I didn’t really know Fred.
But, as his brother Daniel’s widow, I became the lone caretaker for something Fred valued greatly: His Arnold Palmer “Classic” golf clubs in the distressed red leather bag. Each day, as I left for work, I’d note them in their usual position, set off in a corner of the garage, as if they were waiting, waiting for Fred’s return.
The years passed. Many of Fred’s family have passed on, but Fred never returned. In recent years, with my family’s selling of two homes, and the corresponding transfer of furniture and personal property, something happened to the golf clubs.
They, too, disappeared.
On the night of Aug. 13, 1965, while flying his high-speed F-101 Voodoo reconnaissance jet, in lead position, on a mission over North Vietnam, 30-year-old Air Force Capt. Fredric Moore Mellor encountered enemy fire. Mellor was able to radio in his position before his aircraft sustained battle damage that ultimately caused his radio to go dead and a fire to start in the nose wheel. At that point, Mellor instructed his wingman to assume the lead position and Mellor’s plane fell back.
Mellor ejected and touched down, uninjured. He communicated with search planes shortly afterward. But when helicopters went in to retrieve him, he was gone.
According to locals, questioned years later, Captain Mellor encountered the enemy, gunfire was exchanged, and the pilot was injured. They believe he was taken prisoner.
Today, Mellor is recognized as Rhode Island’s first casualty of the Vietnam War. He is one of seven Rhode Islanders unaccounted for, in all.
Fredric Moore Mellor was born April 5, 1935, and raised in the Eden Park area of Cranston — known among locals as “Sweden Park” for the many residents who had come from that country. Blonde, towheaded babies were the rule. Though they were not Swedish, Fred and his older brother Daniel Munro fit right in. Some time later, two young girls would join the household, cousins whose parents had died.
The family of six now occupied a three-story tenement on Chestnut Avenue.
As a young man, Fred was strikingly handsome. He was also attracted to risk.
His cousin, Neil Tack (the son of Fred’s mother’s sister “Chatty”), says of Fred: “If you’ve seen the 1986 movie ‘Top Gun,’ with Tom Cruise as the lead actor, then you know the reckless, devil-may-care star pilot could have been Freddie.”
But Neil is quick to note that Fred had a softer side.
Being 12 years younger, Neil looked up to his cousin. Handsome, athletic, quick-witted Fred seemed to have it all.
He recalled Fred’s passion for planes. When Neil was only 6, Fred let him play with a balsa plane from his model plane collection. Neil brought it outside, thrust it into the air and watched in horror as the plane crashed to the ground. In retrospect, it seemed a harbinger.
Growing up, Neil heard continual stories of the Mellor boys — how they excelled in school, their prowess on the football field.
At holidays, the Mellor household rang with family merrymaking, as other relatives arrived. Father Daniel played the fiddle, while Fred accompanied him on the piano. When one of his female cousins became engaged to a Marine, Freddie honored this man who’d soon join the family by banging out a lively version of the Marines’ hymn, “The Halls of Montezuma.”
Following high-school graduation, older brother Dan joined the Air Force. True to form, Fred followed in his footsteps, two years later, joining the same branch of service. There, the bright young man who always loved planes took a test that qualified him for flight school, and he realized his dream: Fred became a pilot.
He was assigned to an Air Force base in Germany, where he met his future wife, Theresia. Their union produced Fred’s only child, Linda. Today, his widow and adult child live in San Diego.
Neil recalls the last time he saw Fred. At 17, the younger cousin called Fred to ask him to come over to see Neil’s new “wheels” — a 1949 Plymouth Deluxe coupe. Even though Fred was soon to embark for combat in Vietnam, he made time to visit and weigh in on Neil’s new ride.
Jean Moore Mellor was Daniel and Fredric’s mother and my mother-in-law, but I saw her on only a few occasions.
She was the woman who sent small packages, packed in bits of old newspapers, to my younger child, her fifth grandchild: a pair of children’s red Chinese slippers; black, lacquered chopsticks; a lady’s colorful paper fan. Items from Chinatown in San Francisco, where she lived — stuff that was lightweight, inexpensive and didn’t require much postage. Jean was conscious of cost. It’s how she got on in the world.
