Anna Hart doesn’t usually read the Eastern Arizona Courier, but on Thursday a headline caught her eye and she began to read. She was soon shocked to discover the article was about her Uncle James, a Marine who went missing in Vietnam long before she was born.
The article was also about Beth and Max Sunderman, a couple from Vega, Texas, who are members of the Texas Panhandle Patriot Guard Riders, a nonprofit that shows their respect for fallen soldiers at funerals.
Back in the late 1960s, three college students began selling metal bracelets to honor American servicemen who were killed in action or who went missing in action while fighting in Vietnam. Beth Sunderman, 69, bought one of those bracelets while attending West Texas State University. All she knew about the man whose bracelet she wore was his name, rank and the date he’d gone missing.
Sgt. James Thomas. April 3, 1968.
After periodic and unsuccessful attempts over the years to track down the sergeant’s family, Beth and her husband, Max, gave up. The military wouldn’t help them.
But then, two weeks ago, Max, 72, decided to try again, this time using the Internet.
He found pownetwork.org, and with just a few keystrokes he found James’ story.
It turns out James’ hometown is Safford.
On April 3, 1968, the 20-year-old was on a 45-man patrol in the Quang Nam Province near An Hoa when he disappeared. According to the network, the patrol had stopped to rest and after a short period of time, moved on.
When they reached their destination, they discovered James was missing and backtracked to their rest stop. They found his helmet, pack and canteen, but not James.
The Sundermans called the Courier, a story was posted and within hours four different people who knew James had reached out.
Anna, who has spent her whole life in Safford, was among them.
After confirming they were talking about the same man, Anna called her mom, 68-year-old Verdell Walker, who has been living in Safford since she was 6.
“My mom broke down in tears; she couldn’t believe it,” Anna said.
Not too long afterward, the Sundermans, Anna and Verdell were all on the phone. The Sundermans plan to be in Safford in mid-June to give Verdell the bracelet. They plan to meet in front of the Graham County Courthouse where there’s a memorial bearing James’ name and that honors him and all who served during the war.
“It makes me really proud that he’s thought of,” Verdell said. “I feel good all over. I’m proud other people were out there were praying for his safe return.”
Verdell was 13 when James enlisted. She remembers telling him their mother was going to kill him because he was only 17-years-old, had dropped out of school and convinced someone else to sign the necessary documents.
“He waited until the very last minute to tell her,” Verdell said.
She suspects that James, who was the fifth of 12 children, enlisted because he wanted to lift some of the burden off her mother’s shoulders, Verdell said.
Her mom, Govie, was a Safford teacher, Verdell, the baby of the family, said.
The last time she saw James it was in San Diego, Verdell said. She, her mother and her sisters all went to say goodbye when he shipped off to Vietnam.
She remembers well the day several cars came up the driveway with men bearing American flags.
“My mom knew something was wrong. She was scared to open the door because she knew it would be bad news,” she said.
When Govie Thomas died in November 1995 at the age of 88, she still believed her son was out there, alive, Verdell said.
Back in 1983, Anna recalls her grandmother receiving an invitation to fly to Washington, D.C. for a special event honoring those MIA or KIA. She accompanied her and even got to speak with President Ronald Reagan.
The military offered to provide a grave for James, along with copies of his dog tags, a flag and a picture of him. She accepted the latter items.
“She said ‘I’m not accepting a coffin unless there’s a body in it,” Anna remembered. “She didn’t want a funeral because she wanted to believe he’d come back.”
Verdell, too, wants to believe he’ll come back. Her brother had a fondness for guns and since they never found his, she hopes he found a nice Vietnamese woman to settle down with.
He took care of her when she was a child and would let her hang out with him and his friends.
“I still feel like, in my heart, he’s out there and he’ll find his way home,” she said.
Beth said she and Max hope to be in Safford on June 12. She is trying to find fellow Patriot Guard Riders in the area for she hopes to convince them to join them at the courthouse that day to help honor James. She’s surprised, but pleased her quest to find James’ family is finally over, she said.