Decades on, search for missing Americans continues
By Richard Pyle
HONOLULU (AP): Lining the shelves of a military laboratory here are about 150 boxes of human remains -- bits of bone and teeth, mostly -- each awaiting information that could provide links to one of the more than 2,000 Americans still missing from the Vietnam War.
Periodically, a box is pulled out as forensic experts at the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii, tucked into a quiet corner of Hickam Air Force Base near Pearl Harbor, identify yet another missing man. Just as regularly, a new box fills the space.
The boxes, some 900 in all, also include remains from Korea and World War II. But CILHI, as the lab is known, is descended from the Saigon Army Mortuary that handled battle dead in Vietnam, and still focuses on Indochina.
While MIA recovery officials say they will continue their work indefinitely, the law of the jungle is also the law of diminishing returns. Time and the tropics reduce prospects for finding identifiable remains.
Of 2,583 Americans listed as missing in action when the war ended a quarter-century ago, 555 have been recovered and identified. Still unaccounted for are 1,518 in Vietnam; 428 in Laos, mostly aviators shot down over some of the world's toughest terrain; 74 in Cambodia and eight in southern China or off its coast.
The goal is to identify "at least one individual a week," said Johnie E. Webb Jr., CILHI's civilian deputy commander. Among the 80 identified last year were about 28 from Vietnam. He predicted about 40 more Indochina cases would be resolved this year.
Officials hesitate to concede that some cases are hopeless.
"We don't want to say we'll never be able to identify them," Webb said. "Five or six years ago, the numbers were much greater. There were those... we couldn't identify until DNA technology came into existence."
Webb said about 40 percent of the identifications are now made through mitochondrial DNA -- matching DNA from remains with DNA from the maternal family line. DNA can be extracted from a 2-inch (5-cm) piece of bone or some teeth. The actual DNA analysis is done by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab (AFDIL) in Rockville, Maryland.
Even before DNA, many identities were determined by matching teeth with dental records. Vietnam was the first war in which the U.S. military had dental records for virtually all its personnel.
New technologies might solve other mysteries, he said, "But we do understand there are some we won't be able to identify."
Although unrecovered MIA from Indochina officially total 2,028, the actual number is lower. The U.S. Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, a Pentagon unit created in 1992 under diplomatic agreements with three Indochina governments to conduct MIA operations, lists 633 as "unrecoverable" -- mostly airmen lost over water or in explosions.
Six sets of remains, believed to be Americans, were to be repatriated in ceremonies on Tuesday as part of Vietnam's commemoration of what it calls the "American war." Tests at CILHI may either confirm their identity quickly or add them to the boxes on the shelves.
CILHI also is close to identifying several of 18 Americans lost in the abortive May 1975 raid to rescue the crew of the cargo ship Mayaguez, seized by Khmer Rouge guerrillas at Cambodia's Koh Tang Island.
The remains were recovered in November 1995, one of the largest single Joint Task Force operations to date.
Its teams of military volunteers, most born after the war ended, mix technology such as global positioning satellites and ground-penetrating radar with old-fashioned archaeology.
Each team of about a dozen is headed by a civilian anthropologist and includes mortuary specialists from CILHI. The teams are allowed to hire local villagers to assist in the excavations.
Search sites must be swept for unexploded bombs and other munitions. Some, especially in southern Laos where U.S. planes hammered the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1966-1972, have been restricted by the threat. No deaths or injuries have been reported among team members or hired local workers.
"We've been very lucky," said Raymond Spock, the task force's intelligence director.
Early controversy leading to lawsuits helped establish such strict standards that CILHI is now one of the world's top forensic labs.
Its experts assume nothing about bones and other artifacts. A military dog tag is not proof of identity; anyone could be wearing it. Even when "data plates" provide aircraft serial numbers and the pilot was known, remains must be verified scientifically.
The anthropologist who works a case in the field is not allowed to perform the lab work.
Beneath the dry details of meticulous case reports lie tales of harrowing adventure, heroism and heartbreak.
* In July 1967, two Air Force B-52 bombers collided off South Vietnam, killing six of 13 men aboard including Maj. Gen. William J. Crum, the war's highest-ranking U.S. casualty. After fishermen brought up debris in the early 1990s, task force divers located both wrecks -- but no remains -- in 100 feet of water. The case remains open.
* In 1999, task force analyst William Forsyth applied 20 years of expertise in reading aerial photos to pinpoint the makeshift graves of three U.S. scouts who fell to their deaths during a helicopter rescue and were buried by enemy troops.
* Forsyth also revived a bit of Indochina history, locating the crash site of James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern, a legendary, 250-pound (112.5-kilogram) soldier-of-fortune and ex- Flying Tiger, shot down while dropping supplies to beleaguered French troops at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. "McGoon" and co-pilot Wally Buford died a day before the fortress fell, ending France's colonial role in Indochina.
Most MIAs are Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots shot down between 1965 and 1973. The vocal MIA lobby, a loose coalition of family and veterans' groups, works hard to keep official interest alive, in Washington and the former enemy capitals.
Task force officials say their mission -- the "fullest possible accounting" of missing Americans -- speaks for itself. Congress continues to fund the two agencies, whose combined annual budgets exceed US$30 million.
The most difficult issue is also the most highly charged -- whether any Americans remained captives after 591 known POWs returned home in 1973.
Speculation and rumor about the "last known alive" -- Americans seen or heard by witnesses to have survived crashes -- have been fed over the years by reported sightings of "Caucasians" in Indochina, by Hollywood movies and even by a few real-life, would-be Rambos claiming to mount rescue missions.
Stony Beach, a Defense Intelligence Agency unit set up to pursue such reports, has found "no credible evidence" of Americans left behind.
But officials say the possibility cannot be ruled out, and every report is given "highest priority," Spock said.
Vietnam and Laos deny holding any prisoners, but some critics see their failure to explain what happened to several "last known alive" Americans as a hoped-for bargaining chip on other diplomatic issues.
Some critics suggest U.S. officials overstate the prospects of MIA recoveries to appease the vocal MIA lobby. Ann Mills Griffith, executive director of the National League of POW/MIA Families, says the MIA issue, far from being "artificial," has helped improve U.S.-Vietnam relations.
"It created a logical bridge, with political immunity for both sides, for high-level dialog advancing understanding, which otherwise would not have existed," said Griffith, whose Navy pilot-brother was lost over the North Vietnam coast in 1966.
In reciprocity for its cooperation in seeking out American MIAs, Vietnam is receiving help from the United States in accounting for its own 300,000 MIAs.
The United States has opened up military archives on battles and bombing raids to help the Vietnamese recover their dead, although no figures are available on how many remains have been recovered.
While repatriation of remains is important to families and veterans' groups, it also sends a message to today's career military.
Army Maj. Jeff Price, who has led numerous recovery teams in the field, says he is comforted by knowing that the procedure exists should he become a casualty.
Other nations -- notably Japan and Australia -- also try to account for war dead, but generally leave remains in place.
"No other country brings them back to the homeland," Webb says.