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After decades of searching, daughter hopes to bring pilot's remains home from Vietnam

The steep path up the Vietnamese mountain was hard-packed red clay. Patricia O'Grady of Tampa followed her father's former captors through the craggy jungle, barely able to contain herself. She had been searching for her father, Maj. John F. O'Grady, for three decades.

In her arms, she held a red, white and blue wreath, small American and POW flags, a picture of her father from 45 years ago and five yellow zinnias.

They came to a clearing and one of her guides pointed to a spot below a star fruit tree, in a bomb crater. He showed her how they had positioned her father beneath the dirt. He and the other man, former soldiers in the North Vietnamese army, had buried him there 45 years before.

O'Grady, 59, dropped to her knees. She set down the wreath and the flowers, tied a yellow ribbon around a sapling nearby and pinned her father's picture to it. She cried. The soldiers cried.

She said a prayer and then began to sing an Irish ballad, an ode to a soldier. Danny Boy.

That was seven days ago.

On Tuesday, Patricia O'Grady, a professor of education at the University of Tampa, sat in a Hanoi hotel. She said the Vietnamese had unearthed her father's remains.

A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, who has been in contact with the family, said the U.S. government had not yet confirmed whether the remains were the major's.

O'Grady said several of the villagers had told her they had found a human jaw with teeth and dog tags. She hadn't seen the dog tags, but villagers who worked at the grave site said they belonged to Maj. O'Grady.

"I'm 100 percent sure they are his remains," she said in a phone interview.

But the Vietnamese wouldn't turn over his remains. And they weren't taking her calls.

• • •

By the time he was 14, John O'Grady had earned his pilot's license. He attended Catholic private school on Long Island, N.Y., and graduated with the class of 1952 from the U.S. Naval Academy before joining the Air Force.

He married his high school girlfriend that same year, and they had seven children. Patricia was his eldest.

She remembers he loved to sing Irish ballads, gave her lots of hugs and encouraged her to read. She went from reading Nancy Drew to A Tale of Two Cities.

She was 14 when her father's plane was shot down. He ejected from his F-105 Thunderchief on April 10, 1967, and parachuted into the dense jungle close to a tiny hamlet called Y Leng, near the Ho Chi Minh trail.

He disappeared.

• • •

In 1992, Patricia O'Grady and her husband, Maj. John W. Parsels, a former Vietnam POW from 1970 to 1973, traveled to Vietnam with their two children, ages 8 and 10.

Their trip was documented by Newsday's Sydney Schanberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of The Death and Life of Dith Pran, the subject of the Academy Award-winning film, The Killing Fields.

They found the militiamen who had discovered her father. His parachute had caught in a tree, and he had fallen to the ground, breaking his leg at the thigh. He had a cut on his head.

They carried him down the mountain on a straw mat and turned him over to soldiers from the North Vietnamese army.

"They lost track of him," Patricia O'Grady said.

• • •

Years passed.

"We came back (to the U.S.) and communicated with our Vietnamese contacts through 1996 or 1997 and then we just kind of gave up and didn't pursue it any further," said O'Grady's husband, John.

Then in April, O'Grady received an email.

Are you the Patty O'Grady whose father is missing in Vietnam? someone asked. I have information.

It was a Vietnamese-American who lived in Arizona. One of his relatives in Vietnam had asked him to find O'Grady. He and another man had buried her father on the side of a mountain.

A medic and an engineer, they told her they had been tasked with taking her father to a small hospital. But he had died of his injuries on the way. So they had buried him with his dog tags in a bomb crater near a star fruit tree.

• • •

O'Grady waited for them to dig up her father. But Vietnamese and U.S. authorities were not happy to see her there. She said the Vietnamese threatened her with arrest if she didn't leave. She said it was clear the authorities weren't used to having a family member nearby.

And she said it was the Vietnamese who took custody of the remains — not the Americans, who she said left before the excavation was finished. Eventually, she saw a truck pull out with a small box. She suspects it contained her father's remains.

O'Grady wasn't sure when she would return to home. But she planned to hold out until the remains were turned over.

"I made a promise to his parents I'd keep looking for him after they died," she said. "I felt a responsibility to honor him and not have him just be a forgotten soldier in this God forsaken area."

Information from Newsday was used in this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8640.

After decades of searching, daughter hopes to bring pilot's remains home from Vietnam 05/29/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 11:36pm]
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