KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
They were 30 miles outside of Saigon and their van had been overcome by the southern mercenary part of the Viet Cong. For a few minutes things were on the up and up and then a couple of the Viet Cong men came around to the back of the van and opened the doors. That is when they were captured.
Those are the words ingrained in the head of 11 year old Nora Moore of the last documented days of her father, then Tech. Sgt. Thomas Moore.
Nora grew up as a military child moving from base to base around the U.S. learning different aspects of the military with each move. Her father enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1947 only to voluntarily separate for 24 hours so he could reenlist in the Air Force to further his education.
“He trained here at Keesler for his advanced training for propeller maintenance, came back here in 1951 for air conditioning training and then came back a third time in 1955 to do more training in missile engineering,” said Nora. “My family has a long standing history here at Keesler because he met my mom at a dance in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and they ended up getting married at the Triangle Chapel on base. A lot happened in those first years of him being here at Keesler.”
The family moved to Tyndall AFB, Florida, after a few years of being at Keesler. In the spring of 1965, just before Easter, Tech. Sgt. Moore received orders to deploy to Vietnam as the NCO in charge of the 6250th Combat Support Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, promising a confused Nora that he’d be home when the Easter bunny came again.
Moore, along with three staff sergeants, were assigned to visit an area in Vũng Tàu to check out an old Philippine French hotel to determine if it was suitable for U.S. military members on rest and relaxation. The small group was there for 48 hours and then suddenly a routine trip turned into disaster after the helicopter that was supposed to transport them back to base was grounded.
“My dad and the other three hired a young man to take them back to base in a Ford Econoline van,” said Nora. “On October 31 they were 30 miles outside of Saigon near Bien Hoa when they were stopped by southern Viet Cong mercenaries. They didn’t know my dad and the other three Airmen were in the back because the driver had motioned for them to lay down to not be seen because the van didn’t have windows. They couldn’t see through the back or the sides so I think that’s what made them think they were safe.”
After being found in the back of the van, the three Airmen and driver were now in the hands of the Viet Cong.
Later on that year, after a trip to the base commissary, Nora and her mother arrived home to something most military families of that era never wanted to see: a yellow cab sitting in the driveway with a driver holding a small piece of paper.
“I remember the cab driver asking my mother if there was a neighbor or someone who could come over,” said Nora. “My mom asked him why and he said ‘I think you might need some support right now.’ The cab driver knew what the telegram said. My mom said no. We finished taking the bags inside and when my mom read the telegram she let out a big scream and passed out.”
With the words “We regret to inform you that your husband, Tech. Sgt. Thomas Moore, has been missing in action, presumed to be prisoner of war,” ringing through her head, Nora ran and hid. Her neighbor came over after hearing the scream, found Nora and asked her if she could remember a phone number for any of her relatives. The one number she could remember was that of her Uncle Bill.
After a conversation over the phone, her Uncle Bill was on his way to Tyndall from Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
“He was there by the next morning and he pretty much took care of anything,” said Nora. “I remember asking my Uncle Bill ‘What does missing mean?’ He tried to explain it but in my mind, as a kid, if something is missing then you go find it. Even though I understood as I got older, that concept has encompassed my whole life.”
Over the next six months the family received several telegrams but it wasn’t until Staff Sgt. Page, one of the Airmen who was captured, confirmed much of what happened during his debriefing in Washington D.C.
“I know a good bit of what happened in that time frame because Page, who was my dad’s best friend, managed to escape a few days into their captivity,” said Nora. “After driving the van into a wet area they started to march the four of them toward, what Page said was, Cambodia. They were going North with them and it was at that point they figured they were going to take them into the northern part of Cambodia into Hanoi and give them to the prisons up there.”
The group was exposed to extreme heat and humidity and weren’t given a lot of water over the next 48 hours as they continued to march north.
Tech. Sgt. Moore was viewed as a hero by his family, according to Nora, but it wasn’t until the next day when the love for his country and the Airmen he served beside was finally revealed.
