Missing Earl Jr.
Retired Army Colonel Earl Hopper, Sr. is a godfather of the Vietnam War POW/MIA activist movement in America.
The Glendale resident has served both as executive director and chairman of the board of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, the country's largest, best-known POW/MIA organization. He was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government, in which POW/MIA families demanded the government prove their loved ones weren't alive before declaring them dead.
A career soldier and a veteran of three wars, Hopper rose to the rank of colonel with a chestful of medals, including the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, four Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.
Today, Earl Hopper, Sr. retains only one title: father. Hopper has spent the past 30 years looking for his son, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr., who disappeared January 10, 1968, after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam.
Along the way, Hopper, Sr. has followed an intriguing trail of clues that has never shaken his belief that his son survived the crash. He says he's discovered lies and cover-ups in the military establishment he served for three decades. He's also found community and even love through the movement.
From the beginning, Hopper has used expertise and connections developed during his years in the military--particularly a stint in Army intelligence--to push the POW/MIA issue forward when it had been stalemated. His efforts have earned him serious attention from people like Monika Jensen-Stevenson, a former 60 Minutes producer who features Hopper in her popular book on the POW/MIA movement, Kiss the Boys Goodbye. But more often, he's incurred the wrath of military brass who can't understand how one of their own could stray so far from the party line.
Earl Hopper, Sr. is in part responsible for the fact that since the early 1990s, 500 or more U.S. government employees--from military intelligence officers to anthropologists to DNA experts--have been working on figuring out what happened to the POW/MIAs. The government spends an estimated $55 million a year on such efforts. To date, remains of about 500 of the 2,587 POW/MIAs unaccounted for after the Vietnam War have been recovered.
Despite the tremendous expenditures, few outside the movement know about them. And after 30 years of mobilization, public awareness of POW activism itself has diminished. By now, AIDS activists have co-opted the bracelets once synonymous with the POW/MIA movement. Each year, fewer people show up for the National League of Families annual meeting. Some have lost hope; others have died. But, at 76, Earl Hopper, Sr. still helps run Task Force Omega, a national POW/MIA research group, out of his Glendale home. And after 30 years, headway has been made recently that may lead to the end of the hunt for Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr.
Earl Hopper, Sr. has a perfect attendance record at National League of Families meetings. This meeting is his 29th, held in June at a Washington, D.C., Marriott. He skips most of the scheduled sessions--he's heard the government double talk before, he says--preferring instead to man a booth where Task Force Omega is selling a catalogue of biographical information on POW/MIAs (More Than Merely Names, $20) that his research and life partner Patty Skelly has compiled.
The League meeting is like a family reunion. Hopper sits back and kibitzes with old friends--like Michael Clark, son of a POW/MIA, who got involved in the effort when he was 14; now he's 44. A POW/MIA wife from Georgia shows off her daughter's wedding pictures; everyone exchanges the last year's worth of news. She partakes in the gossip, but Skelly busily scurries around, setting up private meetings with the various government and military personnel assigned to come to the League meetings each year to face hundreds of family members--some more hostile than others--and try to answer their 30-year-old questions.
Unlike most of the participants, who are related to a POW or MIA, Skelly is of a unique breed here, the "concerned citizen." She joined the movement after learning a high school classmate was a POW/MIA, and has made it her full-time work since 1983. She and Hopper are inseparable. She calls herself a "research analyst" and has lived and worked in Hopper's home for the past 11 years. "Just tell anyone you see that you're looking for Patty and the Colonel," Skelly says, when setting up a meeting for cocktails in the lobby of the Washington Marriott, the site of the annual meeting.
Skelly works on dozens of cases, but her first priority is Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr. Skelly takes the elevator up to the Air Force Casualty suite to take a peek at Earl, Jr.'s official government file, although she has copies at home. Others, she says, have made a routine check and found that their loved one's military identification card--carried at all times by U.S. military personnel--unaccountably has appeared in their casualty file.
