In the late 1960s, reports that U.S. prisoners of war were being mistreated in North Vietnam began to circulate. As a result, many of their families led efforts to force the U.S. government to pressure the North Vietnamese to account for all prisoners and missing personnel, ensure appropriate treatment, and negotiate for their return. In May 1970, the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia officially organized to “obtain the release of all prisoners, [and] the fullest possible accounting for the missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War.” The organization’s distinctive black and white flag still flies over many state capitols at least once a year and is regularly flown at other civic and government buildings across the country. Its success in returning 1,044 MIA (Missing in Action) since January 1973 has prompted the families of veterans of earlier wars to push for greater efforts to return their missing. Today, 1,602 American men who served in the Vietnam War remain missing and unaccounted for.
Navigator Robert G. Certain and the surviving crew of his U.S. Air Force B52 bomber (call sign “Charcoal 01”) were scheduled to return home in early December 1972. In addition to Captain Certain, the crew included Lieutenant Colonel Donald L. Rissi, pilot; Major Richard E. Johnson, radar navigator; Captain Richard T. Simpson, electronics warfare officer; 1st Lieutenant Robert J. Thomas, co-pilot; and Sergeant Walter L. Ferguson, gunner. Bad weather prevented their replacement crew from arriving in time to prepare for Linebacker II, a full scale bombing campaign against Hanoi. President Richard M. Nixon intended the bombing to force the North Vietnamese to return to the peace talks. Certain’s crew flew the mission instead. Moments before reaching their target, the Yên Viên rail yards, two surface-to-air missiles hit the plane, mortally wounding Rissi and forcing the crew to bail out. Rissi, Thomas, and Ferguson were killed. Johnson, Simpson, and Certain were taken captive. Charcoal 01 was the first of 15 B-52s shot down during the 11-day campaign. Certain’s wife, Robbie, remembers, “He did have survivor’s guilt and I understand that because I suffered for a while with “Why were we chosen and not the … father of five children? Why did my husband come home and hers didn’t?” One family had a child with special needs. One family had two little bitty precious children. And then there was the Colonel’s wife who had five children. Why were we the ones that got to survive and enjoy life?”
Prior to the Vietnam War, the Defense Department used Western Union telegrams to send official notification to families of service members missing in action, taken prisoner, wounded, or killed in action. In late 1965, telegrams were replaced by personal contact from a uniformed officer and a chaplain. This was largely due to the efforts of Julia Moore, wife of then-Lieutenant Colonel Harold “Hal” Moore, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. Ms. Moore, horrified that family members were receiving telegrams from local taxi drivers, appealed to the Pentagon to alter their procedures for delivering such news. Robbie Certain, wife of U.S. Air Force then-Captain Robert G. Certain, recalls, “There was a knock on the door and outside were two whitetopped blue cars. And that’s how you know in the Air Force at that time that there was a problem. … My mother put her arm around me as they read this letter telling me he was MIA [Missing in Action]. And my first response was, “You said Hanoi? He was flying over Hanoi? B-52s don’t fly over Hanoi. What the hell was he doing in Hanoi?” And of course the tears came. …”
To the French, it was Maison Centrale. When the French left, it became Hỏa Lò Prison. To Captain Robert G. Certain and other American prisoners of war held there, it was known sarcastically as the Hanoi Hilton. Certain, whose B-52 was shot down over Hanoi on 18 December 1972, used this tin cup during his incarceration. The cup was later engraved with the names of his crewmembers, his squadron insignia, and other details about his POW experience. North Vietnam signed the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which required signatories to provide “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war. Yet, torture at the Hanoi Hilton was commonplace and included beatings, starvation, deliberately contaminated food, medical neglect, prolonged solitary confinement, and murder.
Two days after U.S. Air Force Captain Robert G. Certain’s plane was shot down, the North Vietnamese called a press conference spotlighting the surviving crewmen of his plane and that of a second B-52 shot down during the attack on Hanoi. Certain’s wife, Robbie, recalls, “Within 24 hours his picture was in the Washington Post and every major newspaper in the United States carried his photo. … By New Year’s, when he was actually on TV. … He would not answer a question … on TV. I knew he wouldn’t. ... He wasn’t gonna be talking and denouncing the United States. It was very obvious that he looked both ways for the camera to make sure that we all saw that he was all right.”
Robert G. Certain to his Wife, Robbie, 14 February 1973, Gift of Robert G. Certain, 2017
Certain’s wife, Robbie, remembers, “I only received one seven-line letter from him, which was toward the end of his incarceration. They didn’t usually let letters go through. All the rules of how to send a package or how to send a letter to get to your captured husband was a nightmare. And you had to follow it to the T. … And then we found out later when he returns that hardly any of it got there. Most of it was opened by Vietnam and eaten … by those who were opening the packages.”
Then-Captain Robert Certain, U.S. Air Force, 1972-1973 recalls, “In fact, we smelled bad when we got back because the pilot that flew me out that I reacquainted with thirty years later told me, “You guys smelled awful!” We all came to the cockpit soon as we were “feet wet” over the Gulf of Tonkin, and heading to the Philippines. “All you guys came up there to see outside and look at the cockpit, and it was just awful!” I said: “Well, you try eating cabbage soup for a hundred days, and not bathing regularly and see how you smell!”
Certain’s wife, Robbie, remembers, “Behind my back, my assistant teacher at that time had gathered pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters from the children. They were going to buy a corsage for me to wear when I met my husband. They were red carnations. … The president of the United States had sent a cymbidium orchid for me to wear. So what was I going to wear? I wore my red carnations. … The children’s red carnations were worn as I ran to meet my husband.”
Major Bobby Marvin Jones, a native of Macon, was a graduate of the University of Georgia and the Medical College of Georgia. In 1972, Jones joined the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to Udorn, Thailand, an important base for Air Force missions over North Vietnam. On November 28, 1972, Jones and Captain Jack R. Harvey flew a non-combat mission in an F4-D Phantom to Đà Nẵng, South Vietnam. Jones needed additional flight hours to maintain his flight surgeon status. About 20 miles northwest of Đà Nẵng, their plane disappeared from radar and the two men were declared missing in action. Bad weather and enemy activity precluded an immediate search. A crash site thought to be that of Jones and Harvey has been excavated three times since 1997 but no physical evidence has been recovered that conclusively links the site to either man or to their aircraft. Today, Jones is among 1,594 men missing and unaccounted for in Vietnam.
About a year after U.S. Air Force Major Bobby Marvin Jones was reported MIA, his sister, JoAnne Shirley, and his parents became actively involved with the American League of POW/MIA Families. Shirley served as chairwoman of the board of directors of that organization for 18 years and continues to advocate for the families of the missing men.