US & World

5 decades after secret mission, wife of MIA airman still fights for answers

Ann Holland and her daughter Carolyn Gill are still trying to learn all the details of the 1968 disappearance of Air Force Tech Sergeant Mel Holland.
Ann Holland and her daughter Carolyn Gill are still trying to learn all the details of the 1968 disappearance of Air Force Tech Sergeant Mel Holland.

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It's been 48 years since Air Force Tech Sergeant Melvin Holland went missing from a mountaintop in Laos.

For each of those years, his wife Ann has been battling the U.S. government to learn the truth about what happened to him and ten other men who disappeared the same day.

"They forgot about those men. They tried to forget about those men," said Ann Holland, 76, as she spoke about the 1968 attack in Sam Neua Province, 15 miles from the North Vietnamese border.

"I wasn't about to let them," she said.

It was a Monday afternoon in March 1968 when she got the phone call at her Woodland, Washington home. The voice on the other end told her that the mountain in Laos had been overrun, and nobody knew what happened to Mel.

"I knew my life had been destroyed," Holland said. "And I had to turn around and face my eight Cub Scouts and my own five kids. And when the Cub Scouts went home, I had to fix dinner for the kids."

A lot of wives get news like that during wartime. But this was different because Holland couldn't tell anybody. When her husband disappeared, he was on a secret mission, running B-52 bombers from a radar base near the Vietnam border.

The U.S. wasn’t supposed to be conducting missions in Laos. To get around that, the Pentagon had reclassified Holland and 49 other men as civilian employees of Lockheed Aircraft Services. The government ordered Ann never to tell anybody.

"The life had gone out of me, but I couldn't say anything to my kids," Holland said. "Every day they would want to know if we got a letter from Daddy, and I’d pick up an old letter and pretend to read it."

The Pentagon told her if Mel was still alive, he could be harmed if she revealed the secret mission.  But as the months went on, her children knew something was wrong.

"Carolyn came in the kitchen," Holland said. "She was nine years old, and she looked right at me and said, 'Mama, is my Daddy dead?'"

"That was the hardest thing for me to be able to hug her and say 'no,' but things are pretty tough for Dad right now."

Eventually Ann Holland decided she needed to tell the truth, which meant she had to find out what happened on that mountain. She sued the government and learned some details of the secret mission, but the information about her husband is conflicting and incomplete.

She went public with the story in 1970, ignoring the secrecy agreement she signed when her husband left. It was difficult, especially for her daughter, Carolyn Gill.

"We lived in a very, very small town -- 15-hundred people," Gill said. "So when she went public, all of the sudden now you’ve got newspaper people, radio people, TV people showing up."

"It felt odd going to school and everybody talking about you and those poor Holland kids,'" Gill said.

To this day much of what happened on the mountain remains a mystery. The Department of Defense lists Holland as unaccounted for, but will not discuss the case. They’ve recovered remains from some of the other men on the mountain, but not Mel Holland.

These days most of the people that Ann Holland talks to about her husband’s case weren’t even born when he went missing. But she'll never forget.

So at 76 years old, she’s planning another trip to Washington, D.C., one of dozens she's taken over the past five decades to try to learn the truth.

Carolyn Gill has joined the fight, too.  And on this Memorial Day, when many families commemorate fathers lost at war, Gill just wants to know what happened to hers.

"I believe that anything is possible," Gill said. "Anything is possible."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project — a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, Southern California Public Radio, and KUOW-Seattle.