The Air Force suite is equipped with a copy machine, coffee, Danish, and smiling officers. Files are available on computer, but Skelly takes the paper version, two three-inch folders thick with papers, many stamped SECRET, later crossed out with red ink. The government refuses public comment on individual cases, deferring to the families.
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:
After a few preliminaries and telling me he [the interrogator] wanted to get to know me, he started to ask me about my backseat. He went into perhaps 10 minutes of asking me questions; was he married? And I said I didn't know. What was his first name? And I said I didn't know. . . . Then he asked me if he had gotten out of the acft [aircraft] and I said that I was not sure but I thought that he had gotten out. He said did you talk to him after that? And I said no I did not. He said . . . Parachute? And I said no I did not. This type of questioning and he seemed to pursue it and fianlly [sic] he was done and I asked him, I said is he up here? And he said I don't know. I was most curious as to this line of questioning. Why had he brought this up at this time, two and a half years later, and seem quite interested in his fate and at that time I held some hope he might . . . someplace. Since that time I have heard nothing.
* 1982. After more than a decade of being listed as MIA, Earl, Jr. was reclassified by the government as Killed in Action (KIA) by one government agency, and then as having been a POW for many years by another.
In 1982, shortly after the Air Force had changed Earl, Jr.'s status from MIA to Killed in Action, Body Not Recovered, the Hoppers received a visit from a representative of the Department of Justice, who brought Hopper paperwork to sign. One of the forms was POW compensation--$5 a day for each day an American serviceman was held as a prisoner of war.
"I can't sign this," Hopper told the Justice representative. "My son's missing in action, not a prisoner of war."
He was told: "Sign it anyway. Let's see what they do."
In September 1982, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an arm of the Department of Justice, approved Earl, Jr.'s status as a POW, vis-à-vis the War Claims Act of 1948, and awarded the family $9,535. Basing the status change on the details of the crash, the harsh terrain, and the voice contact established with Keith Hall, the commission said Hopper had become a POW January 10, 1968, but that he'd stopped being a POW April 1, 1973, the date that all remaining U.S. captives in North Vietnam were supposed to have been freed.
Hopper, Sr.--a vocal critic of the government--wasn't sure the Air Force wasn't simply trying to appease him with $10,000; or, he wondered, had Earl, Jr. really been a POW all those years, still alive in a prison somewhere?
* 1983. Hopper says two former CIA agents told him his son was in the hands of the Russians, being treated for malaria and anemia.
Skelly explains, "The Russians were using a group of American pilots to test the average American pilot against the average Russian pilot, because every time Americans come up against Russians . . . we wax their tails. That's historic fact. And they were using him, we are told, with a group of others, to find out why American pilots are better than Russian pilots."
"They were looking at the individual. They were looking at his physical condition, his mental condition, his psychological profile; they were checking into his background on training, his schooling," adds Hopper.
Information on the Russian connection trickled in over the next four years.
* 1984. Hopper says a "reliable former intelligence officer" checked Earl, Jr.'s CIA file and found that--unlike the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Air Force--the CIA had always listed Earl, Jr. as a POW, not MIA. The former spook told him that the CIA tracked Earl, Jr., says Hopper, "climbing the most rugged mountain in the region as he headed for a 'safe' area in Laos; that there were heavy concentrations of North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao troops in the area searching for the downed pilot; and that the CIA sent in a Free Lao team to extract him. When Earl Hopper [Jr.] realized he was in imminent danger of capture, he turned his radio on and hid it behind some rocks thus marking his location of capture."
* 1984-86. Hopper says he received information from former CIA agents that Earl, Jr. was among three POWs offered for release by prison guards in 1984, at the Lao/Thai border--in exchange for passage to the U.S. for the guards and their families. No one was there to pick up the POWs, so they were not released, Hopper asserts.
