A young pilot’s letter to a newspaper columnist started a story that ended 45 years after he was killed.
In May 1968, when Nancy’s Vietnam Mailbag first ran in the Wilmington, Delaware, Journal, I received a letter from a Captain News Michael Momcilovich Jr. in Vietnam. My column of war correspondence featured letters from Delaware soldiers, and the captain’s sense of community prompted him to write to his hometown paper, which provided complimentary subscriptions to all Delaware service members in Vietnam. I wanted the column to be a vehicle for soldiers to exchange ideas, to vent, to gripe and to meet other Delawareans serving in Vietnam. In four pages penned on May 4, Momcilovich shared his views on the war.
“You wanted to know a gripe? Well, I have one,” he wrote. “I’m an armed helicopter pilot with A Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry [1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)]. Back home we hear about the ‘Saigon warrior’ whose biggest day was the Tet Offensive. True, it was rough, but it wasn’t year round. The soldier in the field has it all year round and he gets little thanks for it.”
It would be his last letter “home.” One day after he wrote it, Momcilovich was killed in action. The envelope is postmarked May 6; his obituary ran in The News Journal on May 13.
Momcilovich, not one of the so-called Saigon warriors he had referred to in his letter, was serving up north near the Demilitarized Zone. He was taking part in Operation Delaware (the name was a coincidence), a cavalry raid into the heart of the remote A Shau Valley. Heavy fighting had begun in April, when U.S. troops and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam moved into the valley, which the Communists used as a vital corridor for transporting supplies from North Vietnam through Laos to their forces in South Vietnam and as a staging area for attacks against the coastal cities of Hue and Da Nang. American and South Vietnamese forces had not been in the A Shau Valley since the U.S. Special Forces camp there was overrun in 1966.
The 1st Cavalry Division had established fire support bases in the north and then rapidly continued air assaults south through the valley. During the first few days of May, two cavalry brigades crisscrossed the valley and uncovered well-stocked caches of tools and equipment. Based in Quang Tri as a pilot with A Troop, Momcilovich flew frequent armed visual reconnaissance missions in an AH-1G Huey Cobra, a fast attack helicopter gunship with multiple machine guns and rockets.
On May 5, the North Vietnamese began to strike back in the A Shau Valley, gradually increasing their 122mm rocket, artillery, mortar and recoilless rifle fire from the nearby border with Laos.
Momcilovich, four months shy of his 25th birthday, was on his second sortie of the day when his Cobra was hit by groundfire. He successfully brought his chopper down, south of Landing Zone Sharon a few miles inland from the South China Sea, but it was immediately consumed by fire. The captain and his co-pilot, 1st Lt. William Allen Rees, also 24, of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, unsuccessfully struggled to evacuate. Although the helicopter was destroyed, both bodies were recovered and brought home for burial.
Forty-five years later, in February 2013, I received a call that jarred me. It was from a Vietnam veteran who said he had found me on the Internet and asked for my help in finding the Momcilovich family, which he had been trying to do for more than 20 years. “I have Captain Mike Momcilovich’s military driver’s license, which was recovered from his helicopter crash site,” he said. “Can you help me find his family?”
The veteran on the phone was John W. “Bill” Melfi Jr., of Sebastian, Florida. He said he had acquired Momcilovich’s license through his ongoing friendship with a former South Vietnamese army officer, Ngoc Van Vo, whose son had found it at the helicopter crash site.
Melfi, who had enlisted in the Army and shipped out to Vietnam in 1970, met Vo during his second tour in 1971, when both men were assigned to an ARVN compound at Ba Hoa Mountain, overlooking the village of Qui Nhon on the coast about halfway between Saigon and Da Nang. Melfi, a specialist 4 in an artillery unit, manned a battery-operated Xenon searchlight at night to thwart any attempt to blow up the compound’s depot. Vo, a sergeant 1st class who had trained in Redstone, Alabama, was a munitions expert.
