Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Honoring Fran Zavacki

Mortar rounds exploded in front of a marine officer and his radio operator. Running flat out, they leaped into a nearby bomb crater to find cover. Behind them, other marines who had just seized a hill from the enemy, after days of hard fighting, hugged the earth exposed, and steeled themselves against an o barrage of mortar fire. Reacting professionally, Captain Fran Zavacki, ‘64, called urgently on his radio for air support to take out the enemy’s guns. His radio operator, Corporal Dick Cosner, moved quickly out of the crater with binoculars and concealed himself behind a tree to act as a spotter.

Absorbed in reading his map as he transmitted the position of the North Vietnamese shelling the hill, Zavacki didn’t notice that they had begun to concentrate their fire on him. Bursting shells moved methodically toward the bomb crater as enemy gunners walked their rounds skillfully toward their target. Cosner screamed a warning to Zavacki, but it was lost in the deafening chaos of combat.

Cosner jumped back toward the crater and, grabbing Zavacki, dragged him out seconds before it erupted in a fiery explosion. The blast knocked both men down, inflicting concussions, peppering them with shards of metal, rock fragments and wood splinters. Many years later, Cosner would say that he had felt like an elephant had stepped on his head.

Afterward, as they picked debris from their clothing, Cosner found a wound from a large wood splinter in Zavacki’s back, under his rib cage, that his flak jacket hadn’t stopped. It was bleeding heavily. Cosner urged Zavacki to have a corpsman look at it, but his stoical company commander said no and had Cosner remove the splinter, telling him just to yank it out. Later, as he looked at the tangle of smashed electronics lying in the bomb crater, Zavacki joked laconically. “Well, Cos, that’s one radio KIA!”

Twelve weeks later, on November 15, 1969, Fran Zavacki would die, not in battle, but on an operating table aboard a hospital ship from causes not fully understood even by the doctors who treated him. His story would end in hazy contradictions. He would be awarded the Bronze Star posthumously for his actions commanding troops in the field under fire, but official records would state that his death afterwards had resulted from non-hostile causes. For that reason, Fran Zavacki’s name would not appear on the Graduate War Memorial at the Air Force Academy after his death.

Over time, the last chapters of Fran Zavacki’s life would become even cloudier in the memories of his classmates from the Academy’s Class of 1964, for whom the Marine Corps was something culturally foreign and exotic. After all, of the almost 2,000 officers commissioned from the Academy through 1964, only a handful, 19, had become Marines. It was as if Fran’s classmates had left the Zoomie mother ship to travel well-explored routes around their home planet of blue suits, while Fran and another intrepid classmate had headed off to an entirely different galaxy.

Added to that, many of the names on the Academy’s war memorial honor grads who have died flying airplanes in combat, and their deaths have tended to be violently instantaneous and unambiguous. The death of a Marine infantryman, though, can be much more complicated, leaving a confusing trail of wrong diagnoses through minimally equipped field hospitals that can be very difficult to follow.

All of that had exasperated Jim McCracken, who had been a year behind Fran in the same cadet squadron, 23rd. It made no sense to him that a man who had seen down-and-dirty ground combat and who had sacrificed his life in Vietnam would be left so unheralded. It seemed to McCracken that people were saying that a combat marine had just suddenly gotten sick one day and died, and Jim was deeply frustrated by that interpretation. It just didn’t feel right to him.

Jim had thought highly of Fran during the three years they had been together as cadets. There had been a lot to admire. Zavacki had been gung ho, but in an infectious, stirring way that had inspired others. That quality had led to the usual gung-hoisms, like jump school at Fort Benning, and it may have played a large role in his election by his classmates as President of the Class of ‘64. He hadn’t been polished-metal perfection, though. At the end of his third-class year, he had been caught drinking in the dorm with three of his classmates, and they had been hit hard with Class III punishments. That had tarnished his sterling military ranking until then more than a little. Fran was on the Commandant’s List for military excellence every semester but the one after his Class III and on the Superintendent’s List for academic and military excellence for four semesters. He had been no stranger to the tour path. Still, he had clawed his way back, and by the end of his first-class year, he was a cadet squadron commander. As second acts go, his had been pretty impressive.

