My friend Bernie went missing on a 1970 bombing run in Vietnam. Every Memorial Day since has come as a reminder of the void he left in the lives of those he served with, his family and all who knew him.
Marine 1st Lt. Bernard Herbert Plassmeyer, of Freeburg, Missouri, was flying an A-4 Skyhawk on a night mission for Marine Attack Squadron 311 (VMF-311) that took him over the A Shau valley in September 1970.
He came from a farm family in Osage County. He was 25 years old and days away from becoming a father. We had trained together as young lieutenants at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, in 1967.
The A Shau was the true heart of darkness for those of us who were on the ground. It was the place of no answers, and that was the case with Bernie.
His A4 went down that night. There were reports years later that there had been ground fire, but it was unclear. Search teams eventually found the crash site, but there was no trace of him.
Norb Plassmeyer, Bernie's older brother, shared a letter Wednesday that had come to him from Sgt. Greg Cain, the one they called "Speed Brakes," who serviced VMF-311's aircraft and suited up Bernie for his last flight.
Cain's missive was written in the form of a letter to Bernie, and it accurately described the guy we had known.
"This is Speed Brakes [the nickname you and Lt. Sloan hung on me in Da Nang]. Chatting with you one day, I found out your wife was expecting your first child. My wife was also expecting, and this kind of formed a common bond with us," the letter begins. "I was always impressed with your consideration of the enlisted men in the squadron because, every time you came into the flight equipment shop to suit up, you always took a minute to ask me about my wife."
Cain said he was with Bernie when he "came in to suit up for the fatal flight." When he learned that his lieutenant was missing, "I dropped to my knees and prayed for you and your wife and unborn child," the letter states.
Cain also prayed that Bernie's son would come to read the letter "and hear from one of your men that you were a great man. You spoke to me shortly before your flight and as always asked about my wife and told me your wife was getting very close."
Bernie's son was born in late September 1970. He would be named "Bernard."
Vigil in a Church Cemetery
Norb Plassmeyer, who served a term in the Missouri House of Representatives, said he will go again on Memorial Day to his brother's gravesite in the small cemetery of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Westphalia, Missouri. "There's a little Memorial Day ceremony there. That's how we commemorate this," he said.
There's just the headstone for Bernie next to those of their parents, Norb said. "There are no remains. On the basis of the conversations I've had, there is no prospect of recovering remains."
When Bernie's plane went down, the family learned of it from the Marine Corps and a telegram, Norb said. There was another older Plassmeyer brother, Martin, a West Point graduate who had served a tour in Vietnam and was then based at the Pentagon.
He had access to the casualty center, "but there wasn't a whole lot of information," Norb said.
According to a VMF-311 history, Bernie's A-4 and other aircraft had been scrambled on a mission to support units of the Army's 101st Airborne Division.
"Two A-4s arrived over the target and commenced their runs. The flight leader finished his pass and watched as Lieutenant Plassmeyer went into his dive. As the lieutenant was passing at approximately 1,500 feet, the leader saw some 'sparks' and then a long trail of flame impact in the target area," the history states.
Norb said he later met in Washington, D.C., with Bernie's commander and the flight leader. He said they were convinced, based on the evidence that could be found, that Bernie had not survived the mission.
Norb said he has come to accept their conclusions but his mother, who died a few years after the crash, never did. For a long time, neither did Bernie's wife, Carol, he said. She would later remarry and have a career in nursing. Their son, who also goes by "Bernie," has done well in advertising, according to Norb.
Is it hard to accept that he's gone? "Well. It was really difficult to accept the prospect of him being held captive," Norb said. There's little alternative but to believe what the commander and the flight leader told him. As for searches, "that's pretty much been done to the point of exhaustion," he said.
In 1976, Bernie's status was changed from missing in action to unaccounted for and presumed dead. He was posthumously promoted to captain.
Bernie's name is in the current listings of "unaccounted for from the Vietnam War" kept by the Pentagon's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. It lists the "incident" for him as occurring on Sept. 9, 1970. There's a double "X" under the heading for status. The footnote says that double "X" means "Presumptive finding of death."
Bernie's name is also on Panel 7W, Row 57 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and on a small monument that went up in 2017 for the 50 who never came home from TBS 6/67 -- those who began training at The Basic School in Quantico in June 1967. Norb was at the unveiling.
Forty-three from the class were killed in action in Vietnam, and others died in training accidents while preparing to go. Also listed was Col. William R. "Rich" Higgins, a member of TBS 6/67. He was kidnapped and assassinated by gunmen in Lebanon while serving as a United Nations military observer in 1988.
In addition to class members who were killed, more than 200 were wounded, a casualty rate of more than 50 percent and the highest of any Marine officer class during Vietnam.
I was one of Bernie's 498 classmates in TBS 6/67. I was from Brooklyn, and Bernie was from somewhere in what I then viewed as the Great Beyond that existed on the other side of the Hudson.
Once, I asked, "Hey Bernie, where you from?" He said Freeburg, Missouri. "Where's that?" He began to tell me about Freeburg. "Nah," I said. "Where's Missouri?" Bernie got a kick out of that.
We all knew we were going to Vietnam. Most of us were slated for the infantry and would arrive in country in late 1967. Bernie and others going to flight or artillery school would arrive later.
Those going to flight school thought that the infantry types were nuts. We thought that the "zoomies," as we called them, were nuts. Bernie got a kick out of being called a "zoomie" too.
Norb sent us photos of Bernie a while back. One showed him leaning on a jeep as a bunch of curious Vietnamese kids milled about in the foreground. He has the half-smile that we knew so well. It was the one he would have back in Quantico when the rest of us were doing something amazingly stupid.
The smile wasn't judgmental. It seemed to say, "Isn't that interesting?" To say we loved him would be the half of it.
-- Richard Sisk served with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, in Vietnam in 1967-68. He can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.