The two soldiers established an immediate rapport and frequently ate together at Vo’s house. After Melfi’s tour ended in January 1972, the two stayed in touch, hoping that one day Vo and his family would come to live with Melfi and start new lives in the United States.
But after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Vo was sent to a Communist reindoctrination camp. Then, with his wife and children, he was relocated to a collective farm at Long Vong in Lam Dong province. To supplement their hardscrabble existence, they had often gone on clandestine metal salvage expeditions, and in 1978 Vo’s 14-year-old son, Long, went on an operation high in the mountains of Quang Tri province near the DMZ. Long saw remnants of a barely recognizable helicopter overgrown with dense vegetation. He found no salvageable metal in the wreckage but spotted nearby a badly decomposed wallet that contained a fragmented ID. Recognizing it as Western, he gave the ID to his father. Vo wrote down the name on the U.S. military driver’s license: Michael Momcilovich Jr.
Vo hid the license from the Communists for 12 years until he and his family immigrated to the United States. To prevent the Communists from detecting the license at Ho Chi Minh International Airport in 1990, Vo had his wife, Luu, sew the fragments into the lining of his pants. After the family arrived in the United States, they lived with Melfi in southern Florida for a year. “They arrived with only five suitcases,” Melfi said, “and most of them were filled with gifts.”
Vo presented Momcilovich’s license to Melfi and told him the story of how his son found it at the crash site. “We tried to contact the proper organizations in Washington at the time, but they had no information,” Melfi recalled. Years passed and he eventually found information about Momcilovich on the Internet, but he lacked a link to the soldier’s family. He found my website and contacted me in February 2013.
I contacted the captain’s niece, Lana Momcilovich, of New Castle, Delaware, whom I had met in 2010 in order to give the family the page proofs of the letter from Michael Momcilovich Jr. that I had used in Vietnam Mailbag, my 2008 book based on the correspondence I had received for my column. Through Lana and her sister Katherine, I learned a lot about the Army captain, including that he had a daughter, Kristin, living in Nashville, Tennessee. They also gave me contact information for their father, Mark, the captain’s younger brother who lived in Bear, Delaware. I later had long phone conversations with both of them.
In March, I met Melfi and Vo in Florida and filled them in on the subject of their quest. Michael Momcilovich Jr. was the oldest of three sons of retired Army Lt. Col. Michael Momcilovich, a decorated veteran of World War II and the Korean War. Self-assured and popular, the younger Momcilovich had worked diligently throughout high school for an appointment to West Point, class of 1965. At 17 he was among the youngest cadets in his class to enter “Beast Barracks” on July 5, 1961. After graduation, he married Lynne Lawrence, whom he had met in middle school, and left for Army Ranger School and then Fort Benning, Georgia, where he trained in armored tank warfare. In 1966 he deployed to West Germany, switched to the Air Cavalry and returned stateside to attend the Army’s helicopter flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. In February 1967 Kristin was born, and that fall the first lieutenant had orders for Vietnam.
Assigned medevac duty flying the UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, Momcilovich suffered minor injuries later that year when his chopper apparently struck a tree branch that shattered its canopy. Then, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, he switched to piloting the AH-1G Huey Cobra.
Momcilovich was a respected team leader with A Troop and a valued member of the Bullwhip Squadron, as the 1st Squadron called itself. “I feel the work here is for a worthy cause,” he wrote in his letter to me on May 4. “At times it appears the South Vietnamese aren’t too sure they want to pay the price for freedom. I have seen some ARVN units withdraw from an enemy force much smaller than their own and other times I have seen ARVN units hold their own when confronted with quite formidable odds.
“With better guidance and some patience I’m sure the Vietnamese Army will come of its own just as the South Korean Army was able to do. If the people are given a chance to decide for themselves, I’m sure we’d have a staunch ally here in Southeast Asia.”
