Thursday, October 09, 2008

Vietnam POW/MIA Finally Comes Home

I experienced a couple of very touching moments recently. Back in the 60s, I was given a POW/MIA bracelet. I wore it for many years. Decades later, it took up a prominent place in my jewelry box.

Over recent years, I've tried posting notices about Lt. Ralph Bisz's bracelet in the hopes of possibly returning it to someone who knew him and/or maybe learning what ever happened to this man whose name was close to my heart for about 40 years.

Recently, I received a few more POW/MIA bracelets from my sister in California, who had been the west coast leader of that war's bracelet campaign. She asked me to see if I could check the Internet to find more information about these men. Feeling sentimental on 9/11, I spent time searching the web for more bracelet exchange sites where I could post notices with the names from all the bracelets I now had.

Amazingly, a couple weeks later I got an email from Scott Wilkins who served with Lt. Bisz. Here's his initial email:

I saw your 11 Sep posting on Ralph Bisz's POW / MIA bracelet.  I served with Ralph on the USS Oriskany in 1967. He was an A-4 pilot in Attack Squadron 163.  Ralph's remains were recovered in 1988 but not identified until this summer when new DNA testing methods became available.

There will be a memorial service and internment in Arlington National Cemetery on 6 October 2008. Twelve of us from the squadron will attend the ceremony along with Ralph's cousin who is next of kin as both his parents are deceased. We are meeting with Ralph's cousin and some of her friends on Sunday 5 October. If you would like the squadron members to present the bracelet on your behalf to his cousin, I would be honored to arrange it. 

Please let me know and we can make the necessary arrangements. 

Scott Wilkins

I was thrilled that someone finally found a posting for the bracelet I'd carried for so many years. I immediately replied and requested an address so I could rush Lt. Bisz's bracelet to his squadron so they would have it in time for his funeral...which would finally be taking place the following week.

I also, finally, got to see a picture of Lt. Bisz, as well as learn about his ordeal.


Lt. Ralph J. Bisz Jr. was a war prisoner in Vietnam.

On Aug. 4, 1967, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ralph "Skip" Bisz Jr., a Miami Shores 25-year-old, roared off the deck of the USS Oriskany in his A-4E Skyhawk toward the North Vietnamese city of Haiphong.

He was headed for an ammo dump, but somewhere near the town of Hai Duong a surface-to-air missile blew his single-seat bomber out of the sky. Three other pilots saw the crash but never saw a parachute or heard an emergency-chute beeper.

On Oct. 6, the remains of Skip Bisz -- one-time Edison High School tuba player and University of Florida student -- finally will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors.

The remains were repatriated to the United States in 1988, in a shipment of 17 boxes. But they weren't positively identified until 2007 -- 30 years after the Navy declared Skip Bisz dead.

The findings came way too late for Ralph and Catherine Campion Bisz, who went to their graves uncertain of their only child's fate. That left Diane Smith of West Palm Beach and her brothers as their maternal cousin's next-of-kin. Their mothers were sisters.

One morning about two months ago, the phone rang at Smith's home. It was Alejandro Villalva, with the Navy Casualty Office. He had the astonishing news. "He said they had confirmed [Bisz's identity] through mitochondrial DNA evidence, and they would like to present it to me and the family," said Smith, a retired 8th-grade science teacher. In the early 1990s, both Smith and her mother, who has since died, gave blood for the military's DNA database. It finally paid off.

On June 6, "five experts came to my home," Smith said, with reams of historical data and crash-site evidence, including interviews with some of the villagers who buried Skip's body. "They were there for three hours," she said. "I just can't believe after 40 years, they're still working on the missing." The Department of Defense classifies 1,759 U.S. service personnel from Vietnam unaccounted for but presumed dead.

Skip Bisz was born on March 28, 1942, and grew up at 213 NE 107 St. He and his dad, an Eastern Airlines accountant, once built a color television from a kit, Diane Smith recalls. Skip built model airplanes, loved waterskiing, boating and Ping-Pong.

