BEAR CREEK TWP — This time, his return from Vietnam felt much more gratifying to Ed Zimmerman.
In fact, it felt more like victory.
In just two week’s time in the Southeast Asia country, he had accomplished his mission — to locate the spot where in 1968 he saw the bodies of two fallen Marines who later were declared missing in action.
Now starts the process to excavate for the remains, a multi-step procedure that could take a year or more.
Zimmerman, 65, joined with a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, search team based at Pearl Harbor earlier this month to search for the remains of Pfc. Anthony John Pepper of Richmond, Virginia, and Cpl. James Mitchell Trimble of Eureka, California, who were killed during the 77-day siege at Khe Sanh in early 1968.
Zimmerman, then a Marine lance corporal, earned a Bronze Star for saving a fellow Marine and a Purple Heart for a wound he suffered.
He found the spot, based on his recollections and coordinates from others, including former Marine Capt. Pete Post of Houston, Texas, who was commander of the company that included the two missing Marines and saw them hit with mortar fire. Post also was along on the trip and identified the area where he saw his men hit.
Zimmerman knew the spot at the bottom of the 10-foot ravine where the North Vietnamese had thrown the Marines’ bodies and taken their radio and maps, apparently using them to their advantage in the battle.
“I always thought that because of decay, the NVA threw these guys over the side,” Zimmerman recalled. “They stripped the radioman of his radio and equipment, the other guy of maps. That’s why they got murdered.”
Zimmerman had always assumed the recovery teams that swept the area afterward had recovered the bodies of all of the Marines who died in the siege. But in 2007, while Zimmerman was looking at a Khe Sanh veterans website, he saw a photo of a memorial for Pepper and made some contacts.
“One year ago, they took my information seriously,” Zimmerman said.
After a series of interviews and a government investigation, Zimmerman was enlisted to aid the JPAC team in the search.
While the search team marked the spot that Zimmerman had pointed out, they won’t excavate in search of remains until probably next year because geologists must study the area for soil shift due to the monsoons, bamboo growth and other factors to pinpoint the most likely spot of the remains. Funding also must be approved.
“I figured we were going there and we’re going to dig them up,” Zimmerman said during a recent interview at his home in Bear Creek Township.
In an email to Zimmerman, Post recalled how he and Zimmerman had met with Lt. Col. Tom Stevenson from JPAC and Lt. Col. Julian Trang, the U.S. commander in Hanoi, after the search and how both will push for excavation based on the success of the search mission.
“We all agree there is no better expenditure of taxpayer funds than to bring our heroes home,” Post wrote, adding, though, “Put in perspective there are still 1200 USA Mias (MIAs) and 240,000 Vietnamese.”
Zimmerman met with the team when he flew to Oahu three days after Memorial Day and was given a tour of the JPAC facility, including the forensics lab, and met with a two-star general.
“I met some of the team,” he said. “It was really a V.I.P. treatment.”
Then he flew to Vietnam via Tokyo, Bangkok and Hanoi. The trip totaled nearly 30 hours flying time one way.
When they arrived in Khe Sanh, they headed out to the battle site at 5:30 a.m.
“We went up the hill and went to the wrong site,” he said. “We were about 400 yards off.”
They did not know how to get up to the correct site because it was overgrown with tall vegetation, but the locals showed them a path. He said it was a difficult hike, since it was 100 degrees and he has neuropathy in his legs.
“About six, seven years ago the locals starting terracing at the top,” Zimmerman said. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, all the spider holes and bunkers were covered.’ “
But they still were able to find the crater where Post saw his men get killed.
Zimmerman also remembered a stream where his company had refilled their canteens before the battle. The team’s map didn’t show the stream, but Zimmerman insisted it was there.
“We found the stream,” he said. “I got them within a pinpoint.”
At the site, the group said a prayer and held a moment of silence for the dead. They posed for pictures, including one with a POW/MIA flag from the VFW post in Lenox, Pa., where Zimmerman is a member. The post helped sponsor his trip.
During their time in Vietnam, the Americans were treated to dinner of traditional, locally grown food by their Vietnamese hosts at the four-star hotel in Dong Ha. The Vietnamese toasted the Americans numerous times with Hanoi rice liquor, but the Americans were poured water by their linguist because they would not be able to keep up with their hosts.
The hosts included two generals who at one time were the Americans’ enemies as soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army.
“They started asking where were you (during the war),” Zimmerman said.
Then Zimmerman started naming towns.
“They said, ‘We were there, too. We probably shot at each other,’” he said. “I told them, ‘You’re a bad shot; you missed.’”
But the former enemies were now united in a common cause — to find the missing from both sides. Zimmerman said the Vietnamese said they would push for phase 2 of the search for the MIAs.
“One general said, ‘We were all soldiers; we were in a war,’” he said.
Zimmerman said being back in Vietnam was amazing, seeing the changes, such as paved roads and the four-star hotel in Dong Ha.
“It was still a Third World country, but they have paved roads,” he said.
“The heat was the same; the dust was the same. The South was not as developed as the North. It’s still a very beautiful country.”
He said the trip was like going back in time.
But he said it wasn’t about him. It’s about those who died and are missing.
“The bitterness went,” Zimmerman said of his time back in Vietnam. “You could forgive and accept the war is over.”