Fifty years ago, the Vietnam War came to an end and the first prisoners of war (POWs) came home, including Coronadans Captain James B. Stockdale; Captain Harry T. Jenkins, Jr.; Captain Ernest M. Moore, Jr.; Commander Edward H. Martin; Commander William R. Stark; and Commander Brian D. Woods. For Coronado, a tight-knit military community, this ended years of tragedy and torment. However, the pain continued as many more men did not return home.
One of those men who did not return was Air Force Maj. Art Mearns. On November 11, 1966, Mearns was the pilot of the lead aircraft in a flight of four F-105 Thunderchiefs (nicknamed Thuds). He was badly hit by enemy fire but ejected safely and his parachute opened, but that was the last anyone saw of Mearns. He was listed as missing in action (MIA). A few years later he was promoted to Colonel in absentia.
With her husband officially listed as MIA, Mary Ann (Pat) Mearns swung into action. She worked tirelessly with other wives and families to get information about missing men. “I guess I was a pretty determined young lady at the time. I was very naïve but determined. I wasn’t getting answers from anybody. There was so much chaos about the whole Vietnam War and all the things that were going on. I came home from Japan and was living at my folks’ house, when I decided to get an apartment. Then I decided to come visit down here in Coronado because I heard about a woman named Sybil Stockdale. I went to lunch with her at the Del. I called and talked to her often, but I lived in LA and this was before the time of computers and cellphones. She had a very busy life with her Prisoner of War (POW) drive and I was focused on the MIAs. I didn’t know if my husband was alive or dead and she knew her husband was alive. And that makes a difference. I wrote a letter to all the Congressmen and Senators, sent them out, and got appointments. When we met with President Nixon, they talked about POWs and Mrs. Stockdale was prominent in that discussion. I had to speak up and talk about the missing men.”
Mearns later became one of the first people associated with the POW and MIA organizations to insist the government actively pursue the return of the captives. She added, “I worked with the Red Cross a lot. The Geneva Convention was signed by the North Vietnamese and they were supposed to provide names of men alive or dead. Art was shot down in an area where a lot of people lived. I knew somebody would know about him. When I buttonholed some of the Congressmen, I knew what to tell them. I was a civilian and nobody was paying attention.” Mrs. Mearns became the face of many, many women who were never acknowledged during this time of uncertainty and pain. Her picture appeared in Life magazine with those of her children and she attended the Paris Peace Talks.
The work of the women eventually pressured the Department of Defense into establishing the Central Identification Laboratory in Thailand in 1973 to recover the remains of American soldiers from the Vietnam War. After years of advocacy work, Mrs. Mearns learned that Colonel Mearns was killed on impact. Even after this discovery, it took eleven years to receive official notice of his death. Despite the 50 years that have passed since the end of the Vietnam War, nearly 1,600 Americans still remain unaccounted for. The Central Identification Laboratory grew into what is now called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). The organization’s efforts have expanded to search for remains of all Americans who were lost in any war or conflict, but the organization continues to work to find remaining MIAs from the Vietnam War.
The Coronado Historical Association in partnership with the Coronado Public Library and the Coronado Arts Commission will host an author talk for the new book Unwavering: The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man is Left Behind, which features Pat Mearns and other MIA wives’ stories. The program will be held on May 18 at 7 pm at the Coronado Performing Arts Center auditorium at the Coronado High School. The event is free and open to the public, but reserved seats are available with an advanced purchase of the book at www.coronadohistory.org.