Skelly says that Army Major Mark Smith, assigned by the Reagan administration to research the possibility of live POWs in Southeast Asia, told her Earl, Jr. was one of the three. She says, "Mark Smith told me face to face and in person that Earl, Jr. was one of those three. He had no reason to lie to me or tell me something other than the truth. It would have been much easier for Mark to look me in the eye and say, 'We don't know who they are' or 'No, Earl, Jr. wasn't one of them.'"
In January 1986, during testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Smith acknowledged that he had heard Earl, Jr.'s name floated as a possible live prisoner, as late as 1981.
But, Smith added, "The problem that we run into with the names is that generally the frequency that you hear names is a lot of times generated by the amount of time and money that those individuals' families have put into attempting to find out whether or not their loved one is in fact held someplace in Southeast Asia."
* 1993. The Hoppers received word from the U.S. Air Force of a possible live sighting of Earl, Jr. in Thailand. No further details were available.
Hopper says, "I asked [Air Force personnel] about it two or three other times, but they had no information on it."
As 1968 turned into 1969, with no word on his son, dead or alive, Army Colonel Earl Hopper, Sr. grew increasingly frustrated.
"Although I was still on active duty, I was beginning to have my doubts about what the government was going to do," Hopper recalls. "Everything they were telling us families was, 'Be quiet. Don't say anything. Delicate negotiations are under way.' All of that, we learned eventually, were lies."
Hopper decided he'd been quiet long enough and that it was time he retired from the Army and begin to help organize other family members of Vietnam POW/MIAs. He was a founding member of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which incorporated in 1969. He served as state coordinator for Arizona families. In 1973, he joined the League's board of directors. In 1975, he served as executive director for a year, then went on to a six-year stint as chairman of the board.
Initially, the group's goal was to bring sick and injured POW/MIAs home. In the early days, Hopper recalls, the group got great support from the U.S. government. Where the Vietnamese saw American POWs as bargaining power, the U.S. government considered POW/MIA families an important propaganda tool.
The government actually set the League up with an office, five phone lines, and secretarial and legal assistance, Hopper says. In 1972, POW/MIA families were even invited to travel overseas with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to take part in negotiations. The family members were encouraged to speak out on TV talk shows and in their local newspapers.
Such support abruptly ended on April 1, 1973, the day the apparent last prisoners of war were released as part of President Richard Nixon's ballyhooed Operation Homecoming.
After Operation Homecoming, government support for the National League of Families evaporated. Returned POWs were told not to associate with League members, Hopper says. Many family members gave up hope. But the League geared up for action. That year, Hopper was elected to the League's board of directors.
The U.S. government had left behind more than 2,500 documented prisoners and others, like Earl, Jr., listed simply as missing in action. Up to that point, Hopper had held out hope that Nixon would follow through on his promise to bring the missing home--or at least account for them.
"But," Hopper now says, "within two weeks after the POWs came home, Nixon's announcement was that they were all dead, that there were no POWs left over there. That anyone who did not come home was dead."
In 1973, the U.S. government began sending letters to next of kin of the more than 2,000 still unaccounted for in Vietnam, changing their status from Missing in Action to Killed in Action. Once a POW/MIA was listed as KIA, back pay stopped accruing.
Hopper and a group of family members decided this series of unproven death certificates violated the POW/MIAs' civil rights. So in June 1973, 20 family members from Arizona and California met in Los Angeles to discuss a legal response. Dermot Foley, a well-known New York attorney, ended up representing the families in the resulting case, McDonald v. McLucas (McDonald was a POW/MIA family member; McLucas was the secretary of the U.S. Air Force). Once the lawsuit was filed, the judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting status changes until the case was resolved.
"It shook the Pentagon to the very foundation of their flagpole," Hopper says. "They didn't think these little innocent family members would rebel."
The litigation dragged on for years. Around Veterans Day 1976, the ruling came down: The government must hold a hearing to discuss the facts surrounding a possible status change, and either the man himself or next of kin must be present.
