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March/April 2007

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The Long Journey Home

BY JIM BELSHAW

Ua ku keia welo mauliauhonua
(This family is old and well-established)

—Hawaiian warrior verse

In the fall of 1968, the writer Joan Didion met World War II veteran Bill Skivington in Las Vegas at the 101st Airborne Association’s 23rd annual reunion. She wrote of that meeting: “He reached into his coat pocket and brought out a newspaper clipping, preserved in clear plastic, a story about his son: where he had gone to school, the report that he was missing, and before he put it in his pocket again, he looked at it a long while, smoothed out an imagined crease, and studied the fragment of newsprint as if it held some answer.”

Thirty-eight years later, the answer came, itself the product of other fragments—stories carried in hearts as well as newspaper clippings, memories of familiar voices and faces, stories of veterans, families, dedicated military personnel, and civilians willing to endure great adversity, if not risk their own lives, so that grieving families might find a measure of peace. For almost all of those 38 years, the fragments floated through individual lives, sometimes touching one another, but never pulled together into a coherent whole that might provide the answer Bill Skivington looked for on the day he showed a newspaper clipping to Joan Didion.

His son, William “Skip” Skivington, Jr., came home 38 years after disappearing in the miasma of a three-day battle at a place called Kham Duc in the mountainous jungle of the Vietnam-Laos border. He was one of seventeen men from Recon 2/1, 196th Infantry, who died or were declared MIA on Mother’s Day 1968. In January 2007, Skip’s father, elderly and in failing health, buried his son at Arlington National Cemetery.

In August 2006, the remains of 11 Marines and an Army soldier were found at Ngok Tavak, five kilometers away from Kham Duc. The unflagging persistence of a survivor of that battle would be instrumental in the finding of others a short distance away at Kham Duc, and in so doing, he would draw attention to those still missing from the old Special Forces camp. In December 2006, Skip Skivington and 1st Lt. Fred Ransbottom—“Snoopy 6”—the recon team’s leader, were identified and brought home for burial.

Vickie Gannon, the sister of Danny Widner, still listed as MIA in the Kham Duc battle, said: “It was time. It was finally time, and everyone had this role to play. I feel, without any of these people and entities, none of this would have happened. It’s like a play, where everyone was brought in and it worked. Everyone played his role perfectly. I have never loved so many people in my life.”

The cast members in Vickie Gannon’s play frequently speak of themselves as “family,” adopted sons and daughters, adopted mothers and fathers, and of course the brothers whose ties were forged in combat’s long hours of boredom and explosive moments of terror. “Family” comes easily to them when they speak of the last 38 years and the people they met along the way.

Skip Skivington’s best friend, Allen Hoe, a medic who brought his Hawaiian warrior tradition to Vietnam, would become a second son to Skip’s father, and in 2005, the medic would come to know the heartbreaking sadness that Bill Skivington knew for so long when the medic’s own warrior son was killed in combat in Iraq; Tim Brown, a former Marine, would lead the way through years of tenacious effort to find the missing from his own platoon at Ngok Tavak, a handful of kilometers away from Kham Duc; Vietnam Veterans of America, through years of patient diplomacy with the Vietnamese, would build trust and open doors; in Washington and Hawaii, officials in the DPMO (Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office) and JPAC (Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command) moved to collect the fragments of memories and evidence into a whole; at JPAC, an archaeologist who didn’t give a second thought to spending 100 days in the field, would go back to Kham Duc three times before finding his missing countrymen and bringing them home; a young woman barely out of her teens whose brother remains missing would become a daughter to the mother of the Oklahoma lieutenant found alongside Skip Skivington. The women speak of everyone they met as family.

Ua ku keia welo mauliauhonua
Allen “Doc” Hoe, now an attorney in Hawaii, was drafted in 1966. He was 19 years old. He pulled good duty stateside at Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco, but as he listened to other medics returning from Vietnam tell their war stories, a question nagged Hoe: “This is like one of those meaningful life experiences, and if I let it pass me by, I will always wonder how I would have done.”

