Archie Mitchell and the Forgotten MIAs


Whenever we are tempted to retreat into a comfortable denominational parochialism, a sure remedy is to hear the story of a soldier for Christ who, had he lived in your town, would surely have gone to the church down the street.
Archie Mitchell, photo courtesy of the The Alliance Archives
The war in the Pacific must have seemed far, far away to the five Sunday School students in Elsie Mitchell’s class as the group drive down the mountainous road on their way to a picnic near Klamath Falls. At the wheel was the teacher’s husband, Rev. Archie Mitchell.

The date was May 5, 1945. Before the sun would set on that tragic day, Archie would be the lone survivor.

Archie Mitchell was born in Emerson, Nebraska. Having attended Simpson Bible College in Redding, CA, it was not surprising that he would end up as pastor of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Bly, Oregon. On that day in May, he and wife, who was 5 months pregnant, had been taking a group of young people from church on an outing when they came to an impassable section of road.

Elsie and the children got out of the car to stretch their legs while Archie proceeded to turn the car around on the narrow road. As the group wandered about 100 yards from the road, Archie heard his wife call to him. According to the Forest History Archives:

Mrs. Mitchell called out to her husband that she and the children had found something and to come see it. By coincidence a road work crew led by Richard Barnhouse, who was operating a grader, was there as well. Barnhouse could see the children formed in a semi-circle but couldn’t see what they were looking at. Elsie Mitchell called out two more times. Mitchell responded, ‘Wait a minute, and I’ll come and look at it.'{footnote}Lewis, Jamie “Mad B-Logger”, The Two Tragedies of Archie Mitchell, May 30, 2012, see{/footnote}

No doubt, Barnhouse and a grieving Archie Mitchell would relive those next few moments over and over again in their mind, wondering what they could, or should have done differently.

Just then there was a terrific explosion which shook the ground for a considerable distance. Needles, twigs, and sticks flew through the air, some of which were later picked up near the grader. Barnhouse immediately stopped the grader, which was about 150 yards from the explosion, and both he and Mitchell ran to the scene. Four of the children were dead, part of them badly mangled, another died immediately, and Mrs. Mitchell died within a few minutes. None were conscious after the explosion. Mrs. Mitchell’s clothes were on fire, and Mr. Mitchell immediately put this fire out….{footnote}Bach, Melva; History of the Fremont National Forest, pg. 207-208, as cited Lewis, op. cit.{/footnote}

No one could have imagined that these five would become the only American casualties of World War II to die in the continental United States. The American government knew about the “fire balloons” that had been floating onto the American mainland by the thousands, but had ordered that no mention of their sightings should make it into the news.
A balloon bomb sent from Japan is seen in the U.S. in July, 1945
The Japanese had conceived of the idea of using the strong Pacific winds to float huge bomb-laden balloons onto the American mainland. The balloons were an engineering marvel, made of extremely light, but durable rice paper (or sometimes rubbery sheets), and a sophisticated arming system. Factories full of young women would labor away at making the huge balloons. The problem was that the period of strongest winds, starting in November, also was the time when the West Coast forests were drenched in rain and fog, hardly the dry kindling the Japanese plot would require in order to start widespread forest fires.

The Japanese had been churning out propaganda at home, describing massive forest fires and terrified throngs of Americans fleeing the balloons, but after months of no news coverage, they reluctantly concluded the terror campaign was a bust, and shut it down not long after tragedy in Oregon. It was only after the deaths of Elsie Mitchell and her Sunday School class that the media began to take note. The U.S. government changed its censorship policy later that same month, reasoning that an informed public would be better prepared to avoid the incendiary balloons, and to avoid a repeat of the Oregon tragedy.

The “Fu Go” balloons were huge, about 33 feet in diameter, and required 19,000 cubic feet of helium. At first, the Americans were convinced they were being launched inside the U.S., since it seemed inconceivable that balloons could make it across the Pacific in sufficient numbers to pose a real threat, if they made it at all. In reality, the more than 9,000 balloons were launched from Japan, whose military had conquered the elevation, wind and other logistical hurdles, as well as designing extremely clever “triggers” to arm and deploy the balloons ordnance. Detailed Navy videos of the balloons may be viewed online.{fottnote} VIDEOS/Japanese_Balloon_Bomb.html{/footnote}

MitchellMonumentWhile only several hundred are known to have landed on the U.S. mainland, the knowledge that the Japanese were frantically researching biological weaponry meant the U.S. took the threat the balloons posed seriously. While Archie Mitchell escaped that day with his life, his journey was far from over.

