Jo Anne Shirley and husband, Rudy

Missing But Never Forgotten

It was the 36th anniversary of the day Dr. Bobby Marvin Jones’ family learned that he was missing in action. It was also the day after Thanksgiving 2008.

The blood chit arrived via Federal Express, a small, wadded up and worn piece of silk fabric bearing an image of the American flag and a message. The message was in 13 foreign languages including Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian. It was simple: “I am a citizen of the United States of America. I do not speak your language. Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter, and protection. Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people. My government will reward you.” It was stamped with a number the U.S. Air Force had assigned to Jones, 65212S.

Airmen like Air Force Major Jones zip the blood chit into the pocket of their flight jacket with the hope that if a friend of the soldier’s cause found him in distress, they would help. His sister Jo Anne Shirley had never heard of a blood chit. But the day she held this one she knew that it might be all that was ever found of her brother on the steep, luscious terrain of Southeast Asia’s Bach Ma Mountain.

Today, the 1971 MCG graduate is the only physician still MIA in Vietnam.

Major Bobby Marvin Jones, MD, brother, physician and fun

Jones was an honor graduate of the old Lanier High School in Macon, Georgia. He was at the University of Georgia when he decided he really wanted to be a physician. His next step was the Medical College of Georgia.

He was outgoing, sociable, physically active, smart and handsome, Jo Anne shares. She demurs at a question about their similarity. “He’s a lot better than me,” Shirley says, still using the present tense to talk about her brother even though she is painfully realistic about a future tense. She turns to her husband, Dr. Rudy Shirley, a friend to Jones, a fellow MCG graduate and clear fan of both siblings for his assessment. “I think your spirit was the same,” he tells her, enjoying life while embracing its meaning.

Jones and his sister were born in Macon, the children of Christine and Marvin J. Jones. He was two years her senior but they were always close. Shirley, who was two years behind Jones at MCG, knew the siblings from Macon.

When Shirley was still a freshman at MCG, Jones prodded him to finally ask his sister to a school dance. After all, the two had known each other since high school and Shirley hadn’t gotten around to it himself. Jones would stand at the front of the church with them in 1970 when the two married. When their firstborn came into the world in 1976 after Jones was declared MIA, the son became Jones’ namesake.

Jones would go to Baylor Hospital in Dallas for a general internship with the idea of maybe a future in obstetrics and gynecology. He had a low draft number so as he wrapped up that first year of graduate medical education, he thought it prudent to enlist, to serve his two years, then finish up his training.

Shirley and Jo Anne were also in Dallas for about month of the time before Jones was deployed so he could check out an otolaryngology residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Her husband would take their only car most mornings and most mornings her brother would show Jo Anne around the backroads of Dallas. “They were precious times,” sister says. When the couple returned to Dallas that next year so Shirley could pursue his training, his wife knew Dallas but had to travel the roads alone.

It was Nov. 28, 1972. Shirley was back at MCG and Jo Anne was teaching in Augusta when her parents called him with the news. He showed up at her class. She told her principal they had to go home to Macon and she didn’t know when she would be back. Her sister gut and her faith were both telling her to try to be optimistic, that good news would come and her 27-year-old brother would come home. “A few days past and a few more and Rudy had to go back to medical school and I had to go back to teaching.”

But Jo Anne promised her brother that day that she would do everything she could to bring him home.

A sister’s promise to her brother

Her strong parents went to a meeting of the National League of POW/MIA Families that first year and told their daughter they would never miss another one. She would serve on the league’s board for 18 years, as chair for 16 of those, and as its Georgia state coordinator for 35 years. She would go on four of the league’s delegations to Southeast Asia, and led one in 2007.

She is a longtime leader of the National League of Families and cofounded the Georgia Committee for POW/MIAs, Inc. Politician and honored veteran Max Cleland honored her for her work in 1994, and four years later she received the George Washington Honor Medal from The Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge. Her hometown newspaper, The Macon Telegraph, honored her as Woman of the Year that next year.

He is always on her mind. She and her husband wear his POW/MIA bracelet each day as do about 60 others that they know of. “Every morning when I put it on, I know he is in my heart, he’s on my mind and in my prayers,” sister says.

MIA on Bach Ma mountain

Jones job was not to directly fight the war but as a flight surgeon to take care of the soldiers who did. He chose as well to take care of the villagers. In fact, a colleague from all those days back reached out to Jo Anne not long ago to ensure she knew the service he had provided in those short three months he was there. The caller recalled the day a mother who showed up with a very sick baby in her arms and how Jones quite literally held onto that baby until he could go back to his mother.