“Hawaiian warrior tradition factored into that,” Hoe said. “For me, it was kind of a sense of honor. You can only claim to have a warrior heritage for so long before people ask you, ‘What is that based on?’ In part, it has to be based on ‘I lived it.’”
He arrived in Vietnam in December 1967 and was assigned to a line platoon. Hoe met a young lieutenant there who had fallen in love with Hawaii and its culture. The lieutenant and the medic hit it off, and when each battalion was asked to form up its own long-range reconnaissance team, the lieutenant said he wanted Hoe to be the medic on his team.

“We created this very close-knit, cohesive group of guys, and we set about to do long-range recon,” Hoe said.

In March, Skip Skivington came to the unit, designated as a replacement radio-telephone operator. But the unit already had an RTO and so the three of them—Skivington, Hoe, and RTO Joe Blanford—hung out together. With the two RTO’s on one side of the lieutenant and the medic on the other, they would spend long hours together, where conversations went on late into the night and friendships were forged. It was in those conversations that Skivington frequently told Hoe of his father, a decorated veteran with the 101st in World War II.

“We talked about family,” Hoe said. “He talked about his brothers and father and how he wanted to make his dad proud of him. Because I was introduced to his father at such an early stage, it was one of the things that compelled me to find his family when I came home and let them know how much Skip thought of them and how much he loved them.”

In late March, a new lieutenant reported to the unit—Frederick Joel Ransbottom, an Oklahoma country boy who would be called “Snoopy 6.” The recon team had taken to calling themselves Snoopy anyway, and they all thought Ransbottom bore a striking resemblance to another more famous Snoopy.

“He didn’t look a day older than any of the rest of us, but he looked fresh,” Hoe said. “We were all curious about this guy. Within a matter of hours, we were all saying, ‘Great choice.’ He was a soldier’s soldier. He wasn’t with us more than 90 days before Kham Duc, but if you asked me now, he was with us for 50 years.”

The battle of Kham Duc spread across three days, May 10-12, the last day being a Sunday, Mother’s Day. Hoe’s unit didn’t normally operate in the Kham Duc area, but the battalion had been “volunteered” to provide security in the area while the Special Forces camp there was evacuated. The North Vietnamese Army had been systematically clearing the area of such camps and Kham Duc was the last.

In late April, things seemed to be calm. Hoe, who had already delayed a planned R&R, got word that his time off would begin May 1. John “Doc” Stuller, whose remains would be found by JPAC, would fill in for Hoe. Skip Skivington would take over as Ransbottom’s RTO with Blanford going on R&R, too.

Hoe went home to Hawaii, returning to Vietnam on May 10, the day the NVA attacked Ngok Tavak. In Chu Lai, people told Hoe there was no rush for him to join up with his unit. He could just wait until his outfit got settled into Kham Duc, and then he could catch a ride on a chopper and fly up.

On May 11, he still waited, but now the wait came amid reports of how bad it was at Kham Duc. Greatly outnumbered by NVA forces, the camp was under a brutal assault. Low on ammo, low on medical supplies, the situation looked dire. Hoe was again told to go down to a chopper pad and wait to see if a bird showed up that could take him to Kham Duc. He brought his medical bag to the pad and waited. No chopper came.

On May 12, he heard the word “overrun.”

“I was sick, heartbroken,” he said. “You know, who made it, who didn’t make it. You suck it up and tell yourself it will work out. Then when the reality is that it won’t work out all right, you say, ‘OK, I just have to keep going on with the mission.’ By the end of the 12th, that night, late Sunday, when guys started getting back to battalion headquarters, and you started hearing the stories, I knew what happened to Skip and the others.”

May 13 began a 38-year wait for the men who disappeared at Kham Duc.
Before attacking the Special Forces camp, the NVA hit Ngok Tavak, an old French redoubt only a few kilometers away. Until 2006, 11 Marines and an Army soldier were listed as missing from the battle. One of the survivors, former Marine Tim Brown, resolved to find them back in the early 1970s when he saw an ad in Leatherneck magazine by the parents of a Marine missing at Ngok Tavak. That was the beginning of the search for Brown. As far as he knew, no one else was bothering to look.

