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Bone Dealers in Vietnam

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

The beautiful country of Vietnam, even with its ubiquitous poverty, dirty and crowded city streets, and few creature comforts, seems like a recently discovered paradise to many visitors these days. The Vietnamese themselves are a warm, caring, graceful and gregarious people, but their lives are often difficult. With little money and scarce medical attention available, an otherwise minor illness in a remote village may well end in death even today. For example, one small Vietnamese village visited in 1995 consisted of 43 families (about 250 people) and reportedly loses 40 children and elderly people to illness or disease each year.

It is no wonder that so many of the Vietnamese people we have met during our work with the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), whether they lived in the city or country, wanted to di My–‘go to America. They perceived America as a free and rich land of opportunity. But most Vietnamese have very little money by American standards and cannot afford to travel to the United States. In recent years, impoverished Vietnamese citizens have come to see the human remains of American soldiers as their ticket to America, and some Vietnamese have become involved with unscrupulous people selling human remains that are purported to be American MIAs.

Whenever we are in Vietnam, we are asked by the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi to examine suspected American remains. There are two types of people who bring in remains–honest citizens who find remains while working on rice fields or who accidentally stumble upon a crash site in some remote area, and bone dealers. Although most Vietnamese citizens find it abhorrent to deal in human bones and teeth, some consider it a ticket out of Vietnam and the promise of a new start in America.

Many people mistakenly believe that U.S. authorities will pay for a Vietnamese family’s passage to America if remains are discovered that are determined to be those of a missing U.S. service member. But they are wrong. American authorities do not and, to our knowledge, never have paid private citizens for remains. Should such a policy be in existence, it would clearly result in the exhumation of thousands of Vietnamese graves by Vietnamese citizens and hundreds of examinations by CILHI anthropologists.

Very rarely, some people who bring in remains for examination are compensated for their time and personal expenses. But they have to take time off from work and pay for their own transportation to meet with American representatives and Vietnamese officials of the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP) and, when possible, a CILHI anthropologist.

The vast majority of remains turned in by Vietnamese citizens are either from Vietnamese people or animals, including cows, pigs, dogs or deer. Most American soldiers who died during the war were young, tall in comparison with the Vietnamese, and had many dental fillings. Although the majority of the remains we have examined since 1992 are of 18- to 25-year-old Vietnamese men, some were from old men, women, and even children. But innocent citizens as well as unscrupulous dealers who hand over remains cannot t tell the difference between the skeleton of a 15-year-old girl and that of a 70-year-old man. To most Vietnamese, they’re just bones.

The Vietnamese government, to the best of our knowledge and experience, neither condones nor promotes the illegal and unscrupulous practice of bone dealing. People do illegally obtain human remains and pass them off as American MIAs, but when the VNOSMP and police have enough evidence, they prosecute those who remove remains from cemeteries for sale or barter. Dealing in human remains is considered a major crime punishable by imprisonment and hard labor. But many dealers avoid punishment by simply lying about how and where they obtained the remains. Usually, all that the VNOSMP can do is to warn suspected dealers of the serious consequences of such activities, thank them for bringing the remains in for examination, and then keep a watchful eye on them.

After an anthropologist determines that remains are native Vietnamese, the bones are returned to their owners to do with as they choose. In Vietnam, remains are the property of the finder, not the government. If a dealer is really gutsy, he or she may try to sell the rejected remains to someone else or put a different identification tag–dog tag–with them and turn them in to the police or VNOSMP in another city or province.

Bone dealers seem to have an extensive underground network in which they have set a standard for bringing in remains for examination. They usually put a bone fragment and dog tag rubbing–made by placing a piece of paper against it and rubbing it with a pencil or pen–in a small piece of clear plastic, sometimes even heat-sealing the bag with a piece of hot steel. We estimate that more than 90 percent of the remains we have examined that were turned in by villagers (not remains that joint American/Vietnamese teams have excavated from a crash site or grave) consist of a tiny fragment of bone or tooth and a dog tag or dog-tag rubbing, or other form of identification. They are almost always bogus. According to the Department of Defense’s 1992 POW/MIA Fact Book, more than 7,400 such remains have been reported since 1982.

In most cases the dealer brings in a small sample of what he allegedly has at home and says that if the United States is interested in obtaining the rest of the skeleton, it can be brought in–usually for a price. But many of the bone samples have been recently snapped or sawed from a larger bone. And often the samples purported to have come from two or more people are actually bones from the same individual. The dealer takes bones from one skeleton and parcels them out with different dog tags. In this way, literally thousands of MIAs can be assembled from a single skeleton.

