‘Military man through and through’ - Daughter remembers father lost during Vietnam War

By Traci Chapman
Published on June 26, 2008

Shannon Wann still dreams about her father, a father who went to war when she was 9 years old and never came home.

Chief Warrant Officer Donald Wann was a “military man through and through,” a man who volunteered to serve long before war came to a faraway place called Vietnam and a soldier who signed up for two tours of duty once war broke out. He was awarded 152 air medals, two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, a Good Conduct Award and the Vietnam Medal.

Wann was nearing the end of his second tour when on June 1, 1971, he and 1st Lt. Paul Magers were flying an AH1G Cobra gunship helicopter on a two-copter mission to pick up a ranger team stranded near Dong Tri, South Vietnam. After the first team picked up the rangers, Wann and Magers flew closer to destroy some ammunition and mines left on the site. As the helicopter neared the site, it was hit by rounds from anti-aircraft artillery, spun out and crashed on a steep hill before exploding. Because the area was under heavy fire, rescue or recovery attempts were impossible.

That was the official story, and it was all Wann, her mother, Ruth, and her sister, Michelle, had to cling to for almost 20 years.

“My mom told me he was shot down and was missing in action, but from 1973 (when Wann was declared dead) to 1990, they didn’t give us any information because the files were classified,” she said. “As a teenager, of course, I had a lot of anger and confusion. I always had these dreams that my dad would come back, and I always wouldn’t believe people who said that he was dead. I had no closure.

“In 1990, I found a newspaper clipping about other Oklahoma soldiers missing in action. I wrote the Pentagon a letter, and I just more or less said I want to know if my dad is dead or alive,” she said. “That was the beginning of the journey for me — I knew I had to make sure they found him on that hill and brought him home.”

Donald Wann’s own journey began a long way from that lonely hill, and his life was filled with family, travel and with a lifelong dedication to serving his country. Born in Kosoma, Okla., in 1937, he grew up in Shawnee. Even growing up, Wann said, her father knew he wanted to be in the military.

“He was in Reserve Officers Training Corps in high school,” she said. “He went into the Navy, and he was a photographer for the Navy. He was based in Antarctica for awhile, and we moved around quite a bit.”

In fact, Donald Wann was involved in the Vietnam War even before he set foot in the country — he took top secret photos of North Vietnam before the conflict started, Wann said.

Although he loved the Navy, Wann said her father decided to fly helicopters. He transferred from the Navy to the Army and went to flight school. While he was attending flight school, Wann said she and her father shared some of the few times she still remembers.

“I remember when he was in flight school, and we lived in Alabama. He drag-raced cars. When he would go race, he’d let me go pick out the trophy,” she said. “He was pretty superstitious, so after the 13th trophy, he only wanted the money, not the trophy.”

The happy times with her family were not to last, however. In 1965, the United States began military action in Vietnam, and Donald Wann got ready to leave for his first tour of duty.

“He went in for his first tour — which was for a year — and then he came home for awhile,” Wann said. “It’s funny because he was shot down during his first tour, and he put the copter down in a rice patty.”

Donald Wann opted to go back to Vietnam for a second tour, and he was assigned to the 158th Aviation Battalion, 160th Aviation Group, 101st Airborne Division. His second tour was due to end June 6, 1971. He died five days before he was due to go home to his family and one day after his 34th birthday.

Twenty-two years later, in 1993, Wann said her quest to find her father hit a turning point: Army investigators found Donald Wann’s crash site and began the first of several excavation attempts.

Since that first discovery, attempts to completely exhume have been unsuccessful, hampered by the steep terrain surrounding the crash site, unexploded ammunition and the fact that North Vietnamese documents were still classified. Some tantalizing clues were found, Wann said, including an empty wallet, helicopter parts, a seat belt and boots, but the items could not be positively linked to Wann or Magers.

Another wall crumbled in January, Wann said, when North Vietnamese witnesses could finally be questioned about the crash. In a strange turn of events, she said the person who might help bring her father home at long last is one of the soldiers who shot his helicopter down.

“Everything he’s said completely correlates with the other helicopter pilots who were in the area that day and the Marines on the ground,” she said. “He knew the area, about a tree that was there and about how the crash happened. All these years later, he might be the one to finally find my dad.”

Wann left for Washington, D.C., last week for an update and meeting with MIA families. It is the fifth such trip she has taken, and she said she is taking it not just for herself and her sister, but also her grandmother, who died in 2003 without being able to really say goodbye to her son.

“She said she was trying to hold on until we found him. She just couldn’t do it, though,” Wann said.

The meetings, she said, have opened other unexpected doors for her, giving her insight into who her father was and how he spent his last days.

“Service guys will send me pictures of him and tell me stories about him. I’m learning about my dad, who I never really knew. So many people have sent me so many e-mails. They said they knew my dad, they were in flight school with him, they served with him,” she said. “One of the guys told me a story about how tough my dad was.

“They lived in hooches — tents — and were getting attacked by a sniper at night. They had to sleep in their flight gear, and it was getting really hairy,” she said. “Dad was a little skinny guy — 5-foo-9 — and he got up, ran to his helicopter dodging bullets and took out the sniper himself. His friend told me, ‘Your dad was a little guy, but he was a tough SOB.’”

It is stories like those, the few memories she has of her father and the small things — pictures and gifts — that keep her resolve strong when she feels like giving up, Wann said.

“Dad gave me a pair of wings — his first wings — and told him not to ever lose them because it’s bad luck. I have them to this day,” she said. “I’m proud of who he was. He wanted to be there. It wasn’t like he was drafted — he was there because he knew it was the right thing to do.”

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