But that wasn't enough. The status review boards didn't change anything; every MIA was still changed to KIA. So in 1978, Hopper became the lead plaintiff in Hopper v. Carter, in which the POW/MIA families sued the federal government to try to force them to show cause--rather than just discuss the facts--before making a status change.
That case was unsuccessful, and in late 1979, the judge ruled that the government could resume status review board hearings.
The Air Force wasted no time in scheduling Earl, Jr.'s status review hearing--for February 7-9 at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. Dermot Foley represented the Hopper family. The senior Hopper had a great deal to say. He reviewed the history of Earl, Jr.'s case for the board, including the beeper heard by multiple witnesses, and the 15-second interval response received days after the crash. He reminded the board of Keith Hall's interrogation. And he raised reasonable questions about whether his son went down in North Vietnam or Laos:
"Here is the Laotian border, this is Hanoi, there they were hit," Hopper said, pointing to a large topographical map noted in transcripts from the hearing. "Here is the point of incident of where they last saw Earl's aircraft. Note the closeness--the nearness to the Laotian border here. Throughout this area in Laos, as you know, there were safe areas. These men were briefed if you go down here head for high ground, get into the safe area where we can come and pick you up. So there's a possibility that Earl was not missing in Vietnam, but actually in Laos. And, as you know, he's going to do his best to evade and he's going to head for a safe area where he can be safely picked up. It is possible, then, that if he got into Laos and got into the control of tribesmen, run into Pathet Lao--I don't know what--that he could have been held as a prisoner in Laos. We didn't get a single American prisoner of war out of a Laotian prison camp when the other prisoners came home. Keep that in mind."
The board's finding:
After evaluating all of the evidence placed before it by both the United States Air Force and the next of kin, the board finds that the evidence does establish by a preponderance of the evidence that [Lt. Col.] Earl P. Hopper, Jr. can reasonably be presumed dead.
Hopper's closing comments filled four single-spaced pages in the hearing transcript. He concluded: "When we came here I knew we'd be fighting a stacked deck, but I will not and I'll repeat, not, let the United States of America abandon our son and his comrade-in-arms without a fight."
[Department of Defense official James] Chappie also recommends that Dr. Kissinger meet with as small a group as possible and reports that while many of the radicals have left the League . . . a certain Mr. Hopper is still quite a pain. In fact, Hopper tape-recorded Chappie's entire and very candid series of remarks today and Chappie had to make strong representations about the use of the tape. He warns you to be sure to insist that no such monkey business take place tomorrow.
--from a 1974 memo to presidential adviser General Brent Scowcroft
Earl Hopper, Sr. has only ever had one employer: the United States Army. He and his brother, Rex, had enlisted in 1940. After officer training, Earl served all over the world in three wars, as a paratrooper and in intelligence. Of his five sons, only the youngest, Buck, chose a career outside the military.
Once he realized the government wasn't being forthcoming regarding the fate of Earl, Jr. and other POW/MIAs, making the switch from brass to activist wasn't easy.
"I was greatly disappointed," Hopper says. "Being a military man, patriotic and so forth, I had a lot of faith and trust in Nixon. I had a lot of faith and trust in the government. And I had a lot of faith and trust in the military."
Weren't Hopper's former colleagues in the military upset with his role as an anti-government activist?
"Well, there were hints at that," he says, whacking his pipe against an old clay ashtray in his den in Glendale, then reloading with black cherry tobacco, "but they soon learned that I wouldn't take any of that from them and that I could talk louder and faster than they could. And when they would make some statements that I knew were not true, I would challenge them. And that's where my reputation started, that I was a radical--"
"A redneck," offers brother Rex, who's listening.
