I respectfully request family members, organizations, and POW/MIA activists to respect their privacy and their expressed wishes.
Dr. Eleanor Ardel Vietti went to Viet Nam to treat those afflicted with leprosy. A graduate of Rice University in 1950, Ardel (as she was called by family and friends) went on to obtain her medical degree from the University of Texas at Galveston. After an internship at Chicago's South Shore Hospital and a year's residency at Texas General Hospital in Wichita Falls, she applied to the Alliance Foreign Mission Society for overseas service. There had been an acute need for a doctor at the new leprosarium which just opened near Ban Me Thuot, South Viet Nam, and Ardel was told to prepare to leave immediately.
At that time Viet Nam was beginning to creep into world news. The 1954 Geneva Treaty had sliced the country into two states, and almost a million refugees were moving south from the Communist north. Anti-government guerrillas who had fought under Ho Chi Minh against the French began harassing the South Viet Nam countryside. The Montagnards (mountain tribesmen) in the central highlands, who lived in the tiger-infested jungles surrounding the new Ban Me Thuot leprosarium, were a special target of the guerrillas. Montagnard leaders had long complained that the Saigon government treated them like second class citizens.
Ardel learned the Vietnamese language and took over the large new leprosarium and hospital in 1957. The leprosarium nestled in a verdant valley on 150 acres of land was supplied by the government. The U-shaped "sick" hospital was the largest building, containing surgery rooms and wards for about 30 patients. The "well" hospital for 30 more able patients was a few hundred feet away. A chapel, staff residences, and huts for patients' families were elsewhere on the grounds. There were usually 40 to 60 patients in the hospital and around 1,500 outpatients at any one time. Although Ardel realized that the Viet Cong freely penetrated the jungles and could easily capture her and her colleagues at any time, she did not think they would harm her, since she took care of any and all sick patients who came to her clinic and hospital without respect to their beliefs or political affiliations.
Assisted by her staff of missionary and tribal nurses, Ardel devoted herself to helping the pitiful, sparsely clad sufferers, some of whom stumped on painful feet for days along jungle trails to reach the leprosarium. Many of Doctor Vietti's patients were the Montagnard tribesmen, and she quickly realized that love and acceptance were vital parts of the therapy. Her caring and treatment of them brought gratified amazement to the Montagnards, who were used to being treated with disdain by Vietnamese officials and the French. They were even mistreated by their own people. At the first sign of the disease, village elders drove the afflicted persons into the jungle. Some tribesmen, fearful of contamination, pushed sufferers into huts and set the buildings afire. However, moving in with a program of literacy and medicine, the Alliance missionaries were among the first educated outsiders to treat the Montagnards as human beings. Doctor Vietti and the nurses began to educate patients' families and friends, as well as the victims themselves.
Habitually frank, Doctor Vietti could even be gruff with those who disregarded instructions. One day her temper exploded when she learned that ambulatory patients had been selling gift medicines and food to passersby. She assembled the patient population and delivered a stern lecture on ungratefulness. When she finished, a self-appointed leader rose, apologized, and pledged to find and deal with the culprits. But her colleagues knew her gruffness concealed compassion.
As the months passed, Doctor Vietti found herself doing more and more surgery that could have been prevented by early treatment. She frequently had to amputate a hand or foot, although she did corrective surgery whenever possible. "We've got to go to the villages and get them in the early stages," she told the nurses.
A typical search-and-diagnose mission took the lady physician and a missionary nurse along narrow jungle trails by motor bike or by launch up and down rushing rivers punctuated by dangerous rapids. She shrugged off warnings of possible capture by Viet Cong guerrillas with the smiling declaration, "We can take care of ourselves."
Doctor Vietti carried her medicine kit, and the nurse brought a bundle of white strips of cloth. At each village, they asked the chief to line up his people for examination. As a person's turn came, the nurse tied a cloth around his eyes, then the doctor "tickled" him with a feather.
The nurse stood by with a chart to mark any places where the patient did not show feeling. When Doctor Vietti finished, the nurse dropped the cloth around the person's neck. Not until every villager wore a "necktie" did they move on to the next phase.
Persons who showed signs of numbness in the feather test were examined further. If blood tests proved positive or the leprosy bacilli were found in smears from the skin, sulfones were administered. Those who seemed to have the disease were asked to come to the leprosarium for follow-up treatment.
Ten percent incidence rates of leprosy were not unusual in some villages. In one community, Doctor Vietti discovered 30 percent incidence, which the physician said "must be the highest in the world."
After 1960, Viet Cong activity picked up in the jungles around Ban Me Thuot. But most missionaries felt that the VC, not wanting to incur the displeasure of their Montagnard friends, would not harm the foreigners. Three new missionaries arrived at the leprosarium to help with religious and agricultural work. Archie and Betty Mitchell were teachers. Dan Gerber, a Mennonite peace missionary, supervised the farm where ambulatory patients and hospital employees worked. Young Gerber, who came from rural Ohio, fell in love with one of the nurses, Ruth Wilting.
