A Missing ID Card Spent 50 Years in Vietnam. Now It's Coming Home

Capt. Chambless Chesnutt's military ID card was found in Vietnam and will soon be returned to his family. (Photo courtesy of Jill Hubbs)
Capt. Chambless Chesnutt's military ID card was found in Vietnam and will soon be returned to his family. (Photo courtesy of Jill Hubbs)

The military ID card of an airman who went missing in action in Vietnam is finally coming home.

Though Air Force Capt. Chambless M. Chesnutt's remains were returned in 1985, the card is the only personal item of his ever recovered from Vietnam, and a treasured memento for his now-grown children. It will be presented in a Friday ceremony to Chesnutt's son, retired Texas Air National Guard Maj. Garry Chesnutt.

How the card was discovered after 50 years missing is an unlikely story of serendipity and the power of connection among those who have experienced loss through war.

 An unidentified Vietnamese man holds up the ID card of a formerly missing in action airman, Capt. Chambless Chesnutt. (Courtesy of Jill Hubbs)

'He Just Gave it to Us'

Jill Hubbs was in Vietnam last year looking for clues on the final resting place of her father, Navy Cmdr. Donald Richard Hubbs, when a Vietnamese man walked out of a crowd and showed her what looked like an old American service ID card.

"I was a little skeptical that it was too good to be true -- like, how is this happening?" she said. "He just walked up. We were out in the middle of nowhere, too. It wasn't a big city."

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The card was faded, and the ID photo almost worn away by time. But the words were still clear.

Name: Chesnutt, Chambless M. Rank: Captain. Date of birth: 13 August, 1934. Color hair: Brown. Color eyes: Brown. Blood type: A Positive. Date of issue: 21 August, 1963. Two fingerprints. A faded photo. A faded name.

In the village to pay respects at the site of a local school that had been demolished by American bombs, Hubbs was with a group from the 2 Sides Project, an organization that connects sons and daughters of fallen troops from both sides of the Vietnam War.

Through an interpreter, the man told Hubbs and Margot Carlson Delogne, also there searching for clues to her missing dad, that he had inherited the card from his father, a Vietnamese farmer. It had been sitting in their home for more than 50 years after his father had found it in a nearby rice paddy.

Delogne and Hubbs offered to take the card to the U.S. and find the family of its owner. The man handed to them, and they left.

"He just gave it to us," Hubbs said. "As we were leaving, walking to the bus, we were arm-in-arm crying like, 'Oh, my God.' I would give anything to find something like this from my dad. It's hard to put into words."

Finding the Truth

Back on the bus, Hubbs and Delonge did a quick internet search to confirm that the card's owner was really a casualty of the war in Vietnam. There he was: Capt. Chambless Chesnutt, MIA Sept. 30, 1965.

One of Chesnutt's family members had left contact information on an internet forum, and Hubbs and Delonge reached out in an email, asking someone to call them as soon as they could.

Capt Chambless Chesnutt. (Courtesy of Garry Chesnutt)
Capt Chambless Chesnutt. (Courtesy of Garry Chesnutt)

The call came in the middle of the night, Vietnam time. The women gathered around the phone to share the news of the card with Chesnutt's son, a retired Texas Air Guardsman who now flies for American Airlines.

Chesnutt's remains, they learned, had been turned over by Vietnamese villagers in 1985 and returned to the U.S. A DNA test later confirmed them as the remains of both Chesnutt and his back seat pilot, Capt. Michael Chwan. This ID card, they were told, was the only artifact that they'd ever learned of from his crash site

"We cried -- it was emotional for us, too, even though it's not our family member," Delonge said.

Hopes for More

Garry Chesnutt doesn't remember much about his father. Only six years old at the time his father went missing, Garry said he wasn't worried when he was told that his dad's plane had crashed because his father had told him he had an extra candy bar in his pack just in case.

Twenty years later, his dad's remains finally made it home for burial.

Since then, both Garry and his brother joined the military, and Garry even piloted the same plane as his father, the F4.

After a long Air National Guard career, very little in the world catches him off guard, he said. And so when he learned that his father's card had been found he was grateful -- but not surprised.

"At this stage of my life, I believe anything," Garry said. "It was just a very random meeting in a field by a farmer's son who came into possession of an ID card 53 years after he was shot down."

While he's grateful for the return of his dad's card, he hopes it is a sign that countries thrown against each other in war can learn to move forward together and find closure over time.

"Margot and Jill and the other women they went over there with didn't come home with answers [for themselves], but they brought my dad's ID card home," he said. "That's a great step in the right direction. The two sides are talking; the two sides are communicating."

A Planned Homecoming

Although it's been almost a year since the card was recovered, Garry's flying schedule and Hubbs' plans will sync for the first time this week, just in time to honor POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday, and the 54th anniversary of Capt. Chesnutt's death on Sept. 30.

The pair will meet for the first time at a dinner at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, with The Ride Home, an organization that honors POW/MIA troops. Hubbs will present the card to Garry Chesnutt during the ceremony.

Garry said he doesn't have specific plans for what his family will now do with the card. His mother passed away several years ago, and he shares mementoes of his father with his two siblings. A shadow box featuring his dad's photo and medals hangs on his wall at home, he said. His brother wears a cross left behind in his dad's things.

But he is grateful, he said, for the connections made between the children of fallen troops, no matter how long ago the loss occurred. Since the card was found, Garry has even hosted Delonge for a tour of the Citadel, from which both he and her father graduated.

"Ever since, we've become pretty close," he said. "It's a small world, a very small world."

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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