BEAR CREEK TWP. — It took nearly 40 years, but when Edward Zimmerman realized two of his fellow U.S. Marines were still missing, he had to do something about it.
He could not rest until he knew someone would bring back the two Marines who died in the 1968 siege on Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in early 1968.
Three days after Memorial Day, he will fly to Oahu, Hawaii, to meet up with a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, which searches for, recovers and identifies the remains of missing Americans from past wars for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Zimmerman then will accompany the team to Vietnam to search for those Marines’ remains, who are among the 1,642 U.S. soldiers still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia decades after public sentiment stateside forced a pullout.
The mission is happening because of Zimmerman.
After he learned in recent years one of the men still was missing, he contacted the Scranton Vet Center, which got word to the Pentagon.
Zimmerman, 65, an Edwardsville native who now lives in Bear Creek Township with his wife, Cathy, said the two bodies were at the bottom of a ridge at Khe Sanh but never recovered.
He knows. He saw them there after the battle, but due to circumstances afterward, he didn’t report what he had seen.
Zimmerman always assumed the recovery teams that swept the area afterward had recovered the bodies of all of the Marines who died in the 77-day siege, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, where Zimmerman earned a Bronze Star for saving a fellow Marine and a Purple Heart for a wound he suffered.
“I was told all of the guys were accounted for,” he said.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Zimmerman, while looking at a Khe Sanh veterans website, saw a photo of a memorial for PFC Anthony John Pepper of Richmond, Virginia. It said he still was missing.
The other Marine was Cpl. James Mitchell Trimble of Eureka, California. Both of the missing were from the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, 3rd Marine Division — the same as Zimmerman — but they were with G, or Golf, Company. Zimmerman was with F, or Fox, Company.
He swung into action.
He contacted Tom Ford from Long Island, New York, the Marine he pulled to safety after Ford was shot in the legs, to get coordinates of the area when Ford traveled to Vietnam as a tourist.
Zimmerman told the Vet Center, where team leader Dave Ulkoski, whom Zimmerman credits with helping many veterans, passed on the information.
Then, in March, he received a call from two guys from JPAC who were at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle. They asked questions. They later came to visit. They asked a lot more questions.
“They talked with guys from Golf Company,” Zimmerman recalled. “They put them right where I was” when he saw the bodies.
He said he had earlier seen Pepper and Trimble sitting on a boulder just days before seeing their bodies.
So after answering a lot of questions and convincing JPAC his information was legitimate, Zimmerman was approved for the trip. He said the Vietnamese government cooperates with JPAC searches for the missing.
“My job is to get them there,” he said. “I’m what they call a ‘living survivor.’”
He said he recalled seeing the bodies after the battle, when he was sent to search for any North Vietnamese soldiers who still might be in the area.
“I went down the side of the ridge where they (the missing Marines) were,” he said.
Then he saw their decomposing bodies, which had been lying in 90 to 100-degree heat for about three days.
That was too much for Zimmerman, who went on to take part in 22 major battles in his 13 months in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
“I kind of lost it,” Zimmerman recalled.
“When I came back up, I got into it with my sergeant,” he said. “He started ordering me to pick up more bodies. I told him I couldn’t do it anymore.”
He explained what led to that: “It was bad there. There were body parts. … You didn’t know who belonged to what.”
The fighting in Khe Sanh in northwest South Vietnam, started on Jan. 21, 1968, when soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, referred to as NVA, began a massive artillery bombardment of the U.S. Marine garrison, according to historical accounts.
The siege lasted for 77 days. Accounts put American deaths at 205 and NVA deaths anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000.
The 6,000 Marines, joined by South Vietnamese soldiers, fought against the 35,000 to 40,000 NVA fighters who surrounded them, Zimmerman said.
“That’s why the B-52s came in,” Zimmerman said.
They repeatedly bombed the NVA, and American Phantom jets dropped napalm, sometimes a little too close to the U.S. forces, Zimmerman said.
“When they dropped the napalm too close, you could feel it take the air out of your lungs,” he said.
And then there were the rats.
“There were thousands of rats, because of the dead bodies,” Zimmerman said. “They were like dogs.”
He said some ran through the wooden pallets on the floor of the bunker.
Still, at the time, the Marines didn’t realize just how bad it was.
“You look at it now and find out it was a lot worse than you realized,” he said of the siege.
That’s not to downplay the initial terror of coming under the fire of artillery and sniper fire.
“At first, it’s like an ‘Oh, Jesus!’ moment,” Zimmerman said of his thoughts during battle. “You lose control of your insides. But after the initial shock wears off, your training kicks in.”
On April 7, 1968, when he was dragging Ford to safety — Zimmerman, 5 feet, 10 inches and 133 pounds at the time, had strapped a belt to his own legs for the 6-foot, 3-inch Ford to pull himself along — a bullet struck one of the ammunition magazines Zimmerman had strapped to his chest.
He still has the magazine with the bullet entrance and exit holes in it. At the time, he didn’t even realize the bullet had hit and caused a minor wound to to his chest and right arm.
“There was so much blood, you don’t know if it’s yours or somebody else’s,” he said.
Zimmerman was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroics in saving Ford.
He never sought recognition for getting wounded, but in 2001, Ford began seeking the Purple Heart for the man who saved him. Zimmerman received the medal two years later at the Vet Center.
War still with him
Zimmerman doesn’t talk about his heroics so much, but his time in Vietnam, especially in Khe Sanh, is with him every day.
When he returned from the war, he began dating Cathy, and two years later they were married.
But when he first returned, he had a hard time finding a job. He landed a job operating heavy equipment, taught diesel repair. At times, he was working two or three jobs to support his wife and three daughters.
It wasn’t until 30 or 35 years after returning home that the war caught up with him. There were the thoughts, the nightmares. He had trouble trusting people, and the war took away his ability to feel, he said.
“I was ready to hurt somebody,” he recalled.
He sought help, and through the Vet Center, he was referred to a treatment center in Coatesville after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They brought out things I knew were there,” he said.
PTSD, a psychiatric disorder, can occur after someone experiences or witnesses a life-threatening event, such as military combat, natural disasters, accidents, or physical or sexual assault, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping and feel detached or estranged.
About 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD, and more than half of all male Vietnam veterans and almost half of all female Vietnam veterans have experienced “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms.”
PTSD among Vietnam veterans is one of the main conditions treated by the VA.
Zimmerman, who also had suffered ear damage from the explosions and shoulder problems, retired at age 54 from his job as a mechanic for UPS due to his PTSD.
Sometimes Zimmerman, who also has nine grandchildren, is back in Khe Sanh, and he has to go outside of his house and only allow the memory a certain amount of time.
He gives much credit to Ulkoski at the Vet Center for his help and for providing a welcoming home away from home at the center.
“Without Dave and without church, I couldn’t handle it,” Zimmerman said. “It doesn’t go away.”
Healing and peace
But maybe, returning to the scene of the battle to help bring home two fellow Marines will bring him some healing — and some peace.
He said he’ll be in Vietnam anywhere from two weeks to a month.
“It all depends on how good the Vietnamese government clears the ridge,” he said, noting the Vietnamese are supposed to clear some of elephant grass there that grows 8 feet to 10 feet high.
His own mission is clear.
Although he has no regrets about joining the Marines and fighting in Vietnam, Zimmerman said he never had a need to return to the site of those battles. Until he learned he could help bring a couple of comrades home.
“I have no use to go back there except for this,” he said.