In April 1962, while Dan and Ruth were planning their wedding, Doctor Vietti accompanied an ill missionary home to the United States--her first trip back in about five years. John Dick, a Mennonite missionary doctor at Nha Trang, took over in her absence. Ardel spent most of her six-week "vacation" studying at the U.S. Public Health Service hospital for leprosy patients in Carville, Louisiana.
Upon her return to the leprosarium, she was eager to share what she had learned at Carville and scheduled a medical seminar for the last week in May. Dr. Richard Buker had traveled from Thailand to conduct it. Rev. and Mrs. R. W. Reed, Rev. and Mrs. Charles Long, Rev. and Mrs. J. G. Fleming, Mr. and Mrs. R. L. Phillips and Rev. David Frazier were attending it. At the advice of Vietnamese marines and those in the American advisory group, all the visiting missionaries had left Sunday afternoon. There was little reason to suppose that the resident missionaries were in any danger. The Viet Cong had never evidenced any ill feeling toward the Leprosarium. It seemed in the best interest of all concerned for the personnel assigned there to continue their medical ministry.
Early Wednesday morning, May 30, Archie Mitchell and a missionary's son discovered three burned bridges on the road into Ban Me Thuot. Beside one ruined bridge they saw a warning sign:
"FIX THIS BRIDGE AND OFF WILL GO YOUR HEAD!"
Mitchell reported this to Doctor Vietti and the others. All agreed it did not refer to them as they were not there to harm anyone. Dan Gerber jumped on his tractor and left to start repair work. Late that afternoon Gerber took his fiancee for a walk. Ardel was in her room, nursing a painful leg ulcer. It was almost time for the staff prayer meeting, a Wednesday evening activity, and that night it was to be at Dr. Ardel Vietti's house across the compound.
It was about 7:45 p.m. when approximately twelve armed men appeared on the compound. Dividing into three groups, one accosted Dan Gerber and tied him up.
Another band went directly to the house of Rev. Archie Mitchell, the administrator. Ordering him out of the house, they tied him up and led him away to join Dan Gerber.
The third group crossed over to Dr. Vietti's house and ordered her to the location just outside the compound where Mitchell and Gerber were being held
For the next two hours the intruders rifled the houses, taking sheets, towels, clothing and anything of value. About ten that evening they departed in one of the hospital vehicles. Not a shot had been fired. Nor had they attempted to molest any of the Vietnamese or the four missionary nurses on the compound.
But their orders were explicit to Mrs. Mitchell and the nurses: they must leave the Leprosarium the following day and not return.
The missionaries who had been left behind informed the authorities in Ban Me Thuot. The next morning U.S. military advisers joined the South Vietnamese soldiers in a search-and-rescue operation. When they got within sight of the abductors and saw they had been heavily reinforced, the American commander reluctantly decided not to attack. He notified Alliance headquarters in Saigon that a rescue attempt would only bring heavy loss of life. Optimism for their early return waned as months went by with little information.
During the years following the abductions, fierce battles were fought in the area. Still, tribesmen coming in from the jungle brought encouraging stories. One Montagnard said he had seen the three captives alive in a mobile VC prison camp. A woman told of seeing two white men and a white woman with a group of VC; the white woman had asked for a Bible. In 1967, Allied soldiers overran a VC jungle hospital and found prescriptions which they claimed only an American doctor could have written.
Alliance leaders kept up a continual diplomatic offensive. The American, International, Cambodian, and North Vietnamese Red Cross organizations were asked to help. An appeal for intervention was made to VC political representatives in Cuba and Algiers. Other pleas went to Russia, Switzerland, and the International Control Commission. 1
Early in January 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers began attacking villages around Ban Me Thuot. Wounded and fleeing Montagnards crowded into the town. Some came to the Alliance clinic for treatment and counseled the American missionaries to leave. None did.
On January 30, 1968, the Communists launched their murderous Tet offensive throughout South Viet Nam. A force of North Vietnamese soldiers overran the Alliance compound at Ban Me Thuot. Six missionaries were killed, two wounded, and two captured. Gerber's fiancee was one of those killed.
In September 1971, Rev. Donald L. Bubna talked with Mrs. Mitchell at Ban Me Thuot concerning the whereabouts of her husband and the other two captives. Mrs. Mitchell referred to the military push into Cambodia in 1970. 2
Communist Vietnam should be urged to tell what has happened to Dr. Ardel Vietti, Rev. Archie Mitchell, and Dan Gerber who went to Viet Nam under the flag of compassion.
