Princeton dentist, Dr. Bob Beattie, 66, says he found closure during a Feb. 22 to March 9 mission trip to Vietnam when he visited a mountain where his father, A. Donald Beattie, was killed in a plane crash nearly a half century ago.
The crash was on March 23, 1967, and the elder Beattie, who at the time was 45, was among a group of eight American educators on a tour of South Vietnam high schools and colleges to provide educational assistance. It was a tour sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the twin-engine Air America plane crashed about 15 nautical miles north, northwest of Da Nang.
The crash site was about two-thirds the way up an 868-foot mountain. Beattie said after the mission trip that it would have been too challenging for him to climb up to the spot where the plane hit. But just getting to the base of the mountain gave him closure to the tragic event of 47 years ago, he said.
Beattie said the pilot had taken off in bad weather and went off course with the pilot apparently thinking he was flying above 400-foot hills, according to the crash investigation commissioned by Beattie’s mother and the widows of other passengers. The pilot was trying to fly below the clouds; planes then did not have as sophisticated navigational tools including GPS as today’s aircraft, Beattie said.
Traumatic time for family
The announcement of his father’s death was very traumatic for Beattie and his family. Prior to the tragedy, Beattie had spent the earliest years of his life in St. Cloud, before his family moved to Whitewater, Wis. At the time of his father’s death, Beattie was 19 and a university freshman. His younger brother Keith was 17, sister Carol was 15, and his youngest sister Lois was 12.
The news of the fatal crash came at 2 a.m. Beattie remembers awaking to the sound of his mother shrieking, and that she was so upset she couldn’t talk at first to explain what had happened. The caller also called the police, who called the Beattie family’s doctor. The doctor made an emergency house call and gave Beattie’s mother medication to calm her.
As Beattie retold the event, his eyes misted and his face reddened.
“It was very traumatic,” he said. His mother, now in her 90s, still lives in the same home, he said.
He said his father was in the “peak of his career” at the time of his death and had turned down higher university positions that he had been offered, including one at Columbia University.
“He didn’t want to have his kids live in New York,” Beattie said.
The widows of the eight educators each hired an attorney and all got together to hire a “big attorney in Chicago” to investigate, Beattie said. The widows’ lawsuit was “settled fairly quickly” with a cash settlement, Beattie said.
Idea for the mission
Beattie settled on this trip while looking at a website in early January this year to find a dental mission out of the United States to go on. He said he saw a dental mission trip to Vietnam called DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) 4 Kids. The mission was to the Mekong Delta area on the southern end of Vietnam to give dental work to children in the rural countryside.
Beattie remembers thinking “This is the one” and emailed about his interest in going. He learned that the mission trip roster was full, though one registrant might not be able to go due to medical reasons. The contact person suggested he send in the $100 registration fee. Two days later he received a reply that he was in.
“I was very excited,” Beattie said.
Beattie, who has retired from his Princeton practice but continues to teach dentistry part time at the University of Minnesota dental school, was about to find a way to both be part of a dental mission and get as close as possible to the crash site.
Beattie credits one of the students at the U of M School of Dentistry with helping him get to the mountain of the crash site. The student is a Vietnamese American and has connections in Vietnam, he said.
About the dental mission
Beattie and the nine other mission group members gathered Feb. 25 in Saigon and then traveled together to the mission area in the Mekong Delta.
The group, consisting of three dentists and seven volunteer assistants, were headed to little villages to give dental work to children in first through sixth grades. A lot of the work involved applying sealants to teeth, but it also included tooth extractions. The group saw 600 children per day, for a total of about 3,600 while there.
All the dental equipment had been kept in a dental office south of Saigon. Beattie said the group lacked some of the dental equipment commonly found at American dental offices. For example, there was no X-ray machine, nor suction and drilling equipment, he explained.
“All we had were tools for extraction and sealants,” he said.
One doctor, who headed the group determined which child needed which dental services. Another in the group escorted the children in and out of the small room used as the dental clinic and two people sterilized the dental equipment and set it up.
Beattie figured that a small percentage of the children had never seen a dentist prior to being seen by the mission group. Besides giving treatment, the group instructed the children on proper oral hygiene.
“It was very fulfilling,” Beattie said of the mission. “The good part was helping them get out of their pain. The bad part was taking out permanent teeth. Most of the extractions were permanent teeth.”
Beattie finished up his mission work by March 6 and took a plane that afternoon to Da Nang, where he stayed two nights.
At the crash mountain
Through connections, arrangements had been made to give Beattie a ride from Da Nang to the mountain. To his surprise, he met a villager who told him that, as a child, he had heard the plane crash and had seen the flash from the explosion when the plane went down.
He said one villager told him that, because of the area terrain, it would take the villager three days to climb up the mountain to the crash site, but would take Beattie four days. Beattie said he felt closure by just standing at the base of the mountain.
“I know a lot of veterans have gone back (to Vietnam) for closure,” said Beattie, who noted that his father’s name is among those on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The wall has the names of the nearly 60,000 Americans killed during the war.
The trip, Beattie said, fulfilled two life goals he had remaining: to go on a mission trip in another country and visit the place where his father lost his life.