Margaret’s father, Navy pilot and Commander Robert Saavedra, was shot down over the province of Ha Tinh 48 years ago today, April 28, 1968. He is still listed as MIA because his remains have never been found. The U.S. government recently excavated a site and found evidence, including a piece of cord. They told Margaret and her family that they’d have to test it to see what it was, and if it came from the right kind of plane. The tests couldn’t be done for months, long after Margaret’s visit to Vietnam. She went anyway, armed with maps of that site, knowing the unknown.
We had to meet with province officials before we could travel to the site. Five of them were waiting for us at a local office. We spent what felt like hours going over maps, arguing about the exact location. In the end we realized they were trying to steer Margaret to another spot entirely. They said if she wanted to go to the place on her personal maps, she’d have to get permission from another official in another province. By this time it was late afternoon. The light was quickly fading and we were still a good drive away. We called the other province office, got no answer, and took off.
We were forced to stop with just six miles to go. The dirt road ahead was filled with deep ruts, and the locals told us our bus would never make it. We flagged down a van and bartered with the driver to take us. We finally reached the area at dusk and climbed up a steep hill to get closer. The GPS said the actual spot was just beyond, in a tangle of trees that was impossible to walk through. So we stood in a nearby clearing to honor Robert Saavedra. Margaret and photographer Anthony Istrico talk more about the whole experience below.
Things got a little scary just after we left. A few miles away, several people stood in the middle of the road to block our way. The official we’d tried to call was one of them. He was so angry that we had passed through his area without permission that he had an official escort us to the police station to explain ourselves. As we pulled into a small courtyard framed by government buildings, the escort closed and locked the gate behind us. Our trip leader was led into an office. We were left in the van. The engine was off, and it was pitch dark. Guards ambled up to check us out. One flashed his light into the van, looking at our faces. Villagers started to gather behind us, peering through the gate, their voices either nervous or just giddy that something interesting was happening.
After a while, Ron and Mike got out of the car and smoked cigarettes with the guards. That relaxed everyone a bit. Later, we were invited to have a drink with the officials and to surrender our passports for inspection. We apologized for having come without permission. They apologized for stopping us. They wanted to make sure we knew it had nothing to do with the war. They handed us our passports and told us we could go. We got back in the van and got the hell out of there.
Margaret just received an update from the U.S. government on that piece of cord. They couldn’t place it to anything a pilot would have had in his plane or on his person. They confirmed the site was an A4 crash site, but are still unsure of the model. They also said that they had heard from a villager who thinks the crash site might be on the other side of the road. The government has promised to do a site survey there, but nothing has been scheduled.
On this day, we’re honoring Margaret’s father, and acknowledging the unknown that hangs over her family. We hope they get closure soon, and that her father can finally return home. Until then, we’ll remember that site visit, and its adventures, for a long time to come.
Margaret: This man was one of the officials we met in the province office. They had a very long, robust conversation about my site. I didn’t know what they were talking about until Ms. Yen told us that we were still far away, and that the place they were pointing to had plane wreckage. I knew from the reports that wasn’t true of my dad’s site, so with Ron’s help, we put our foot down. We told them where we going, and left.
Anthony: He struck me as someone who wasn’t used to people disagreeing with him. As the other officials talked and argued, he just stood there at the head of the table commanding things. This was the first time we were at odds with our hosts. It was the first time that things were in disarray. And it was the first time I really saw that, as advanced as this country was, the government still reigned, no matter what. The bars framed the situation perfectly.
Anthony: I don’t often think kids are cute, but this little one was awesome. Here we were, a small group with this enormous bus, with all this candy for the kids, and he was just watching us, going to town on an ear of corn. He had corn all over his chest when someone came up to him and offered a couple of Tootsie pops. He stuffed that ear of corn in his shirt (see it hanging down over his shorts?) and took just one pop. I posted this picture when we got back and someone pointed out that his flip flops had the American flag on them. I hadn’t noticed that before. This is by far the most popular picture we’ve posted.
Margaret: I stayed in the office the whole time but looked out and saw that Susan and Patty were giving out candy. All these children were so adorable, and they were fascinated by us. I remember feeling super tall next to them. I’m 5’10” and was like an Amazon woman there.
Anthony: After the adventure to get here, Margaret looks so calm and angelic, lit by the burning offering. She looks like she’s completely let go. But I remember that she seemed to have such a vivid picture of this place that swallowed her father. I had the feeling it wasn’t what she imagined. That kind of broke my heart.
Margaret: I knew it would be difficult to talk. I had a poem that I wanted to read, and I wanted to say the full rosary, but I was so conscious of the day we’d had, how overwhelming it had been to get there, so I said a few prayers and sprinkled holy water toward the location through the trees. Later, Ron took me aside and said he wanted to show me something. We walked to the ridge and looked out in the distance. The sun had gone down but there was still some light over the mountains. It was beautiful and very peaceful. That was comforting. I think it’s a little easier to put it into my heart and into my mind. It doesn’t hurt quite as bad now.