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Long journey home

By Staff | Feb 2, 2009

Sgt. Cecil Tucker and his dog tag that was lost in Vietnam over 40 years ago. Photo by Ron Agnir/Journal.

HARPERS FERRY – Buried for more than 40 years amidst the rubble of an abandoned U.S. Marine Corps fire base in Vietnam, 61-year-old Sgt. Cecil Tucker’s dog tag seemed lost forever to history.

A member of the 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division – an artillery battalion – Tucker lost the dog tag during the daily enemy artillery bombardment while he was stationed in Khe Sanh.

The lost dog tag was likely later buried along with the base itself, when the Marines left the installation and tried to wipe it off the map using 500-pound bombs. The thought of anyone ever finding, let alone recovering, the lost dog tag seemed impossible – or so Tucker thought.

Last month, Tucker received a phone call from halfway around the world. On the other line was 34-year-old Jon Nizan, an Israeli who had searched for Tucker for months.

“He called me one Sunday morning and he said ‘I think I’ve got something that you might like to have’,” Tucker said. “The first thing he asked me was ‘were you on a fire base in Khe Sanh?’ and I said ‘yes sir, that was a long time ago’.”

Members of the 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, Tango Battery — an artillery unit — load a 155 mm Howitzer artillery cannon in Qurang Tree, Vietnam, in 1968. Submitted photo.

It was then that Tucker learned Nizan had found his dog tag while visiting Vietnam. Amazed at what he had just heard, Tucker asked the man on the other end of the phone if there was a service number engraved on the dog tag.

“2350267 – I memorized that ever since I came out of boot camp. … I still never forgot it. It’s remarkable,” Tucker said.

The story of how Nizan, a native of Cleveland, found Tucker’s long lost dog tag began last year. Nizan moved to Israel in 2000 and now lives in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel-Aviv. He and his wife traveled to Vietnam for a vacation in the summer of 2008. It had been Nizan’s dream since he was a child to travel to Vietnam. When they first arrived, Nizan noticed dog tags were being sold at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

“I thought the whole thing was a bit disturbing – them selling dog tags of possibly fallen U.S. servicemen as tourist trinkets. At the same time I was a bit curious,” he said.

He decided not to buy any dog tags in Saigon, but a few weeks later he visited Khe Sanh. The situation seemed less “touristy” there, Nizan said, because there were no other Westerners around. While he was there, he met a local man who was selling wartime relics that he had found with a metal detector. The artifacts included spent shell casings, uniform pins, bullets and a few rusty dog tags – some of them illegible.

“At that point I decided to help the guy out, and decided that maybe I could track down either the previous owner or, at least, the family of the previous owner and return it,” Nizan said.

When Nizan returned to Israel he began searching for Tucker. It was a search that would take him more than two months, he said. He began surfing the Web, first looking to see if Tucker was killed in action. He then began scouring Web sites for Vietnam veterans and used general search sites.

“I posted a few notices on some sites asking if anyone knew a Cecil Tucker who served around Khe Sanh. I got no response, except for a guy who said that the tag was probably a fake,” Nizan said.

The selling of fake dog tags to tourists had become a cottage industry in Vietnam, Nizan learned. He didn’t let that deter him from his search and he continued on and off to search for Tucker. He tried cold-calling a few Cecil Tuckers spread out around the country, but got nowhere. With no leads, Nizan gave up his search for a while, when one day, out of the blue, he received an e-mail from a man who also bought a dog tag and managed to track down the owner.

“He had done some searches and found two Cecil Tuckers who he thought were good candidates,” Nizan said.

Nizan called one of them and discovered the man was one of Tucker’s relatives. He in turn gave Nizan the phone number to one of Tucker’s good friends. That man then provided Nizan with Tucker’s phone number.

“I had all but given up on the search when this guy e-mailed me. The whole idea that I could find a tag in the middle of the jungle in Asia, track down the guy who lost it 40 years ago from the other side of the world and return it to him is simply amazing,” Nizan said. “You have to marvel at what the Internet is capable of.”

