'You are not forgotten' After 20 years, mother of Vietnam MIA will not give up

February 04, 1991|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Evening Sun Staff

The American flags snap and the yellow ribbons rustle in front of the well-kept homes in Frances Shay's Linthicum neighborhood.

These newly sprouted symbols -- like others around the country -- appeared in mid-January when Operation Desert Storm started and Americans began to die.

But the flag flapping in a February wind in front of the Shay house is not a recent whim, an object of the new patriotic fervor sweeping the land.

Frances Shay sits in her knotty-pine family room and tries to remember. "I think it's our sixth, no seventh, flag we've displayed since 1970. The others got beat up by the wind."

Shay, a dignified, soft-spoken woman, unfurls another banner for inspection.

"I almost put this one up the other day," she says. "Yes, I think I'm going to put it out front, too."

This banner is black. In the center is a man's profile. Behind the figure is a single strand of barbed wire. In the background is an armed Vietnamese in a guard tower.

The slogan beneath the man's head is "You are not forgotten."

The black banner, like the American flag, is a statement about Shay's indomitable spirit and an emotional issue that won't fade away.

For more than two decades, or what seems like an eternity, Frances Shay has fought a battle against --ed hopes and, she says, government deceit.

She has yet to discover the fate of her son, Air Force Maj. Donald E. Shay Jr., shot down over Laos Oct. 8, 1970, while on an unarmed photo reconnaissance mission.

She and her husband, a retired microbiologist, now watch the news and read three newspapers every day because there is a new list of airmen and soldiers missing in action in the Persian Gulf. The list grows almost daily.

The war in Vietnam is no longer the most recent reference point for combat hostilities in current American memory. Saddam Hussein has replaced Ho Chi Minh. Allied airmen will be treated as war criminals, the Iraqi government announced late last week.

And Frances Shay fears that she will never find out the fate of her only son, one of 36 MIAs from Maryland

A total of 2,285 U. S. military personnel remain unaccounted for in the Vietnam conflict, according to the Pentagon.

"I've been in limbo for 20 years," Shay said. "I don't know, I just can't give up. There is a remote possibility he might still be alive, or. . . . The relief would not to be in limbo anymore."

The Shays also have a grown daughter and two grandchildren.

"I don't want to close the book, to stop searching," she said. "This son of mine was a career officer. He chose to fly. And he, just like a draftee who served his country, deserved to be accounted for and never have the government lose sight of what happened to them."

She said that after 1973, when most American prisoners were released by North Vietnam, "our government lost interest in those still unaccounted for." Despite reported sightings of U.S. POWs by Southeast Asian refugees and released prisoners, she said, the U.S. "wanted to wipe the slate clean."

For Shay, there would be meetings with Henry Kissinger, a trip to Laos, and countless letters and telephone calls. The results of her work fill four large filing cabinets in her home.

While she still clings to hope, she said, "the government doesn't dare make the same mistakes with the Persian Gulf families of the missing."

As an active volunteer member of the Washington-based National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, Shay has returned to working in the league's offices because "we are getting letters and telephone calls from all over the country now."

The league, formed in 1970 by families who believed the government was not sharing information about MIAs, now has staffers and volunteers offering moral support and creating a base for exchange of information for families of men and women listed as missing in the gulf war.

The league is encouraging a letter-writting campaign to the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations voicing concern about the treatment of Allied POWs and MIAs.

Writers are urged to appeal to Iraq to abide by the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Convention, signed both by the U.S. and Iraq.

"Iraq POWs are receiving humane treatment, medical care and protection from further harm. In the name of humanity, Iraq must do no less," the league says in a sample letter.

"The callers I have spoken with at the league office want to know about our experiences from Vietnam," Shay said. "They want to know about the bracelets people wore in memory of individual POWs; they want to know what to do if the government doesn't help them."

As for her own fight, she still wears the simple bracelet bearing her son's name and the date he was reported missing. And there are a few others who do the same.

"There are two people from the Baltimore area who call us," Shay said. "And a man in Massachusetts who wears Don's bracelet and a woman in Philadelphia, her last name is Hennessy, who wears it and writes every Christmas."

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