Posted 5/24/16 (Tue)
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
Memorial Day is a time when families across the nation honor deceased military veterans. But for Denton Zubke and his family, each and every Memorial Day, there is no closure for them ever since his brother, Deland, was reported as Missing in Action (MIA) while serving in Vietnam on March 2, 1971.
At the time, Deland Dwight Zubke, age 19, was serving in the United States Army as a radio operator for the U.S. Artillery forward observer attached to an ARVN unit in South Vietnam.
According to Deland’s younger brother, Denton Zubke’s synopsis:
On Feb. 28, 1971, at about 1700 hours (5 p.m.), his unit came under enemy attack, and was forced to occupy defensive positions. At 1410 hours (2:10 p.m.) on March 1, the ARVN unit’s perimeter was breached and the unit began to break up, with the survivors attempting to evade capture. The three other Americans serving with this group evaded capture.
Survivors report last seeing SP5 Zubke inside the defensive perimeter, continued the synopsis. While the surviving escaped, they called an air strike on their former position. Zubke was not seen again. Zubke was presumed to have been killed in the air strike called in to protect the surviving members of the team. A cold reality of war is that the few may sometimes suffer for the greater good of many. The Army believes this is the case with Zubke, but because in the confusion there is the chance that Zubke left the bunker, the Army did not declare him killed, but listed him Missing in Action.
Clearly, the Army accepted the possibility that Zubke had been captured, the synopsis continued. Although Zubke was not among the prisoners returned at the end of the war, thousands of reports have been received indicating that many Americans are still alive in Southeast Asia, held against their will. One of them could be SP5 Deland W. Zubke.
At the time Deland went MIA, he had four siblings and a mother and father in Grassy Butte. Deveron Zubke was his eldest brother, about two years older. Denton Zubke was only three years younger than Deland. Then there was his only younger sister, Del La Mar Zubke, and his youngest brother, Delvin Zubke, only two years old at the time.
“Deveron was not living at home at the time,” remembered Denton. “He was living at and running the grocery store in Grassy Butte. What’s ironic is that the two officers who were coming to inform my parents that Deland was MIA, actually stopped at the grocery store on the way to find the family farm. When they asked for directions, Deveron was at the store and that’s when he knew something wasn’t right.”
Denton said when the officers arrived at his family’s farm, it was during cow milking time. He remembers when the officers showed up, he went out to finish milking the cows. But after awhile, he couldn’t understand why it was taking his dad so long to come back to help finish milking the cows. Eventually, his dad finished talking to the officers and came out to tell Denton what was going on.
“It’s not like getting the news that someone close to you died in a car accident or something,” explained Denton. “The person is missing, so you keep hope. You don’t really deal with that grief right then. You just kind of keep methodically thinking that you’ll hear something tomorrow. I just assumed that Deland would figure his way out of it and come home.”
But that wasn’t the case. Deland would never figure his way out or end up back home. In fact, it would take seven more years for the United States Army to declare Deland dead.
“Even in 1978, when they declared Deland dead, I can’t say that we ever really had a funeral for him,” Denton shared. “There is a grave in the Grassy Butte cemetery. It’s one of those situations where I think one of my dad’s last thoughts was whatever happened to my son. And the same for my mom, because you just never know. And then you kind of just keep going on. We never really had a funeral because we never really knew.”
Even though the years passed and time went on, emotions were always there under the surface. Deland’s family never knew what it would be that would trigger a memory from day to day, but over the years, things affected each family member in different ways at different times.
“I remember probably five years after Deland was MIA at a mall in Dickinson, I saw the back of someone’s head,” Denton recalled. “It was the cut of the hair. It was like a lightning bolt went through my entire body because I thought it was my brother. So for my parents, I can’t even imagine what they felt like or went through.”
Denton remembers how hard his mother took Deland’s loss. At first, she cried all the time. She was crying just about every time you turned around, he said. It didn’t matter what you did or what you said, that his mother would start crying. It was hard on the family. But as time passed, they each continued on with their lives, always thinking about Deland in the backs of their minds.
Up until Deland was declared dead in 1978, the family was updated by the U.S. Army on a regular basis.
“I remember seeing the helicopter come in,” stated Denton. “On a regular basis, they would update us, but it was more lack of news than anything. They would share reports with us and there was a lot of unconfirmed reports. The last actual factual data stated that one of the people that was with Deland at the time he went missing had left the Fox Hole. And he said that when he turned around, Deland was there in the Fox Hole and then never saw him again.”
Denton says the emotional toll is too high sometimes. Little things come up here and there. Songs remind him of his brother, like the song “Daniel” by Elton John because Denton says it’s a song about a veteran coming home from Vietnam. Then there are books about Prisoners of War (POWs), and he knows he has to read every one he ever sees because there’s a small glimmer of hope hearing about new POWs coming forward with their stories, 20 and 30 years after their experience. One of them could be Deland.
The worst thing about Denton and his family’s experience is the fact that there is no definite answer, so there’s no definite conclusion to any of the conversations that have ever taken place. So you just stop talking about it, Denton says.
“When people talk about closure, I know exactly what they are talking about now,” Denton stated. “Because you can’t ever close the door on it.”
Denton says that about a year after his brother went missing in Vietnam, he decided to enlist in the Army, with the mistaken notion that he could maybe find out what happened to his brother.
“Fortunately, for my parents, I was classified with medical/asthma problems and they took into account that I had a brother MIA,” said Denton. “The Army put me on a 30-day review. After that review they said, ‘we’re going to do your parents a favor and send you home.’ I was young and naive, especially making my parents go through that. When I hear of these families that have lost two and three sons in World War II, it just makes my heart bleed for them. I just can’t imagine how that would feel.”
No matter what steps Denton or any of his family members have taken to cope and deal with Deland’s MIA status, one thing remains. They need closure to really move on and heal from what has happened.
“I’d love to have closure,” says Denton. “I’d love for them to find his remains. I remember one of those few times my dad and I were out in the field working together and he said, ‘I would really love to know what happened. After all these years, I hope he’s dead, but I can’t help but hope he’s alive.’ And I totally got what he was saying. I think remains would help bring closure. I think then we could actually have a funeral service for Deland.”
For other people who have family members or friends MIA, Denton would say he’s very sorry because there is no advice to give and there really isn’t any consolation either.
“Life keeps continuing on,” says Denton. “Hope gets less and less. It turns into resignation that this is never going to end, and I hate to say that.”
But Denton holds on to the memories he’s cherished of his brother. He’ll always remember that they used to love to hunt together. And he’ll always remember the fights between two rowdy brothers.
“We used to throw darts at each other,” laughed Denton. “I remember once he threw a dart at me because I beat him at Ping Pong. He threw it and hit me in the leg. So I threw one back and missed him, but hit the fuel oil line. It started flowing out into the basement! I had to quickly fix that!”
Whether you have someone close to you that is MIA or has passed on, Memorial Day is a day to remember those individuals and to cherish the memories you had with them. It’s also a day to honor that person and to celebrate their life.