A New Ray of Hope Means More Anguish for the Family of a Navy Flier Downed in Vietnam

updated 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In a sense, time stopped for Jere and Ruth Doyle on Aug. 25, 1972, when their son Michael, a Navy pilot, was shot down over North Vietnam. Their unflagging efforts since then having failed to resolve fully the question of whether Michael is dead or alive, they live in limbo, unable either to rejoice or mourn. "I think of Mike every morning when I get up," Jere, 65, a retired FBI agent, says. "I try to keep busy with other things, but I find myself getting frustrated and irritated."

For the Doyles and for the families of the 2,450 other Vietnam servicemen still listed as missing in action or otherwise unaccounted for, the tension was heightened late last month when a senior aide in the Reagan Administration tantalizingly said that the government "has information in its possession that precludes ruling out the possibility that live Americans are being held captive in Indochina." Behind that artfully hedged, not-for-attribution statement, which could have been politically calculated, lay reports of what the official called "wide sightings of U.S. POWs in both Laos and Vietnam as late as this year." If the reports prove true, the official hinted, the U.S. would spare no effort to retrieve the men, and "that could include everything from bribery to black helicopters in the night."

The Doyles, like other parents in their position, have heard this sort of thing before. In their house in the tree-lined Overbrook section of Philadelphia, Jere reacted cautiously. "I try to stay off the roller coaster," he said. "I don't let myself get too high when I hear that the government thinks men are still alive. Because if I don't get too high, I won't get too low."

Indeed, accounts of live prisoners being sighted are nothing new, and in fact prompted former Green Beret James G. "Bo" Gritz's abortive rescue missions into Laos in the past year. The Defense Department has received almost 500 sighting reports since the U.S. pullout in 1975, including "50 to 60 reports this year, and 20 this month," according to a Pentagon spokesman, Bob Shields. However, Shields is quick to note that "none of the reports we've gotten in '83 pertain to sightings in '83," but date back to earlier years.

The possibility that POWs/ MIAs are alive is sure to be a renewed topic of conversation at the annual meeting in Arlington, Va. this week of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Though Ruth Doyle, 66, has been weakened by two heart attacks, she and Jere will attend the convention, as they have every summer since Mike's F-4B Phantom was felled by a surface-to-air missile just south of Hanoi.

The Doyles' faith rests on a few clues painstakingly gathered over the years. For the first four months after his downing, Mike, a lieutenant commander then 29, was classified as MIA. But just before Christmas 1972, the Navy "told us that he had been reclassified as a POW," says Ruth. "In other words, he was alive. It was the best Christmas present we could have gotten."

Several weeks later, though, while scanning a list of released POWs, Jere spotted the name of Mike's radar intercept officer, Lt. Jack Ensch, but not that of Mike himself. Ensch told the Doyles he never saw Mike after the plane was struck, but he says of the Vietnamese, "The lying bastards are not being straight with us. They got me and obviously they had to have him, too, or his remains."

Drawing on his FBI training, Jere began to dig. He came up with three scraps of evidence that suggested Mike had, in fact, come down alive in enemy territory: Mike's distinctive helmet had been spotted in a pile of captured flying gear in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" prison camp; his name and those of nine others—three of whom were later returned alive to the U.S.—had been scratched onto the wall of a pre-interrogation holding cell; and Mike's hand-operated radio beacon was still sending signals 10 minutes after he ejected from his battered plane.

On Feb. 29, 1980 the Navy reclassified Doyle as missing and presumed killed in action. Lacking a government explanation for the change in Mike's status—Jere describes the family's connection with the Navy as a "polite adversary relationship"—the Doyles flew to the Defense Department's Joint Casualty Resolution Center in Hawaii, where a sympathetic officer left them unattended in a document room. There they discovered their son's name still on a list of POWs—and presumably still alive somewhere.

For the Doyles, the contradictory government classifications spell confusion—and hope. "If we get Mike's remains," Jere says, "we'll have to accept that. But we don't have to accept anything right now."

From Our Partners