Pfc. Anthony John Pepper, a Marine from Chesterfield County, was 20 years old in April 1968 when he was killed in the Battle of Khe Sanh.
In a letter that reached his family days before he died, Pepper wrote that he had less than five months to go in Vietnam. “Charlie won’t get me now,” he wrote, making a reference to enemy forces.
Pepper, who graduated from Thomas Dale High School in 1966, was reported missing April 6. His status was changed to killed in action on Oct. 15, according to a report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time.
His body was never found.
Now, thanks to the help of a Marine veteran who may have been the last American to see Pepper’s body, military crews are searching in a remote area of Vietnam for his remains and the remains of Cpl. James Mitchell Trimble, 19.
“With everything that has happened, we’re just due a miracle,” said Carrie Pepper, who was 13 when her brother was killed. “I don’t know if it’ll happen, but I think the fact that they’re even looking at this point is pretty miraculous.”
Carrie Pepper lives in California now. Her parents and another sister have died.
The last memory she has of Pepper is running into his arms at his boot camp graduation. She said he smiled, held out his arms, lifted her and swung her around.
“When I think about it, when I really let myself think about it, and think about my brother laying over there and just left behind all this time. It’s just so sad,” she said.
The search for Pepper and Trimble is being conducted by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The agency currently is in Vietnam excavating where Ed Zimmerman, then a 19-year-old Marine working on a recovery mission after the battle, said he last saw their bodies.
Zimmerman saw the two dead men as he came up a ridgeline. He touched them and turned them over to look for weapons, but he let them go because they were decomposing and in bad shape.
He never said a word about what he saw and believed that someone else would recover the bodies.
It wasn’t until about 40 years later that Zimmerman saw an item online and realized the two Marines had never been found.
“I never knew it,” Zimmerman said last week. “I assumed everyone was recovered. I had absolutely no idea that two guys were missing.”
The discovery sent Zimmerman on a mission to help find the missing men and bring closure to the families.
His efforts began with repeated letters to the military and, over several years, included official interrogations and two trips to Vietnam to try to identify the spot where he had last seen his fellow Marines.
Zimmerman said what drove him, despite repeated frustrations, was a desire to make things right. He felt guilty that two men had been left behind, but finding a way to remedy the situation would help him and the families heal.
“They had a promise to bring us home and that every effort would be made to do that,” he said. “Right now, that’s taking place. As a veteran and being so intimately involved in this, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Khe Sanh is in the Quang Tri province near Vietnam’s border with Laos.
The World History Group, which publishes magazines dedicated to the study of history, said the battle of Khe Sanh “was the longest, deadliest and most controversial of the Vietnam War.”
Zimmerman remembers the battle as a nightmare.
“That’s the only way I could explain it,” he said. “It was grueling. Months on one C ration a day, incoming (fire), unbelievable. We stuck together, and that’s what it was all about. It was about surviving.”
Officially, 205 Marines were killed in action and more than 1,600 were wounded. The military estimated at the time that 10,000 to 15,000 North Vietnamese were killed, according to History.com.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, recovery missions involve about 95 U.S. personnel and their Vietnamese counterparts.
Teams work on investigations and excavations for about 30 days, and remains believed to be of Americans are sent to the agency’s Central Identification Lab in Hawaii for examination by forensic anthropologists.
The agency reports on its website that of the 1,261 Americans still missing in Vietnam, 477 are considered “non-recoverable.” That means investigators have found “conclusive evidence the individual perished but do not believe it possible to recover his remains.”
New leads, as with Pepper’s case, can lead to an investigation being reopened.
Pepper’s name is etched on the wall of the Shrine of Memory in the Vietnam section at the Virginia War Memorial. His name also is among a list of combatants missing in action that hangs over the staircase leading to the lower level in the Grand Lobby.
If his remains are found, according to the War Memorial, a star will be placed next to his name on this list. Pepper will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Northern Virginia.
“I’m very confident the Almighty is involved in this thing,” Zimmerman said. “I feel confident that something will show up. …
“I feel confident that these people who are working on this excavation will be as thorough as any CSI investigation could be.”