04/12/07 — Fighting to get Joseph back home

View Archive

Fighting to get Joseph back home

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 12, 2007 1:51 PM

Few members of the Hargrove family talk about it -- not because they want to forget, but because going back to the day they learned that their son, Joseph, was gone, remembering how it took 20 years to find out what had happened and knowing they still haven't brought him home, is simply too painful.

It's an anguish you can hear, just below the surface, in the voice of sister-in-law Sandy Hargrove -- easily the family's most outspoken member.

"It's a subject that's always on my mind and next to my heart," she said of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove's death on the small Cambodian island of Koh Tang in 1975.

It was the last official action of the Vietnam War, but there was never an official explanation for why he and two other Marines were left behind in what was hailed as a major U.S. victory against the Khmer Rouge.

Today, she said, most of the people she talks to about Joseph are men who served with him and others interested in finding his remains and helping her family find some measure of peace.

But within the family, she added, the subject is largely avoided.

Joseph, who turned 24 years old the day he and nearly 200 other Marines stormed the island of Koh Tang, was the son of family matriarch Charlotte Hargrove, who had already lost one son, U.S. Army Pfc. Lane Hargrove, to the Vietnam War in 1968.

But she got to bury him.

Today, it's still Duplin County Commissioner Cary Turner's hope that she will get to bury Joseph, as well.

Joseph was his mother's cousin.

"Aunt Charlotte will be 85 this year and her health is failing fast," he said. "She still smiles, but she has lived a life of sadness and torment."

Turner's hope is pinned on two things -- the information inside Ralph Wetterhahn's book, "The Last Battle" and the fact that 12 Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) teams are currently working in Laos and Vietnam. Teams deploy to the region about 10 times a year for stints of anywhere from 35 to 60 days.

In the 340-page book, Wetterhahn, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, recounts how he spent six years tracking down what happened on Koh Tang.

Beginning in 1995, his was a mission that culminated in 2001 with Em Son, the local commander of the Khmer Rouge forces in 1975, telling him the fate of the three men left behind -- Hargrove, Pfc. Gary L. Hall and Pfc. Danny G. Marshall.

But first, to begin understanding the complicated 32-year-old story, there are some basic facts.

-- On May 12, 1975, after the end of hostilities in the Vietnam War, a United States merchant ship, the S.S. Mayaguez was seized by the Khmer Rouge as it sailed in international waters that Cambodia then called its own.

-- On May 14, President Gerald Ford ordered an assault on the island of Koh Tang to free the 40 prisoners thought to be held there.

-- Early on the morning of May 15, nearly 200 Marines stormed the island, which was held by a similar number of heavily-armed Khmer Rouge forces. They received Air Force and Naval support.

-- That same day, shortly after military action began, the hostages were released from a different location. They had never been on Koh Tang.

-- Orders to evacuate the island came late that evening. There were 41 Marine, Naval and Air Force casualties -- 18 on the island and 23 in a helicopter crash in Thailand.

-- A three-man machine gun crew was sent to the perimeter to hold the evacuating force's right flank. The captain who had given the order, however, was wounded in the fighting and was evacuated from the island before he could notify anybody of the crew's position and his intent to let them know when they could fall back. Because of that communication breakdown, when the last helicopter full of Marines left the island, it was believed that every man alive had been pulled off.

-- When it was discovered that Hargrove, Hall and Marshall were left on the island, any thought of going back was dismissed as there was an expectation of another heavy fight if Marines returned and no indication of their survival.

-- 14 months later, with no bodies and no word given to the families why they were left behind, the Marine Corps declared the three men dead and awarded them the Purple Heart.

As it turned out, the Corps was right, even though it had no proof.

"They got away with murder," Sandy said from her Blue Bell, Pa., home. "They got away with Joseph's murder.

"They say Marines don't leave any man behind. I've revised that. The Marines don't like to leave more than three men behind at a time."

In his book, Wetterhahn recounts how Em Son told him about the capture and execution of one of the Marines, a light-haired man believed to be Hargrove, the day after the battle.

Later, Em Son changed his story, describing the man as one of the others and saying he died from wounds suffered during the fighting. Wetterhahn, however, writes that based on other information, he is more inclined to believe the first version that places Hargrove's grave under a mango tree on the west beach.

Em Son also told Wetterhahn about the other two Marines who were later captured and executed in a different part of the island.

Gravesites and remains believed to be those of Hall and Marshall were found by a Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (now JPAC) team in 1999.

In 2001, the gravesite believed to be Hargrove's was identified and GPS coordinates were taken. That JTF-FA team, however, was unable to excavate the site before they were called back to the U.S.

"The Hargrove family still waits," Turner said. "Six years have passed since his grave was located and his family still waits for his remains to be brought home."

For Sandy, her husband, Douglas, and the rest of the family in the Beulaville area, it's been a long six years.

"I don't understand why they can't just go. Just go bring him home," she said. "Mrs. Hargrove just wants her son laying right there beside her other son and her husband. He should be under the Carolina sky, not under some Cambodian tree.

"I'll take my sticker off my car. I'll take my POW bracelet off and I'll stop being so bitter. He was an American and he just needs to be on American soil."

But after 32 years of waiting, Turner knows it's going to take a lot of work to get Hargrove home now.

"I'm going to try to start at the basic level and work my way up and gain strength as I go and I don't rule out the White House," he said.

He began his journey April 2 on the local level, asking the Duplin Board of Commissioners for its support. He's also been lobbying state Rep. Russell Tucker, D-Duplin, and state Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin, for their support.

"I think maybe now I'm in a position to help," Turner said. "My first basic step was to get support from the board of commissioners, but state Rep. Russell Tucker has been excellent."

Already, Tucker has sent letters to President George W. Bush, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, and U.S. Reps. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, and Mike McIntyre, D-North Carolina. Turner also said Tucker is hoping that he might be able to draw up resolution for the state General Assembly to pass in support as well.

"If I can get the support of the entire state legislature and get some Congressmen in on it, we might stand a chance," Turner said. "It's hard to ignore an entire state."

But he's also setting a deadline.

By October, he said, if a team has not returned to the site, he's going to start raising money for a January trip. He estimates he will need at least $20,000.

"It's a simple thing to ask. Either they go or I'm going," Turner said. "And I would a whole lot prefer if the government does it, they allow me to go with them. I don't trust the government and the family has had their chain yanked so many times that it would be good if an eyewitness from the family went to make sure they go to that specific gravesite."

And while he's not particularly excited about a possible trip to Cambodia, he said he would go in a heartbeat if it would help bring Joseph home.

"That's the only site left. If we go and there's nothing there, then we can put it to rest, but if there is, then we can bring him home.

"I live to be able to make that phone call. Even if I don't bring home but a tooth, it'd be worth it to say just those simple words -- 'Tell Aunt Charlotte we're bringing Joseph home.'"