government has been much more cooperative than the Laotian government in recovering remains. But he said the prospects for recovery of Whitford’s and Carroll’s remains are promising.
“Evidence has been discovered that leads us to believe we very likely know the burial site where our people were finally buried,” Shepperd said. “The problem is, it is a common burial site. Many other remains would be in the same site.” The challenge is getting permission from the government and local villagers to explore “the same area you’d find other villagers’ remains.”
Additionally, Shepperd said, “The soil over there is very acidic. It dissolves remains very quickly,” with larger bones like collar and pelvic bones the most likely to remain. Dental remains are the best and easiest way to identify an individual’s remains.
Shepperd has no idea if Eger, Grassley, Johnson and the other members of Congress supporting them can convince Obama to press the issue with the Laotian government or whether the president will be successful if he does.
“I sincerely hope he does,” Shepperd said. “We want our guys.”
Nancy Eger is enclosing a childhood photo of herself with her dad in her letter to the president.
“We owe it to the families of our missing American personnel in Laos to account for these brave Americans and to bring them all home to the country for which the fought, and ultimately, gave their lives for,” Johnson’s and Grassley’s letter to President Obama says.