Tucker offered to pay Nizan for the man’s time and trouble, but Nizan refused, saying he wanted Tucker to have the dog tag back. It belonged to him, he said. Last week, nearly a month after Tucker received the phone call, a business-size envelope with postage from Tel-Aviv and the message “do not bend” written in two languages on the back arrived in Tucker’s mailbox.

“Just as soon as I looked at it, I said ‘I can’t believe it. Here it is’,” Tucker said.

Inside he found his long lost dog tag, slightly malformed with a little rust and small, black blotches like axle grease on old chrome. Tucker’s name and service number are still clearly visible, as well as traces of the dark orange dirt of Khe Sanh. Just looking at the dirt and the faded color of the dog tag told Tucker it was authentic.

“There’s nothing fake about it because of that old dirt. There’s no dirt around here to describe that dirt. It was just that dark. I was just like orange, the dirt, because of being torn up so much over there,” Tucker said.

The black scorch marks are from napalm dropped from U.S. planes, he said. Sometimes they dropped the napalm so close he could feel the immense heat from incendiary weapons on his skin, he added.

Simply gazing at the dog tag opened up a wellspring of memories from Tucker’s two tours of duty in Vietnam, he said.

Tucker joined the Marine Corps at age 19 in November 1966. A member of Platoon 322, Tucker graduated from boot camp in February 1967. He arrived in Dan Nang on Aug. 13, 1967, and from there went to Camp Evans. During his two tours, he served in 48 operations. He spent nearly half a year at the Marine Corps fire base in Khe Sanh, were he was among the servicemen who operated 155 mm howitzer artillery cannons.

The immense guns weighed 26,000 pounds and had a range of about 13 miles – 19 if they were new. A full gun crew consisted of 13 men, though most of the time, Tucker said, they were just eight, sometimes six, men to each gun. Each artillery round fired from the guns weighed 98 pounds and took two men to load.

“Up there in Khe Sanh it was a hot fire base. We got hit every day up there. They’d wake us up in the morning and they’d put us to bed at night. There wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t get hit,” Tucker said.

Enemy units had entrenched artillery positions dug into tunnels in the nearby mountains, which were protected by 2-foot thick steel doors.

Nizan’s determined search reminded Tucker of his own journey in tracking down servicemen he served with in Vietnam. One man used to live in Baltimore. They had reunited 25 years ago, but Tucker lost track of him. With the help of his son, who is also a veteran, Tucker managed to find the man last year via the Internet and has since met up with him four times.

It took Tucker 17 years to track down another good friend, John Bruce, who moved from Kansas to Colorado after the war. Tucker and his wife went on a road trip two years ago for a reunion with Bruce.

“We’ve got a lot of good memories between us. I wouldn’t trade them for nothing,” Tucker said.

Now, thanks to Nizan’s efforts, Tucker has something forever linking his memories to those he served with in Vietnam.

“It’s just amazing, especially for him to take the time out to find me. He never gave up. I want to thank him for never giving up,” Tucker said.

Today, Tucker is member of the Harpers Ferry-Bolivar District Veterans organization where he serves as chaplain. The group maintains veterans’ cemeteries, provides military funeral services and other volunteer services for local veterans.

Nancy, his wife of nearly seven years, said it’s amazing that after 40 years, her husband’s dog tag still survived, and she thanked Nizan for devoting so much time to find her husband.

“He wanted him to have it back. It’s very special to my husband and I just think it’s absolutely amazing,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for a human being to do for another.”

Nizan said it felt great to finally be able to return Tucker’s dog tag back to him.

“It allows him to reconnect with something from his past, giving him something to pass on to his kids and gives both of us a great story to tell,” Nizan said. “The whole process was very fulfilling.”

– Edward Marshall can be reached at (304) 725-6581, or emarshall@journal-news.net