McCracken’s frustration had boiled over when he had helped organize a reunion for his classmates in 23rd in the summer of 2007. Jim was putting together a memorial service to honor all members of the squadron from all classes who had died when he discovered that Fran Zavacki’s name was not among those on the war memorial. He called me, a fellow alumnus of 23rd and a newly installed member of the AOG Board of Directors, to ask what could be done. I replied that I didn’t know, but that I’d do the best I could to see Fran honored. We agreed on a division of labor. Jim would search for members of Fran’s combat unit, and I’d try to reach Fran’s relatives to see what documentary evidence they might have. Our collective detective work would take us on a road of surprising discovery and side by side with other grads, on one of the finest, most satisfying endeavors we’ve ever been involved in.

The beginning wasn’t encouraging. Jim sent me two letters that he’d received from the AOG about Fran’s case. One was an inquiry written by a member of the AOG’s board in March 1976 to Headquarters, United States Marine Corps asking for details on the circumstances surrounding Fran’s death, and the other was a reply dated three weeks later. In terse prose, the response from the Marine Corps stated, “…he died on November 15, 1969, of a bilateral pulmonary embolism (blood clotting in the blood vessels of the lungs). Captain Zavacki had been hospitalized aboard the hospital ship, USS Repose, since November 2, 1969, after contracting pneumonia. The letter went on to describe his actions leading troops in combat before that and the posthumous award of a Bronze Star, but it provided no link whatever between what had happened on the battlefield and his death.

Next, we looked at the criteria for inclusion on the war memorial, and the very steep climb ahead of us became all too clear: 1. Graduates killed in direct hostile action. 2. Graduates killed within an area of conflict as the result of an incident which is in direct support of the activities therein. 3. Graduates killed outside an area of conflict while directly supporting the activities within that area of conflict will be considered on an individual basis by the AOC Board of Directors.

These standards are very tough to meet. A strict application wouldn’t even allow a prisoner of war who had succumbed to disease in captivity to be honored on the memorial, and it became apparent that someone who had died of an illness unrelated to combat on a hospital ship stood no chance at all. So, the summary of action that someone at the AOG had typed 31 years ago at the top of the file copy of the AOG’s letter to the Marine Corps became fully understandable:

MEMO FOR RECORD: The Executive Committee reconsidered Zavacki for inclusion on the War Memorial at their 12 May 1976 meeting and decided not to pursue the matter further.

The word “reconsidered” was sobering. It meant that Fran’s case had been examined at least twice before and that those previous reviews would be a huge obstacle to overcome.

Still, I had pledged to contact Fran’s family to see what other evidence might be uncovered. So, using Argali White and Yellow, the Internet people finder, I typed Zavacki and PA into its search boxes and cringed, hitting Enter, expecting hundreds of households in Pennsylvania to be displayed. To my surprise, only eight appeared, and the next step was calling them one by one. A cousin of Fran’s I reached gave me the phone number and email address of Fran’s sister, Ann Kane, who now lives in Massachusetts. I sent her an email and made repeated attempts to reach her by phone. Since there was no voice mail option at her number, after getting no answer during nearly two weeks of calling, I had almost given up hope when Ann responded to my email and called, saying that she had been away on vacation. She agreed to send me copies of all the records she had.

One of them, a long letter to Ann from the Navy physician aboard the USS Repose who had attended Fran, stated that Fran had returned from patrolling in the field shortly before he sought medical care for chest pain in late October. The doctor elaborated:

“Three days prior to his admission to this hospital, he suffered from his first symptom relative to his final illness. He awoke at night with right chest and shoulder pain and couldn’t get back to sleep. The following day, he was evaluated at the field hospital close by and a chest x-ray was taken. However this chest x-ray showed nothing and a diagnosis could not be established. The following day, Captain Zavacki developed a more severe left chest pain associated with shortness of breath and a cough productive of some blood and blood- tinged mucous. Captain Zavacki returned to the field hospital where a repeat chest x-ray was taken revealing a moderate left chest infiltrate. Captain Zavacki was then admitted to that hospital under a presumptive diagnosis of pleurisy and pneumonia and placed on penicillin therapy. The day after this he was removed to the USS Repose for further care. He arrived here in the late afternoon of 2 November 1969, and was acutely ill on admission. After observation and evaluation, a diagnosis of pulmonary embolus was established.

The physician also reported that an autopsy after Fran’s death revealed extensive blood clotting in the pelvic region and in the arteries of his lungs.

