Loudoun Father Learns What He Lost as a Son

James E. Plowman Jr. shows a photograph of his father to his 21-month-old son, Andrew, held by Plowman's wife, Angie.
James E. Plowman Jr. shows a photograph of his father to his 21-month-old son, Andrew, held by Plowman's wife, Angie. "I just want to do the things that a dad does with his son," Plowman says, "like throw a ball in the back yard." (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

For years, his father was nowhere and everywhere. He was tucked between the pages of the Hardy Boys novels he inherited from his dad. He was in his room, where he kept the display box of his father's military medals. He was next to his model of the A-6A Intruder and in the black-and-white photo he keeps alongside those of his wife and three young children.

"I remember opening a utility drawer in the kitchen and finding this little class photo mixed in there with a bunch of other junk," said James E. Plowman Jr., Loudoun County's commonwealth's attorney. "And I said to my mom, 'I don't remember this picture of me -- when was it taken?' She said, 'That's not you, that's your father.' "

It was always like that; Plowman's father flashed through him at unexpected times. A tilt of the head. A smile. A gesture. A wisecrack Plowman would make would bring the memories flooding back to his relatives.

Some of what Plowman knows about his dad came home in a Navy footlocker years after the 23-year-old was shot down in his A-6A Intruder in 1967 in Vietnam. There's the snapshot of him on the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk, mugging rakishly for the camera. It was taken a few months before Plowman was born. There's his father's dress sword, the one his dad might have worn to another sailor's funeral had he returned home alive.

And now, Navy Lt. James E. Plowman Sr. is finally coming home. Military investigators found his crash site a couple of years ago, and his remains are positively identified. He'll be buried at Arlington National Cemetery this summer.

"I couldn't believe it when they called and said they thought they had found the crash site," said Plowman, 38. "I said, 'I can't believe you're even still looking.' "

The Defense Department is, indeed, still searching -- for 1,803 Americans lost in Vietnam and for 88,000 Americans still missing from other wars.

It has been nearly four decades since Plowman's father was declared missing in action. Plowman used to say you can't miss what you don't know when people asked about his dad. But now that Plowman is a grown man with a family of his own in Leesburg, he's finding out you can know what you missed.

'Where Is My Father?'

In the early days, when Plowman was a boy, his family didn't dare give up the search. Rumors and reports about his father were painfully persistent. First, an East German photographer took a picture of two men with a striking resemblance to Plowman's father and the pilot who was with him, Capt. John C. "Buzz" Ellison. Then two Americans who were released from a North Vietnamese prison camp mentioned seeing Ellison.

The waiting seemed endless. Wives of the missing wrote letter after letter into the Hanoi void. Plowman's mother, Kathy Super, was waiting, too. She was 22 and five months pregnant with her son when she learned that her husband was missing. They had met when they were teenagers living with their families on a Navy base in Guam. The couple courted for about six years, then married 10 days before he shipped out to Vietnam.

It was James Plowman Sr.'s first tour of duty, but he was far from green. Before he and Ellison launched their March 24, 1967, attack on a thermal power plant near the Vietnam-China border, they had flown more than 80 missions. On the return home, they came under enemy fire and disappeared from radar about 11 p.m. Their plane went down near a village in Ha Bac Province in northern Vietnam.

Super became a symbol for the POW/MIA movement, organizing alongside other wives and family members of the missing. They were a tightknit group with a mission to pressure Hanoi to release information about their husbands and sons. His mother, Plowman said, does not want to talk about those days anymore, having said everything there was to say about them.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company