For the past thirty-eight years, Laverne Ransbottom has prayed, wondered and worried about the fate of her soldier son. But recently, Laverne was given the final piece to the puzzle she's been working on half a lifetime: her son's remains were located on a mountaintop in Vietnam.
The distance and the time involved did not deter Laverne. Over the years, she's made more than thirty-five trips to Washington D.C. to make sure the soldiers who were left behind were not forgotten.
"We knew that we families had to work at it all the time, because if we didn't, nobody else would," Laverne said.
Laverne's first trip to our nation's capitol was in 1972; an event organized by Senator Bob Dole called Operation May Day. It was attended by families from all over the United States who had loved ones missing in action or held prisoner in Vietnam.
"We thought if they were prisoners, they would be released," Laverne said. “That didn't always happen.”
Laverne's son, Major Fredrick Ransbottom, was listed as missing in action on May 12, 1968, Mothers' Day and only five months after arriving in Vietnam. His last radio broadcast originated from the Kham Duc camp, a strategically important post on the Laos border. His unit landed at the camp the day before and the base was overrun by the North Vietnamese Army in the early morning hours of the 12th. Three wounded American soldiers survived four days without food or water before being rescued. For ten years, the Army listed Ransbottom as a possible prisoner of war and the Vietnamese did hold one American from the Kham Duc battle captive for five years. While he was listed as a prisoner, the Army promoted Ransbottom from the rank of First Lieutenant to Major.
According to The National League of POW/MIA Families, at the end of the war, in 1974, there were 2,583 American soldiers listed as missing, prisoner or body not recovered. Since then, more than 785 have been accounted for – released or their remains recovered. But 1,798 remain missing.
Laverne is convinced it was the dedication of the families keeping the pressure on that led to the 785 coming home.
“If it weren’t for the families, we never would’ve had excavations,” she said.
At the annual League meetings, department heads from every agency of the government would attend and give the families the opportunity to ask questions. A frequent question of Laverne’s was, “How are we going to get back in the area?”
Especially in the early years, the answers she got were vague, but Laverne and her husband refused to give up.
The Ransbottoms even met with General Westmoreland during the early seventies, regarding the fate of their son. He left them with the impression that Fredrick was a prisoner of war. Laverne is thankful the General was wrong about that.
In advance of each annual meeting, Laverne would request access to the government records regarding her son.
“In the beginning it was a small stack,” she said. Over the years, the amount of data increased until during her recent visits she was sorting through volumes of records.
Most frustrating was the misinformation – like the 1993 Senate report. It quoted a former POW as saying he had seen Lt. Ransbottom as a prisoner in Vietnam. Laverne talked with the veteran and he said he’d never said it. When she talked with Senate contacts about it, she was told that the report was “considered 50 percent flawed when printed.”
The Senate report came after the Army placed a marker in Arlington National Cemetery, listing Fredrick’s date of death as 1979. The same year, he was awarded the Silver Star and his status was changed to "killed in action." If that was the case, Laverne wanted her son to have a proper burial.
“Our goal was to get the area excavated, not just go in and dig around a bit,” Laverne said. “We knew it had to be an organized attempt to excavate.”
To that end, Laverne has made countless calls to Senators and Congressmen over the years.
“People who think this is in the past and of no consequence will realize there is still work to be done,” she said. And she knows their efforts have benefited current veterans.
In October 2005, Laverne and her youngest son, Donnie, had a personally satisfying meeting in Washington. An archeologist from the Joint POW Accounting Command showed them charts and maps outlining their plans for excavations at the Kham Duc camp.
“He used records to recreate the battle to determine where to look on the mountaintop,” Laverne said. There had been other attempts to locate the soldiers lost in the area, but none were as well planned.
“The others probably walked over the spot a number of times,” she said. “This was a well-researched effort.”
The team of almost two dozen included archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, medics and ordinance experts. The former war zone has to be cleared of unexploded ammunition and mines. In addition to the logistic costs, the U.S. government also has to pay the Vietnamese for the privilege of excavating on their mountaintop.
The lead archeologist related to Laverne his excitement when they discovered the remains in March 2006.
“We were so amazed, we stopped everything and stepped back. I don’t think I was the only one to shed a tear,” he told her. Along with Ransbottom, the team also found the remains of two other soldiers. The remains were found more than six feet underground.
“The families are still banded together to look for the last two men, still unaccounted for from Kham Duc,” Laverne said.
After excavation, the remains were returned to the Joint POW Accounting Command headquarters in Hawaii. Laverne and Donnie attended the repatriation ceremony there.
“Repatriation is a beautiful ceremony of bringing flag-draped caskets home with flags, salutes and thankfulness,” Laverne said.
At that time, Laverne and Donnie were permitted to see and handle Fredrick’s personal effects – his class ring, dog tags and wallet with legible ID cards.
“We were brought his personal effects in early November after the identification and excavation reports were complete. He was identified three ways – through his teeth which matched his dental records, personal effects and his location. It seems he and his two men were where he made his radio contact.”
DNA matching is also used to identify remains.
“I gave my blood as soon as I listened to a session on DNA,” Laverne said. This is a critical step in resolving the identities of discovered remains.
If they find someone, but they can’t locate a family member or the family has not provided samples to match the DNA, the soldier may remain unknown, Laverne said.
Laverne’s family is now busy planning her son’s celebration of life. The military service will take place on January 13 at Henderson Hills Baptist Church and half a dozen men who served with Lt. Major Ransbottom plan to attend. Fredrick will then be buried near his father in Memorial Cemetery.
For more information on POW/MIAs visit, the National League of Families at www.pow-miafamilies.org.