For the purposes of paperwork, U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Alan Ashall is dead.
For his family, for the veterans of Montana and for the city where he called home, Ashall is one of 16 Montanans who went missing in action or became a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He is the only one from Yellowstone County.
For years, he's occupied a limbo — neither dead nor alive for certain. On Friday, during a ceremony that will begin at Laurel High School and end up at the hill at Yellowstone National Cemetery, Ashall will have a headstone placed — a permanent marker to note his service.
Unlike other veterans in The Billings Gazette's "Vietnam Voices" series, Ashall couldn't come to the studio for a picture or interview. Yet because of the fierce devotion and dedication to Ashall's memory and his family's efforts, his letters and story have been preserved. This is his Vietnam story, told when possible in his own words — taken from letters he wrote home.
Ashall was born in 1943 in Helena and attended Billings Senior High, graduating in 1961. He went on to Montana State University.
"Alan has always wanted to fly, ever since he was a young boy," said niece Wendy Jacobson. "His first choice was to join the Air Force as a pilot, but he had a slight defect in one of his eyes, and the Air Force would not accept him into their flight school. Alan would not give up; and persevered with the Navy and was accepted into their flight school."
Reading through Ashall's early letters from MSU, his exuberance is evident as he writes his parents on a Sunday morning, just a day after returning from a trip to Spokane.
"We toured B-52 bombers, KC-135 jet tankers, and got a close look at the Atlas missile complex around Spokane. We were on Fairchild and Geiger Air Force Bases, both near Spokane. ... We were treated as officers during the whole trip. We flew in a C-123 twin engine transport from Bozeman to Fairchild and back.
"Well, I'd better close, I have to get ready for church. I haven't gone yet. I promise to write more often. Love, Al."
In Reserve Officers Training Corps, he had to battle injuries, just to prove he could make it.
May 20, 1962 — "My ankles are all right now. It barely hurts anymore. I want to make at least one more parachute jump before end of the quarter. I've got to wait till my ankle's completely OK though. Thursday, all the ROTC cadets marched downtown. I had to carry a flag. I wound up with some nice blisters. They still hurt. Well, best close. Only three more weeks."
While training for the military, Ashall can't help but notice what's going on in the world and how it might affect him. In the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he sends a letter home, dated down to the time.
October 23, 1962, Tuesday, 4:10 p.m. -- "First, you probably know all about the political situation. I've been keeping a very close take on it. I pray to God we don't have a nuclear war. If a major war does break out, I'm going to enlist. So are all the guys. We're all pretty shook up. If war begins, I guess our lives will be changed. Everybody including me feels his obligation to his country though. May God protect us.
"Oh well, it'll probably blow over. I hope so anyway. I'm following the situation with grave attention. Well, I've run out of things to say except that I love you both and I pray for you. Really, I do. I pray there's no war. Write when you can. My love, Your son, Alan."
Three years later, nearly ready to graduate and go into the Navy, a letter home turns prescient.
January 12, 1965, Thursday — "The crisis in Viet Nam has me worried. I have a hunch we're in for another Korea. I hope not, but all indications show that we are. I'm only too glad I'm not a foot soldier. The method they have of fighting war over there is certainly not pleasant."
Being accepted into the Navy's flight program after being denied by the Air Force has Ashall both thrilled and nervous.
March 7, 1965, Sunday — "Dear Mom, I'm sorry I'm a little late writing, but I've been rather busy this past week. The Navy flight team from Seattle was here, and I talked to them for a while. The more I think about it, the more I'm glad I signed up for the program. It sounds like a very exciting and rewarding job. I hope I can 'cut the mustard' so to speak."
A few months later, Ashall is having a hard time adjusting to basic training and military life in Pensacola, Fla.
September 27, 1965, Wednesday — "Well, another week has gone by, and I'm still alive. Sometimes I think I'm barely making it, but I'm still going. ... We attend classes concerning naval aviation, swimming classes, in which I am having a tough time and have inspection continually. I don't know if I'm sure that I like the military. I guess maybe I'm a civilian at heart. I hope I'll be able to make it through, cause if I don't, I'll spend two years enlisted.
"The weather has turned lousy down here. It's cold, very wet and rainy. A tropical storm warning was given last night, and we're in the midst of it now. My trousers are soaked as are my boots as I sit here in a study period writing this letter. I guess I should have gone to law school. Oh well, I can try my darndest to like this, but somehow I just don't seem to. Maybe my feelings will change in the near future."
It took nearly 18 months for training. Ashall qualified on the A6 Intruder jet. In the meantime, he was making plans for a wedding.
18 April 1967 — Wednesday, "I get four days free time between squadrons. I check into 75 on Friday. I am now qualified on the A6.
"They tried to change my orders about a month ago to a squadron that deploys in early June. The Bureau in D.C., was the instigating authority, and I went straight to the Skipper and told him about my wedding plans. A few phone calls and a letter later and my original orders were confirmed. Al wins again! Ha!"
Three weeks later, he was at sea, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
6 May 1967, Saturday evening — "I arrived in the Philippines Wednesday night and check aboard on Thursday. We sailed this morning. I flew aboard in an A6 this afternoon. The ship was about a hundred miles at sea when we took off from the Naval Air Station. It's real smooth to land on.
" ... Mom, please don't worry. This is a short period at sea. I'll be back before you know it. I'm confident I can do my job safely and professionally."
Several days later, Ashall was in the Gulf of Tonkin.
9 May, 1967, Tuesday afternoon — "I flew my first combat mission today. I dropped 6 tons of bombs on target. No sweat. The catapult shot was easy, and everything went pretty good on the mission.
