GRACE, JAMES WILLIAM
Name: James William Grace Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force Unit: Date of Birth: 20 December 1939 Home City of Record: New Iberia LA Date of Loss: 14 June 1969 Country of Loss: Laos Loss Coordinates: 164300N 1060000E (XD105644) Status (in 1973): Missing In Action Category: 2 Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F4D Refno: 1455 Other Personnel In Incident: First Lieutenant Wayne J. Karas, rescued.
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 01 April 1990 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK 2009.
SYNOPSIS: Air Force Capt. James W. Grace was the pilot of an F4D Phantom fighter/bomber. The aircraft was one of the most advanced of its kind for the time. Its computers controlled navigation and enabled precise television and laser-guided bombing. Its speed topped Mach 2. Many pilots envied Grace's job.
Jim Grace once told a friend that if he were ever shot down, captured and held for several years, he would start a new life rather than disrupt his family if he learned his wife had remarried.
Shortly afterward, on June 14, 1969, Grace was flying a mission over Laos when his plane went down about 10 miles west of Muang Xepone (Sepone), Laos. His backseater, who would have been the first to eject, is not missing, so it is assumed he was rescued safely.
Government documents show Grace's "last known location" in Laos 40 miles away from the spot where he was shot down and where colleagues tried to rescue him, an attempt the government says killed Capt. Grace when he fell from the helicopter hoist lifting him out of the jungle. When pressed, the Pentagon reinterpreted its geographical data to bring Capt. Grace back to a latitude and longitude closer to the crash site.
Throughout the early years Jim was missing, his wife, Lillian, sifted through government statements about her husband, attempting to sort out what happened and what the chances were that he survived. One document says "the possibility definitely exists that he could be alive," an assessment made after witnesses claimed to have seen Capt. Grace fall 300 feet to 500 feet from the helicopter hoist.
Someone must have agreed with that assessment, because Capt. Grace, who had been classified Missing in Action (rather than Killed/Body Not Recovered), wasn't declared dead for seven years.
Three years after he was shot down, Mrs. Bickel discovered "Photograph No. 77" in a government "mug book" of unidentified Americans held captive in North Vietnam or Laos. She thought the man in the photograph was her husband. The photo had been taken in North Vietnam by a Soviet film crew. The US government gently replied that three other families claimed the man in the photograph was their relative and that no positive identification could be made. Mrs. Bickel didn't agree and found two witnesses who also said the man in the photo was James Grace. She believed the photographs proved that her husband had been taken prsoner. The Pentagon denied her claim.
But the paper trail doesn't end there. An Air Force form dated November 1, 1972, shows that Capt. Grace's medical and personnel records were ordered transmitted to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi in anticipation of his eventual return. This document lists him as a "repatriated MIA." Air Force officials claim to have prepared more than 1,000 such documents for returning MIAs and POWs. If so, the preparation of those forms may indicate, as Mrs. Bickel says, that the government fully expected those men, including Capt. Grace, to return. Jim Grace did not return in the general prisoner release in 1973. In fact, even though the Pathet Lao stated publicly that they held "tens of tens" of American prisoners, not one of these men were released -- or negotiated for.
Lillian Grace, after many years of hard work and disappointment in trying to solve the mystery of her husband's disappearance, remarried and started a new life.
Then on June 14, 1982, Lillian Grace Bickel received a postcard from Hawaii. It was blank except for the postmark, the typewritten address and the inscription referring to the photograph on the front: "After years of dormancy, the volcano Mauna Loa comes to life."
When Mrs. Bickel turned the card over, she "started shaking and went into shock. In the blue sky over the volcano, someone had printed the tiny initials "JMJ." Lillian and Jim, who were childhood sweethearts, used to write the letters "JMJ" on test papers for good luck. JMJ stood for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Lillian stopped the practice after the eighth grade, but not Jim. The three letters "were of such a personalized nature that only I would have recognized the significance," Lillian said. She believes Grace, either himself or through an intermediary, was telling her he was alive. The card postmarked on the 13th anniversary of Jim Grace's shootdown.
Lillian Bickel, although remarried, never gave up the search for her first husband. She says, "If he's alive, I want to make contact with him. He has two very fine children" and "it would make their lives complete" if they could meet their father.
In early 1990, Lillian Bickel sought action through a new congressional inquiry initiated by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. The old photos she believed were Jim Grace were given to a noted Colorado forensic anthropologist, Dr. Michael Charney, for comparison with other photographs of Grace.
Dr. Charney not only said the man in photo No. 77 is James Grace, but also states that the man could not have been any of the men the other three families claimed he was. Charney pointed to Capt. Grace's receding hairline, a characteristic of male-pattern baldness. Other witnesses recognized Capt. Grace's hairline, posture, the shape of his nose and his flight-suit sleeves -- pushed up on his forearms, a Jim Grace trademark.
Confronted with these witnesses, the Defense Intelligence Agency changed the date on which the photograph was said to have been taken. DIA's story is that the man in the photograph couldn't be Capt. Grace because the photo was lifted from a communist propagenda film made before he was shot down, then given to the Defense Intelligence Agency six weeks later, after Capt. Grace went down. If so, why didn't the government officials know this when they obtained the film nearly 20 years ago? Why was the film dated incorrectly in the DIA's "mug book"?
