Wayne County man went to Vietnam in ’61 as missionary; still missing

KIDRON, Ohio— In 1961, during his second year of college, Daniel Gerber felt he had a calling.

Raised on a family farm east of Kidron, the Dalton High School graduate looked to his Mennonite faith. He believed it was time to serve God in the church’s volunteer service.

Daniel Gerber

The Mennonite Central Committee in 1951 had established the Pax Program. Church members believe war is against God’s teachings and they created a program that allowed church members to serve their country as conscientious objectors and help others.

Gerber’s older brothers, David and Jim, had served by working at medical facilities in the United States. Daniel Gerber was willing to take an assignment overseas.

The Mennonite church loaned Gerber to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which helped at hospitals, schools and churches worldwide.

Gerber boarded a freighter in August 1961 for a monthlong sea journey to Vietnam. A man of peace, he was going to a war-torn country. He never returned.

“We’ll see him in heaven,” Barb Steiner, Gerber’s sister, said of her brother.

Gerber’s siblings long ago accepted he died, although his death never has been confirmed.

There are no details. The family doesn’t know a date. They don’t know if Daniel died because of illness or was killed by his captors.

“We don’t know anything official, what happened to them or when,” said Steiner, who lives near Dalton.

Gerber volunteered for three years of service as a maintenance man for a Christian and Missionary Alliance medical center outside the city of Ban Me Thuot in Vietnam’s central highlands. He also taught locals about farming.

He was one of three people abducted from the center, which treated people suffering from leprosy. Also taken were Archie Mitchell, a long-time missionary with the Alliance who had been in Vietnam with his wife and children since 1948, and Dr. Eleanor A. Vietti, who treated patients. Viet Cong soldiers also took medical supplies and a truck.

Left behind to later tell the story were Mitchell’s family and several nurses, including Ruth Wilting, a Cleveland woman. During his eight months in Vietnam, Gerber and Wilting had fallen in love and were planning to marry.

Among thousands sent to facilities the Alliance operates around the world, more than 20 have been martyred, but Gerber and the others taken are the only three volunteers classified as missing, said Kristian Rollins, an archivist for the Alliance.

It’s been 56 years with no official report. “They’re still technically missing,” Rollins said.

When the Vietnam War ended, roughly 2,500 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were listed as missing in action, as well as more than 40 civilians who were in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos for business or working as missionaries and journalists.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, in a May 31 report, lists just under 1,600 individuals as unaccounted, with 31 civilians on the list.

Daniel Gerber was the third of six children born to Nathan and Elvina Gerber. The couple raised their children on a 73-acre farm the Gerber family has owned since 1822. The property remains in the family. David and Leora Gerber, the oldest son and his wife, still live there as does the family of their oldest daughter, Karen.

The farm served as a sprawling playground for the Gerber children, Steiner recalls. During summer evenings they would play a modified version of baseball in a grassy area between the house and barn. Winters were spent sledding.

There were nights when Daniel didn’t make it outside with his siblings. Sometimes it was evening dishes, Steiner said, but more often it was because he was reading. The Gerber family read and studied the Bible as part of their daily Mennonite faith.

After graduating high school in 1958, Gerber worked for a year on a neighbor’s farm to earn money for college. He spent one year at Goshen College in Indiana, then transferred to Hesston College in Kansas.

But after two years of college, Daniel believed he had a calling to voluntary service, according to an article in a 1978 edition of The Ohio Evangel, a Mennonite church publication. He applied to the church’s Pax Program, following brothers David and Jim. Later his younger brother, Norm, would serve in the states with Pax, while the youngest brother Aldis served in Mexico, where he married and still lives.

Although Ban Me Thuot was in a region infiltrated by Viet Cong, which opposed the government in Saigon, the volunteers at the medical center believed they were safe. They were in the country to help others and believed they would be left alone.

Civil war had been raging for years in Vietnam. In 1961 and 1962, U.S. forces were helping the South Vietnamese government combat Viet Cong rebels who were supported by North Vietnam. The U.S. had troops in the country advising South Vietnamese forces and transporting them in helicopters and planes. The U.S. also supplied weapons for South Vietnamese troops.

The evening of May 30, 1962, Gerber and Wilting were walking near the medical center’s grounds when soldiers approached. They bound Gerber’s hands. More soldiers grabbed Mitchell and his family, while another group found Vietti.

The soldiers warned Mitchell’s wife, Wilting and the other nurses to wait until morning before leaving. It was the last time Gerber, Mitchell and Vietti were seen by Alliance volunteers.

It was the next day when Nathan and Elvina Gerber learned from the Alliance about the fate of their son. The missionary group and Mennonite church worked with U.S. and foreign government agencies, as well as the international Red Cross, hoping to find and rescue their volunteers.

U.S. military in the area searched, but they were concerned any rescue attempt would lead to the death of the captives.

In July 1962, there were unconfirmed reports the captives were treating wounded Viet Cong soldiers. But there also were reports the three had been killed.

“We had quite a few rumors, but they were never substantiated,” Steiner said.

A glimmer of hope came in the spring of 1968. A foreign journalist traveling with the North Vietnamese reported a captured medical missionary was running a hospital. In May, a captured Viet Cong soldier said he had worked with the three captives.

In mid-May 1968, The Canton Repository and other newspapers in the region carried stories that Gerber, Vietti and Mitchell were confirmed to be alive. They were said to be with two other missionaries who had been captured in January 1968 near Ban Me Thuot.

News that Gerber was alive followed trying times for the Gerber family.

Just two weeks before the report, the family’s father, Nathan Gerber, was killed in a tractor accident on the farm.

Earlier in the year, during the Tet Offensive, Viet Cong once again attacked the leprosarium. Ruth Wilting still served as a volunteer and was killed along with other nurses.

Wilting had visited the Gerber family in October 1966.

“We accepted her as one of us,” Steiner said. They exchanged letters and shared in the hope that Gerber would eventually return.

While the reports in 1968 offered hope, it faded as the United States worked to end its involvement in Vietnam.

Late in 1972 word came from Vietnamese tribesmen that Mitchell and Vietti were alive, but Gerber had died.

When the Hanoi government provided names of prisoners of war in February 1973, Gerber, Mitchell and Vietti weren’t on the list of people to be released. They were presumed dead.

David Gerber said he’s read several books about Vietnam, including firsthand experiences of some who survived. He’s certain his younger brother died.

“It’s jungle over there. You can’t expect anybody would live when they’re persecuted, tortured.”

Steiner suspects once the war ended the Viet Cong decided they no longer needed Daniel and his companions and simply killed them.

She trusts in God the situation ended as it should.

“It taught me what it is to have faith in God,” Steiner said. “You trust him for everything.”