Committed to the gospel ministry, Archie did not doubt his calling and, newly remarried, set off for the mission field in a place few Americans had ever heard of at the time, called Viet Nam.
Archie and his wife Betty would settle in Da Lat, a city northeast of Saigon, part of the large group of Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries in the country, numbering 138 at the end of the war. The C&MA had been pioneer missionaries in the country since 1911. They would stay to the bitter end, and beyond. The last C&MA missionary not in captivity reluctantly boarded the next to last helicopter to lift off from the American embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese overran the southern capital. But others did not have that option, and here we pick up Archie’s story once again.

He and Betty had been in Vietnam for 12 years, first at Da Lat, but then at the Leprosarium, a hospital that housed and care for as much misery as the name implies. Together with their four children, Archie and Betty served alongside missionary medical personnel in ministering to those with, quite literally, no one else to turn to. Once again, Archie’s world would be rocked.

It happened one evening as he and Betty walked over to the compound’s evening prayer meeting. The Leprosarium tells it this way:

On Wednesday, 30 May 1962 at 1945 hours, a group of 12 armed Viet Cong (CV) guerrillas entered the Leprosarium compound. Dividing into 3 groups, the VC accosted Dan Gerber, tied him up and led him to a holding area outside the compound. Another group went directly to the house of Rev. Mitchell where they promptly ordered him out of his home. The communists immediately tied his arms behind him before leading him away to join Mr. Gerber. The last group crossed over to Dr. Vietti’s home, ordered her outside and escorted her to the holding area.

The VC also quickly rounded up the rest of the staff and sternly lectured them on their betrayal of the Vietnamese people. Further, they assured the staff that each of them deserved an immediate and painful death. While the Communists terrorized the nurses and other missionaries, including the children, the VC did not harm or molest them. After completing their lecture, the VC ransacked all the buildings for anything they could use— linens, medicines, clothing and surgical instruments—then packed the supplies into the hospital’s truck.

Originally the VC planned to take Betty Mitchell and the couple’s children along with the other three. After convincing the VC that the missionaries would fully cooperate with them if only they would leave Mrs. Mitchell and the children behind, the VC forced Dr. Vietti, Rev. Mitchell and Mr. Gerber into the back of the truck under armed guard. At roughly 2200 hours, the communists departed the hospital compound with their prisoners and supplies. At the time US intelligence believed the three were abducted for use in a VC hospital.

When Ardel Vietti, Archie Mitchell and Dan Gerber were captured, the U.S. pledged all of its resources in order to see that everything possible was done to achieve their safe rescue or release. Both American and South Vietnamese military intelligence agencies immediately discovered their probable detention location. Likewise, they also confirmed that communist forces used these medical personnel’s expertise to treat their own sick and wounded as they moved from one location to another. Unfortunately, while our intelligence successfully tracked Dr. Vietti, Rev. Mitchell and Mr. Gerber’s movements, they were never able to mount a rescue mission due to the heavy and continuous enemy presence in and around the area of captivity.

At the same time the military was actively tracking Ardel Vietti, Archie Mitchell and Dan Gerber, missionary officials were attempting to negotiate for their release. By 1969, negotiations between the Christian and Missionary Alliance and some North Vietnamese soldiers seemed close to gaining the missionaries’ release. However, the negotiations collapsed and never could be reconstituted.{footnote} /m602.html{/footnote}
Christian Missionary & Alliance Church in Bly, Oregon, where Archie Mitchell served as pastor
Rev. Mitchell and his two colleagues were taken captive in 1962. The first U.S. airman captured was in 1964, so one can understand why the missionaries were surprised by the Viet Cong kidnappings. Later, Archie’s wife and the others would be kidnapped, as well, but their release was soon negotiated. For the original three missionaries, however, the trail would grow cold. There were occasional reports of three aid workers being put to work by the North Vietnamese caring for war casualties, but all attempts to secure their release failed. Six years after that last meeting in 1969, the war came to an abrupt and jarring end.

Burned into the memory of a generation of Americans are the images of Huey helicopters lifting off from the American embassy rooftop, ferrying away as many of the remaining Americans as could get to the embassy compound before it was overrun. When the last chopper departed, few could have imagined the heartache that would follow as the count climbed of those left behind, the “MIAs.”

If and when the three soldiers of the cross went home to glory we cannot say. The last accounting of those missing in Vietnam was published on April 22, 2013, and lists beside each of their three names a single word – “Prisoner.”{footnote}{/footnote}

Evacuation of CIA station personnel by Air America on the rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon, Vietnam, on April 29, 1975.