PITTSTON, Pa. — Ed "Zimmo" Zimmerman Thursday returned from Vietnam for the third — and hopefully — last time.
Zimmerman served with the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, having spent 13 months "in country" and participating in some 26 battles during a 13-month tour in 1968-69.
In 2014, he guided a group of U.S. Military personnel to the exact spot where he last saw two fallen Marines after the 73-day siege at Khe Sanh in April, 1968. Those two Marines — Pfc. Anthony John (Tony) Pepper, 20, of Richmond, Virginia, and Cpl. James Mitchell Trimble, 19, of Eureka, California — were never recovered and never returned home to their families.
On Thursday, Zimmerman again returned from Vietnam to a waiting crowd of family and friends after helping a U.S. Military Search Team locate the site where the Marines were left behind.
Zimmerman said he had no problem directing the U.S. government's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, search team to the exact spot where he last saw Pepper and Trimble. The search team will now begin excavating the site for up to 30 days to locate the remains of the two soldiers.
"They want to find them as much as I do," Zimmerman said of the search team members. "They'll do whatever it takes."
The 67-year-old Bear Creek resident, who formerly resided in Edwardsville, left Aug. 10 for Vietnam to assist the recovery effort to search and, hopefully, recover the remains of his two Marine "brothers."
As Zimmerman walked slowly through the terminal at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport Thursday, his wife, Cathy, their three daughters, Lori Kosierowski, Leah O'Boyle and Nadine Burney, his grandchildren and several friends waited with open arms.
"Welcome back, Marine," said Don Wilmot, of Sterling, a fellow Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam.
Zimmerman appeared a little weary from the long plane ride and the emotional experience of having the opportunity to get closer to finding Pepper and Trimble, ending a nine-year ordeal during which he managed to convince the U.S. military to undertake the search.
"It's really been a journey," he said as his family took turns hugging him. "It's been a non-stop whirlwind from the time I left."
Zimmerman was a 19-year-old Marine helping his unit clean up after a battle at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, on April 6, 1968. A member of F Company, 2nd Battalion of the 26th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, he was with his unit when he saw the bodies of the two Marines in a ravine. They were members of G Company, the other unit in the battle at Khe Sanh.
The image of the two Marines lying in that ravine has been with Zimmerman since 1968, and it heightened in 2009 when he learned their bodies had never been recovered. Since then, he has devoted much of his life to convincing the government and the military to return to the site to search for their remains.
Zimmerman said he has had many restless, sleepless nights and plenty of nightmares over the years. Finding the two Marines will bring peace to him and closure to the families of the two soldiers.
"I'm still trying to filter it all," he said. "While I was there, a lot of memories came back to me."
Wilmot reminded Zimmerman of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam.
"They only got a one-way ticket," Wilmot said.
Zimmerman will be notified when the remains of the two Marines are found. He plans to attend their burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The families of Pepper and Trimble have been supportive in his efforts and keep in touch with him. He wishes he could have stayed in Vietnam to aid the search.
"They wouldn't let me dig," he said. "I've done all I could. It's up to the search team now."