Earl laughs. "A redneck, yeah. And knowing that I was a retired colonel, although the government people didn't like me, particularly, they did respect me. Now, I have to say that I did get to know some people, a couple admirals in the Defense Intelligence Agency, whom I trusted personally. But because they were government people--military people--I knew that they had to say what they were told to say. But over a bottle of Scotch, you can get a lot out of a person, on a private basis."
Like the fact that men were left behind. Hopper says military officials who wouldn't say that publicly acknowledged it to him, privately.
Hopper continues. "The biggest advantage I had was that I was military," he says. "So I knew a lot about how the system worked. I was not a politician, believe me. Nor would I ever want to be. But to compare my knowledge and background and everything to that of a father who was a civilian who was living down in Timbuktu someplace. . . . They were easily snowed and confused by the bureaucrats and the military of the U.S. government."
By the mid-'80s, the National League of Families had grown into a powerful--but politically charged--bureaucracy. Hopper the military man had no patience. He left the board of directors in the mid-'80s to focus his energy on Task Force Omega, the POW/MIA research organization Patty Skelly founded in 1983.
Patty: "When Earl, Jr. gets home from his 30-year vacation in sunny Southeast Asia, I'm gonna ground him until he's 90. Maybe 105!"
Earl: "And I'm gonna kick his ass all the way from Phoenix to Tallahassee!"
Patty: "I get the return trip!"
Earl: "I'll tell you this. He'll be a multimillionaire."
Patty: "Just in back pay and interest."
--a recent exchange between Earl Hopper, Sr. and Patty Skelly
Since the late '80s, the national nonprofit research group Task Force Omega has operated out of Earl Hopper, Sr.'s Glendale home, headed by Hopper and Skelly. The organization has active chapters in about 20 states, with members who contribute research to Hopper and Skelly. The group's $50,000 annual budget comes from proceeds from sales of tee shirts, caps, stickers and POW/MIA bracelets and a few donations--mostly donations from Hopper and Skelly themselves, they say.
The organization runs on a shoestring, but over the years, Hopper and Skelly have managed to untangle a lot of government red tape, and advocate on behalf of family members who don't know the system as well as they do, like Pat Plumadore, whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Kenneth Plumadore, was never accounted for after a bloody battle in South Vietnam.
The goal of Task Force Omega is to put all the scraps of information offered up by different agencies together, and examine them for patterns, clues as to where a POW/MIA might be.
"We can do what the government cannot do," Skelly says. "The government agencies--each agency--has its own information base and its own structure. They're very compartmented. One agency may have information that would help another agency, but they don't talk to each other. They don't compare notes and they don't share information."
Government spokesmen won't discuss individual cases, but Judy Leiby--a former veterans affairs aide to retired Arizona U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini who worked with Hopper and Skelly for years--confirms that Task Force Omega has been of tremendous assistance to the cause.
Skelly continues, "We can tell you more--and faster and easier--than what the government can. Defense Intelligence Agency doesn't have the biographic information that the casualty offices have. Air Force Casualty has only information on the Air Force missing men. Army, only on the Army."
Hopper would rather discuss the information they don't have than the information they do. The government says it releases all available documents to next of kin, but Hopper disputes that.
"They've got information that they will not release," he insists. He shakes his head, disgusted.
Still, Task Force Omega has gathered some intelligence reports on live sightings. "Every once in a while, we'll get something. Maybe a brown envelope will turn up in your mailbox with no return address and a gold nugget," Skelly says. "That doesn't happen very often."
The Task Force Omega office gives away the disparate styles of Earl Hopper, Sr. and Patty Skelly.
The Hopper side's a little dusty, with boxes of yellowing files piled every which way and a small wood plaque on the wall: "God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts." Alongside that plaque are Earl, Jr.'s diploma from the Air Force Academy (Class of '65) and a rubbing of his name from the Vietnam War memorial, a.k.a. The Wall (Line 20, Panel 34E). Hopper's shotgun leans in a corner; he also hunts birds.
