Monday, May 25, 2009

Sombre Memorial Day article about my deceased POW Dad

A local Loudoun County historian recently interviewed my Mother. When we lived in Saigon, Gustav Crane Hertz, my civilian Dad was captured by the Viet Cong. He died in captivity.

Throughout the ordeal, my mother prayed to Our Lady of Ransom, the merciful Virgin to whom many begged for freedom from the Moors around the time of the Crusades. The feast day of Our Lady of Ransom is September 24, ironically the reported day that my father succumbed to malaria.

Through a quirk, I learned very recently through a letter-to-the-editor in Vietnam Magazine and some personal exchanges of email, that a brave Colonel led a failed attempt in the Vietnam jungle  to rescue my father. By the time the these experienced soldiers got the permission and necessary supplies, it was too late. My father's camp had moved. At the time, our family did not know of Colonel Carvell's efforts. It would have only added to our anguish to hope for a rescue and hear of its failure. After learning this almost 40 years later, I was able to express my gratitude to Colonel Crash. I wonder too, how many other efforts of so many individuals went unnoticed on my father's behalf throughout the military and government agencies.

Below are extracts of the Life Magazine story on my dad.
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  1. Link to the Washington Post article is broken, here's a new one

  2. If you can't get to the Post archives, here's the body of the linked article:
    Remembering a Civilian Casualty of the Vietnam War
    By Eugene Scheel
    Sunday, May 24, 2009

    Loudoun County's Vietnam War memorial is a large cenotaph on Leesburg's courthouse green. Dedicated on Veterans Day 1988, it is inscribed, "In Honor of the Loudoun Citizens Who Served in Vietnam and in Memory of Those Who Died."

    The name Gustav Hertz does not appear on the monument, because all of those listed served in the military in Vietnam. But his harrowing story is worth recalling as Loudoun prepares to observe Memorial Day.

    In February 1965, Hertz was the first U.S. civilian to be kidnapped by the Viet Cong. He died in captivity 2 1/2 years later.

    I spoke recently with his widow, Nellie Solange Strong Hertz. She is a native Washingtonian and, except for two overseas tours, has lived at the same house in Loudoun since 1946.

    Rarely have I met anyone more articulate, and I was not surprised when I learned that she is the author of 16 books, most of them well-referenced works focusing on her traditional Catholic faith. "What Peter and Paul believed, we believe," she told me, summing up her theological moorings.

    Her faith has given her peace, despite the circumstances of her husband's disappearance and the turmoil she endured while he was held prisoner.

    It was at American University that she met Gustav Hertz, a transplanted Long Islander living on a small farm in Falls Church. She had won a four-year scholarship to Georgetown University with an essay about the U.S. Constitution that she had written in 1935 as a senior at Western High School in the District. But Georgetown was all-male -- her history teacher hadn't expected a girl to win the essay contest -- so the scholarship was transferred to American University.

    She and Gustav fell in love in her senior year there. "I was supposed to be a teacher, for which I had no aptitude, so I got married," she said.

    During World War II, she raised children while her husband was a gunnery instructor in the Air Force. Various government jobs followed while they lived in Old Town Alexandria. The lure of the country led them to Loudoun.

    In 1950, their old stone house in Loudoun prompted her to write the first published book featuring homes in the Virginia Piedmont where average people lived in the 1700s and 1800s. The book, "Old Stone Houses of Loudoun County," was her husband's idea, she said, but she wrote it using her maiden name, Strong, to maintain a separate identity.

  3. cont'd

    Gustav Hertz and his family went to Vietnam in the early 1960s while he was working for the Agency for International Development. The Viet Cong had been attacking South Vietnam since 1957, two years after the nation had been divided into north and south.

    In 1955, the South Vietnamese elected Ngo Dinh Diem as their first president. He had been a member of a lay Catholic order but was excused from his vows of poverty to become head of state.

    Diem was assassinated in 1963. "It was pretty much of an anti-Catholic thing," Nellie Hertz said. The communists realized that either the Catholic Church or Ho Chi Minh would control Vietnam, she said, and, "they knew that the Catholic contingent would win" unless they killed Diem.

    Hertz said that she and her husband entertained "numerous prime ministers" who followed Diem. One reception sticks in her mind. Along with the official entourage, five ducks walked in line into their Saigon home. "My number one girl was horrified, but everybody burst into laughter; the function really came off on account of ducks."

    On Feb. 2 1965, Gustav Hertz left home on a motorcycle -- his standard mode of travel -- for an unknown destination. Nellie Hertz said she learned from an American Catholic priest in Saigon that her husband left that day because someone had told him that a U.S. soldier and friend had been kidnapped.

    U.S. authorities at first doubted that Hertz had been captured, she said. "The MPs who questioned me were boys of 19 and 20," she said. "All they wanted to know was what bars my husband frequented and what girls he went around with. It took two days before they even went up the road to look for him."

    She has no doubt that her husband was led into an ambush. "I never saw him again and never heard from him," she said. "I got one short note from his captors, who said he would be let out or freed within a few days. But no Catholic was ever freed or let out. There were tremendous religious overtones, but nobody ever writes about them."

    A North Vietnamese report didn't help matters, she said. "It stated my husband was one of 20 Americans who had classified plans for the pacification of the country," she told me. "My husband, of course, never discussed [with me] what went on in the office."

    Twelve days after he was kidnapped, she received a letter "in his unmistakable handwriting. He was all right and would be released in seven days. But he addressed me as 'Solange,' and he always called me 'Nellie.' Perhaps he thought they [his captors] might have had French sympathies."

    The letter mentioned a date for a meeting between U.S. officials and his captors, but the date had passed by the time she got the letter. The day before the meeting date, President Lyndon Johnson had ordered the bombing of military targets in North Vietnam.

  4. cont'd

    On March 6, Johnson sent the Marines into South Vietnam and ordered all civilians, including the Hertz family, to leave the country.

    Life magazine reported the failure of several attempts to negotiate Hertz's release through a prisoner exchange. Long after the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, his family learned from U.S. government documents that Green Berets were to have raided the site where her husband was being held but that someone tipped off his captors, causing them to move their camp.

    Cambodian President Norodom Sihanouk, who had established diplomatic relations with the North Vietnamese, was a helpful contact. In July 1966, he sent Abba Schwartz, a civil rights lawyer working on the case, a letter saying that Hertz was being treated "humanely" and was in "rather good health." The word "rather" worried the Hertz family.

    Nellie Hertz told Life magazine at the time that "Gus was a brave, good man. He went there only to do good. With this thought, I can confide him to the mercy of God."

    During the Tet holiday of 1967, speculation arose that Hertz had been offered freedom if he would sign a statement critical of U.S. involvement in the war. During the holiday, the Viet Cong released five other prisoners who had signed such statements.

    Several months later, in a letter to Nellie Hertz, Sihanouk said the Viet Cong had told him that her husband had died in captivity of malaria on Sept. 24, 1967. He was 49.

    More than three decades later, U.S. officials recovered his remains and identified them through DNA testing. Burke Hertz, Gustav Hertz's brother, then a Falls Church lawyer who had been lobbying U.S. officials to keep the case active, provided the DNA sample.

    The earthly remains of Gustav Hertz were sent home and laid to rest in the cemetery of the family church, St. John the Apostle in Leesburg, on Feb. 18, 2001.

    "I expect to see him soon," his widow said.

    Eugene Scheel is a historian and mapmaker who lives in Waterford.

    © 2009 The Washington Post Company