Tim Brown's long battle for Ngok Tavak is over. Thirty-seven years after he survived a battle in which twelve of his fellow Marines died at an obscure outpost along the Laos-Vietnam border, Brown has found "a sense of relief." The remains of twelve Marines killed in action are coming home largely through his unflagging persistence and devotion to the missing men and their families. He is the first to say that it took the effort of many people, but when those people are asked, each begins the story the same way.
"None of this happens without Tim Brown," said Bill Duker, former chair of VVA's POW-MIA Committee and long active in the Veterans Initiative Task Force. The Marine Corps, having concurred with the findings of the Joint POW-MIA Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, which conducted excavation operations at the Ngok Tavak site and then the identification process at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, has begun notifying the families of the missing Marines. Some will be receiving positively identified remains.
A JPAC official said the recovery is the largest land loss operation recorded by the command in the history of its Vietnam mission. On May 10, 1968, a handful of Marines, Australian and U.S. Special Forces, and local mercenaries were overwhelmed by elements of a North Vietnamese division.
Forced to evacuate along a trail burned in the jungle by napalm strikes, the survivors fled until they found a place where they could be safely picked up by helicopters. They were forced to leave behind the dead. Over the ensuing years, the memory stayed with Tim Brown. In the 1970s, he made contact with the family of one of the missing men. In the 1980s, he became active in VVA, concentrating his energies on POW-MIA issues.
He brought the Ngok Tavak issue to Duker's attention. "He came to me and said the story the government was telling about Ngok Tavak was all wrong," Duker said. "He asked for help in straightening it out.
He explained what really happened and that he wanted to right a wrong. He said the families needed to know the truth. Why the government story was made up is anybody's guess. DPMO [Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Office] had just come into being, but they weren't listening to us.
" Brown said the official story was that the 12 Marines had been sent back into Ngok Tavak to search for a missing Special Forces medic and had been ambushed, leaving questions about their fate. "It left the families of the men wondering whether their loved ones had been captured and if they still might have been alive," Duker said. "Tim said that never happened [the search party and ambush] and he and the other survivors knew it didn't happen because those guys were dead. They knew they were dead because they left them there.
" To this day, Tim Brown doesn't understand why the initial story was put out. "It seemed like they wanted to bury it for some reason," he said. "I didn't know why, but they had told a bunch of lies to the families.
If you go to some web sites today, there are a lot of POW-MIA advocates operating on the wrong information that these men were organized into a search party to go look for the Special Forces medic Tom Perry who is still listed as MIA, and they subsequently died KIA and BNR. Well, nothing like that happened at all." In 1994, three men who would come to be known as Team Bravo-Tim Brown, Dan Carr, and Donnie Waak-paid their own way to accompany a VVA Veterans Initiative Task Force (VITF) mission.
After sometimes difficult negotiations with local province officials, they finally were cleared to travel to Ngok Tavak. They returned to tell of finding a pristine site, a battlefield left very much in the condition it was the day the battle ended and the military forces left it. Dan Carr was the first to reach the top of the steep incline. Tim Brown never was able to complete the difficult climb to the top of the hill on which the old French fort was built.
"This case, despite being the single largest incident in the Vietnam War in terms of unaccounted-for POW-MIAs, was dead in the water," Carr said. "It was in the pending category, which is government legalese for 'We're not going to do anything unless there's a reason to do something.' The real bottom line is that a couple of people can make a difference; they can actually affect U.
S. government policy. That's the legacy of Ngok Tavak-Kham Duc. We were able to have some positive results, and it never would have happened without one guy-Tim Brown." In 1995, Team Bravo returned with another VITF mission, this time bringing along John White, the Australian Special Forces officer who commanded the small outpost, and Greg Rose, a Marine survivor of the battle who lived in Australia.
They videotaped White's detailed testimony about the battle and its aftermath. White, who said that since leaving the military in 1972 he had not pursued any "old soldier" activities, was surprised when Brown tracked him down and invited him to accompany Team Bravo to Ngok Tavak. Today, White expresses great satisfaction at the effort's success. "I am delighted that the remains of those Marines will finally be brought back," he said. "This must bring some consolation to their families and to their former military colleagues.
" Donnie Waak, with Brown since the early 1990s, also is pleased with the outcome of their efforts. "All of a sudden, everything I had ever done in veterans affairs had been validated," he said. "If I never did another damn thing in my life, I knew that.
