At age 82, Elmer Emrich got so fed up with waiting for the Pentagon to bring his missing son home from Vietnam that on his own he found the site where Roger Emrich's plane crashed.
"We'd just been letting this thing ride along for too long, thinking the government was going to do something about it," Emrich, now 88, said of his remarkable journey to Vietnam in 1991 with Roger's widow.
Emrich's tale was emblematic of the growing frustration at U.S. recovery efforts felt by many of the families of the 2,127 servicemen still listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War, including Army Sergeant Robert F. (Bobby) Preiss Jr. of Queens, New York.
As first detailed by Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer last week, the Preiss family has been told that fragmentary remains found on a remote hillside in Laos were identified through DNA analysis as Bobby's, but a full excavation of the site was not planned until late 1998 at the earliest.
"I don't know if it's the government's fault," said Emrich's widow, Eva, 54, a travel agent in San Diego. "I think they're doing the best they can, but you can get so disgruntled." She said: "There were so many conflicting reports. There was a question of whether or not Roger was a POW, or died at the scene. My father-in-law needed and wanted closure on this, so we just decided to go."
Because the United States had no relations with Vietnam in 1991, the Emrichs arranged through the United Nations to go to Bangkok, where they were given visas by the Vietnamese and flew to Hanoi.
They timed their visit to arrive at what they believed was the crash site on November 17, the date in 1967 when the F4 Phantom jet piloted by Navy Captain William McGrath and carrying radar intercept officer Navy Lieutenant Commander Roger Emrich, 26, was shot down by a missile. It was also Eva's birthday.
The Emrichs said the Vietnamese were extremely cooperative. "I had these maps with coordinates where we thought the plane went down but they told me, 'We don't need your maps; we know where this is,' " said Elmer Emrich, a retired FBI agent.
With a car and translator provided by the Vietnamese, the Emrichs went to a village about 30 miles southeast of Hanoi, where they found the engines from Roger's plane propped up in front of the town hall as a symbol of local pride. A villager who had seen the plane go down took them to the site in a rice paddy 3 miles away. The spot was grown over, but Eva found a tiny piece of the wreckage to take back to the Pentagon as proof, along with photos of the site.
Still, the Emrichs had to wait until last December before U.S. search teams excavated the site and had a positive identification on Roger's remains. Commander Emrich, a Yale graduate who flew 135 combat missions over Vietnam, will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on May 2.
Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of the missing in Vietnam, said the Emrichs are not alone.
"Some of our members are getting so frustrated they're saying 'The heck with it, I'll go on my own' " she said." Unfortunately, they're almost always disappointed. It's not an easy thing to do."
Major Barbara Claypool, with the U.S. Joint Task Force for Full Accounting in Hawaii, said she fully understands the anxiety of the Preiss family. But, she said, the agreement with the Laotians is to search from north to south. The next 40-member search team will go to Kham Muon province late next month for a 30-day stay, and another will go to Savanna Khet province about a month after the Kham Muon team comes out, Claypool said. She said that the site where Bobby Preiss was killed on patrol in 1970 is in Xekong province, two provinces south of Savanna Khet.
"All the families have been waiting for far too long," Claypool said.
From a contemporary press report:
February 25, 1997