"It's spring in North Vietnam, and everything's turning green. The country really looks beautiful! The water is deep blue and the islands in it look almost like tropical paradises."
It didn't take long for the missions to become more challenging. A couple weeks later, Ashall writes his parents again.
25 May, 1967, Cubi Point, Philippines — "... I've been nominated for the Distinguished Flying Cross. I don't know if I'll get it or not. I went to Hanoi twice and Haiphong once. They really shoot at you there. Saw lots of missiles go by. Well, I'll close. Thanks again for the money. I'll write again in Japan. Love, Your Son, Al"
Just four days after signing off on that letter, a freak electrical accident on the USS Forrestal set fire to the aircraft carrier whose pilots included Vietnam War hero and future U.S. Sen. John McCain. The Forrestal was in the Gulf of Tonkin. The disaster claimed the lives of 134 and injured 161.
Monday, 31 July 1967 — "The Forrestal tragedy really has upset me. I have many friends on that ship. I hope they're OK."
Just a few days before his 25th birthday, Ashall writes his parents again. He's back in the Gulf of Tonkin. His thoughts are about his mission, politics and his wife.
3 June 1968, Gulf of Tonkin — "Dear Mom and Dad, Well here I am, at long last. Your terrible correspondent son is finally writing.
" ... Well, so far, the cruise has been fairly uneventful. We did lose a couple of A7s, but recovered both pilots. Rio was beautiful for the 2.5 days we were there, April 27 through April 30. I took lots of pictures. It has the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen.
" ... We arrived on the line on May 31 and since I've flown two combat hops. No sweat now with the bombing restrictions. It's not anywhere as dangerous as last year.
" ... I had to get up at 3 a.m., this morning. I caught a few hours' sleep this afternoon, though. I don't know what the results of the "peace talks" will be, but I hope we don't go back North for the next few months. I know you do too.
"As far as my birthday, your love is all I need. I know I have it as you both have mine.
"Mom, I think I married the most wonderful girl in the world. I really do adore her.
" ... Well, I must close. I'll write again soon, I promise. I hope you are both in the best of health. I am. Take care and don't worry. 'Piece of Cake.'
A few months later, he'd detail his missions, characterizing them as routine — almost normal.
12 July 1968 — "Well your terrible letter writing son is finally breaking down and writing. Honest, I think what I need is a good yardstick. Might just be the solution
"Really though, it's pretty much routine around here. ... So far, I've flown 25 combat missions this year. As I mentioned previously they're not as dangerous as last year. The squadron hasn't had any aircraft hit at all.
" ... I bought a movie camera, and I've been busy taking pictures that one day you may get a chance to see. Vietnam is beautiful in many areas. It sure is a shame it has to be ravaged by war. We still fly all air missions in the North so I really haven't seen much of the country below the (demilitarized zone). After the completion of a bombing raid in the day you can cruise off the coast clear to the DMZ about 3 miles off shore with no negligible danger and sight see. Our daylight hops are mainly concerned with cutting up roads and ferry crossings. At night, we use the system to find moving trucks and bomb them. We've been quite successful at this. It's not uncommon to destroy five trucks per flight. We're the first A6 squadron to employ this type of mission so heavily. I'm sure Uncle Ho dislikes us for it.
"Your ten dollars arrived here for my birthday O.K. Thank you very much."
That was Ashall's last known letter home to his parents. In the early morning of Aug. 29, 1968, he was the bombardier on the two-man flight team in the A6, along with pilot Robert Duncan at the helm. They took off from the USS America.
The flight encountered some radio problems. He was told to switch frequencies. The garbled communication was either, "I got a missile" or "I shot a missile."
They were never heard from again. Their plane or wreckage has not been found. Ashall and Duncan officially became missing in action.
Ashall would remain officially MIA for a decade.
His mother, Gladys Ashall, would become a one-woman dynamo and advocate for her son's cause, using the Freedom of Information Act to glean whatever scraps of intelligence she could about him. She would fight for his memory, wait for information.
In 1973, on the first Memorial Day since the withdrawal of troops, she told Gazette reporter Roger Clawson, "He is simply missing — missing and forgotten."
That would be the first of many days she would have to wonder about her son.
"I have a very strong feeling that there are men still alive in Vietnam and Laos," she said in 1973. "Very little was done (by the peace seekers) to determine the status or grave locations of the MIAs.
"Our government seemed willing to sacrifice them for a peace that is not a peace."
Ultimately, her fight with the Navy to keep them from changing her son's record to "deceased" was lost in 1978.
Gladys Ashall wouldn't live long enough to learn that Russians who were working with the Viet Cong, providing support through surface-to-air missiles, have identified a location where the crash might have been. Jacobson has provided her DNA, in case remains are ever found there.
Instead, Ashall continued to believe her son was living — a prisoner — somewhere.
During the Christmas holidays in 1970, Ashall was told she could send a Christmas letter to the North Vietnamese government — no gifts though. So she addressed it to the "Camp of Detention of U.S. Pilots, Captured in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Care of Hanoi Post Office."
"Dearest Son, As Christmas again draws near our thoughts, prayers and hopes are with you. May we someday be reunited again.
"We sent you a form letter not too long ago, but were not allowed to send you a gift. May God or the god of your captors grant that you will receive this and that they will permit you to answer at least once.
"Night and day you are in our thoughts and prayers."
For Gladys Ashall, that meant 11,861 days and nights filled with thoughts and prayers until she died, Feb. 19, 2001.
Still missing, as Gladys Ashall said in 1973.
But on Friday, no longer forgotten.