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POW's wife holds onto hope for 36 years
Husband disappeared over Laos in 1968 after radioing for help

Fran Masterson's husband, Liet. Col. Michael J. "Bat" Masterson, went missing while flying on a mission over Laos on October 13, 1968. Fran has since become an advocate for POW/MIA families searching for loved ones.
By SARA A. CARTER - STAFF WRITER

Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - Memories of love and war are frozen in time for Fran Masterson.

Her enduring love remains as strong today as it was when she last saw her husband more than 36 years ago.

It was Oct. 13, 1968, when Air Force Capt. Michael "Bat" Masterson radioed a frightened call for help before bailing out of his aircraft over Laos.

At that moment, what happened to Masterson became one of the many secrets that the Southeast Asian jungles have kept closely guarded for the years of war and peace.

But Fran Masterson of Upland has never given up - she believes her husband is still alive somewhere in those same jungles she last saw when she searched for him in 1973.

"I went to Vietnam looking for him, hoping that I would find him, but it was too dangerous and I had to leave," she said as she sat in her living room, where the afternoon sun bounced off the carpet to illuminate the black-and-white photograph of Bat sitting on her table.

"It was one of the hardest moments in my life. I never want to forget the men who gave their lives for us. I know that if I were missing in action ... I truly believe Bat would be doing what I've been doing all these years."

Fran Masterson has been an advocate for POWs and MIAs since her husband's disappearance. She was a founding member of the grassroots National Alliance for POW/MIA in 1990. The group advocates for families of missing soldiers when government answers are slim to none.

Since his disappearance, she has heard many reports from the government that her husband or someone resembling him may have been spotted somewhere in Vietnam or Cambodia. The last report she received was two years ago.

But she doesn't put much faith in them anymore for fear she'd lose her mind.

"They send you a report, but they just list his name among others," she said. "No one gives anything extra. Not where they saw him or who. I receive them every so often and they get put away in a drawer." Yet they haunt her, and she wonders. Bat, nicknamed after the early 1960s television program about Western cowboy Bat Masterson, was one of the funniest men Fran ever met.

"Everyone loved him, and he loved everyone," she said. "All he wanted to do was make people laugh."

She recalls one of his stunts, involving their wedding, a smirk creeping onto her still-youthful face.

On Nov. 3, 1967, when they took their vows, Bat was up to his old shenanigans, she said. The guests in the chapel erupted in laughter when Fran and Bat knelt at the altar.

Only Fran and the pastor weren't in on the joke.

"Bat could make a joke out of anything," she said. "He put "HE' on one sole of his shoe and "LP' on the other. What a guy. ... You know sometimes I imagine him in the jungle consoling other soldiers with his humor. He had so many hopes for his future - I love him, that's why I don't let go."

It was April 1, 1968, when Bat deployed to Vietnam to fly A1-G aircraft on missions to locate stranded American soldiers. In September, he returned home on leave. It would be the last time she saw him.

"He told me when he came back on leave that he was frightened by the night missions they were being sent on and he'd hope they would end," she said.

That fateful night back over Laos, Bat reported that his compass wasn't working, and he had lost his bearings and got vertigo, he said. He told the pilot in a plane nearby he was bailing out.

Then silence.

That night -- days before she got word of his disappearance -- she said she remembers feeling a lump in her throat, like she couldn't speak. This was a few nights before Air Force personnel arrived at her home to notify her that her husband was missing.

"I think deep in my heart I knew something went wrong the night it happened," she said. "I think Bat was trying to reach me - let me know. When the Air Force reps came to my door I tried to shut them out. I thought if I don't hear it, it won't be true."

Two weeks later, a tape arrived in the mail that Bat had recorded two days before his disappearance, his voice calling to her from thousands of miles away.

He had a premonition something bad was going to happen, she said. She could hear it in his voice.

"We would send each other recordings all the time," she said. "I listened to those tapes until 1973. Since then it has been too hard for me. I keep them boxed and haven't heard his voice since."

And like the darkness that consumed her husband, it is the night that haunts Fran's sleep.

"When I dream about him, most of the time he doesn't know who I am," she said. "I see him in the jungles, I reach out to him, but each time, he doesn't know me or I just can't reach him. Maybe it's the not knowing of what happened to him that makes it so hard."

It is a sort of limbo, she said. It's as if someone in your family was kidnapped, taken away, without any answers as to where they might be.

Their two daughters, Sue Wright, 47, and Sheri Randle, 42, remember their father fondly and each still wears an MIA bracelet with his name on it.

They also hope that one day they'll find out the truth.

"Everyone in our family is still wearing our POW-MIA bracelet with Bat's name on it because we have not found out what his true fate is," Randle wrote in a letter to a supporter of POWs.

"... we are always thrilled to see people still wearing their POW-MIA bracelets because of the original vow they took when they put the bracelet on ... to not take it off until you find out what has truly happened to him."

Michael Wright, 20, never knew the grandfather he was named after. But he is still a hero to him, Fran Masterson said.

"If I had one wish, it would be for Bat to come back home," she said while standing outside her Upland home still decorated in tattered red ribbons for the lost airman.

"I would probably say, "Bat, what took you so long to get home? Maybe you shouldn't have jumped out of that airplane, but I've always loved you and I've always been waiting.'" Sara A. Carter can be reached by e-mail at sara.carter@dailybulletin.com or by phone at (909) 483-8552.

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