That November day, he was flying in the backseat of an Fw4D fighter bomber. He and the pilot were taking some supplies from their base in Udorn, Thailand to DaNang, South Vietnam They had asked for final landing instructions for DaNang when their Phantom fighter disappeared off radar.

No one knows if they clipped the near 5,000-foot peak of Bach Ma mountain or were shot down by enemy build up in the area. Jo Anne has flown beside the mountain, which today is known for its natural beauty and wildlife, and seen the clouds that sit like icing around its top, much like the famous frostings their mother used on cakes in her bakery business when they were children.
The mountain has been excavated multiple times in the strategic search for evidence, which is how the blood chit was found hiding in plain sight in 2008.

Jones number comes home

The day the blood chit arrived, the sibling’s mother, now 102, was there and so were the Shirleys’ grown children celebrating Thanksgiving. “I think it was a message from God that we had been doing the right thing and that we just needed to keep working at it,” she says.

It was worn but clean, her brother’s number still visible, despite apparently sitting in the jungle for 36 years. Jo Anne reasons that is probably not what happened; more likely a villager had found the jacket and blood chit on her brother’s remains long ago, and when word spread of an upcoming trip to look for bone or plane fragments, or whatever could be found, the blood chit was placed in plain sight.

Five years later, on another trip to Bach Ma mountain, a few pieces of a plane were found. But nothing else really that has tied back to Jones.

She reasons as well that improving relations with Vietnam have made the searches like these easier by at least one definition. “We get remains back every week that are miraculous recoveries,” she says. And she encourages other families out there like hers with someone still MIA, to provide some of their maternal DNA to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, DNA Identification Laboratory of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, so that when remains are found, families can be found.

There are still too many families like hers out there for any of us to do nothing, she says, and likely more conflicts and more POWs and MIAs in our future.

“We have to remember the service men and women who served all of us every single day,” Jo Anne says. They protect our freedom. They protect our country. We owe them. We owe them a lot.”

As of March 29, 2019, Jones was among 28 Georgians unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. There are 82,120 American soldiers never accounted for from World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, Cold War and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Epilogue

When his friend and brother-in-law thought about Jones never coming home, he thought about what he had and what Jones would miss, like his chance to do a residency and practice medicine.

But Jones would have that by proxy. When Shirley finished his training in Texas, Dalton, Georgia was looking for an otolaryngologist and the beautiful place seemed like a good place to call home.

He needed a work partner and a friend told him about Dr. Bob Frady, a Medical University of South Carolina graduate who had trained at Emory University. “He went to Clemson, too,” says Jones and laughs. “We’ve forgiven him.”

Because there were two years missing on Frady’s CV and it turns out that he also was in the Air Force and they quickly realized the connection. Frady pulled a picture out of his wallet that Jones had taken of him and in Jones’ wallet they had found a photo that it turned out Frady had taken of him. They had shared basic training, survival school, golf, good times and friendship. They shipped out at the same time, but to different bases. “Isn’t that amazing?” says Shirley, now retired.

Honoring the fallen and missing

“There is so much sacrifice that is made when soldiers are killed in action or missing in action,” says Sheri S. Kindre, special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Atlanta. “Leaving their families, suffering, God knows what they go through. We reap the benefits of everything they do, freedom, waking up next to our family, safe because of the sacrifices they made.”

That is why the opportunity for the DEA’s Atlanta Field Division to honor Dr. Bobby Jones by pushing themselves physically during the 13th Annual Maltz Challenge March 15 was really an honor for them, she says.

The national cross fitness Maltz Challenge honors the brother of retired Special Operations Division Special Agent in Charge Derek Maltz. His brother, Air Force Master Sergeant Michael Maltz, a para rescue jumper, was killed along with five colleagues during a medical evacuation of sick Afghani children in March 2003.

 

This June, the League of POW/MIA Families celebrates its 50th anniversary. Jo Anne would appreciate memorials to her brother for the league and for the MCG scholarship that bears his name.

The league’s address is 5673 Columbia Pike, Suite 100, Falls Church, Virginia 22041 or visit pow-miafamilies.org. The MCG Foundation’s address is 720 St. Sebastian Way, Suite 150, Augusta, Georgia 30901 or mcgfoundation.org.

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