Today, contrary to witness reports that state Grace could have survived, Government officials insist that Capt. Grace was killed in the rescue attempt. "I can get you up in a helicopter to 300 feet and let you step out," one Defense Department official confidently says. Mrs. Bickel concludes that the man on the hoist may not have been her husband.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Bickel's frustrating case is not isolated or unusual. Many other POW/MIA cases have much in common: documents and eyewitness accounts that reveal information about missing servicemen the government has been keeping from family members. Although a government commission chaired by former DIA chief Lt.Gen. Eugene Tighe reported in 1986 that a large volume of evidence points to the likelihood that Americans are being held against their will in Vietnam, the Pentagon so far seems to have been mightily unimpressed by such people as Mrs. Bickel.
The fate of Capt. James Grace may never be known, but the nagging question remains: What happened? And if Lillian Bickel's questions are hopelessly naive or out of line, why can't she get straight answers to them? And if men are alive, why are we not bringing them home?
BY MARY CATHARINE MARTIN
Forty years after New Iberia native and Air Force pilot James W. Grace was shot down over a jungle in Laos, the mystery surrounding his disappearance remains.
Maj. Grace, then a captain, was an F-4D Aircraft Commander and Forward Air Controller who flew more than 90 missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He was lauded for his “superior performance,” “outstanding leadership” and for being “exceptionally cool and calm at all times regardless of the severity of the environment,” according to an Air Force evaluation.
But on June 14, 1969, Grace disappeared.
The official story, according to The (New Orleans) Times Picayune, the POW Network, family and friends, runs like this: Grace was shot down over the jungle. He and Lt. Wayne J. Karas parachuted to safety; Grace, however, landed in a dense area that made rescue difficult.
When a rescue crew swooped in to haul him to safety, he fell from the hoist dangling from the aircraft when he was only 10 or 15 feet from safety, but 500 feet in the air.
According to Department of Defense records, Grace is one of 24 Vietnam War POWs from Louisiana listed as unaccounted for. He is one of 12 listed as “presumed dead.”
In 1975, his wife, now Lillian Bickel, asked for the declaration so she could remarry.
Bickel, however, said some of Grace’s friends later heard a story different than the official one from members of the helicopter crew.
“The other story (from crew members) is when they were lowering the hoist, they damaged the back rotor blade, aborted the rescue and left him on the ground to save their crew,” she said.
Over the years, the official story has been clouded by other factors.
Bickel and some of Grace’s best friends, also fighter pilots, identified a prisoner in a Soviet propaganda film as Grace, and in the early 1990s more than 50 people in New Iberia signed affidavits attesting to it.
Shortly after Bickel returned home to Colorado, however, the pictures, the affidavits and the film were stolen, she said she believes by the CIA. Another man was later identified by the government as the one in the film.
Bickel met with the man, a repatriated POW for whom the military was a career. He told her he was not captured the way the film depicted it, but would not contradict the Defense Intelligence Agency.
According to the POW Network, an Air Force form from Nov. 1, 1972, shows Grace’s medical and personnel records were ordered transmitted to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, “in anticipation of his eventual return,” listing him as a “repatriated MIA,” according to The Times Picayune.
He was not, however, one of 587 American prisoners released by North Vietnam in 1973.
Also, in 1982 Bickel received a postcard from Hawaii with a picture of the volcano Mauna Lau. Printed on the address side was the message “After years of dormancy, the volcano Mauna Lau comes to life.”
It was postmarked June 14. At the bottom, where a sender might have signed their name, were the initials “JW” in her husband’s handwriting.
What most made her believe the postcard was from Grace, however, was that at the top of the volcano — in very small printed letters — were the letters “JMJ.”
Soon after they met, when they were only in the eighth grade, Grace asked Bickel why she wrote “JMJ” at the top of all her papers. It stood for “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” and she did it for good luck, she told him.
He began to put the initials on his papers, too — and he continued to do so all through high school and college. No one else, Bickel said, would have known about that.
In more recent years, the military examined the “incident site,” finding the personally engraved wedding ring Bickel gave Grace at age 19, a cigarette lighter and a piece of a boot.
After 40 years fraught with questions, however, those discoveries provoke more.
“How did they get the wedding ring? Was he not flying with it that day?” Bickel said. “It’s kind of weird that a wedding ring would show up. If there was a dead body, the villagers would have showed up and taken everything of value.”
The investigation found no bones, no teeth, and “nothing that they could use for DNA to prove that he was actually dead,” Bickel said.
Bickel believes once the government declared all POWs had been returned, it repressed information to the contrary.
“It’s a deep black hole in the government,” she said.
On the 25th anniversary of Grace’s disappearance, childhood friend of the couple Fern Waguespack started the “Major James Grace Aim High Award” for college-bound New Iberia Senior High seniors, funded entirely by contributions from family and friends. This year, the $2,000 award went to NISH senior James Picheloup III.
The scholarship, she said, is “the way we keep his memory alive.”
“We have young people today who are somewhat in the same situation in the military with things going on overseas,” she said.
“We do it to let them know it’s an honorable thing — that other people have made sacrifices as well.
“It’s just such an unanswered mystery. It’s one of those things we hope in the next life we’ll find out what happened and be reunited.”
When Grace disappeared, the couple’s children, Guy William Grace and Trina Elizabeth Grace, were ages 4 and 3.
Grace would be turning 70 years old this year, said Bickel.
“We live for the day, my children and I, that there will be some closure and a bonafide accounting for Maj. James Grace,” she said.