A lifetime has passed since my long-ago friend, Calvin Maxwell, went missing in Vietnam, October 10, 1969. The ghosts of war include the spirits of those lost, of course, but also the unsensed spirits of those who never were, and the untrod paths of lives changed forever. All those ghosts have a common request: remember….and remember…and remember.
1960. Link is to Calvin's promotion to Cadet Major.
Mysteries at last steep into something familiar and strange. I met Calvin "Max" Maxwell in high school. He was a sophomore and I was a junior and we were both in ROTC. He was instantly recognizable as one of the good guys, to be trusted as a brother. He was always where needed, doing what was important, and doing it right.
Calvin and Ruth Maxwell, 1943.
Calvin Maxwell's father, Calvin, in 1943.
Max was a natural leader. People studied and followed his example. Don't imagine I've romanticized his friendliness and good-natured camaraderie. He really was that rare individual who means everyone well.
School being a tribal event and classes coherent groupings, I might never have known Calvin, but for both of us being in ROTC. I didn’t realize he was new to Carlsbad, from Atlantic City, NJ. I did know his father was a policeman.
Two friends and I met Calvin’s father one evening driving to an ROTC drill team practice. One friend had just remarked to my other friend, the driver, "Are you doing fifty?" The driver replied, "Fifty hell. More like…." Someone pulled in front of us. No one was hurt but the other driver, an adult and therefore more credible than a trio of teenagers, insisted my friend had been speeding. Calvin Maxwell Senior answered the call, wrote up the report, and, on learning we were friends of his son, gave us a ride to the drill team practice. We felt pretty important arriving in a police car. Calvin’s dad showed great respect for the other driver’s complaint, but respect for us as well. He had a long and admired career on the Carlsbad police force.
New Mexico State University ROTC Rifle Team-1964
My two friends and I graduated and went off to the local cow college, New Mexico State University. A year later Calvin joined us. Calvin was in the NMSU ROTC Corps and went on to a military career in the Army. In college he continued to be a leader, an exemplary individual. He worked at the cafeteria, he was a resident assistant, and a stalwart of the ROTC rifle team. I graduated and lost touch with Calvin and both of my high school friends. We went off to do stuff. Vietnam happened. The sixties happened. Then the seventies happened. Then there was all that other confusion. Life.
Carlsbad Current-Argus, April 8, 1971. Picture links to full newspaper page in separate window.
Vietnam is the watershed event of the generations after World War II. There is before Nam, Nam, and after Nam. Those who were in it, those who had friends and family in it, those who avoided it, those who kibitzed, and those who ignored it were all changed utterly. Its fallout goes on forever in the form of old men and women living the consequences of choices they or others made because of Vietnam. For the children of the war generation Vietnam is a constant presence, sensed but mysterious. The greatest mystery is of the missing. Thousands disappeared, fate unknown.
Calvin was lost on a reconnaissance flight in 1969. The known facts are sparse. A flight had gone missing in Kontum. Two Cessna 01 Bird Dogs were deployed on 10 October 1969, to search for it, one flying high for terrain perspective, and one flying low as spotter. Max, Captain Calvin Maxwell, was the observer in the “high” Bird Dog piloted by Lt. Franklin "Lee" Weisner. The low aircraft heard screams from the higher one and contact was lost. The downed aircraft was found, some debris downstream, but no bodies. Four people left barefoot tracks at the crash scene.
A reconnoiter, involving helicopters, ground searchers and scuba divers, was terminated on 18 October. Calvin and Weisner were listed as Missing in Action (MIA). There were tantalizing suggestions of survivors from the crash, but no further evidence surfaced. At wars end Calvin was not among returning POWs. He was declared dead on 5 September 1978, and is listed on Panel 17W-Line 63 of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC.
Calvin married on 15 August 1964. When he graduated from college he was allowed to attend graduate school before fulfilling his ROTC military obligation. He earned a masters degree in 1968, and then went to Ft. Hood, Ft. Sill, and Ranger School at Ft. Benning, GA. Then he went to Vietnam. After his disappearance his wife, Kay Maxwell, became a powerful voice in efforts to locate MIA soldiers. She was interviewed by local newspapers, went to the Paris Peace talks, organized writing campaigns, appeared in Life Magazine, and never gave up. Her story tells us things about Calvin both directly and through his choice of wife.
Kay and Calvin wedding announcement, 1964. Picture links to story.
The 1973 dedication of the Freedom Trees display in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Picture links to story.
Picture links to story of Calvin missing a year, October 11, 1970.
Picture links to story about Kay Maxwell MIA awareness.
Kay Maxwell, 1970. Link to story about Prisoner of War Week.
Kay Maxwell, 1970. Link to the Picture in Life Magazine.
Link to story about Christmas, 1970.
Link to speech at Veterans' Appreciation Day.
Kay Maxwell with symbolic POW cage, 1971. Link to complete story.
Link to story about Calvin's family.
Link to story about Kay's trip to Europe.
Link to story about Kay's return from Europe.
Kay Maxwell on Calvin Maxwell Day, 1973. Link to complete story.
Link to story.
Interview with Kay Maxwell, 1970.
Interview with Kay Maxwell, 1973.
Ad placed by Kay Maxwell in 1973. Links to Virtual Vietnam Wall.
Calvin's parents never gave up. Page 1.
Calvin's parents never gave up. Page 2.
Army declares Calvin dead, 1978.
Kay Maxwell remarried: 1979.
The Internet is filled with Max. Touching testimony from people who never met him, but wore his MIA bracelet as youngsters, document the man’s continuing influence. Calvin never had children, but his wife eventually remarried, and in this eloquent post from Bryan Austin Ovenell we see Calvin's ongoing influence through her children and their families.
This transcription of a blog posting links to blog archived on the Wayback Machine.
Captain Maxwell in country. The picture links to a now defunct blog that explains the provenance of the picture.
Calvin gets a mention in several books. "Legendary Locals of Carlsbad," by Donna Blake Birchell has a piece about the POW/MIA Memorial Grove in Carlsbad, and Calvin is one of those commemorated. General Westmoreland's book, "The Vietnam War: The History of America's Conflict in Southeast Asia," has a full list of casualties in the Vietnam war.
Master Sergeant John Lamerson wrote "The Phantom of Ben Het," in which he talks about Captain Maxwell's last mission. The book is a well written chronicle of a forgotten story of the Vietnam war.
Rod Colvin's book, "First Heroes: The POWs Left Behind in Vietnam," speaks extensively of the efforts to get the POWs back and account for the missing. There is a welcome exposition of the tension during peace negotiations to get a full accounting of the prisoners and missing. Mr. Colvin and others have expressed their frustration at realizing the negotiations would not bring closure for everyone. There is still a feeling of betrayal among some POW/MIA families, a feeling that Vietnam has not been forthcoming enough. Calvin is listed in the appendix.
Find details about this and other fixed-wing losses here.
See a list of New Mexico Vietnam casualties.
See a synopsis of the incident, with map coordinates here.
Perhaps you'd like to wear a bracelet.
I knew Calvin only briefly, in the scale of a lifetime, and not nearly well enough. But I knew him sufficiently to grieve his passing, and to mourn the endless mystery of his disappearance. Whatever we finally make of Vietnam, the reasons for the war, or the meaning of its legacy, our future is interlaced with the sacrifices of those we lost. Salute, Calvin...
Some records conflict on basic information. Calvin was not born in Carlsbad, as is sometimes reported, but in New Jersey. His date of death is often given as the date his status was changed from MIA to presumed KIA. His rank at the time of the incident was Captain, but he remained active in MIA status until 1978, and his rank advanced to Major.