“They would talk in pig Latin according to Page to keep the Viet Cong from being able to understand,” said Nora. “On that third night daddy whispered to them, ‘If the opportune moment happens we need to try to escape and evade.’ The other men looked at my dad and Page said ‘No, we are all here for one. One for all.’ He said my dad gave them a direct order and said ‘No. I am very adamant so if one or two or three of you can get away, then do it. If you don’t, then they will never know what happened to us.’”
The next morning in the rain, the Viet Cong stopped the group to allow them to put rain ponchos on but using some quick thinking, Page unrolled his sleeves and tightened up his muscles as his captors were putting his shackles around his wrists. As the Viet Cong turned their backs Page relaxed his muscles letting his shackles and the bamboo pole he was tied to fall to the ground. Looking at his fellow Airman, Staff Sgt. Adams, whom he was tied to, Page said he was free and before the Viet Cong were able to look back, the two ran away in opposite directions.
“He looked back and didn’t see Adams so he just took off into the jungle,” said Nora. “He came upon a creek bed and just slipped off into it. He said he could still hear gun fire and he figured it was coming his way because it was really close so he stayed in the creek for several hours. When he went back to see if they had killed daddy and the others, he didn’t see any bodies or any of the Vietnamese people who he had escaped from. On his return back to base, he came upon a special forces team who took him back to Tan Son Nhut. That’s pretty much how Page told the story during his debriefing.”
Nora’s mother went on to spend the next few decades dedicating her time to finding out more about what happened to her husband, until her death in 1995. It was at this time that Nora began her part of the search for her long lost father.
Not the 11 year old child any more but a more mature adult, Nora dedicated her life to finding the answers she longed for all the years before.
“After my mother died in 1985, I became the primary next of kin because I was the oldest,” said Nora. “I took it very seriously at that point. My mother was dead but she did so much when I was a teenager to go to the family meetings and other things like that. I requested everything through the Freedom of Information Act. Everything from Air Force records to personnel records, medical records and anything else I could find. I used a microfiche out at Fort Gordon in Georgia, where I worked as a medic, and for hours I went through everything.”
Searching file after file, nothing seemed to make sense for Nora so she looked to the Air Force for help. After receiving three 3-inch binders worth of records, Nora was able to find a little light within the madness of military records that belonged to her father.
“I studied and examined all the reports that would come through and there was one little letter from a man who was a villager right outside the village where daddy had been captured and it had a ‘for your eyes only’ stamp on it,” said Nora. “I read the letter and he was telling me things that were parallel to the things I already knew. Different things like the location where they were captured and even a possible spot where three Air Force men were buried. So now I had a possible location.”
Even though the letter was hearsay, the new discovery was enough motivation for Nora to ask for more information at the next POW/MIA family meeting in Washington D.C. in 1997. With the help of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii, three possible witnesses in Vietnam were interviewed with one person’s interview being very equivalent to Page’s debriefing.
“One of them was almost spot on to what Page said,” said Nora. “They went back two times to talk to this man and kept asking him how he knew this information. Well it turns out he had been an officer who had interrogated my dad and the other men early in the morning on the escape date but he kept saying I don’t know what happened after the escape. He kept telling them that’s all he knew and that he didn’t know what happened to the other three men. He was very cautious about how he answered the questions.”
Nora and the accounting agency team had three failed excavations over seven years but she is still determined to find her father. Each year she attends the POW/MIA family meetings in Washington D.C. to help other families cope and seek answers to find their lost family members.
She has continued to educate others, including her family, about POW/MIA and her father, who was promoted to the rank of chief master sergeant over the years. She participates in local and national POW/MIA events and has also created multiple social media groups so other families can keep in touch with each other and share information.
On August 29, 2017 Nora was officially presented her Gold Star Family Member lapel pin and ID card becoming Keesler’s very first Gold Star Family Member with the help of the Keesler Airman & Family Readiness Center. Although the years have passed, Nora hasn’t stopped looking for her dad.
“I won’t stop looking for him until I’m dead,” said Nora. “He’s my one and only daddy so how can I give up on him? I might not have ever served in the Air Force but the Air Force runs through my blood because of the legacy of my dad. No matter what happens my hope for finding daddy will never die.”