“Did the wee one get what I sent?” she asked, in her thick Scottish brogue.
At age 72, she left her husband to join her brother Sam, a writer, in San Francisco. That was 1975, years before I married her older son, and 10 years after her younger son, Fred, was shot down.
She left because she wanted a few good years before she lost any chance at happiness in life. Her marriage had not been all she’d hoped.
As a young woman, in the early 1900s, she’d come from Scotland and gotten a job as a maid in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. In future years, she helped bring her many siblings from Scotland to America.
She met her husband, Daniel G. Mellor, in a pub. Tall, slim and taciturn, the house painter who fancied himself “jack of all trades” doubtless beguiled the young woman.
After marriage, the young couple came to Rhode Island, bought a shingled triple-decker, moved in and rented out the other two floors. Dan painted aircraft at Quonset and took odd jobs, playing the fiddle at bars and clubs, while Jean stayed home, raising their two rambunctious, flaxen-haired boys.
To offset daily tedium, their mother held political meetings in her home, meetings which bore fruit later, when son Daniel pursued a career in politics.
The children grew up and left. Daniel (“Munro” as the family called him) married, served in Korea and got his college degree afterward. He, too, took on odd jobs, as he rose in the political world.
During one of his jobs, at a local radio station, he stopped announcing in midstream. Coming across the wire was the news of the soldier who had become Rhode Island’s first “Missing in Action” from the Vietnam War. It was his brother, Fred. Fate had been cruel indeed.
The years passed. News footage suggested American soldiers who’d been taken alive were paraded, in cages, through the streets of Hanoi, subject to jeers and taunts. Others, like future Sen. John McCain, were kept for years as “guests” of Hỏa Lò Prison — the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”
All the while, the United States boiled in divisiveness. Many protested America’s involvement in this war, and those who served weren’t necessarily viewed as heroes — a fact that grated all the more on those who did.
During those years, Jean Mellor waged her own private war with the U.S. State Department, demanding that it find out what happened to her son — who had been promoted to lieutenant colonel after his disappearance — and other Missing-in-Action/Prisoners of War.
In the 1970s, she appeared on “The Merv Griffin Show” as a member of the Gray Panthers, to proclaim her disgust, before a national audience, with a country she believed had done little to bring home its soldiers.
Jean Moore Mellor would never learn what happened to her younger son. She died Dec. 9, 1984, at age 81.
Years later, the families of Rhode Island’s Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from the war in Vietnam were notified that their loved ones would be honored at a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery, in Exeter. On that occasion, an official was to call each soldier’s name, and a dignitary from that soldier’s community would step forward, to receive the tribute. Then, that person would present it to the family.
What happened when the name of Lt. Col. Fredric Moore Mellor was called? An embarrassing void. No official from Cranston was present. There had been a bureaucratic snafu.
The city offered to have a private ceremony, afterward, but my father-in-law refused.
Ultimately a plaque honoring Cranston’s Missing-in-Action was commissioned. Today it appears on a grass strip at the intersection of Hayward Street and Pontiac Avenue, in Cranston. The problem? Lt. Col. Fredric Moore Mellor’s middle name is misspelled.
Every year thousands of Americans visit “the Wall,” the monument established in Washington, D.C., honoring soldiers killed or unaccounted for in the Vietnam War. Nearby, volunteer organizations sell bracelets bearing the names of the missing.
Diane Dowiot, a former employee of The Providence Journal, honors Fred Mellor by wearing a bracelet engraved with his name. She was drawn to him by virtue of the fact that she, too, is a Cranston native.
Tom Lincoln, a Taunton, Massachusetts, native, was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Presidential Honor Guard from 1988 to 1990, performing at ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon, and Arlington National Cemetery. Lincoln saw Fred Mellor’s bracelet and, being from neighboring Massachusetts, he wanted to honor his Rhode Island neighbor. Lincoln has worn Fred’s bracelet for 30 years.
They are among those who never met Mellor, but wear a bracelet inscribed with his name.
Lt. Col. Fredric Moore Mellor is thus honored, by the many Americans who appreciate his service.
He’s one of many who gave the ultimate sacrifice.