Robert Craig "Chick" Smith of Atlanta -- Skip's best friend, no relation to Diane Smith -- said his ''tall, skinny'' friend was so popular at Edison that classmates elected him the marching band's drum major. "We played sandlot baseball and touch football, and we were both interested in flying," said Smith, a retired Delta Airlines pilot. As teens, they would drive to Miami International Airport, "sit out on the south side road and listen to the tower on a little radio. We did a lot of sitting out there, dreaming."

He said that "Skip went to UF 'to placate his parents. He was a better partyer than student in college but was mature enough to realize he didn't want to waste his parents' money, so he joined a naval air cadet program and left after his sophomore year."

Skip Bisz was shot down during his second tour of duty, and was initially classified as presumed captured. Chick Smith was training at an Oklahoma air force base when word reached him. "It was a shock, but I knew how dangerous these missions were. He was shot down over one of the most heavily defended targets in the history of warfare."

The family clung to the hope that Skip had survived, a hope nurtured by the report of an early-release POW that a pilot named Biss was at the "Hanoi Hilton," the notorious prison. The spelling was close enough. As it turned out, there was a Biss -- an Air Force captain -- who survived and returned home.

In 1970, The Miami Herald interviewed Catherine Bisz about a grainy Christmas film of American POWs that the North Vietnamese released. "The second time I saw it, I said right away, 'That's him. Don't you think so?'" she said. Diane Smith said that her aunt "wanted to believe so badly that we all agreed it could be him. I knew it wasn't." Catherine Bisz died the following year, of cancer, although Chick Smith thinks "she died of a broken heart."

Ralph Sr. later remarried and moved to Plantation, where he died in 1991. He left a scrapbook of news clippings and memorabilia to give Skip on his return, catching him up on everything he had missed.

"I am overwhelmed at the time they took" to identify her cousin, Diane Smith said. "The services should be commended for everything they've done. . . . I never dreamed it would happen."

I was sad to read about his loss...particularly that his parents never learned the truth. But I was very happy that I could finally contribute a little to his family's memory of him.

I'm a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, Soldier Angels on Steel Wings, Military Mascots and Soldiers' Angels. I participate on the Soldiers' Angels sewing team by sewing patriotic quilts for active military members and crocheting patriotic blankets for wounded soldiers in VA Hospitals. So I quickly whipped off a mini flag that could be presented to the family with the bracelet.

As a last thought...I felt the need to add a personal note to Lt. Bisz, so I popped open Microsoft Word, tossed on a quick heart autoshape, formatted in it red and added the following text:

Dear Lt. Bisz...

You've been in my thoughts and my heart for MANY years.

Thank you for your service to our country! You can rest easy're home!

Love, Dian Chapman

I attached both to the mini flag and rushed the package off, over night, to make sure that Scott would have it in time for Ralph's...long time coming...funeral. It was pretty amazing that after more than 40 years, all this came down to a sudden rush of a couple days between Scott seeing my post about the bracelet to getting it shipped just in time for Ralph's funeral. Scott was leaving for Florida in two days. But it arrived in time for him to take with him.

The other day, I got another email that put a lump in my was from George, Ralph's good buddy and room mate on USS Oriskany. He sent me a photo taken during the funeral showing the presentation of my little flag with Lt. Bisz's bracelet as they gave it to his cousin, Diane Smith.


Enclosed is a photo of Scott presenting your bracelet to Diane Smith, Ralph's cousin and next of kin.

Thank you for your kind contribution to this event; it was an important part of bringing our shipmate home to be buried with family and friends.

All the best,
George Lundy

I'm thrilled to have been a tiny part of helping Lt. Bisz come home. And with his bracelet being returned to his family through this wonderful presentation by his own squadron...I feel that Ralph's mission and journey is finally completed. It's so sad to have these bracelets in my possession. But I'm so happy that one of them was finally returned. With any luck, some day I'll tell stories of other brave soldiers who have been found and bracelets returned.

Ralph's buddy, George "Moose" Lundy recounts details from Ralph's funeral.

After weeks of contacting the 25 fellow Saints officers that were present in VA-163 during the months our shipmate Ralph Bisz was with us in 1966 and 1967 concerning the return of his remains, I arrived in Washington DC on Saturday 4 October 2008 for the funeral service that was to be held in Arlington National Cemetery on Monday 6 October at 1300 in the Fort Meyer Old Post Chapel.

