Sunday, May 7, 2023


The day had barely begun in Southeast Texas on May 30, 1962, but already it was evening in South Vietnam. Chaos reigned at the Ban Me Thuot Leprosarium, where Houston physician Ardel Vietti served as a missionary. Shrieking a gospel of terror, ransacking buildings, and waving bayonets in the faces of missionaries and patients, about a dozen armed men dressed in black invaded the leprosarium at dusk.

Two hours passed like an eternity as darkness descended. The invaders delivered a stern and chilling lecture to the missionaries standing helpless in the dark. "You have betrayed the Vietnamese people! You deserve to die!" They destroyed Bibles and hymnals, and gathered up anything that might be of use.

Finally, they retreated. At gunpoint, they forced three missionaries -- two men and a woman -- to go with them. Ardel Vietti, who had traveled half a world away to fight a disease older than the Bible, was among the three. Her parents, sister, brother, friends and colleagues would never see or hear from her again.

00:04 / 02:21
Read More

The day the Viet Cong raided the leprosarium was a Wednesday. On Friday morning, June 1, Dr. Teresa J. Vietti, then an assistant professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, heard from a friend that radio reports were saying her twin sister had been taken prisoner in Vietnam.

A headline in the New York Times that day read, "3 U.S. Missionaries Kidnapped by Vietcong in Raid on Hospital." Photographs of Ardel Vietti and fellow missionaries Daniel Gerber and the Rev. Archie Mitchell accompanied the story.

After almost 40 years and the efforts of many people and organizations to find the missionaries, their fate remains the jungle's secret. To this day, Eleanor Ardel Vietti (she seldom used her first name) is the only American woman -- civilian or military -- still considered missing in Vietnam. The ratio of civilian to military women lost in Vietnam seems staggering; eight military women, compared with 58 civilian women.

ouston Christian High School teacher Ron Rexilius grew up in Vietnam as the child of missionaries. For his doctoral thesis at the University of Nebraska, Rexilius researched the cases of civilians lost in Vietnam. According to his research, "The oldest unresolved POW case in Vietnam is that of Archie Mitchell, Dan Gerber and Ardel Vietti."

Although it's been decades since the three disappeared, they have not been entirely forgotten. When the body of missing serviceman Rudy Ray Becerra was returned to his family in Rosenberg recently, hope was rekindled that one day information will surface about the Ban Me Thuot missionaries.

And in recent years, voices that demanded to know the fate of the three now articulate their message via the Internet. Numerous Web sites dedicated to the three have sprung up.

Pam Young, a Vietnam-era veteran in Seattle, is the author of one of the Web sites. In 1993, Circle of Sisters/Circle of Friends, an organization that honors the 58 American civilian women lost in Vietnam, asked Young to contact the Vietti family. Young, who had worked on Operation Homecoming beginning in 1973 to repatriate returning prisoners of war, escorted the doctor's brother, Victor, and his wife, Marge, from their Houston home to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Vietnam Women's Memorial on Nov. 11, 1993.

Although families and friends of military personnel know the risks inherent in war, Young says, "We didn't comprehend that the same thing could happen to civilians who went there for humanitarian reasons. I think it took immense courage to go halfway around the world into hostile territory to help others."

Those left behind when Vietti disappeared into the jungle that night can't help but wonder about the Viet Cong's accusations of betrayal. Just who was betrayed? The people whose lives Ardel worked tirelessly to improve or the woman who went to Vietnam with the purest of motives?

front-page photograph in the Houston Chronicle Nov. 5, 1957, shows Vietti packing for her missionary assignment in Vietnam as her parents, Victor and Grace Vietti, watch. The day was the 30th birthday of Ardel and sister Teresa, born Nov. 5, 1927, in Fort Worth.

When she was just a teen-ager, Ardel had burned with a calling her family couldn't comprehend: to serve God wherever she was needed. The smiles her parents wore in the newspaper photo masked what they really felt about their daughter going to Vietnam.

"None of us liked it very much," Teresa Vietti recalls today.

The twins' younger brother had just returned from a tour of duty in Korea. When he heard Ardel was being sent to Vietnam, he remembers, "I was dead set against it."

But every move Vietti had made over the previous decade and a half had been in preparation for this moment. She would go to Vietnam. It was God's will.

No comments:

Post a Comment