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Vietnam Vet's Remains Laid to Rest, 37 Years Later


Thirty-seven years ago during the Vietnam War, a dozen American servicemen died in one day in the battle of Little Ngok Tavak Hill. Their remains have only recently been brought home, the largest number of American dead from a single Vietnam battle site since the war ended. Yesterday, one of the Marines was buried in Cromwell, Connecticut. From member station WNPR, Amy Jeffries reports.

AMY JEFFRIES reporting:

There was a small memorial ceremony for Lance Corporal Thomas Fritsch back in 1968. The town of Cromwell even named a street after him. But Steve Fritsch says the return of his brother's remains brings final closure.

Mr. STEVEN FRITSCH (Brother): To hear the real story was actually a relief. And there wasn't a mass burial, there wasn't a mass grave. He was found on the battlefield that he fought on. Now we don't have to wonder what happened to him while he was there.

JEFFRIES: For decades, the military said Fritsch and his comrades died toward the end of the firefight on Little Ngok Tavak Hill while searching for an Army medic named Thomas Hepburn Perry. Two days before his platoon was attacked on Ngok Tavak, Tim Brown was medically evacuated from the area with bronchitis, but Brown says he always knew from survivors of the battle that the 12 had died early on and never went off to look for Perry.

Mr. TIM BROWN (Vietnam Veteran): There was total, complete, intense battle that started at 3:00 in the morning and went full guns until the sun came up at 6:00, and the enemy was overwhelmingly outnumbering the forces that were there. And all of the Marines that were killed died in the positions that they were in when the attack started or during the course of the battle through the early morning hours of the 10th.

JEFFRIES: Two helicopters carrying reinforcements were shot down. The survivors withdrew on foot, unable to carry the bodies of the dead.

While talking with the family of one of the fallen Marines early in 1970, Brown learned that the official record of the battle was wrong. Brown then began efforts with the help of other veterans to correct the record and find out what happened to the remains of those men. In 1995, Brown returned to the battle site with the former US Marine commander and the Australian army commander who was in charge of all the allied forces at Ngok Tavak and the commanding North Vietnamese general who had already orchestrated the attack. Together, they recorded an account of the battle on videotape. After seeing the video, the US Defense Department finally sent a team of anthropologists to excavate the site. They found a jawbone and a few dozen teeth, along with some dog tags and other evidence. Earlier this year, forensic testing positively identified five of the men, including Thomas Fritsch.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) From the halls of Montezuma...

JEFFRIES: At the burial, Tom Callanan(ph) plays the Marine Corps Hymn on a 12-string guitar. Callanan was in the Marines from 1970 to 1971, though he was never sent to Vietnam. As a teen-ager, he worked with Thomas Fritsch in a Boy Scout camp kitchen. For years, Callanan thought Fritsch was missing in action. He wore a stainless steel bracelet with Fritsch's name on it and the date of the attack on Ngok Tavak Hill.

Mr. TOM CALLANAN (Vietnam Veteran): It was still in my jewelry box at home. And when I heard that he had been found, I took it out, 'cause I pledged I would send that back or give it to Tommy if he ever came back alive.

JEFFRIES: Instead, Callanan has now returned that bracelet to Fritsch's parents. For NPR News, I'm Amy Jeffries.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Jeffries
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