By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The scores of letters, memos, transcripts and official reports begin to tell the histories of Earl, Jr. and the Vietnam POW/MIA movement.
To fill in the gaps, you go to Earl Hopper, Sr.'s file.
Earl, Jr.'s final letter, signed just before he took off January 10, 1968, from Udorn Airfield in Thailand, on a routine mission over North Vietnam, said he wasn't going to fly with his regular partner that day. He'd been grounded with strep throat, and was flying a make-up mission so he could catch up with his usual flightmate and friend, Don Gregg.
Earl, Jr. and Captain Keith Hall were the crew of a McDonnell F4D "Phantom II," the third aircraft in a flight of four, assigned to escort and protect a flight of F105s that were to bomb the Hoa Lac Base, 23 miles northwest of Hanoi. Earl flew "backseat."
From a government document, prepared shortly after the incident:
At approximately 1607, as the flight arrived at a point within about ten miles of Hoa Lac Airfield, [Captain] Hall and [Lt. Col.] Hopper's aircraft was damaged by a surface-to-air missile [SAM]. The aircraft commander immediately radioed that they had been hit. Flames and streaming fuel were observed coming from the aft section of the left engine. [Captain] Hall kept the aircraft under control for several minutes during this period and voice contact was maintained with him. [Captain] Hall jettisoned the tanks and all external stores. When the flames increased in intensity, the crew members were advised to eject. Two objects were seen to leave the aircraft approximately four seconds apart; the first object was identified as an ejection seat, the second object could not be identified. The burning aircraft and the two objects disappeared into a cloud undercast and no other sightings were made. While the remainder of the flight was orbiting the area, a strong emergency signal was heard and some of the flight members reported hearing what they believed to be two beeper signals on almost the same cycle. Voice contact was then established with [Captain] Hall who radioed that he was okay. His location was approximately 41 miles southwest of Hoa Binh, North Vietnam, in a densely wooded area, near the top of a ridge. He stated that clouds were approximately 1,000 feet above him. When asked about [Lt. Col.] Hopper, [Captain] Hall replied that [Lt. Col.] Hopper was having trouble getting out of the aircraft, and that he did not know if he had ejected. One of the two A-IE aircraft, that joined in the search, was able to penetrate the heavy cloud cover. No voice or visual contact was established with [Lt. Col.] Hopper during the search. Before the search was suspended due to darkness and weather conditions, voice contact was lost with [Captain] Hall. An electronic and visual search was made to the area beginning at first light on 11 January 1968. Due to lack of contact and deteriorating weather the search was terminated later in the day.
The area along the North Vietnam/Laos border where Earl, Jr.'s plane likely went down is among the most rugged in the region, and is covered by a thick jungle canopy. Rescue attempts were almost impossible.
Keith Hall was captured by the North Vietnamese 20 minutes after he ejected. Earl, Jr. had simply vanished. Government officials told the Hoppers it was almost certain he'd died when his plane crashed, but the family couldn't believe it. They remembered those witness reports of a second beeper--faint, but recognizable. It could have belonged to no one but Earl, Jr. He and Hall were the only Americans known to be in the area.
That beeper signal planted the first seed of hope that Earl, Jr. had either ejected or landed safely, and was alive somewhere in Southeast Asia--and it launched his father on a 30-year quest to find him.
Earl Hopper, Sr. believed it was possible his son was alive, and, as the evidence accumulated, it seemed to stack up in Earl, Jr.'s favor. From about a month after the crash on, Hopper would periodically receive some piece of information--from the government or from a private source--that strengthened his conviction his son had survived:
* 1968. The second beeper was heard by more witnesses than those who'd given statements right after the crash.
The Hoppers received a letter dated February 8, 1968, in which the Air Force reported that the pilot of a plane on an overflight mission over the area where Earl, Jr. had disappeared two or three days earlier had picked up a beeper signal. By then, Hall had been picked up by the Vietnamese; Earl, Jr. was the only known downed flier in the area.
The pilot asked for a series of beeps, at 15-second intervals. He got them.
* 1973. Flightmate and POW Keith Hall returned home, claiming North Vietnamese had questioned him about Earl, Jr. years after the crash.
During his re-entry debriefing by the U.S. government, Hall described his initial interrogation by North Vietnamese in 1968, saying he hadn't revealed Earl, Jr.'s first name, marital status or other personal details. He saw a "ray of hope" in an August 1970 interrogation by his captors. From a Defense Intelligence Agency transcript of Hall's debriefing: