After 42 years, Donnie Shue finally comes home
By Joanie Morris
For the Salisbury Post
KANNAPOLIS — When Betty Jones got the phone call in 2009 that the remains of her brother, Donald Monroe Shue, were discovered on a farm in Vietnam, she dropped the phone and screamed.
“She threw the phone down and screamed, ‘No, no, no. I don’t believe that,’ ” says her sister Peggy Hinson. Though it’s been more than 40 years, Peggy, Betty and Peggy’s twin sister Nancy held on to hope that Donnie, as he was known to friends and family, was simply captured and held in a prison camp.
Sgt. 1st Class Shue, an Army Green Beret, was serving with two others when they went missing on a mission Nov. 3, 1969. Shue, Staff Sgt. William Brown and Sgt. 1st Class Gunther Wald were last seen wounded 30 miles inside Laos, near Ban Chakevy Tai in Saravane Province. According to military documents, Shue and the other two men — as well as several men who escaped — were attached to a unit performing highly classified maneuvers throughout Southeast Asia.
The family was notified and on Jan. 15, 1979, Shue was classified as missing in action. A military marker sits above an empty grave at Carolina Memorial Park in Kannapolis.
“My mama never gave up hope,” says Peggy, sitting at a table in her living room, thumbing through a photo album three inches thick documenting Donnie’s life. “None of us ever thought he was dead.”
Her mother, Nellie, routinely questioned the Army about her son’s status and any attempts to recover her son. Peggy admits that she’s not one who easily gives up, and has prayed daily for God to bring her brother home.
“God had told us back then, ‘I’m gonna bring him home,’ ” says Peggy, who relies on her faith daily. She pats a worn Bible next to the album of her brother’s life. “God never did tell us if he’d be alive or dead. He is bringing him home.”
Donnie Shue was a “happy-go-lucky fella” Peggy says.
“I never saw him mad or angry at all,” she says. Donnie went to A.L. Brown High School, but quit in 11th grade to join the Army. Not quite 18, he pestered his daddy until he signed the papers for Donnie to enlist. After a lot of begging, and possibly kneeling as if in prayer, Donnie convinced his daddy to sign the papers.
“Daddy didn’t want to” Peggy says, “but daddy gave up.”
Shue was the youngest of six children — four girls and two boys. His brother Billy died at 10, before Donnie was born. Peggy was 12 when Donnie was born.
While she’s upset and sad over the death of her brother after holding out hope for more than 40 years, Peggy chooses to remember the good times she had with him.
“He loved to dance,” she says. “This boy could get down.”
Once, her sister Nancy loaned Donnie her 1962 powder blue Bonneville convertible with “three deuces on the hood.” When Donnie returned the next morning, the tires were bald.
“She seen red,” says Peggy, recalling the altercation that followed. When Nancy asked him what had happened, he admitted he had been racing the car. “She said, ‘How many did you win?’ and he said, ‘All of them.’ ”
While she didn’t loan him the car again, Peggy recalls, Nancy wasn’t mad anymore.
It’s memories like that Peggy clings to as she talks about her brother, and the years that have passed since he went missing.
Missing in action
She remembers when the men came to her home to tell her family that Donnie was missing in action.
“Donnie was daddy’s heart,” says Peggy. “When he came up missing, daddy didn’t want to live anymore.”
Her daddy sat in his chair, and listened to the same song over and over after the men came and told him his son was missing. The song — Ferlin Husky’s “Wings of a Dove” — combined with the lack of knowledge about her brother’s whereabouts, helped to lead the whole family to the Lord, says Peggy.
“We saw our daddy cry for the first time when that Army officer came and left,” she adds. “It brought my whole family to their knees.”
Her father, never sick a day in his life, almost seemed to give up on life and died in 1971, never knowing what happened to his youngest son.
“My daddy died of a broken heart,” says Peggy. “He was just a different man after that.”
That was in November 1969. She recalls Donnie’s number given to him was 1169 — slightly ironic, considering.
Weather had prevented a recovery team from entering Laos until days after Donnie and his comrades went missing and no remains, or graves, were found. The United States never negotiated for the more than 600 American soldiers lost in Laos and no American soldier has ever been released, according to the Rolling Thunder website.
When the lines in Southeast Asia were redrawn and the location where Shue, Brown and Wald were last seen was shifted to Vietnam’s control, the U.S. sent a recovery team into the area. According to military records, the team found a Zippo lighter with Shue’s name engraved on it in the remains of three men discovered on a farm.
The government sent letters to Betty after the discovery, asking for DNA samples from family members to help positively identify Shue. Peggy says her sister has the lighter the government team found with the remains. They also showed the family a boot found with him, and pictures of his teeth in a line.
“He had beautiful teeth,” says Peggy, remembering her always-smiling brother.
“All of the remains were there together,” she adds. The government also showed the family pictures of the team in the process of recovering her brother and his companions. “They were searching for them.”
“Sgt. First Class Shue and the more than 58,000 U.S. service members who died in Vietnam will never be forgotten,” U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said in a press release. “After so many years, I know it is a relief to his family that he will be welcomed home.”
Peggy says the discovery of her brother’s remains have only worked to solidify her faith in God.
“I knew someday he’d be home,” she says. She routinely listens to the old hymn, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a song that speaks to her about her brother.
When the men came and told her family he was missing, she said it was a trial.
“You know, you cry and it’s like your guts are going to come out,” she says of the loss of her brother. “It’s like somebody cut you with a knife. When something like that happens, you bow your head and pray.”
Betty Jones, another sister of Shue’s, talked briefly on the phone about the discovery of her brother’s remains.
“He loved the Army,” she recalled. “He loved every minute of it.”
She said he’d come home from training on the weekend with a laundry bag for his mom and ropes to practice down in the gravel pits off Poplar Tent Road. She recalled going down to the post office in Concord and planting a small tree in his honor. That tree has grown and over the years, so had the hope of her brother’s survival.
“When they called me and said they’d found his remains, I said, ‘I don’t believe you,’ ” said Betty. It was only after being shown pictures of the remains, and his lighter, that Jones finally believed.
Shue will be flown from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on April 30 to Charlotte-Douglas Airport. A brigade of about 1,000 motorcycles from Rolling Thunder will escort Shue from the airport to downtown Concord, where Betty and Peggy will receive keys to the city. The escort will then continue to Whitley’s Funeral Home in Kannapolis, where Shue’s remains will be held until his memorial service May 1.
The empty grave at Carolina Memorial Park won’t sit empty any longer, and the sisters can finally have closure — something the family has been waiting on for more than 40 years. Shue will be buried with his parents and brother at the memorial park.
“I’ll be so glad when they bring him home,” said Betty. “I’ll know where he is.”
At the end of Operation Homecoming in 1973, more than 2,600 Americans did not return from Southeast Asia and were unaccounted for. Since then, the remains of 900 Americans killed in the war have been recovered and returned to their families.
Shue’s name is located at 16W Row 24 on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
Contact Joanie Morris at 704-797-4248.