In 1983, he joined VVA. In the ensuing years, he brought Ngok Tavak to the attention of the VVA, particularly Bill Duker, then chair of the National VVA POW-MIA Committee. In 1994, when the Veterans Initiative Task Force conducted its first mission to Vietnam, Tim Brown and two fellow VVA members, Dan Carr and Don Waak, traveled with the delegation, their hope being that they could negotiate permission from the Vietnamese to visit the Ngok Tavak battlefield. They succeeded and returned in 1995.

VVA, using its contacts made over the years through the Veterans Initiative, would continue to encourage the Vietnamese to allow JPAC field teams to inspect the site.

“Tim is reluctant to take credit,” Duker said. “But without him, we never would have known about Ngok Tavak or Kham Duc. If Tim hadn’t come to the POW-MIA Committee, who knows? For his part, Brown says he did nothing that any of his Marine buddies wouldn’t have done if he had been one of the missing.

“We have a bond and it’s about the guy next to you,” he said. “It happened because of the good work of a lot of people and, in particular, the Veterans Initiative and the good offices it established with the Vietnamese government. It led to a step-by-step progression that brought some peace to people who have been waiting for years.”
Duker underscored the step-by-step nature that has been the defining element of the Veterans Initiative through its inception 13 years ago.

“It took literally years,” he said. “And it would get a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better. It happened because we did what we said we would do. We kept coming back, and from what I understand, consistency is what the Vietnamese look at. Your message is very important with the Vietnamese. You have to stay on message, and they like to see familiar faces, too. It takes a long time to develop trust. That relationship has become one of mutual trust now and it’s really helped.”

Duker said the same even-handed approach was used when bringing cases to the attention of JPAC and DPMO, as well.

“We ask questions on specific cases,” he said. “We tell them it’s a case we promised to stay on top of. I think we were successful in doing it that way.”

“Doc” Hoe began corresponding with Skip Skivington’s father in 1969. Over the years, they would become like father and son, and in 2005, they would share something neither wanted, the terrible sadness of losing a son to war. Hoe’s son, 1st Lt. Nainoa Hoe, was killed by a sniper in Iraq.

“Bill calls me his son now,” Hoe said. “I think in the last couple of years, or more so in the last year, when I lost my son. It was when we began to get very hopeful about the efforts of JPAC with the recovery efforts.”

JPAC Archaeologist Brad Sturm had worked in the prehistoric archaeological field for 20 years before landing at JPAC. A friend heard about JPAC needing people with Sturm’s experience, and Sturm thought the opportunity a particularly unique one. He’s been at JPAC for 10 years.

“I’m really glad I chose to do this,” he said. “As you might imagine, the rewards for this job are like nothing you’ll find anywhere else.”

Two previous digs at the last-known position of Skivington and Ransbottom—OP2 (Observation Post 2), one of several bunkers at Kham Duc—had produced no results. The first time the team visited the site, it stayed for 30 days. The second time, Sturm was at the base camp for about 100 days. It was Sturm’s team that found Fred Ransbottom’s high school class ring.

“It’s an amazing feeling to find evidence,” he said.

Last year, Sturm and Dickie Hites, a JPAC official, went to a Kham Duc battle survivors reunion to give a presentation on their work at Ngok Tavak and what they were in the process of doing at Kham Duc and OP2. Meeting the families was something of a revelation for the archaeologist.

“The thing is when you meet the families, when you come face to face with them for the first time, you know how important the work is, but seeing them firsthand underscores how important it is to them,” he said. “You know when you’re out there working that it’s important to the families that you succeed, but when you meet them, well, Mrs. Ransbottom said she was willing to fly to Vietnam and help us dig.”
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for DPMO Robert Jones said the need for families finding peace of mind was paramount.

“In a nutshell, it’s a humanitarian mission to bring to rest the grieving, surviving members of family and that they have an answer to what happened to their loved one,” he said. “There’s a lot of need for closure in the minds of these families, and there’s been a lot of grief they’ve carried for years and the doubt as to what happened. The bureaucrats will put dollar signs on it. They’ll say it’s a waste of energies and money and resources and so on, but it serves a meaningful purpose and clearly demonstrates to young folks that we’re serious about bringing you home, no matter what the circumstances.”

When they found Skip, the midnight call went to Doc Hoe, who was vacationing with his second son and a nephew, both of them Iraq war veterans. It would be Doc who told Bill Skivington the news.

