Families of service members missing in action still have hope

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



If You Go

 What: Annual Veterans Parade at Fort Vancouver.

 When: Saturday: 10 a.m. ceremony and presentation, 11 a.m. parade.

 Where: Ceremony at Providence Academy Ballroom, 400 E. Evergreen Blvd. Parade begins at the Fort Vancouver National Site, Evergreen Boulevard and East Reserve Street.

 On the web: https://thehistorictrust.org/patriotic-events/veterans-parade

Vietnam War +50

A three-day series

The families of Mel Holland and Harley Hall are still waiting for them to come back from Vietnam.

Holland’s children haven’t seen him since 1967, so the youngest of Mel and Ann’s five kids never really knew their dad.

The family does know where Holland was stationed when he went missing. It was a remote mountaintop site in Laos that guided B-52 bombers to targets in North Vietnam.

They even know what the place looks like. That’s because the battle for Lima Site 85 is on the cover of Ann Holland’s 2017 “Secret Ops of the CIA” calendar.

Yes, there really is such a thing. It is not associated with the CIA, but it features copies of paintings from CIA headquarters.

“I ordered six copies for me and my kids,” the Woodland woman said.

The calendar’s cover illustration depicts what might be the most unusual dogfight in aviation history. A crewman in the door of an American helicopter is shooting at two Russian-built biplanes that were attacking the radar site.

Ann Holland also has a framed copy of the illustration at home. It’s not meant to be a conversation starter.

“You can’t give a history of the last 50 years in a 10-minute conversation. It’s better not to bring it up.”

Here is a short version:

Holland was an Air Force technician, but was hired by defense contractor Lockheed for what actually was a CIA operation. Because of the mountainous terrain, and with a defense force of local fighters, the 5,800-foot-high base was presumed to be safe from a ground assault.

The Air Force also sent twin-engined gunships to the area, hoping to discourage enemy troop buildups. When two North Vietnamese biplanes attacked the site, an American helicopter showed up and a crewman, firing an AK-47 through the door, shot them down.

But Lima Site 85 site was overrun on March 11, 1968. Seven of the 19 U.S. personnel were rescued; an eighth man died during the rescue. Holland was one of 11 men declared missing in action.

The remains of two men have since been identified, but no trace of Tech. Sgt. Holland has ever been found. The family wonders if Mel might have survived and wound up in captivity.

The family of Vancouver aviator Harley Hall has been in the same situation for almost 45 years. The Navy fighter pilot was shot down on Jan. 27, 1973 — the last day of combat operations in Vietnam. Hall bailed out and was seen alive on the ground, but has never been accounted for.

Still, Gwen Hall Davis said reports have surfaced over the years indicating that her brother was alive.

“Refugees said he’d been seen paraded in Hanoi,” the Vancouver resident said.

In 1993, the Vietnamese government returned three teeth to U.S. officials. Dental records confirmed the teeth were Hall’s. But they didn’t prove he was dead, family members contend.

All three show evidence of periodontal disease — unlikely in a Navy officer but a logical result of life in a POW camp. It’s certainly not enough evidence for the family, Davis said.

“Just three teeth, and that’s it,” Davis said. “Three teeth do not a Harley make.”

Davis was one of the voices tapped recently when Oregon Public Broadcasting produced a Vietnam War documentary reflecting regional voices. She welcomed another chance to share her family’s story.

“I felt very honored,” Davis said. “Any time I can tell Harley’s story, I feel honored.”

‘Continuing the pursuit’

In the Holland family, 58-year-old Rick has taken over as spokesman.

“Mom pursued it a lot of years,” said Rick, who hasn’t seen his dad since his eighth birthday in 1967. “It fell to me. I’m continuing the pursuit.”

That includes receiving paperwork and attending meetings held by defense officials in Washington, D.C. for POW/MIA families.

As he has discovered more about his dad, the 1977 Woodland High graduate said he’s been amazed at what he’s learned about their relationship.

“I’ve been walking in his footsteps, without knowing it,” said the Seattle-area resident.

“When I went into the Air Force in 1978, I ended up in aircraft maintenance. I was stationed in Florida and the first planes assigned to me were Lockheed AC-130 gunships. Based on the reports I’ve read, they were used to try to provide air support to the site during the attack. My very first job in the Air Force, I was working on those actual aircraft.”

Holland changed jobs a few years later.

“I picked radio communications repair. At the time, I knew my dad did something in electronics, but I thought it was radar.”

As he got more involved in his dad’s case, he had a “Holy cow!” moment.

“I’m doing the same exact job my dad did!”

After he left the Air Force, Rick Holland spent 14 years working for Lockheed, the company that had hired his dad in 1967 as part of the CIA’s operation.

In addition to the “Secret Ops” calendar, which was sold by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., there was another echo of Lima Site 85 a few years ago.

Richard Etchberger, the man who was killed during the rescue flight, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2010. He helped load three wounded teammates onto the helicopter. He was shot after climbing aboard.

Even though Etchberger deserved the Medal of Honor, Ann Holland said, his family originally received the Air Force Cross. That’s because defense officials back then didn’t want Lima Site 85 in the news, even in a medal ceremony, she said.

She doesn’t sense any change in the official approach: “If something falls into their hands, maybe we’ll hear about it; maybe we won’t.”

So the families of Harley Hall and Mel Holland wait.