ARLINGTON, Virginia –
Gen. (Ret.) John W. Vessey, Jr., had an Army career that began prior to America’s entry into World War II, when he lied about his age to enlist in the Minnesota Army National Guard. He spent much of his career on battlefields, fighting in World War II and the Vietnam War, and commanding all U.S. forces in South Korea in the late 1970s. Vessey retired from the Army in 1985 as the 10th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after serving for more than 46 years. Following his military service, President Ronald Reagan tasked him to serve as a special envoy to Vietnam in order to account for Americans who were still missing following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Vessey passed away at his home in Minnesota, Aug. 18, at the age of 94.
In addition to accounting for Americans still missing from the war, Vessey was tasked to reunite separated families and help release former South Vietnamese leaders from prison camps, Amerasian children from Vietnam, and Vietnamese living in refugee camps in Cambodia.
Vessey diligently undertook this task that President Reagan estimated would take three months, before a government agency would take the reins. Six years later, he was still pursuing the fate of missing Americans. His work in Vietnam not only earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 awarded by President George H.W. Bush, but it also spearheaded the mission of what is now the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency.
Army Col. (Ret.) Richard Childress served with Vessey at Fort Carson five decades ago, when Vessey commanded the 4th Infantry Division. He went on, years later, to work with him on the Vietnam mission.
“John was a dedicated, mission-oriented, down-to-earth man,” said Childress. “He was a knowledgeable negotiator and was dedicated to the mission, sticking with it longer than anyone expected.”
Vessey learned every aspect of the mission in detail, taking multiple trips to Hanoi to make progress and build relationships with the Vietnamese.
“General Vessey played a pivotal role in convincing the Vietnamese to allow U.S. teams to be on the ground conducting investigations of reported loss sites alongside Vietnamese counterparts,” said Johnie Webb, deputy director for Outreach and Communications, DPAA. “Through his negotiation skills, he was able to convince the Vietnamese that it was in their best interest to cooperate with the United States in accounting for American’s lost during the war.”
Childress said one of Vessey’s greatest contributions were s the instituting of joint crash investigations between the United States and Vietnam, convincing the Vietnamese he was serious about the mission and that more regular investigations were required to bring home missing Americans.
“The mechanisms he put in place for unilateral cooperation brought more accountability,” said Childress.
“He was a Soldier’s Soldier and the Vietnamese respected him for his dedication to those who lost their lives fighting for their country,” said Webb.
DPAA conducts missions worldwide throughout the year to recover the remains of those still missing from not only the Vietnam War, but World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War. Presently, more than 82,000 Americans remain missing.
DPAA continues the mission of Fulfilling Our Nation’s Promise.