2 Sides Project Profile: Jill Hubbs

It has been more than 50 years since Commander Donald Richard Hubbs, a Navy pilot, launched his aircraft from the USS Yorktown in the Gulf of Tonkin and, one hour into flight, disappeared off the North Vietnam coast. His daughter Jill was 10 years old when her father became missing in action. Years later, in 1993, she traveled to Vietnam on a quest to find any information about her father. Since then her interest in the war and its aftermath has only grown.

As Director of Educational Services and Outreach at WSRE, one of the U.S.’s premiere PBS television stations, Jill was one of the first to see the Ken Burns documentary series about Vietnam. She’s a filmmaker herself, producing, among other films, “They Were Our Fathers,” which features interviews with sons and daughters who lost fathers on the U.S. side of the war. And Jill is an avid supporter and fundraiser for “The Wall South,” a permanent half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedicated in 1992 in her hometown of Pensacola, Florida. 

In this profile of one of the “seven sisters” going on the 2018 2 Sides Project trip, Jill talks about her father’s disappearance, the evidence her family later uncovered that indicated he may have survived the crash, and the hope she’s bringing on this trip.


 
 Jill with a favorite family picture of her father saying goodbye before leaving on a deployment on the USS Philippine Sea, 1957

Jill with a favorite family picture of her father saying goodbye before leaving on a deployment on the USS Philippine Sea, 1957

When was the last time you saw your dad?
When he was leaving for his second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967, just a few days after Christmas. We waved to him as he stood on the deck of the USS Yorktown. Back in the car, I discovered the cake that my grandmother had baked for him – a lemon pound cake, his favorite. I begged my mother to let me run it back up to him, and she did. He took the cake, gave me a hug and told me to be good girl and take care of my mother. These words have became the marching orders that have echoed in my ears ever since.

What do you know about the circumstances of his death?
He went missing in action during a mission over the Gulf of Tonkin in North Vietnam. He and his three crewmates flew an S-2 reconnaissance aircraft off the deck of the USS Yorktown. One hour into their flight, the plane disappeared off the radar. Five hours after the last contact, radio signals were heard, and North Vietnamese fishing boats were spotted in the area the next day. My dad was declared missing, but I knew that other people in his squadron were searching for him, so I felt they would find him and everything would be ok. I was so young I don’t think I really understood the gravity of the situation or that my father was serving in a war zone and that America was fighting the North Vietnamese.

Your father’s disappearance ended up being a high profile case.
We waited for news for days, which turned into weeks, then months, then years. In 1969 my mother and I identified my father in a North Vietnamese film of American POWs, but he didn’t come home when other POWs were released. In 1987 we received a live sighting report from the Defense Intelligence Agency stating that their credible source had seen my father alive being held with 13 other Americans near the city of Da Lat. Three years later I sat with my mother in the Senate Select Committee hearings on POW/MIA affairs and heard President Nixon’s defense secretaries testify that the U.S. government believed some American servicemen had not been returned, but had been left behind.

That must have been absolute hell.
Never knowing what happened to my father, living in uncertainty, was so very hard to cope with. My mother’s heart was broken, but she was my hero, making sure that my sister and I were raised in a healthy and happy home and in a way that would please my father. She carried on despite the obstacles, the heartache, the limbo. She had a very strong faith in God. That sustained her.

 
 The Hubbs family in Taiwan. Jill is on the left, her sister Jayne on the right (1966)

The Hubbs family in Taiwan. Jill is on the left, her sister Jayne on the right (1966)

 Jill meets Vietnamese children (1993)

Jill meets Vietnamese children (1993)

You went to Vietnam before the United States had established any kind of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Weren’t you scared to go?
My mother was very worried for my safety, but I wasn’t scared. I felt compelled to go. By the time we had received the live sighting report, I was an adult and I wanted to go to Vietnam myself to see what I could find out about my father. I traveled to Hanoi with a very small group from Friendship Force on the first ever trip to extend the hand of friendship and understanding after the war. I was unsure how I would be received by the citizens of North Vietnam, especially when they learned that my father was an American pilot who had flown missions during the war.

 Jill, second from left, at the Wall South’s Reading of the Names Ceremony (2018)

Jill, second from left, at the Wall South’s Reading of the Names Ceremony (2018)

What happened?
Everyone I met was gracious and friendly, including a mother who had lost two sons, both of whom had served in the North Vietnamese Army. She took a picture of my father and placed it between photographs of her two sons and began praying for all of three of them in a loud and emotional prayer in Vietnamese. It was a pivotal moment for me, a moment of forgiveness, understanding and shared grief. I did not understand her words, but I felt her emotion, her grief and her loss. And she understood mine. Before that journey, whenever I heard the word “Vietnam,” I thought of the war. From then on, Vietnam became a country to me, a place with people who became friends.

 
 Jill, right, on the USS Yorktown next to a plane named in her father’s honor.

Jill, right, on the USS Yorktown next to a plane named in her father’s honor.

Did you get any other clues about your dad while there?
In Hanoi, I was able to locate an old Vietnamese grave registration that listed my father’s name on it, indicating that he had been buried somewhere in the province of Quang Binh. I have come to accept that I may never really know what happened to my father or ever be able to bury his remains on American soil. My mother died in 1999, never knowing the truth. What I have left are memories and the awareness that I am the legacy for my parents. It is my duty to honor them, live my life as they would have wanted me to do and to accomplish whatever I can to make the world a better place.

What do you expect from this trip? 
I am looking forward to going with other daughters whom I have come to know and love like sisters. We are about to embark on a trip that will be life-altering for all of us, something none of us will ever forget and a journey that none of our fathers could ever begin to imagine us taking. We will also meet sons and daughters from the “other side.” Perhaps this is the most important part of our journey, being ambassadors of hope and friendship. It is a journey of the heart, a journey to embrace and honor the legacies of our fathers and a journey of peace and understanding for the future of our world. Our fathers would be very proud of us.