Donald Franklin Worley
by Nicole Freire
A few weeks ago I sat down to work on a project that had been waiting patiently for me to attend to it for, oh, I don't know, years? I have two jewelry boxes, one belonging to my mother (who already has two or three), one that belonged to my grandmother, and both of them were messy and crammed full of jewelry. Jewelry that was mine, my mother's, my maternal grandmother's, and my paternal grandmother's. And lest you think I was pawing through piles of shimmering diamonds and pearls, let me assure you that any robber would be disappointed to find lots of what my mother and grandmother would refer to as, ‘costume jewelry' -- and dozens of pairs of earrings because I can't get enough of them.
Organizing this mess, sorting things from one box to another came up with all sorts of surprises. A lock of my hair from my first haircut. A box with dozens of baby teeth. Old watches that won't wind up anymore. Lots of earrings that belonged to the days when I wore pantyhose and suits to work and had bangs - the late 1980's, early 1990's. Earrings so heavy they would pull my earlobes down if I tried to wear them now. Not to mention they would interfere with my cell phone.
I also found this; nestled among the strands of fake pearls and tangled gold chains.
I honestly don't remember where I got it. It could have been from a guy trying to impress me. I could have picked it up when I was in college.
It's called a POW/MIA bracelet. It's engraved with the name of a serviceman who was killed in action, but whose remains were never retrieved. Or suspected prisoners of war who were never found. From what I can tell, they seem to be mostly names from the war in Vietnam, but I could be wrong. You can get them in solid silver and even gold, but mine seems to be simply aluminum, as I can bend it back and forth pretty easily.
Here is what the engraving on my bracelet reads:
S/SGT. Don F.Worley
USAF 3-11-68 LAOS
It means that my bracelet honors Staff Sergeant Donald Franklin Worley. He was in the United States Air Force and went missing in Laos on March 11, 1968.
Courtesy of this link, you can discover that today Donald would have been 72. This seemed old to me, but I just turned forty recently and sometimes have to remind myself that my father is 65.
Anyway, after I found the bracelet, I headed for my computer and started to try and find out who Don Worley was. Sure enough, he appeared on lists of POW/MIA servicemen. I dug around a little further and then I went down the proverbial Internet rabbit hole.
Donald Franklin Worley was no ordinary soldier. I say this with the full knowledge that all soldiers are extraordinary and that in times of remembrance, there are no lines drawn between officers or ‘grunts'.
I was lost in page after page, website after website, for it turns out that the man's name on my bracelet was part of an extremely famous and even more contentious battle, the Battle of Site Lima 85.
It has its own Wikipedia entry.
There are dozens of sites devoted to this event and these 11 men who went missing, and to a memorial with his name on it, along with the other 10 men. There is a site that has its own heraldic patch, honoring these men. It's a whole slice of the Internet I had no idea existed. There seem to be some crackpots and paranoid sites and there are serious, very serious men who discuss this event and others.
(I'd just like to say as an aside, remember last week, when Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry and some other politicians were complaining that the CIA lied to them? I just about fell off my chair laughing. Why were they surprised? It's the CIA for goodness sakes. They are supposed to lie, to keep secrets. That's its purpose, its mission. The CIA is not is the business of telling people what they know. They are in the business of NOT telling people what they know. I am so putting myself on some sort of CIA list now, just by typing this. That's ok with me, I don't have anything to hide………..I don't think so anyway. For a few months during the Bush administration I would answer my cell phone with, "This is Nicole, I think George W. Bush should be impeached." That's well within my rights as an American citizen I can dissent. But I bet that put me on some type of list long ago).
Not only was Don Worley involved with this battle, there's an entire book devoted to this battle, One Day Too Long
, by Timothy N. Castle.
Courtesy of amazon.com and Library Journal reviews, here's a short version of the events:
Castle, who served two tours of duty in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, teaches national security studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and is a frequent MIA investigator for the Department of Defense.
His book concerns the deployment of a radar site (code-named "Heavy Green") in the supposedly neutral country of Laos. In theory, the site was to provide round-the-clock bombing capability to planes attacking North Vietnam. In fact, the site had hardly been operational before the North Vietnamese forces knew of it and took steps to eliminate it. It thus became "bait" to lure the enemy forces where they could be attacked albeit in a neutral country. The men who volunteered to man the site gave up their military commissions, becoming employees of a private military contractor, and were exposed to great danger, all for a mission that could not even be acknowledged. Castle does an excellent job of telling the stories of the doomed radar personnel, using interviews with their widows and with surviving servicemen. This is a story that has waited 30 years to be told.
Why am I giving you all this information? Well, it's Memorial Day.
Usually my reading (and I do a lot of it) tends to lean heavily towards fiction. Mysteries, vampire books, lots of detective books, British ‘police procedurals', novels; you name a fiction genre and there's an excellent chance I've read something from it.
I do read some non-fiction but I'm extremely picky about it. I like to escape while reading. And one genre of books I've never delved into would be military history.
But for Donald Franklin Worley, I will spend this week reading the book that he is a part of. I will carry One Day Too Long around with me like I would any book, stuck in my bag along with my lunch to be read between bites of granola, taken outside during my breaks to sneak in a few chapters, and brought to my nightstand to be my nighttime reading.
I have to admit, I've sneaked a look at this book and I can tell you without reservation that it looks difficult. I'm not used to the military language, the jargon, the endless lists of planes and helicopters and the hierarchy of military rank and especially events that the CIA wanted no part in telling until nearly 30 years later.
I figure that's my duty. My father came home safe and sound and Don Worley never did. So, I will read this book for him.
P.S. When I wrote earlier this month about turning 40 (still seems weird, by the way) a few people asked about my father's experience in Vietnam and wanted more information.
I wish I could give them to you. But Vietnam was never popular with this country and extremely unpopular with my father. I only know a few details. I know that he was a great shot but terrible with a compass. I know he did jungle training in some godforsaken swamp in Georgia and came home with tick bites. I know he ate monkey in Panama. I know that there are two Purple Heart medals in the garage in a dusty box. I know that he can tell the tonnage of a bomb just by hearing it.
Other details have slipped out over the years, usually accidentally or without my father knowing he was saying them. Watching a helicopter during a movie on television he once casually said, "You know, you can get your head chopped off by those blades pretty easily if you're not paying attention." When the movie Platoon came out he went alone. He came home while I was folding laundry and I asked him what he thought. "It was much worse than that stupid movie."
He hates camping in the rain more than I hated the Bush administration. During a Coke commercial he once told me that at night, dozens of Vietnamese would appear out of the trees of the jungle, selling cold Cokes to the soldiers and boxes of cigarettes.
More recently he's expressed anger about Vietnam. That it was badly run, badly executed, that too many men died while those higher ups ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to win a war that they couldn't, one that kept slipping out of their hands like a slimy eel.
A few months ago I asked him if he wanted to work on an oral history with me about his time in Vietnam. He asked for a few days to think about it and of course I said yes. He came to me some days later and said this, "I can't do this project with you. It would be too hard for me and I just can't think about it without too much pain and heartache. I don't want to do it."
To his immense credit he gave me a true and honest answer. And in return, I don't press him for details anymore. It was his awful adventure and he can keep it to himself if that makes it more bearable to him.
And he came home, which to me and my mother and my sister, is the best part of his story.
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Nicole Freire is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.