“Promise me you’re going to find out what happened to him.”
All Lillian Calfee wanted to know was the fate of her only son.
On March 11, 1968, Lillian was told by her daughter-in-law, June Calfee, that her son, MSgt. James Calfee was missing in action. He was part of a secret mission in Southeast Asia, and his family was given no other details. The Calfees clung to the word “missing,” holding out hope that James would be found and returned to them. Even after they were told his status was changed to “killed in action – body not recovered,” Lillian waited.
But 10 years later, James still had not returned and the family still had no answers. Just before she passed away in 1978, Lillian turned to Debra Morris, her granddaughter. She asked Debra to continue the search for answers, to find out what James was doing and what led to his possible death.
Little did Debra know, that promise would lead to more than three decades of research, allowing her to learn more about her uncle and the hero no one knew he was.
For his actions at Lima Site 85 in Laos on March 11, 1968, MSgt. James Calfee was recognized at a ceremony at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Oct. 15.
The ceremony, which surrounds a memorial to the 19 airmen of the 1st Combat Evaluation Group who were killed in action, comes after Morris’ more than 30 years of research to determine what exactly happened on the mountain that fateful day.
Though his name is already on the two-year-old memorial, Calfee’s medal was recently upgraded from a Bronze Star with Valor to a Silver Star. Base leaders have updated his information on the memorial as well as the information of fellow Lima Site 85 team member CMSgt. Richard Etchberger, whose medal was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
As part of the 1st CEVG, both men were in a select group of airmen sent to Laos in November 1967 to man a top secret radar site atop the 5,500-foot Phu Pha Thi ridge. It was officially called Lima Site 85, but was known as Commando Club, according to Emerson McAfee, a former member of 1st CEVG. The equipment at the site, which included a tactical air navigation system and a TSQ 81 radar bombing control system, allowed the Air Force to conduct all-weather bombing runs into North Vietnam.
Though Calfee had extensive knowledge of these systems, he was at first told he had a medical condition that made him “not eligible for worldwide duty,” according to Air Force documents.
“He begged his commander (Lt. Col. Gerald Clayton) to get him on this mission,” Morris said, recalling a conversation she had with Clayton. “He ended up getting a waiver that let him go. That’s how dedicated he was.”
The Geneva Accord of 1954 did not allow for a U.S. military presence in Laos, so the men assigned to the mission were “sheep-dipped:” “discharged” from the Air Force and “hired” as Lockheed contractors. That was what their families and friends were told, too, though some didn’t believe it.
“Prior to his death, James was able to come home (in late January 1968),” said Robert Arrington, Calfee’s friend and brother-in-law, who had also served in the Air Force. “We were riding around an Air Force base and James would not tell me what he was into. I told him on the way home that he’s in over his head.”
Calfee wouldn’t hear of it, though, telling his family that what he was doing would end the war in Vietnam. He “honestly, truly believed that,” Arrington said. However, he also told Arrington and his sisters Frances Arrington and Rosalie Bacica that he was “probably not coming back.”
Unfortunately, his prediction would prove true.
Enemy at the gates
According to official reports, the North Vietnamese Army began launching attacks near Lima Site 85 as early as December 1967.
They slowly moved closer and closer to the site, attacking local pro-government forces and clearing out supply lines. The NVA finally attempted an air attack directly on Lima Site 85 on Jan. 12, 1968, dropping mortar rounds they had converted into “bombs” through tubes in the floor of their AN-2 Colts, according to the Project CHECO Report, a once top secret document that was published in August 1968. Both attacking aircraft were shot down.
Ground attacks directly on the site began at the end of January and increased to the point where the men of Lima Site 85 were directing airstrikes around the mountain for self-preservation. The airmen at the site were technicians – from radar to power production – and not fully combat trained, said William Husband, Lima Site 85 survivor, during an interview in 1986. They weren’t even supposed to have weapons on the site as they were “civilians.” However, CIA agents responsible for the site’s safety and protection gave the men some M-16s, a new rifle at the time.
“I guess they felt sorry for us or something,” said Husband, who was a power production staff sergeant assigned to the site. “One day the rifles were there, and some of us knew how to use them and some didn’t.”
Husband said Calfee and Etchberger helped train the technicians on how to use the M-16s. There wasn’t an opportunity to conduct live fire training, however, until the early morning hours of March 11, 1968. By then, it wasn’t a training exercise, but a fight for their lives.
At first all Calfee’s family was told was that he was missing in action. Then, in April 1970, the family received a condolence letter from President Richard Nixon. Still, because of the nature of the mission, they weren’t told what exactly happened. And that’s all they wanted to know.
After Lillian’s request, Debra Morris began her search for the story of her uncle’s final hours.
“My family didn’t know anything; there weren’t any books, it was just a matter of hunting for stuff periodically and every once in a while you’d get a hit on something,” said Morris, a retired school teacher. “But I couldn’t find anything about my uncle. I just kept digging and digging and digging.”
She went from perusing libraries to surfing the Web, and found information on the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. The family had not received updates from the government for 15 years, and she wanted to know if anyone was even still looking for Calfee.
“I sent an email, ‘Can you please put our family back on your mailing list?,’” Morris said. “It was two seconds and I got something back from the guy: ‘Where are you and where have you all been?’”
Thankfully, their mistakenly being taken off the mailing list was quickly fixed and the family received the updated information. Though the news didn’t include Calfee being found, they did get information on meetings for families of prisoners of war and missing in action airmen. This led to finding information on conventions at which former 1st CEVG members and Lima Site 85 survivors were present.
