Late on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1969, Marine Lance Cpl. James W. Jackson Jr. of Atlanta walked into a U.S. Navy medical facility in what was then South Vietnam and vanished without a trace.
At least that is what the Marine Corps told his family after a rather cursory investigation, a story to which the Corps has steadfastly held for the past 46 years despite the fact that, short of an alien abduction, people just do not simply disappear; there are always explanations.
Jackson is among the more than 83,000 American service members and civilian contract workers unaccounted for since World War II. These soldiers of the unreturning army fell on foreign soil and remain there, their last resting places unmarked, their sacrifices for their country often remembered only by those who loved them or served with them.
This Friday, Sept. 18, is National POW/MIA Recognition Day. It is a day that will go largely unnoticed by many. But it is a day which is uniquely painful to those family members who have never had the closure that comes with giving their loved ones a final accounting and a final resting place.
For many of the 83,000, there will never be a final accounting. Their planes or ships went down at sea, their remains unrecoverable. Others died in battle in which their demise was of such a violent nature that little was left of their physical self.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 73,500 are unaccounted for from World War II, 7,800 from Korea, 1,600 from Southeast Asia, 126 from the Cold War and six from Iraq and other conflicts.
Yet much of the focus of DPAA remains on the war in Southeast Asia, often incorrectly referred to as the Vietnam War. The reasons are complex and difficult to explain to those who were not touched by the war or the political and social upheaval that rent the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The Jackson case is somewhat of an allegory for the war; there was no reason he should have been lost, just as there was no reason the war should have ended as it did. And the official explanation for Jackson’s disappearance defies all logic, just as the explanation for the war’s strategy defies logic.
“This case is an institutional embarrassment for us,” one Marine officer told me shortly after I began investigating the case in 1983. Other Marines have told me that efforts to reopen the case in the years since Jackson’s disappearance have met with strong pushback because of the negative publicity it would engender.
Over the years, I have interviewed hundreds of people, traveled thousands of miles and amassed more than 20,000 pages of documents and notes in an effort to find the true story of why Jackson has never been accounted for.
The answer, I finally discovered, was actually rather simple once I began questioning conclusions the Marine Corps accepted as fact thanks to the help of Al Duda of Kenner, La., a former Marine who knew some of the circumstances of events that led to Jackson’s disappearance and helped me see through the flaws in the government’s case.
On the day Jackson disappeared, he was serving as a rifleman on a remote hilltop fire support base named Russell just south of the Demilitarized Zone in northern South Vietnam. His unit was preparing to abandon the base in preparation for redeployment to Okinawa as the Marines’ role in the war wound down.
A fire and accidental explosion in a pit where discarded ammunition had been placed sent Marines scurrying off the hill — many without their weapons — because all the bunkers and trenches had been rigged with explosives and there was fear that the whole hill would blow.
Two Marines were killed and about a dozen wounded that day. Helicopters were brought in and the entire unit was flown off the hill, with the dead and wounded first out.
Or so they thought.
Two days later, another unit returned to Russell to investigate the damage. A Marine major saw the smoldering remains of two small men in a shallow depression and concluded the bodies were those of two Vietnamese scouts who had been with the unit but were unaccounted for. Those remains were not recovered.
At this point no one knew Jackson was missing. His buddies assumed he had been among the wounded taken to a medical facility. It was not until six weeks later, when Jackson’s worried mother began inquiring why she had not heard from her son, that anyone went looking for him.
Frantic inquiries were made throughout Vietnam and all military facilities in the Far East. There was no record of Jackson anywhere. When members of his unit were told of his absence, several began trying to piece together what had happened the day of the explosion. One thought Jackson had suffered a minor back wound. Several others thought they remembered placing him on a helicopter bound for the medical facility.
Once the official investigation began in November 1969, that became the story that has endured to this day; Jackson, slightly wounded, was flow to a hospital, walked in and disappeared.
It was not that the Marines who served with Jackson and testified at the hearing were being deceitful or in any way criminally negligent in his disappearance. What had occurred among them was what is known as “false memory syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon in which the human brain, when under severe stress, can be made to believe that something happened when it did not actually happen.
In her book “Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial,” Dr. Elizabeth Loftus writes that “When people are afraid, their memories slip and slide, neglecting details, rearranging facts ... The finished product, the memory that seems so clear and focused in our minds, is actually part fact, part fiction, a warped and twisted reconstruction of reality.”
So what happened to Jackson? In all likelihood, he was left behind in the rush to get off the hill, his body one of those seen two days after the explosion.
Despite urgent requests from some Marines investigating the case early on, no one went back to the hill to recover the unidentified remains to see if they just might belong to Jackson, despite Marine Corps assurances to the family that it was doing everything in its power to find Jackson.
The official investigation simply concluded that Jackson had disappeared, vanished into thin air, a mere puff of smoke in a strong breeze. To this day, the government remains convinced there was no chance the eyewitnesses were mistaken in what they believe had happened. Any suggestion that he had been left behind was dismissed out of hand.
The possibility that he might have been in shock and simply deserted was discounted because of his strong family ties and somewhat hypochondriacal nature that would have prompted him to seek immediate medical care if injured.
Jackson was listed as missing in action for nearly 11 years, promoted and paid as if he were still serving. Finally, on Aug. 7, 1980, Jackson was declared dead with the stroke of a pen, an administrative procedure undertaken by the government after his parents could not prove he was alive.
A headstone bearing the name “GYSGT James W. Jackson, Jr.” was placed in a special section of the Marietta National Cemetery and a ceremony held to commemorate his passing, even though he had likely died 11 years earlier and there was no body underneath that marker.
When I first talked to Jackson’s mother, Rudeen, about the case many years ago, she told me that she was glad her son had joined the Marine Corps because Marines had a reputation for taking care of their own and never leaving a man behind.
“When Jimmy went to Vietnam, I thought one of four things would happen,” she said. “He would come home safe, he would be taken prisoner, or he would be killed or wounded and come home that way. I never thought they would just lose him.”
Rudeen Jackson died in 2008, never knowing what happened to her son. Jackson’s father died in 1986. An older brother and a younger sister also have died. The only surviving immediate family member is an older sister, Dawn Bodiford of Jackson.
So why spend so much time, money and effort to find the remains of one Marine?
As Michael Sledge writes in his book “Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury and Honor Our Military Fallen,” there is a social contract between military personnel, their families and the government that when a service member dies overseas, extraordinary efforts will be made to recover their returns.
“For the families of those killed,” Sledge writes, “the war is not over until all the missing have been accounted for and buried, either overseas or at home.”
And as all Marines know, we never leave one of our own behind.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator who is writing a book about the Jackson case. He lives in Northeast Georgia.