WASHINGTON – When Army Sgt. Glenn E. Miller was listed as missing in action after a fierce gun battle in Vietnam (search) in May 1968, his girlfriend figured he had been killed — even though there was never any proof. Thirty-seven years later, the remains of Miller, a Green Beret, and the 11 Marines who died alongside him have been identified and returned to the United States.
It's the largest group of MIAs identified from the Vietnam War, the Defense Department (search) said Tuesday. There are still 1,815 other MIAs from the war.
All the men's families have met with representatives of the Marines and Army, said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon's missing personnel office. Five of the soldiers will be buried by their families; the others will be buried as a group in Arlington National Cemetery (search) in October.
For Carol Fordahl, Miller's old girlfriend, the news brought back a flood of memories. There was the evening Miller serenaded her with his guitar from on top of her roof, the fresh cherries he mailed across the country for her birthday, the pearl ring and charm bracelet she still keeps.
"I still miss him to this day," said Fordahl of Livermore, Calif. "He was an exceptional person and a really, really good friend. I think of him often."
The last time Margaret Coplen heard from her brother, Marine Pfc. Robert Lopez of Albuquerque, N.M., was in a letter that arrived a few days after the military informed the family about what happened to him. In it, he described being able to squeeze in a bath in a river.
"He said he at least felt he was halfway clean," Coplen said. "It was in a river, so he said when he came out, he was covered with leeches. I was just crying when I had read that."
Steven Fritsch of Cromwell, Conn., said the confirmation of the death of his older brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Fritsch, was "bittersweet" for his parents.
"Now we don't have to wonder anymore," Fritsch said, adding that his brother would be buried Sunday in Cromwell. "Obviously now they have to bury their son, and who ever wants to do that? But at least they know he's not just missing, he actually died in battle."
The soldiers were killed May 9, 1968, during a 10-hour battle on a football field-sized area along the Laotian border in South Vietnam, Greer said. They were part of an artillery platoon airlifted in to support a unit that was at risk of an attack from nearby North Vietnamese forces.
In recent years, the Vietnam Veterans of America (search) and other advocates had urged officials to excavate the site to search for the soldiers' remains, said Tim Brown of Dallas, a member of the platoon.
Greer said villagers, former Vietnamese soldiers and American survivors helped investigators narrow their search to three excavations in the late 1990s before finally recovering the remains and other personal materials. Since then, they have been working to identify the remains using DNA and other forensic tools, he said.
"We really feel very fortunate that we do have some remains coming home to us, and we are welcoming him home," said Brenda Scott, the sister of Lance Cpl. Donald W. Mitchell, of Princeton, Ky., who was among the recovered MIAs.
Mitchell's father, Herman Mitchell, died in 1998 without knowing his son's fate. His mother, Marjorie Mitchell, is now 80 and "feels finally at peace," Scott said.
Mitchell's funeral is scheduled for Aug. 27, more than three dozen years after his family prepared for it. "We've had this family plot since 1968," Scott said, "with a monument ready for him to come home."
The other eight MIAs were identified as Cpl. Gerald E. King of Knoxville, Tenn.; Lance Cpls. Joseph F. Cook of Foxboro, Mass., and Raymond T. Heyne of Mason, Wis.; Pfcs. Thomas J. Blackman of Racine, Wis., Paul S. Czerwonka of Stoughton, Mass., Barry L. Hempel of Garden Grove, Calif., and William D. McGonigle, of Wichita, Kan.; and Lance Cpl. James R. Sargent, of Anawalt, W. Va.