Just before Air Force Major John O'Grady left in early 1967 to fly bombing missions in the Vietnam War, his teenage daughter Patricia told him that if he were ever lost, she would come and find him.
On Sunday, more than 45 years later, at what is believed to be O'Grady's grave on a hill overlooking a small village in Quang Binh province, Patricia O'Grady, now 59, thinks she took a big step toward making good on that promise to her father, who grew up in New Hyde Park.
In what may be the final episode of a two-decade search for her father's remains first chronicled in a Newsday series in 1993, O'Grady went to Vietnam last weekend. She met with two former North Vietnamese soldiers who said they were with O'Grady in his final hours after he was shot down during a bombing raid over then-North Vietnam on April 10, 1967.
The two men -- who said O'Grady, 37, died from apparent internal injuries just hours after they took custody of him -- buried him at a spot near the village close to the border with Laos. Both men, along with interpreters and a driver, escorted O'Grady to a trail leading to the site on Sunday, she said.
Prayer at grave
Under the apprehensive eyes of local government officials who only allowed her about 15 minutes at the presumed grave, O'Grady, one of seven siblings, said she recited a Hail Mary and tied a yellow ribbon around a sapling there. She also left a red, white and blue wreath, as well as five yellow flowers, a Buddhist tradition.
"I cried for a while," O'Grady told Newsday by telephone. "It is very sad because of all the lost years, the weddings and graduations."
The visit is her third to Vietnam. She made her first trip in the spring of 1993 with her husband, John Parsels, a former POW in North Vietnam, and then-Newsday columnist Sydney H. Schanberg, who wrote a featured series about her quest for information about the fate of her father.
O'Grady returned in December 1993, at which time she received from Vietnamese officials some personal effects of her father, including his military ID document. But the search for his remains remained elusive until the former North Vietnamese soldiers tracked her down.
U.S. officials confirmed Monday that a special team is now in Vietnam and will be going to the site in Quang Binh Province where O'Grady may be buried.
"We are going to excavate that site and hopefully do a recovery," Johnie Webb, deputy to the commander of the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, known as JPAC, said. "We will at least get an answer of whether he is there or not."
Webb said that U.S. officials permit members of families of missing servicemen to watch excavations, but not to participate. A team of about 14 U.S. personnel based in Honolulu would be at the site for about a month, Webb said. Any human remains found will go back to Hawaii for examination and possible DNA testing.
O'Grady said the focus on the site near the village Dan Hoa, also known as Y Lenh, came about from the dogged persistence and sense of responsibility of the two North Vietnamese army veterans who were with her father when he died and who buried him.
The ex-soldiers, Vo Dinh An and Nguyen Huy Thiet, took years to find O'Grady after seeing a letter from her that was published in a Vietnamese women's magazine in 1993, she said. Both men recognized her father's name after having memorized it from his dog tag, which they buried with him, O'Grady said.
For years, they tried to find someone they trusted who had family in the United States, finally getting in contact with Joseph Nguyen of Avondale, Ariz., O'Grady said. He reached out to U.S. military officials and, ultimately, O'Grady.
When she arrived Saturday in Vietnam and met the old soldiers face-to-face for the first time, O'Grady said in an email, they recounted how her father's condition worsened as they carried him on a litter. O'Grady asked for water, lost consciousness and died under a star fruit tree.
They carried him a short distance and buried him in an old bomb crater, using the star fruit tree as a reference point, she said.
Devout Buddhists, An and Thiet were committed to finding O'Grady's family.
"Buddhists believe if a person dies and is not given back to his family, his spirit haunts the earth," O'Grady explained.
O'Grady said local police wouldn't let both men pray with her on Sunday or go to site with her, and that upset them.
"I promised I would get them to the grave," O'Grady said. "I keep my promises."
A family-run website devoted to O'Grady can be viewed at http://johnogradypowmia.com.