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News & Stories
News | May 7, 2024

What the soil leaves behind: A friend’s journey for Bernie and the fallen

By Annaliss Candelaria

In front of retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Thomas Eugene Wilber stood a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovery team, diligently digging through dirt, mud, and clay alongside local workers in search of any clue on March 13, 2024. Beads of sweat and dried sludge clung to their bodies as they toiled tirelessly, driven by the solemn mission of finding our nation’s missing. Wilber’s face scrunched up with emotion at the sight before him; his unexpected visit to Vietnam, coinciding with a friend’s daughter's wedding, was a twist of fate. Through years of tireless searching, he had forged deep connections with the locals, reflecting the symbolic relationship that DPAA shares with Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, on June 16, 1968, Wilber’s father, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Walter Eugene Wilber, a pilot, and Lt. j.g. Bernard Francis “Bernie” Rupinski, a radar intercept officer, both assigned to Fighter Squadron 102 "Diamondbacks" (VF 102) Carrier Air Wing 6 aboard the aircraft carrier USS America (CVA 66), were flying their McDonnell F-4J Phantom II on a combat air patrol over the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. They led a flight of two and were sent inland over North Vietnam to repel an enemy aircraft reported to be south of the 19th parallel. Wilber’s father engaged a MiG-21 fighter, and his wingman saw the MiG fire a missile. They faced a harrowing moment when their aircraft was struck in the rear fuselage area, leaving them with a mere 15 seconds to escape. Wilber’s father managed to eject, but tragically, Bernie’s seat malfunctioned, and he was never seen again. His father was captured by enemy forces and remained in captivity until Operation Homecoming in 1973. Upon his long-awaited return home, Wilber’s father was haunted by unanswered questions surrounding the fate of his friend.

“When he returned in February of 1973, one of the first things we did was plan a family trip to visit Bernie’s wife and daughter, and we made that trip all as a family and spent some days with her and had long conversations,” said Wilber. “I think that was helpful for her in the process.”

Maintaining contact with Bernie’s sister, who remained Bernie’s next of kin in the United States, Wilber kept her informed of the case’s progress with DPAA.

“We never really knew for many years what happened to Bernie, but through my father’s testimony, a presumptive finding of death was made on him, and an investigation was done here at the site in the '90s,” said Wilber. “But I was always curious to want to know more.”

Previously known as the Joint Task Force – Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in the 1990s, DPAA formed in 2015. DPAA coordinates numerous Joint Field Activities (JFAs) annually in Vietnam, each comprising around 95 U.S. personnel alongside their Vietnamese counterparts. Together, they collaborate on investigative endeavors and excavations spanning the nation for approximately 30 days per JFA. The agency dedicated exhaustive efforts to locate Bernie, yet the case ultimately reached a standstill. Driven by an unyielding determination to uncover the truth, Wilber embarked on a journey to Vietnam in 2014.

“What inspired me was just wanting to kind of complete the picture because I thought… I just had the sense that there’s something more we could find,” said Wilber.

Through a series of painstaking interactions, he managed to locate eyewitnesses from that fateful day, despite the passage of decades. Despite some having relocated during the investigative period of the 1990s, Wilber's tenacious networking unearthed crucial leads concerning his father’s friend. After six more arduous trips, Wilber meticulously compiled a comprehensive findings package to present to DPAA. He shared the news with family and friends back home.

“I was able to communicate back to his shipmates, his squadron mates, back who made the deployment with him. I even contacted several guys who were roommates with Bernie on the USS America, and they’ve been thrilled to follow whatever news I can provide on this. It’s been very encouraging to me along the way,” said Wilber. “They’ve been very encouraging and also very satisfied hoping that we’ll find some remains but just understanding that people are searching and that he hasn’t been forgotten in this process.”

Wilber’s findings reinvigorated the case. DPAA took on Wilber’s plea and investigated Bernie’s case with a fresh set of eyes. They have since conducted multiple excavations on-site in Vietnam with the hope that one day, they’ll find Bernie and bring him home.

“It’s very emotional for me, but I can get past that, and I’m so happy to see all the work here,” said Wilber. “I’ve visited the site many times and seen where the excavation work has been done but never came across an actual working team. So, it’s a thrill. I am thrilled to be here.”

With a twinkle in his eyes, Wilber recalls his father’s friend and the hopes of his father.

“I can tell you what kind of car Bernie drove. He had a 1967 Mustang and of course he passed in 1968, but see I’ve maintained contact with his squadron mates. My father passed away after my third trip here, so he knew I found the site, he knew I found a piece of the aircraft, he knew I found all sorts of things but unfortunately he suddenly came down with stage four cancer and passed away a few weeks later,” Wilber continued, his voice tinged with nostalgia. “But he was really pleased to know they made the contact, the contact with his first captors, the contact with the person who buried Bernie’s remains. So he knew I had a good lead on what was going on and was encouraged by that.”

Since Vietnamese troops once occupied significant portions of Cambodia and Laos, where many Americans went missing during the war, the U.S. has sought cooperation from Vietnamese veterans and civilians in DPAA operations in these countries. Vietnamese veterans have played a crucial role in supporting DPAA investigation and recovery operations in Cambodia and Laos, with many participating multiple times.

“What impresses me most is not only the teamwork evident here, but also the meticulous analysis work and dedication of experts and hardworking team members that make this program so successful,” said Wilber. “These efforts have not only clarified relationships with Vietnam but have also played a pivotal role in the reconciliation process, paving the way for future cooperation. It truly is a joint effort.”

After touring the site, Wilber stopped at a small prayer altar set up by the locals to bless the land and offer prayer to the missing. He bent down, picked up, and lit an incense stick to place on the altar for offering. He then put his hands together and prayed for his father’s friend and all those still lost from the Vietnam War.

Vietnam still has approximately 1,576 missing personnel, but they are not forgotten. The soil remembers their sacrifice; the Wilber family and friends keep their memory alive; and DPAA remains steadfast in its mission. Every effort, every excavation, is a testament to the enduring commitment to bring closure to those who wait and honor the legacy of those who served. In the heart of Vietnam, amidst the echoes of history and the whispers of the fallen, the search continues. With each shovel of soil, each bucket passed down the line, and each painstakingly screened clue, DPAA personnel persevere through weather tantrums and various terrains. They are driven not only by duty but by profound empathy.

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