The difficulty in locating information stemmed from the formerly top secret nature of the mission. From the beginning, the airmen of Lima Site 85 were not allowed to talk about the mission, and they were not even supposed to know who was on the other shifts working on the mountain.
The four airmen who survived the attack on Lima Site 85 were re-assigned, therefore, did not even see each other or speak about events of March 11, 1968, until years later, said Morris. Even the families of the 11 men killed on the mountain top that day were not allowed to meet or talk to one another.
“We were told we would never know who the other people were and we were told we’d never talk to them,” said Francis Arrington.
Morris, however, found out about a Lima Site 85 families meeting in Kentucky a few years ago.
“I emailed this guy and told him, ‘We’ve never been allowed to meet any of the other families,’” Morris said. “‘Could we maybe come to this, compare some stories?’
“They were more than happy to have us,” she continued. “They thought we had dropped off the face of the Earth.”
Through meetings like this, she heard stories from Lima Site 85 members, including survivors of the March 11 attack, former Air Force SSgt. John Daniels and Capt. Stanley Sliz. And, though they only met briefly, the family had also talked with Clayton, the commander of Lima Site 85.
“They had heard bits and pieces of this story of what actually happened on the hill (where Calfee was at the time of the attack),” Morris said. “Of course, by this time there was nobody alive who could tell us, ‘Yes, this is what actually happened.’”
Through further research, she found the William Husband interview. He had given the interview to retired Maj. Donald Metzger, who was planning on writing a screenplay based on the events at Lima Site 85. His story explained in part what happened at the top of the mountain. However, the official reports that were out at the time only told the story of what happened at the side of the mountain, Morris said.
“No one ever spoke of the events at the top,” she said. “Those on top couldn’t see over the side, and those on the side could not see what was happening to those on the top.
“It was dark, and there were people who were throwing grenades over from the top of the mountain, but there was somebody who was still shooting,” Morris continued. “And through this story we found, it appeared to be James.”
At the top
According to Husband, the men at Lima Site 85 began hearing gun fire sometime before midnight March 10, 1968.
Their resident CIA agent told them the enemy was closing in on the airstrip and it was decided that evacuations would take place in the morning, at daylight. The men put on their combat vests and grabbed their weapons. Sliz and his crew decided to attempt to rest over the side of the mountain, while Calfee and his crew, including Husband, were at the top operating the radar bombing control system and maintaining equipment.
At about 3 a.m., according to the Project CHECO Report, NVA commandos had scaled the side of the mountain and then opened fire on the operations building. Upon hearing small arms fire, Calfee and TSgt. Patrick Shannon accompanied Lt. Col. William Blanton out through the front door of the operations building in what appeared to be an attempt to produce his civilian identification. All three men were shot at point blank range, killing Shannon and Blanton immediately. Calfee was hit in the face and upper chest, Husband said, but managed to crawl under the operations building with his weapon.
From that position, Calfee continued to fire on the enemy to defend the site, according to his Silver Star citation. His actions drew some of the enemy forces away from the team over the side of the mountain, allowing five airmen to reach the rescue helicopter. Etchberger, Sliz, Husband and Daniels reached the first helicopter, but Etchberger was shot and died en route. SSgt. Jack Starling hid among the dead and was rescued later that morning.
“I can only comment on what I saw,” Husband said. “Calfee was the hero.”
After finding Husband’s side of the story, Morris presented this new information to a DPMO analyst two years ago. Comparing all the evidence as more and more information became declassified, the analyst was able to determine that, according to a timeline he developed, it must have been Calfee firing at the top of the mountain.
Calfee and the other 10 men who died at Lima Site 85 were given the Bronze Star medal in 1983 – with the Valor device issued in 1984. However, based upon the discovery of Calfee’s actions, Morris, with the aid of Delton Kayga, began to push for Calfee’s medal to be upgraded.
“We started campaigning hard,” said Kayga, Robert and Frances’s son-in-law. He and Morris sent letters to the Air Force along with local and national politicians and newspapers. “I wanted James’ gallantry in battle and heroism to stand out, and I wanted his four sisters to feel that pride.”
Their campaign eventually led them to William Brown, Air Force Evaluation and Recognition Programs Branch chief. They traveled to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, to meet with Brown about one year ago, bringing their boxes of documents to present their case.
“I told the family I could not guarantee anything, but I was already slotted to go on a trip to the D.C. area and I would take their information and see what I could do as far as getting it before the proper approval authority,” Brown said.
Brown then discovered the family was missing one key factor: According to Title 10 of the U.S. Code, they needed a congressional request. Morris and Kayga took the case to Rep. Ron Paul, who agreed with the medal upgrade and sent the request through the proper channels.
Finally, the request was approved by Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley, the citation was signed and Paul presented the Silver Star to the family in a private ceremony at his office in Lake Jackson, Texas, Aug. 16.
“I wanted to make sure we didn’t overlook one of our fallen veterans, which is why I reached out,” Brown said. “We can’t meet with every family to assist in that way, but I think this was a unique case given the circumstances behind it.”
The family, though grateful that they’ve finally learned so much about Calfee and were able to get him the recognition he deserved, still feel that it’s all bittersweet. What Morris said she wants to avoid is people forgetting about the other men who died on the mountain with her uncle.
“They all died up there,” she said. “It wasn’t just one person.”
It’s with that mindset that the family still attends 1st CEVG and Lima Site 85 meetings. They still search for information on what happened on the mountain. They still fight to have the story of Lima Site 85 told.
Because of her grandmother’s request, Morris learned that MSgt. James Calfee was a hero. She learned about his dedication, his bravery and his death. But more than that, she learned to never give up.