Searching For Captain America
by Steven H. Edwards
It took me a year to even find out Art was missing, and twenty-five years later when I finally began looking for him, the only picture I could find was in our high school yearbook. The expected senior class picture was missing; he had transferred into James Madison High School at the beginning of his last year. The only evidence of Art’s attendance was his presence in the varsity basketball photo.
My search began in April of 1969 when I found myself standing in the basement of a decrepit fraternity house, face-to-face with an old high school friend.
"I heard you were killed in action," Alex said grinning.
"I was, but I decided to come home anyway," I said, matching Alex’s dark humor; humor which can only come from surviving combat. He grabbed me and we hugged each other, stepped back and clinked our beer glasses.
Then Alex dropped the bomb, "Did you hear Art Chaney is missing-in-action?"
Even now, decades later, I remember how I stopped breathing. I was holding my breath as I stared at Alex and fought to overcome the full feeling behind my eyes. I had last seen Art after our high school graduation and while we were still in the Army’s Warrant Officer flight school.
"Last May Art was flying up in northern South Vietnam and got hit by ground fire. After the crash no bodies were found, not even a dog tag," Alex said.
I saw Alex after the party on a number of occasions, but to protect ourselves from the emotions we both felt, we never again spoke Art’s name to each other.
Over the next few years I studied the lists of POW names as they were released, but Art’s name never appeared. When the POWs came home in 1973, I found myself staring intently into the television as I watched each airplane land and release its POW cargo. Many of the POWs hesitated at the top of the steps, blinking from sun or tears. Each would scan the crowd looking for familiar faces. Most looked tentative, some bewildered, while others were limping or on crutches as they came down the stairs. From the officers waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs, each POW received a salute and handshake. I studied each face knowing that Art would have changed, but he never appeared.
I made a point of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial each time I found myself in Washington, DC. I would walk up to the black panel labeled 54E and run my finger over the twenty-fourth line of names just feeling how the name Arthur F Chaney felt when chiseled in granite. As years passed, I began trying to put Vietnam behind me and move on with my life; I got married, became a father, graduated from college and began a computer career which would finally lead me to know what happened to Art on the day he disappeared.
As the twenty-fifth anniversary of my return from Vietnam approached, I began thinking of Art more frequently. I would look at my face as I shaved and wonder how Art would look at the age of forty-five. I began to date everything in relationship to the date of Art’s disappearance, asking questions like, "Could Art have heard that song? Could he have seen that movie? What would he have chosen for a career? How would I explain an automated teller machine, a microwave oven or a laptop computer to him if he were to walk out of the jungle right now?"
I finally began a search for information on what really happened to Art the day he disappeared. I started by enrolling in the "In Touch" program, a computer database which matched enrollees with others who are seeking friends and family members of people who appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I contacted the National League of Families, the official organization for families of Vietnam era POWs and MIAs. I spoke to Col. Millard Peck, the Army officer who would later resign in protest over alleged cover-ups of MIA. I contacted the "unofficial" groups which were trying to focus attention on the plight of American service personnel who were still missing-in-action. What I found was "privacy" laws in the United States bar the average citizen from finding out more than minimal information about the names appearing on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The official version of Art’s last flight is summarized in the following:
On the afternoon of May 3, 1968, CWO Bobby McKain, pilot, and WO Arthur Chaney, co-pilot, were flying aboard an AH1G helicopter on an armed escort mission for a reconnaissance team operating west of Khe Sanh. At about 1405 hours, while making a pass on an enemy gun position, they were hit by 37mm anti-aircraft fire from the gun emplacement and the helicopter exploded in mid-air. They were about 1500 feet above the ground when the explosion occurred, separating the tail boom and one main rotor blade from the aircraft.
The aircraft spun to the ground on fire and impacted, and seconds later, the ammunition onboard detonated. Other pilots in the area immediately flew to the site and observed the aircraft engulfed in flames with no visible signs of life. Shortly thereafter, they were driven from the area by other heavy automatic weapons fire. Air searches were made, but revealed no signs of the crew. No radio contact was made.
From my research, I learned Art was one of 850 other Warrant Officers of his grade to die while flying in Vietnam. He was one month shy of his twenty-first birthday, and two years younger than the average soldier to be killed. As a member of Alpha Troop of the 1 Squadron of the 9th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division, he wore the bright yellow shoulder patch shaped like a shield, bearing a black slash and horse head. From books I found detailing the exploits of A/1/9, I learned it had the distinction of suffering more casualties than any other helicopter unit in Vietnam. I knew members of A/1/9 were going about their lives throughout the US; I had only to find them.
