On National POW/MIA Recognition Day, family continues search for missing Cherry Point pilot and father
Megan McGarvey is still looking for her daddy.
“Daddy” was Maj. James Maurice McGarvey, the executive officer of Marine All Weather Attack Squadron 242 out of Cherry Point. He was the pilot of an A-6 Intruder that the McGarvey family believes crashed into a mountain during a night bombing run against a target in North Vietnam on April 17, 1967.
His remains have never been recovered. It took seven years for the family to get a presumptive finding of death from the Department of Defense. Along with it came a posthumous promotion to lieutenant colonel for the deceased Marine and also a decades-long search for answers for his family.
The McGarvey family is one of 1,629 families who are still looking to find their loved ones who are listed as missing or unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Friday is National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day.
On Monday, Megan McGarvey took possession of two of the five boxes of official paperwork her mother had gathered through the years.
“I didn’t know whether to keep it or not,” said the Marine pilot’s widow, Lynda Lee Evans McGarvey Lee, who has remarried. “I can’t throw any of this away because it’s all unresolved.
“We’re not grieving. We’re just trying to hang onto any thread. We just don’t want him to be forgotten. We don’t obsess over it, but it is POW/MIA Recognition Day. That and his birthdays are the hardest to get through.”
The McGarvey family has always wanted to find his remains, bring them home and have a funeral with military honors. The pilot had been a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions on Nov. 16, 1966.
Megan McGarvey remembers when her father left for Vietnam in 1966.
“I was 4 years old,” she said. “I can remember the day that Daddy gathered us all around and he said ‘I have to go away. I have to go far, far away.’ I remember him telling us. I can see his face.”
He kept the family informed of what was happening during the tour, often with a comical sense of humor. In a hand-written letter from Dec. 1, 1967, he proudly detailed his squadron’s superlatives to his wife. In the previous month they had dropped 1,054 tons of bombs.
“You should see the A-6 when it taxis out of the line and down the Air Force side of the field to take-off position — with 28 — 500lb. bombs hung on it. People run out from all over just to stare at it in wonderment or take pictures to prove it to somebody else. It’s sort of a gratifying feeling — Stick it in your ear, you Air Force punks!!!”
Eight days before the crash, on April 9, he wrote to his in-laws, Charles Evans Sr. and wife Helen Evans, of Evensburg, Pa.
“I am ready for the war to stop — I have won a few medals and tasted combat and am now satisfied to quit. Perhaps LBJ [President Lyndon Johnson] will find a way to sneak out of it gracefully. I am almost convinced that he would like to — there is really too much world pressure against the whole business. However, as long as we are here we will continue flying.”
He went on to say he was looking forward to having a romantic rendezvous with his wife in Honolulu within a month. But the island reunion was not to be. He and his bombardier-navigator Capt. James E. Carlton Jr. were reported missing in action on April 17, 1967.
Megan McGarvey said she is often asked about growing up with her father missing.
“Well that was my norm. Did I know I was different? Yes, but that was my norm,” she said.
Five years old at the time her father went missing, her young mind struggled with the concept.
“When we moved from Shore Drive over to Church Road, one of the little things in my mind was ‘My gosh, Daddy won’t know where we live when he comes back,’” she said. “Those are things that the little mind thinks about. ‘Is he going to be able to find us when he comes back?’ I used to have dreams of him coming walking up the driveway with that big old pack on his back, but it never happened.
“I don’t think I would have ever thought those things if he had been killed, killed in action, but he was missing, missing in action. And to this day, there have been countless disappointments over the years with the accounting efforts.”
In the late 1990s, the family got a letter from Headquarters Marine Corps saying that they were putting Case 0643, McGarvey’s case number, in “pending status,” meaning pending no further action.This was on the basis of interviews they had done with some Vietnamese farmers in the area that thought they saw the plane go down in the China Sea, his daughter said.
“You’re talking about 30 years. They were probably not the youngest of farmers in 1967, so I can imagine 30 years later they are kind of up there (in age),” McGarvey said.
She doesn’t believe the story but rather takes the words of eyewitnesses from the squadron that the plane went down over land.
“Apparently this target they were going for, they had attempted to hit it by going out over the South China Sea and it wasn’t working, so they said ‘OK, this time we’re going over the ground’ and the third plane in the mission reported that he saw the fireball in the sky and as he continued on the mission he saw the burning wreckage of Daddy’s plane on the back side of the mountain,” McGarvey said. “He saw it, yet we have our government saying that they have these farmers saying that 30-plus years before that they saw a plane go down over the sea and didn’t see a parachute. We’re looking at this report and they have all the names redacted out of it and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why are they redacting. How is it going to affect national security this many years later?’”
The McGarveys remain frustrated all these years later. In her pursuit of information on the crash, Lynda McGarvey Lee went to Washington where she convinced the Marine Corps that what she and other family members of missing service personnel needed was a liaison to the government, and the position of casualty assistance officer was created.
“If I’m proud of anything, I’m proud of that,” Lee said.
Still, answers elude the family.
“You realize they are looking for him. But you wonder about the intensity of those efforts,” McGarvey said. “It’s so long now. We know that somebody knows something. Daddy’s plane wouldn’t have gone down where it went down, when it went down, and how it went down without a full accounting by the North Vietnamese. I do appreciate everything that the government has done on our behalf. Do I think that it is enough? No, I do not.”
McGarvey plans to write a letter to Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, the first permanent director of the new Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Bob Thibeault, past commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 639 of Craven and Carteret counties, served in Vietnam.
“They don’t know where they are or where they were buried or anything. It scares the heck out of me,” he said.
Thibeault was as an Army crew chief and door gunner. He was shot down in a Huey helicopter in 1969. He feels for families whose loved ones are missing.
“Some were on patrol, and the next thing you know, they were gone,” he said. “When they were flying on North Vietnam bombing and striking at Hanoi, some were shot down. Some were held prisoner and they don’t know what happened to them. It hurts me to see this happen. Were they buried? Or cremated? Or what? Nobody knows. I wish I had the answers.”
McGarvey wishes for answers, too. All she wants is her Daddy home.
“It’s still an issue,” she said. “It’s been a long time, but it’s still an issue for many, many families.”