When Hoe went to tell him about Skip, Bill Skivington met the medic at the front door. He sat in a wheelchair and wore his 101st Screaming Eagle cap. Doc Hoe wore his 196th cap, a long-practiced habit. When representing “our young warriors,” he doesn’t go anywhere without his recon team’s cap. They joshed for a while, 85-year-old Bill ribbing 59-year-old Doc about his advancing years and pretending to be shocked by Doc’s sudden “distinguished” appearance.

Doc thinks Bill knew why he was coming to visit. He doesn’t know why. Just intuition, he says. Bill said he kind of figured that Doc had come to talk about Skip.
“I told him we learned that Skip’s remains had been recovered,” Doc said. “Of course, he had tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘I guess I always kind of knew that he had been killed.’ From the very beginning in that first conversation in 1969, I told him what had happened. I told him the last radio transmission we got from Snoopy 6 was: ‘We’re all wounded. We’re killing them as they come through the door.’

Back then I said it was my opinion that they were all killed. The sad thing is that the Army had played with those families all these years. For whatever reason or purpose, I don’t know.”

Ask him today if Doc Hoe is family, and the frail voice of Bill Skivington becomes stronger. “Absolutely,” he says, adding that he doesn’t like it when too many days have passed without hearing from Doc.

Hoe says Bill Skivington and his wife are his heroes.

“I don’t know how I could have carried myself or even survived for 38 years not knowing what happened to my son,” he said. “I am blessed from Day One because I knew what happened to my son. It made me so proud to hear the stories of how he conducted himself, how his men loved him, just like we loved Lt. Ransbottom.

Bill is my hero and I don’t have any problem saying that. If I had to live, if I had to go through what they went through for 38 years, it’s absolutely horrendous.”

At the VVA National Convention in 2006, as Doc Hoe spoke, reporting on the news of Skip’s discovery, another fragment of the 38 years presented itself. Scott DeArman, a member of the VVA Elections Committee, stood in the back of the hall, preparing to take the stage to announce candidates when Hoe was finished. When he heard Hoe say the name “Skip Skivington,” and it became clear what Hoe was saying about Skip, DeArman said he found it hard to breathe.

“I almost lost it,” he said. “I actually had to leave the building. I had to take a walk. It was just amazing. It took me right off my feet. I listened to Doc’s speech with tears running down my face.”

Skip Skivington wasn’t just a name or another MIA story to DeArman. Skip was a high school pal in Las Vegas. They had classes together, they ran track together, they worked as ushers in the same movie theater—when Skip went missing, DeArman was in Vietnam with the 101st, the same outfit Skip’s father served with in World War II. DeArman’s unit worked in the same general area as Skip’s, but DeArman would find out his high school friend was missing in a strange way.

“I found out he was missing when my parents sent me a newspaper clipping about it,” he said. “You never think that in life there will be any kind of closure to something like this and to see it happen while Mr. Skivington is still alive was just amazing to me. It’s a miracle, a great miracle, a wonderful miracle. Now Mr. Skivington can go to his rest with peace of mind. He knows Skip was found. It’s just awesome to me.”

“Doc” Hoe, Bill Skivington, and Scott DeArman went to Arlington to bury Skip. “Being in Arlington, I think he and I were in peace,” Hoe said. “The journey is always the hardest part. The arrival is kind of like, ‘all right, we’re here.’ I said to him, ‘Mission accomplished, Bill. You did it. Skip will rest in peace.’ He said he wanted only to fulfill his promise to have Skip buried in Arlington.”

Doc Hoe spoke at Fred Ransbottom’s funeral in Oklahoma, as well. Laverne Ransbottom, the mother of Snoopy 6, speaks now of miracles and large families created by circumstance and shared grief and a loyalty at which she marvels.

“We were lucky enough to find dedicated people from the get-go,” she said. “We had VVA, we had all the people in JPAC—this was a mission that they all really wanted to do. That’s what made it happen. They were willing to take the brunt of the political side of it to get it moving. They really wanted it to happen. I can think of time after time when somebody always stepped in. We have no trouble believing miracles in the Bible, but somehow or other, we can’t believe that miracles happen on Earth. But that’s what this is, a miracle.”

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