I had spoken to almost all and in many of these conversations learned of their lives since our last contact. 

I am sad to report that after 40+ years many of our shipmates are getting older and suffering the ills of such passing of time.  Somehow, I don't feel like these other old folks.  I am still, in my mind, that same skinny LTJG that you may remember in Oriskany in 1965. 

Diane Smith was provided by the Navy a copy of the video, Hugging the Deck. This introduced the family to the Saints, which heretofore was only a squadron name and not the people we are.

Members of Ralph's "Saint" Squadron...left to right - John Shore, George Lundy, Louie Nordbye, Pete Munro, John Miles, Scott Wilkins, Ken Adams, Dale Landroth, Scott Mitchell, Frank Hughes, and Bob Hofford.

On Sunday night, upon the request of Ralph's family, the Saints met with them to give them some insight into the life and times of Ralph in the Navy. There were about 25 family members/friends that made the trip to Arlington including his cousin Diane and her younger brothers and their families.

In this meeting at the Hyatt Hotel, we spent about an hour getting acquainted then sat down to tell a few sea stories, childhood stories, and answer direct questions.  It was good to remember Ralph and those days but at points, very emotional as the tragedy of the loss of this fine young officer to our group and their family rose to our conversation.

Particularly interesting was a discussion by Ralph's case officer from the SEA/Vietnam Conflict Case Program in the USN POW/MIA Casualty Branch. Alejandro Villalva related the chain of events from the recovery of Ralph's remains until the final confirmation by a new technology in DNA that finally allowed us learn that these remains were in fact Ralph.

He also answered questions about other missing Vietnam War military persons.  This included our squadron mates Jim Dooley and Jeff Krommenhoek.  He was pleased to announce that funding has been obtained to deploy a subsurface vehicle to search the waters off Vietnam in areas where Jim Dooley was reported to have gone down. 

In the other case, the recovery effort remains in work.  Talking with Alex gave me the assurance that our missing comrades have not been forgotten, and the effort to put all the cases to rest is continuing in earnest. 

The dedication and personal interest of those involved in this huge effort was clearly demonstrated by the attendance at the funeral of those five extremely professional DNA technicians who actually made the identification. I was proud to shake their hands and thank them for their work.

In addition to the conversation, we saw the painting of a VA-163 Skyhawk with Ralph's name on the canopy rail and Oriskany in the background that was painted by Paul Wentzel and given to the family. 

A POW bracelet with Ralph's name that had been worn for many years by Dian Chapman was presented on her behalf by Scott Wilkins.  Ken Adams also gave his bracelet to the family.  The following day at the grave site, another bracelet was given by a Navy commander.  Though two of these persons never knew Ralph, each had a very special relationship for many years through this small piece of metal and rejoiced with us at his return.

Also, sadly there was a scrapbook prepared by Ralph's Dad with family photos and a letter addressing his return should that be after the death of both parents. The Chaplin read parts of the letter in the funeral service.  Fortunately, it was only a part, or the emotion and thoughts of this father longing for the return of his only child would have been almost too much at that moment.

On Monday, we met at the Fort Meyer Old Post Chapel for that service, traditional Navy funeral service, conducted by a Navy Chaplin. 

The casket was taken from the chapel and in reverent silence, placed on a horse drawn caisson to be escorted by a Navy band and Honor Guard of sailors to the grave site about one mile away down through Arlington National Cemetery. 

Though the day had started out cloudy, the sun was now shining through the magnificent old trees of Arlington, and light reflecting off the all too numerous white headstones in the yet green grass made for a peaceful, reverent, and beautiful procession.

Many walked in escort behind the caisson in this solemn procession down the tree lined way through the resting places of our country's best in this sacred and most hollowed national military burial ground.

Shortly after arrival at the grave site, Ralph was saluted by today's Naval Aviators with a missing man flyby of F-18 Hornets from NAS Oceana. 

The full military honors included the gun salute, music by the band, the bugler playing taps, and the folding and presentation of the flag to Ms. Smith. 

The Navy provided its best in honors for this hero who served his country as a naval aviator in war then an additional 41 years waiting to be returned home to America to be laid to rest with friends and family.

Welcome home Lt. Ralph Bisz!

Thank you for your sacrifice to our country.