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Shell that downed Utahn in Nam finds him again

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Toilet paper.

Warm beds.Liberty.

These are things Dale Osborne is grateful for, though not necessarily in that order.

On the Fourth of July, the 65-year-old former Navy pilot talked about his blessings while fingering the remnant of a 57-millimeter anti-aircraft shell that downed his plane in the Vietnam War.

Osborne managed to eject from his A-4 Skyhawk before it crashed, but it seems the 30-year-old casing has found him again, this time to remind him of life's good things instead of to take them away.

The brass form was mailed to Osborne, who lives in Salt Lake City, last month, after surfacing in a suburb of Warsaw, Poland. A Vietnamese inscription on the casing, dated Sept. 23, 1968, reads, "Shell that shot down an A4 on the spot. A gift from the Nghe An Province (Air Defense) Group."

The Pentagon began looking for Osborne after military records showed that Osborne was the only pilot that went down that day in the Nghe Air Province, stated an e-mail message from Bob Destatte, at the U.S. government POW/MIA office.

Destatte e-mailed the find to Colorado resident Mike McGrath, president of the NAM-POWs Inc. And McGrath forwarded it to a surprised Osborne.

"It was kinda like, is it real?" said Osborne, remembering the day the package came. "I wanted to have it, but it came with mixed emotions. It brought back a bunch of bad memories that I hadn't thought about," he added.

The fact that the artillery shell was preserved as a souvenir is characteristic of the way the North Vietnamese celebrated individual victories in their battle with the Americans.

Even today, the remains of an American B-52 juts hauntingly from a small pond in Hanoi where the wreckage landed. A marker at the edge of the pond tells how the bomber was brought down.

Another marker miles away recalls how city residents hauled a downed flyer from a lake and took him into custody. A pile of helmets taken from captured American pilots anchors a display in a Hanoi museum about Vietnam's military campaigns dating back to the expulsion of the French in the 1950s.

On that day in 1968, Osborne, then 35, had been flying a reconnaissance trip, was to bomb Vietnamese military installations and search for Navy lieutenant commander Brian Woods, who had been shot down two weeks before.

When the shell hit Osborne's cockpit, shrapnel tore up his legs, arms and head, lodging pieces as big as a quarter into his flesh that have never been removed.

Osborne, who lost consciousness after ejecting, was taken as a prisoner of war by the Vietnamese military and was held for 41/2 years. But he found the captured Brian Woods: It was Woods who would feed him, change him, and take care of him as a cellmate in prison.

Gobel James, now a retired Air Force Colonel in Scottsdale, Ariz., also helped Osborne when the two shared a cell for a couple of years.

"He was a tough guy, a tough resister," said James. "If he hadn't been so tough, he probably would have died."

James remembered the huge scars Osborne received while lying on his blistering, bare back while being transported in a truck to the "Hanoi Hilton" prison camp. At one point, guards found termites in Osborne's back wounds after finally turning the incapacitated man over.

But there were good times, Osborne said. The prisoners would share packages mailed to them from home with their cellmates, and one day Osborne received a package with little chocolate pieces in the box.

Every day for a couple of weeks, he and his cellmates savored two pieces each, rationing out the delicacy.

The happiest time came when American B-52s continuously bombed the area for eight or nine days. Loud as thunder, the bombs would shake the buildings, and the plaster would fly off, said Osborne, his blue eyes bright.

"They forced the Vietnamese to end the war," he explained.

Osborne went home with the first group of POWs to leave the prison camps on Feb. 12, 1973. But he believes that not all of the men were released.

"I have always thought that all of the prisoners did not come home," he told the Deseret News. Though he was just speculating, he said, Osborne thought some prisoners were taken to Russia, China, and perhaps even Laos, Cambodia and northern Vietnam.

Only 660 POWs were recovered of 3,600 missing servicemen in the Vietnam War, added McGrath, in a phone call from Colorado Springs. McGrath verified that Osborne is one of five Utah Vietnam POWs still alive.

Osborne, who served 20 years in the Navy, said he was raised with the military in his blood. His father fought in World War I. Two older brothers flew in World War II, one of them died in Belgium.

"I have a strong feeling for America," Osborne said, sitting beside the dull, dented shell casing. As he continued talking, naming the things he is grateful for as an American, liberty was at the very top of that list.