I knew that I was part of something very special and that it was a campaign on many people's parts. There were struggles along the way. Things went back and forth. But take all the personalities away.
None of that matters anymore. We accomplished something many people didn't think we could do. We can go to the families and say to them: 'We didn't forget.
'" Upon returning to the United States after the second mission to Ngok Tavak in 1995, Team Bravo and VVA delivered a copy of the White videotape to Gen. James Wold, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW-MIA Affairs. On the next VITF mission to Vietnam, Duker delivered a copy of the videotape to a veteran JPAC official. At that time, the office was called Joint Task Force/Full Accounting. "We told him that once he saw it we thought he would agree that it was something they would want to look at a little harder," Duker said. "The next thing we knew we got word that they were going to do a preliminary investigation of the site.
They went up and saw what we saw. It wasn't just a good site, it was a great site. Everything they had been going on was wrong and we were right.
They realized it was not only an important site, but probably would turn out to become one of the most important sites ever." It would turn out to be one of the most difficult and dangerous sites as well. The ground was littered with unexploded ordnance, including M-16 ammunition, hand grenades, RPGs, and 155mm howitzer shells. JPAC personnel contended with an abundance of snakes-kraits and cobras on the ground, vipers in the trees-and continually changing weather and unusually difficult terrain. Dickie Hites, special assistant to the JPAC commander and a veteran of 33 years in the Air Force, worked the Ngok Tavak case from its beginnings. It was his first case upon starting at JPAC.
"VVA had come on pretty strong with the government, saying that action was needed on this case and I was assigned to it," Hites said. "So I kind of bird-dogged it. I was the guy who wrote the 'lead sheets' for the teams being sent out in the field on what to do at the site.
VVA played a big role on this and on Kham Duc. They held the government's feet to the fire. They said we need action, that these men need to come home. Quite frankly, at the time there wasn't a whole lot happening on these two cases." DPMO spokesman Larry Greer said VVA involvement was unlike that of any other veterans organization. "No other veterans organization has been involved in a recovery operation to the depth that VVA has been in Ngok Tavak," Greer said.
"They've provided witness statements, information, and eventually interviews. For sure, there's never been a case where a veterans organization got as intimately involved and supportive as VVA did on this one." JPAC excavated the sites in 1998 and 1999. Hites said a map drawn from memory by Ngok Tavak survivor David Fuentes of Chicago played an important role in locating the remains. "On the first day, they got a quantity of skeletal and dental remains, personal effects, and material evidence, which included weapons and unexploded ordnance," Hites said.
"It's unusual that they find something like this on the first day. But it's the largest land loss we have ever dealt with. When you look at where we recovered remains, where we recovered personal effects, and where we found other kinds of material evidence, we could correlate each guy with what we found. That rough map [drawn by Fuentes] was remarkable." Hites cited the difficult and demanding identification process to explain the long wait between the initial discovery and any final disposition. He declined to say how many remains had been identified.
"I don't know the answer to that," he said. "Those remains are in the custody of our laboratory. They are sorting them out for the identification process. You have to have more than one line of proof.
You could have fingerprints, dental records, mtDNA, circumstantial evidence-all kinds of evidence can come together to do an ID. We're in the process of talking with families. The Marine Corps is talking with them. That tells us that identifications are imminent." Once the identification process is complete, families will have the option of accepting or refusing the identification. Remains that cannot be identified eventually will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery as a group.
Dan Carr, acknowledging his support for the VITF and the role it played in resolving the Ngok Tavak case, said he often found the Vietnamese were more forthcoming than some people in U.S. government offices.
Carr said the experience proved to him the importance of tending to matters closer to home. "There's a lot of groups and activists who bang on the Vietnamese, but in some cases you need to turn your attention inside the Beltway," Carr said. "The lessons are when it comes to POW-MIA issues and you're talking activism and advocacy, you better take a look at your own back yard, right there in Washington, D.C.
You need to challenge them, and you need to question them on the specifics of the case." Now that his long journey appears to be ending in success, Tim Brown expressed a sense of relief. "Being able to bring closure to some of these families, the sense of being able to say everything I could do I did, as did my teammates and partners-all of it means so much," he said. "It was a team effort. It was a team who joined with me.
I might have been the one who was bringing attention to the project, but there were a lot of people in VVA working with me.".
Tom Berger is a writer for The VVA Veteran, the official voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ® An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. Learn more at http://www.vva.org