I sent a copy of the letter to Jim McCracken. Jim’s wife, Patti, is a physician, and after reading the letter, she stated firmly that blood clotting on that massive a scale in someone as young as Fran had to have been caused by an injury. Patti McCracken had unlocked the mystery, and what remained to be done was to tie Fran’s death plausibly to an injury in the field during combat operations. Convinced that the case for Fran’s inclusion on the war memorial would turn ultimately on medical evidence, I asked for help from those who would make the best medical witnesses—grads who are also physicians. I sent emails to as many grad doctors as I could find, and put appeals on ZoomieNation and USAFA Today. Dr. Jim Ingram, ‘64, Colonel USAFR (Ret.), Dr. Bob Mazet, ‘63, and Dr. Hollie Thomas, ‘63, Colonel, USAF (Ret.) stepped up and agreed to provide written testimony.

Meanwhile, Jim McCracken looked for members of Fran’s infantry company. He searched the Web site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial using Fran’s name, and he found a message left there by a marine named Ranny Henson who had served in Fran’s unit. Using a feature on Google that allowed him to connect names to email addresses, Jim found Henson’s and contacted him. Their exchanges of messages only redoubled Jim’s determination to see Fran honored. Henson had left Vietnam before Zavacki died, but he wrote, “I do know that he stayed in the bush with us when he became ill and refused to leave his command at such a crucial time in the conflict or he would probably be alive today.”

Later in their conversations online, Henson wrote, “I wish I could be of more help, but I really have a difficult time with anyone who has not been in direct conflict with the enemy, as Capt. Zavacki and the rest of us were, judging whether or not he deserves this acknowledgement. If it were a Marine memorial, I have no doubt he would qualify. For a graduate of the Air Force Academy to choose service in the field with Marines in wartime says much about him.

In an incredible stroke of good fortune, Henson found Dick Cosner through a mutual friend and put him in contact with Jim McCracken. Cosner, who had been at his company commander’s side constantly while they were in the field, provided written testimony that has choked up more than a few who’ve read it. After describing the incident in which Fran was nearly killed by mortar fire and was wounded in the back, as well as recounting ineffective medical treatment afterward, Cosner wrote simply and movingly, “Capt. Zavacki never complained but I could tell he was in a lot of pain and the spot did not heal very well. After this incident Capt. Zavacki started getting sick at his stomach a lot. ... After that Capt. Zavacki was never well. He got weaker and was sick a lot. Finally about a week before we left Viet Nam, he got so weak, he could not walk alone, and he had no appetite ... Capt. Zavacki looked very bad and was getting weaker by the day. I went to the battalion commander and expressed my concern about the captain. The battalion commander came down and ordered the captain to be medevaced. He was medevaced to the hospital ship where he later died.”

Dick Cosner’s account was pivotal. The symptoms he described led Dr. Jim Ingram to write, “Some have expressed concern about the length of time between the injury and when he received formal medical attention. These facts are all entirely consistent with a smoldering infection in the abdomen, in the retroperitoneum (behind the abdominal organs) or kidney. Any of these could be associated with an abscess or pyelonephritis (kidney infection) that could result in the pelvic venous thrombosis that ultimately embolized and killed him. The symptoms of a slowly progressing infection like this would likely be gradual deterioration of health with abdominal discomfort, weakness, weight loss, fever, chills and stomach upset.

Agreeing with his colleague, Dr. Hollie Thomas wrote, “In any case, it is clear that Captain Zavacki’s injuries set in motion a sequence of events that led directly to his death ... In summary, a reasonable person should now be even more comfortable in concluding that Capt. Fran Zavacki sustained mortal injuries as the result of hostile action while on the field of combat.”

On October 26, 2007 after they had read Dick Cosner’s moving account and the overwhelming medical evidence provided by grad physicians, my colleagues on the AOG Board of Directors voted unanimously to add Fran Zavacki’s name to the Graduate War Memorial.

In a phone conversation later, Ann Kane expressed the deep appreciation of the whole Zavacki family, saying that they are very grateful for grads having been so tenacious in uncovering such a complex story to honor Fran. She also said she hoped that this November might be better for her than many others had been over the last 38 years.

We grads who have been so tightly united in our resolve to see the right thing done, after so long a time, hope so too. In the end, the memories of loved ones and of comrades matter a great deal, and when those memories are only pale shadows of a valorous past, all of us forfeit something of immense value.

(Brigadier General Steve Dotson, ’63, Checkpoints, December 2007)
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