“Mike was easy to become friends with, open, warm, smiling,” fellow officer Phil Hendrix of Lakewood, Washington, posted in 2005 on Momcilovich’s memorial page on the Virtual Wall website. “I learned the teamwork that was A Troop’s legacy from Mike.”
“When [my platoon was] on the ground, it was always comforting to hear Mike’s voice on the radio, and see his face looking out of his helicopter window,” Hendrix added. “I was there to recover Mike, and it was hard to see through the tears. I lost a friend and the hero I already knew he was.”
“Eyewitnesses said they could not attempt a rescue because his full load of ammo was ‘cooking off,’” recalled Mark Momcilovich, who was just 14 when his family received the dreaded notification that forever altered their lives. His brother is buried at the West Point Cemetery at the U.S. Military Academy.
But of all the information I shared with Melfi and Vo, none was more important to them than that Michael Momcilovich had a daughter who had never known her father. Both men agreed to travel to Delaware and personally present Captain Momcilovich’s military driver’s license to her and Michael’s brother at Wilmington’s 2013 Memorial Day parade.
On May 30, 2013, at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Wilmington, Melfi and Vo, grand marshals of the city’s 146th Memorial Day Parade, finally got to tell their story and recount the long journey Momcilovich’s license had taken.
“It’s a great honor to be here today,” Melfi began. “Ngoc and I have waited a long time to finalize this long search.”
Vo, now an American citizen, added: “I thank all of you for this miracle that I never forget. Today, my duty is over.”
They turned to Kristin Momcilovich James, the captain’s only child, and presented her father’s fragmented military driver’s license to her. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation.
“I am completely overwhelmed by the courage and integrity that Ngoc and Bill have shown in order to return this piece of my father to me,” Kristin said. “I was 15 months old when he was killed, but to me my dad was always a hero. Ngoc risked his freedom and potentially his life to do what he thought was the right thing, and Bill never gave up trying to find our family.”
Mark Momcilovich, the last surviving member of his birth family, also was profoundly affected on that Memorial Day. “Ngoc and I had more than just my brother’s driver’s license in common,” he said. “We both had brothers who died for the cause of Vietnamese independence.”
Michael and Mark’s father had died in 1971. Another brother, Peter, who served in Army intelligence and helped secure the U.S. Embassy in Saigon before it fell in 1975, died in 2001. Michael’s widow, Lynne—Kristin’s mother—died in 2012.
“One of the reasons I persisted in finding the Momcilovich family was the strength of Ngoc’s commitment,” Melfi said. “He risked his life to bring that license to America.”
While of considerable consolation to the captain’s family, the honorable deed the Florida veterans performed also provided some long-needed closure of their own. “Ngoc lost his country, and I came home to name-calling and an antiwar attitude,” Melfi said. But at the Memorial Day event, “Ngoc truly felt like an American, and I was finally welcomed home.”
Michael Momcilovich Jr. and co-pilot William A. Rees were two of 187 U.S. troops killed on May 5, 1968, when U.S. forces sustained the second-highest number of casualties in a single day of the war, the highest being Jan. 31, 1968. Operation Delaware ended on May 17, 1968, after nearly two dozen UH-1 Hueys, a C-130, a CH-54 Skycrane and two CH-47 Chinooks were destroyed in combat. Several others were lost in accidents or damaged by groundfire. The 1st Cavalry Division suffered more than 130 dead and 530 wounded. Nevertheless, Operation Delaware was hailed as a success, though the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. and ARVN troops made it possible for North Vietnamese forces to quickly regain control of the A Shau Valley. In 1968, the controversial war’s deadliest year, the conflict claimed 16,899 American lives, according to the National Archives/Defense Manpower Data Center.
Nancy E. Lynch is the author of Vietnam Mailbag: Voices From the War, 1968-1972, based on nearly 900 letters to her column in The News Journal and a dozen contemporary interviews with veterans detailing how the war influenced them. For more information, go to www.VietnamMailbag.com.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.