Skelly's side is more up to date, down to the PMS cartoons on the bulletin board. She's Yber-organized, with a fax machine, turbo copy machine, rows of file cabinets and two computers. Skelly estimates her database holds about 75 percent of all available data--not counting intelligence reports--on a total of 3,800 Vietnam-era servicemen: the 2,087 unaccounted-for POW/MIAs, returned POWs and other men Skelly says the government refuses to acknowledge as missing.
Hopper and Skelly are not content building a database. They want to put it to use. The goal of Task Force Omega is to get Americans out of Southeast Asia.
"Now we have a system that we can put into effect on short notice to evacuate any live POWs we can get our hands on," Hopper says, sounding a bit like a character in a Tom Clancy novel.
Every now and then, he says, word of live prisoners comes out of Southeast Asia. Some want money to ensure the return. Hopper and Skelly finish one another's sentences, excited to tell the story.
Hopper: "So we tell them, tell these people, 'Treat this like a business deal. You, the Oriental,'" he says, betraying no sense of '90s PC, "'invest three thousand dollars--'"
Skelly: "--or whatever it takes--"
Hopper: "'--to go in and get that POW and bring him out. You bring him out, and if he's an authentic, documented prisoner of war, I'll guarantee you $1 million. . . .' That's a pretty good profit. None of 'em have done it yet."
Skelly: "A lot of this stuff is going on like that, but you've got to be very, very careful." Sometimes, Skelly catches a bit of The X-Files' Agent Mulder in her speech.
"Why is there an element in our government that does not want live guys to come out?" she asks. "Very succinctly, this issue touches the last six administrations--five of the presidents, including the sitting president, are still alive. Both major political parties. All their administrations, all their secretaries of the Navy, Defense, etc. When a live prisoner of war walks up to a president and says, 'What took you so long? John Doe was alive five years ago. Harry Smith was alive a year ago. Somebody else died last month,' this country is going to erupt."
Hopper nods. Couldn't have said it better himself. Earl Hopper, Sr. and Patty Skelly may not have found Earl, Jr., but they found each other. They were married July 11.
Bowing to constant pressure from POW/MIA family members like Earl Hopper, Sr., presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton all vowed to make the unaccounted-for American troops in Southeast Asia a high priority.
Hopper and Skelly scoff at that. But they acknowledge some progress. In the early 1990s, two offices were established under the Department of Defense, to focus on recovery efforts, including tracking live sightings: the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTF-FA) and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office (DPMO).
In 1993, as U.S. relations with Vietnam improved, Vietnamese officials allowed the U.S. to begin investigating possible crash sites, where POW/MIAs like Earl, Jr. may have gone down.
Equipped with the general coordinates of where Earl, Jr.'s Phantom II was last seen, excavation teams surveyed two possible crash sites in 1993 and 1995, before finally locating one--in October 1995--that matched up with the data they had on Earl, Jr.
To date, Earl, Jr.'s possible site has been excavated four times. On any given mission, the U.S. government excavation team investigates about six crash sites at a time. Each mission costs about $1.5 million, estimates JTF-FA spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Roger King.
King says the feds have easily spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Earl Hopper, Jr.'s case. The first excavation team--12 Americans and 18 Vietnamese, including an anthropologist, medic and photographer--went into Earl, Jr.'s possible site in January 1997. They recovered "possible human bone fragments . . . and numerous pieces of life-support equipment, indicating that at least one individual was in the aircraft at the time of impact. During the excavation, the team also received some possible human bone fragments from [a] witness who has been farming the area since 1993," according to the team's official report. The bones were analyzed and found to be "non-human."
The team returned to the site in March 1997, recovering "possible human teeth, a possible human bone fragment, and possible glove fragments; one fragment had possible soft tissue adhering to the interior. The team also recovered numerous pieces of life-support equipment, cockpit-related items and aircraft wreckage." Further excavation was recommended, and resumed in November 1997, when the team found "three possible human teeth and several possible human bone fragments."
