- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - For 42 years, Ann Duffy wondered exactly what happened on April 27, 1972.

That was the day her husband, Thomas Duffy, went missing in action in Vietnam after the F-4 Phantom he was piloting went down over Da Nang bay.

About all Ann knew was that the radar/weapons officer in the backseat had ejected and survived.

But she never knew why “Duff,” as she calls her husband, didn’t make it out of the fighter jet. She didn’t even know the circumstances of the incident. She assumed they were in combat and believed he had collided with a North Vietnamese plane.

“He went down over water, but I don’t know what happened,” Ann told me recently. “I didn’t insist on his backseater getting in touch with us. They never even told me his name. I wish I had asked.”

The voice of the 80-year-old widow trailed off.

“I always wanted to ask what happened,” she said. “How did he get out alive and not Duff?”

Now she knows. After our first conversation, I was able to dig up some incident reports and even find the backseater who survived.

And the scraps of information I was able to provide about Duff’s death have given Ann some peace of mind.

I had called Ann to ask about a group she belongs to: women whose husbands were declared prisoners of war or missing in action during the Vietnam War.

It fascinated me that Ann and eight or so women remain friends four decades after the U.S. ended military involvement in 1973.

They had united during those years as obscure victims of the war. Many, like Ann, had children to raise in the aftermath of husbands’ deaths.

These were strong women who picked up the pieces of their lives amid grief and uncertainty.

As another member of the group, 81-year-old Mary Lou Giannangeli, told me: “I had no choice.”

Her husband, Lt. Col. Anthony Giannangeli, was an electronic weapons officer flying in an EB66 sent up to jam the North Vietnamese radar defenses. His plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Only two of the crew survived.

“The MIA wives group invited me right away,” Mary Lou said.

She was reluctant to join, keeping faith that Anthony was one of the survivors who parachuted out before the plane crashed.

Eventually, she got involved and forged a bond that exists still.

“There were 20 women in the group,” she said. “We were all in the same boat. We all had kids, and we talked about our kids.”

They had regular luncheons. They saw each other at church. They celebrated birthdays and observed anniversaries. And they never quit hoping for their husbands to return.

They even joined a national campaign to raise awareness of the mistreatment of POWs, to elevate the question of MIAs and to pressure the U.S. government to pry more information out about the fates of the missing. The group evolved into the National League of Families nonprofit organization famous for creating the “You Are Not Forgotten POW/MIA” flag and logo.

Ann, Mary Lou and other wives I spoke to credited the Air Force Academy for helping them cope and survive.

During the war, the academy created a program called CAFPOW - Cadets Assist Families of Prisoners of War. The program was expanded to include families of MIAs. Cadets were assigned to each family to provide support to the women and their children.

Again, lasting bonds were created that survive decades later.

“They assigned three cadets to my family,” Mary Lou said. “I had six kids. They took my kids camping. They came to the house and played with the kids. They came over for dinner. It was a great program.”

Other MIA wives said their cadets would bring sleeping bags and spend weekends with their children, sleeping in the basement. They helped the children with homework or yard work. And they took them to ballgames.

One wife recalled her cadet teaching her son to polish his shoes and “how to be proud.” She said “they put a bit of class into our kids.”

Ann has similar fond memories of the cadets who were assigned to her four children.

“They were amazing,” she said. “They took my kids skiing, to plays and concerts.”

CAFPOW became more than an assignment for most cadets. It became a lifelong connection.

“One cadet called me this summer,” Mary Lou said. “He came with his daughter to visit me. They keep in touch.”

Ann said her cadet’s father, a Marine like Duff, arranged for a street to be named in his honor at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. Then he arranged to fly Ann and her kids out for the ceremony.

“All the wives are still in touch with their cadets,” Ann said. “Mine is retired from the Air Force, and now he’s retired from UPS.”

Another link in this chain of support was a favorite priest, Father Mike, who was a particular comfort to the women.

In September, 77-year-old Michael Pfeifer, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, Texas, came for a reunion with the women. Some described him as a great mentor who counseled the women and their families, even performed Mass in their homes.

I heard great memories from the women I interviewed, and none wanted the story to seek sympathy.

But I was struck when Ann told me of her regret that she didn’t push for more information about her beloved Duff.

A simple Internet search provided declassified incident reports that told how Duff was executive director of a squadron assigned to provide close air support to the South Vietnamese Army as it tried to repel the so-called Easter Invasion along the demilitarized zone.

On April 27, a few weeks after arriving, Duff’s F-4 collided with a South Vietnamese observation plane. The report identified his weapons officer as Capt. Darryl Diedzic. The report said “amazingly” Diedzic was able to eject.

A little more searching and I found Darryl Diedzic Jr. in Florida. I explained why I was calling, and he told me what little he knew.

“My dad said he and the pilot were just talking, aviator talk, and the next thing he knew they were in a fireball,” Darryl Jr. said. “He was patting out the fire on his head.”

Then he gladly put me in touch with his parents.

A couple of days later, Rosemary Diedzic was on the phone, apologizing for not calling me sooner and explaining she and her 72-year-old husband, Darryl Sr., had been ill. In fact, he was still under the weather and unable to talk.

She explained that her husband had never really recovered from the plane crash that killed Duff.

“My husband doesn’t talk about it,” she said. “I know that suddenly he was a fireball. He suffered second-degree burns all over his body. My husband lost everything he had but the ring on his finger.”

Darryl landed in the bay, extinguishing his burning body and probably saving his life, she said.

“He remembers being picked up by the Navy,” she said.

Long after the burns healed, his psyche remained scarred.

“He has a lot of pain and guilt that he survived,” Rosemary said. “My husband was heartbroken about Duff. Duff was a stand-up guy, he says.”

Darryl Sr. never flew again, and when the Marines wanted him to return to Vietnam, he quit after 11 years of service.

“There was no way he could face it again,” she said. “My husband suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. But we didn’t know it for years.”

Rosemary invited Ann to call her and talk with Darryl and answer questions she still had about the crash.

The news was a revelation to Ann, and she rejoiced at finally learning the truth.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s so overwhelming. I’d like more information, but I’m good now. I do (feel closure). I really do.”

Perhaps most surprising to her was the fact that Duff’s plane was struck by a friendly South Vietnamese observer.

“His death certificate said he was killed in action, so imagine my surprise,” she said. “I thought he was a hero. I thought he died in combat.”

Her words stopped me cold.

Duff had served 13 years in the Air Force, then transferred to the Marines for six more years until his death so he could fly the F-4. He served in Vietnam in 1967-68 before going back in 1971 for another tour of combat duty.

If that doesn’t qualify Duff as a hero, nothing does.

___

Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

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