Note: Ban Me Thuot is midway between the coast and the Cambodia border and between the tip of the Mekong Delta and the Demilitarized Zone, just south of the infamous Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands. Ban Me Thuot also was the focus of an NVA attack which began on March 10, 1975 by three NVA divisions which marked the beginning of the final NVA offensive which culminated in the fall of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
Name: Eleanor Ardel Vietti
Rank/Branch: Civilian - Surgeon
Unit: Christian & Missionary Alliance
Date of Birth: 05 November 1927 (Ft. Worth TX)
Home City: Houston TX
Date of Loss: 30 May 1962
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 123250N 1075927E (ZU250888)
Status (in 1973): Prisoner of War Category 1
Other Personnel in Incident: Rev. Archie E. Mitchell; Daniel A. Gerber (both captured)
REMARKS: TAKEN FROM LEPROSARIUM
SYNOPSIS: Ardel Vietti, was a twin and was born on November 5, 1927 in Ft. Worth, Texas. Her father was a geologist and provided Ardel, her sister and brother with a comfortable youth, as well as the experience of living in South America for several years. Ardel attended Rice Institute, Nyack Missionary College (one summer), and attended medical school at the University of Texas. Following her residency, she applied for foreign service with C&MA and was certified for appointment to the Ban Me Thuot Leprosarium in Vietnam.
The Ban Me Thuot Leprosarium was located in dense jungle terrain in Darlac Province, South Vietnam, near the provincial capitol of Ban Me Thuot. The Leprosarium was jointly financed by The Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Mennonite Central Committee and American Leprosy Missions, Inc. There were 56 Alliance church groups in the areas outlying Ban Me Thuot in 1962.
The Leprosarium had a staff of nine, including Rev. Archie Mitchell, the administrative officer; Dr, Ardel Vietti, a surgeon, Daniel A. Gerber, and nurses, Misses Craig, Deets, Kingsbury and Wilting. There were two others on staff; also, the Mitchell's four children lived at the Leprosarium.
Late afternoon on Wednesday, May 30, 1962, a group of about 12 armed Viet Cong entered the Leprosarium compound and abducted Dan Gerber, Dr. Vietti and Rev. Mitchell. The nurses were sternly lectured on their betrayal of the Vietnamese people and assured that they deserved immediate death, but were not molested or abducted. Mrs. Mitchell and her four children were not harmed. The VC ransacked all the buildings for anything they could use - linens, medicines, clothing and surgical instruments. About 10:00 p.m., the Viet Cong finally left, taking their three prisoners with them.
When the three were captured, the U.S. pledged all of its resources in order to see that everything possible was done to get them back safely in 1962.
At the time, U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence discovered their probable location, but were never able to rescue the three. Reports have continued to surface on them through the years since 1962. Some of the members of their families believe them to be still alive.
Now, 25 years [36 years] later, Gerber, Vietti and Mitchell are still missing. They were not military personnel, nor were they engaged in highly paid jobs relating to the war. They were just there to help sick Vietnamese people.
Although the U.S. has given the Vietnamese information on Gerber, Vietti and Mitchell, the Vietnamese deny any knowledge of them.
~~~ IMPORTANT UPDATE: 12 JAN 99 ~~~
Through the Freedom of Information Act, local Seattle VFW Post 2713 recently received a declassified CIA document dtd 28 JUN 65 entitled; "Intelligence Memoradum, Status of US Prisoners of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam"
On page 2 of that document we read the following:
"3. The civilians include a woman doctor and two male assistants captured by the Viet Cong during a raid on a mission hospital in 1962; during the next year or so, they were spotted at various times with Viet Cong units in the highlands, presumably being forced to provide medical care. A civilian USAID official, Gustav Hertz, was captured on the outskirts of Saigon on 2 February 1965, and is an acknowledged Viet Cong prisoner. A fifth civilian, Donald Dawson--in South Vietnam searching for his brother, a missing air force pilot--disappeared about 26 Arpil 1965 when he voluntarily entered a Viet Cong base area, allegedly for an arranged meeting with Communit's authorities. There have been no recent firm reports of the precise whereabouts of any of these civilians; efforts continue to secure their release..."
Webmaster comments on CIA document compiled from information from "Homecoming II":
Donald Dawson was released on 21 AUG 65.
Eleanor Vietti, Archie Mitchell & Daniel A. Gerber -- as stated above in the bio -- still remain missing with no explanation from the Vietnamese government...
a) House Testimony of former POW Mike Benge on "The Cuban Program" -- 4 Nov '99
2 See: Cambodia Incursions by this newletter.
For Addition Information on Dr. Vietti...
The Last Missing Woman
In-depth report on Dr. Ardel Vietti
by Binnie Fisher -- The Houston Chronicle -- Oct 28, 2001
Debby Peare's Dedication -- Another beautiful site by Lady Warrior