The last excavation concluded in March 1998 and yielded "several possible human bone fragments" and "no personal effects." The team found additional life-support and air-crew-related items, including: pieces of webbing, pieces of life raft material, an oxygen mask adjustment buckle, a life raft repair plug, various zipper teeth and one boot eyelet.
And the team recovered a small metal plate once riveted to an engine part stamped with the serial number from Earl, Jr.'s downed Phantom II.
Each time they get a new report on Earl, Jr.'s possible crash site, Hopper and Skelly pick it apart.
Skelly agrees that the terrain at the site matches up with what they already knew about Earl, Jr.'s case. But just because that's where the plane crashed doesn't mean Earl, Jr. died there. For years, the assumption had been that Earl, Jr. had ejected. Eyewitnesses reported seeing two objects leave the plane. Now, Skelly says, she believes Earl, Jr. might have ridden the plane in and walked away, because the pieces of the ejection seat were found at the site.
And the remains at the site, says Skelly, may be from animals. "They could be Asian bones. They may even prove out not to be bones at all," Skelly says. Sophisticated DNA testing can probably determine whether the bones are those of Earl, Jr. The best DNA testing, though, comes from teeth. But even if the couple of teeth found at the site are tested--and, in fact, are determined to be Earl, Jr.'s--that won't convince his father.
Those teeth, Skelly says, could have been knocked out in the crash, or placed at the site.
"Earl told them [the investigators] two years ago, 'Don't even try to pass off two teeth as the mortal remains of my son. Don't even think about it.'"
But what if analysis of the more remains eliminates any doubt that Earl, Jr. died at that site 30 years ago?
Hopper is quiet, smokes his pipe.
"The hardest thing to realize," Skelly says, "is that somebody is alive all these years, and what they've gone through all these years. It's much easier to think of somebody as dead, not in pain, not suffering all this length of time. And there's peace of mind. They're with their god.
". . . Then the question is, when did he die? And how? And you cry, you bury him, and you fight for the rest of them."
One day last June at the 29th annual National League of Families meeting, Patty Skelly and Earl Hopper, Sr. are sitting in the lobby bar at the Washington Marriott, sharing a plate of shrimp stir fry. Patty's got her shoes off.
A young woman passes, recognizes Earl and Patty, and stops to give Hopper a bear hug. She squats between the two to talk.
The woman, Colleen Shine, is a POW/MIA daughter. Her family buried the remains of her father, Anthony, in 1996, after a crash-site excavation and lengthy investigation.
Shine has, in a manner of speaking, passed over to the other side. Unlike Hopper and Skelly, she apparently trusts the government officials who worked on her father's case. She and her family have accepted that the remains the government discovered and confirmed as his--through DNA testing--belonged to her father.
Hopper questions Shine closely. Is she sure those remains belonged to her father? Yes. When was the last live sighting of Anthony Shine? 1993, Colleen tells Hopper. And, no, there were no signs, from the remains, that her father had survived that long.
No, Shine tells Hopper, she has no doubt those remains belonged to her father. She's finally just received her father's dog tag--found during the excavation--and pulls a Federal Express envelope from her briefcase, rips it open. There's the dog tag, old and bent. It's passed around the table.
Shine moves on to another story. She traveled to Vietnam last spring to visit a close friend, an anthropologist who leads crash-site excavations. For months, the two had planned to celebrate the anthropologist's birthday together.
Shine arrived in Vietnam, only to find a "beautiful note" from her friend. She was so sorry, the anthropologist had written, but she had to leave for the DPMO office in Thailand suddenly, to argue for another excavation of a crash site that had not yet yielded conclusive evidence--the site along the North Vietnam/Laos border suspected to be where Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr.'s Phantom II went down in 1968.
The fifth excavation of Earl, Jr.'s possible crash site is scheduled for this fall.
Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.