When Art disappeared, any computer was a rare sight. Now I find myself immersed in an industry non-existent in 1968. On a daily basis, I use the information superhighway to skip around the world as I communicate with co-workers and customers. Through the electronic wizardry of the Internet I met a man who has become a true friend, even though I have never seen his face. His real name isn’t important because I will forever remember him as Polecat, the call-sign he used while flying helicopters in Vietnam. With my meager information, and Polecat’s assistance, I was able to create a list of members of Art’s unit at the time he was shot down.
On the twenty-sixth anniversary of Art’s disappearance I dropped twenty-six letters in the mail and began what I thought would be a sizable wait. I had debated immediately calling each phone number on Polecat’s list, but realized an unexpected intrusion dredging up old memories might be very unwelcome. Instead, I elected to write, explaining who I was, what I currently knew regarding Art and asking for any information, recollections or pictures. Three days later, at 8:30 on a bright sunny Saturday morning the phone rang, far too early to suit me.
"Is this Steve Edwards?" a deep, middle-aged voice said.
"Yes, it is," I replied, trying to place the voice.
His next words jolted me fully awake. "This is Jack Fischer... I knew your friend Art."
Like the evening twenty-five years ago, when I first learned Art was missing-in-action, I found myself holding my breath and fighting back tears. I spend thirty wonderful minutes talking to Jack. He gave me names and addresses of some other unit members with whom he had maintained contact. He recounted the times he had flown with Art and remembered Art’s sharp sense of humor and quick retorts.
Over the next two weeks the calls continued. I learned Myles Henry was one of Art’s best friends and had accompanied him to Tokyo on leave only a few weeks before his disappearance where Art had purchased an engagement ring for his fiancee. He told me that contrary to the "official" report, Art had been the pilot and not the co-pilot of the Cobra. In fact he was considered a exceptional pilot. He had applied for and had been approved for a direct commission to the rank of 1st Lieutenant, but the paperwork had not arrived by the day he disappeared. Art had even been awarded a Purple Heart for face wounds he had received. He was teased because of his gung-ho attitude and had been nicknamed "Captain America".
The last telephone call I received was from a hesitant voice lacking the friendly tones I had become accustomed to when hearing from Art’s friends. It was a retired police officer from New York City and we were able to determine we had been in the same Warrant Officer flight school class.
"I don’t remember you! Are you a lawyer or something? Are you trying to stir up trouble?" he asked with some suspicion.
"I don’t remember you either," I said and assured him I was only searching for the ghost of an old friend.
"I’ll deny everything I’m about to tell you." His words caught me by surprise. He then went on to tell me that instead of being shot down in South Vietnam as the "official" account reported, Art’s helicopter had actually crashed in Laos. "They were hunting," he said, "they crossed the border on their own; no one ordered them over there. The headquarters guys in Saigon refused to let us cross the border to pick up the bodies. We heard he may have been hit by a missile and not anti-aircraft artillery." He went on to tell me Art’s father, an Air Force colonel, questioned the circumstances of Art’s disappearance and instigated a major investigation. The engagement ring Art had intended for his fiancée never made it home. Did Art have it with him when he crashed? He ended the conversation with, "Just drop it. It’s over with and he’s dead."
My final correspondence was with Myles Henry, Art’s best friend and tent mate while in Vietnam. Myles was able to confirm much of the previous information I had learned and he was able to find one picture of Art. When it arrived in the mail, the picture showed a tall, lanky kid in front of a two-man tent. He was too far away to see his face in the picture, but Myles assured me it was Art as he was entering their tent. I’ll take Myles’ word for it.
My goodbye to Art occurred at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. I stopped in front of the black granite panel labeled 54E and ran my finger over the twenty-fourth line of names, again feeling the texture of Arthur F Chaney. I had a copy of the varsity basketball team’s picture from my senior yearbook and I wanted the world to see, at least for a while, a face to go with Art’s name.
Under the picture I wrote, "Art, it’s finally time to say goodbye. I’ll always remember our senior year in high school and the time we got to spend together in flight school. I wish I could have been there for you when you needed me. I’ll never forget you." With four small smooth rocks, I weighed the corners of the picture to the ground. Standing in the center of the picture, with his gap-toothed grin stood my friend Art, now forever, eighteen years old.