All over Vietnam, bone dealers have the same modus operandi–a fragment of bone or tooth, a dog-tag rubbing wrapped in plastic, and an elusive story about their origin. Most dealers say they collected the remains over a long period of time because, for example, friends gave them to me. Another common statement made by the dealers is that they’re doing it for humanitarian reasons to help the U.S. government. But it is usually painfully obvious that these individuals are going about it in a systematic way, anticipating monetary reimbursement or some other reward for their finds. Although dealers strike out close to 100 percent of the time, they hope for that one time when they present a valid MIA dog tag and some remains that fit the biological profile of a missing American soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or civilian. It’s a shot in the dark, but they still keep trying.

In 1995, when Robert Bob Mann was working in Da Nang, he met with Sergeant Ron Ward of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) Oral History Program (OHP). The job of the OHP was to collect information on POW/MIA cases from witnesses and museum archives and then run down the leads. Ron had been told there were two witnesses with remains, a dog tag, aircraft wreckage and a plausible story. The witnesses had previously told the OHP team that in 1988 they were digging at a crash site and found human remains–a skull, mandible, and teeth, among other things. One witness had reportedly removed the remains and buried them next to his father’s grave in a civilian cemetery in Da Nang. Since nobody else knew or suspected that an American was buried in the cemetery, the witness was able to leave the remains there over the years. In 1995, he exhumed the remains and brought them to the VNOSMP.

Ron picked up Bob Mann and another OHP man and took them to the Tu Bon Hotel, where the two witnesses were eating breakfast. After the Vietnamese finished eating, the OHP team members interviewed them. Both witnesses were dark-skinned and showed signs of hard lives working outdoors–they were probably farmers. As is customary in Vietnam, the witnesses opened a new pack of Vinataba cigarettes, lit one for the deceased and placed it in an ashtray on the table. They also said a short prayer before allowing the team members to handle the remains.

Bob opened the clear plastic bag and immediately knew the remains were not those of an American or any other MIA. They were pig bones. When the name on the dog tag was checked against the database of MIAs, the team discovered that it had not belonged to an MIA. The dog tag read: CULLER D.L. 2326539 O USMC S BAPTIST.

Bob was sure that Culler had finished his tour in Vietnam and was now living happily somewhere back in the United States–and perhaps he would even get a kick out of learning that his dog tag had shown up after 25 years. Although no one knew how Culler had lost his dog tag–as did thousands of other U.S. soldiers while they were in-country–he was clearly not an MIA. The two pieces of aircraft wreckage, by the way, turned out to be turbine blades from a jet fighter. It was obvious that they had originated from a crash site because they were bent all out of shape. But because the blades were not unique to any one type of aircraft, no one would probably ever be able to determine the type of jet or where it had crashed. Within ten minutes the interviewers knew exactly what they had–the bones and teeth of a young pig, wreckage from a jet fighter, a bogus dog tag and a ludicrous story.

Colonel Ky of the VNOSMP pressed the witnesses for further information on where, how, and from whom they had obtained the remains. In the past, the VNOSMP had simply interviewed bone dealers and left it at that. But over the years the Vietnamese and American personnel have been presented with so many bogus remains, costing both governments money, time, and effort to collect and examine, that they have begun initiating investigations to learn the whole story of bogus remains. In other words, they now want to flush out the bone-trading networks–the who, why, and where of it all.

Clearly agitated by being presented with bogus remains and a fabricated story, Colonel Ky pressed the two witnesses for more information. We know that the bones are from a pig and that the dog tag is bogus, he angrily told them. So, knowing they were animal bones, why did you put them with a bogus dog tag and waste our time like this? But the witnesses held fast to their story. Ky told them that their actions had wasted everyone’s time. The witnesses squirmed in their chairs but were unwilling to change their story or provide additional information on the case. Although no legal action would probably be taken against the witnesses, they will likely think twice before they again try to bargain in human remains.

A Ticket to Paradise

Here is a classic example of how an unsuspecting Vietnamese citizen got involved in the remains for sale business. In 1995, a recovery team photographer and Bob Mann were flown by helicopter to Qui Nhon City to excavate an unmarked grave believed to contain the remains of an American MIA. When they finished digging the grave, they drove 100 kilometers to a small village to examine some other remains. They arrived at the small home of a 69-year-old Vietnamese woman who had remains and a dog tag that she had bought five years before. She did not know the name of the man who sold her the remains and she did not know where they had come from. All she knew was that the seller told her the bones were from an American soldier and that she would be able to sell them to U.S. authorities. Her motive, she said, was to use the money to get her youngest son to the United States. She wanted a better life for him, and she believed that the remains were his ticket.

She had purchased the remains for $1,500 or, as she put it, the equivalent of three taels of gold. A tael is an ancient measure of weight in East Asia–one tael equals about one ounce of gold or silver, depending on the measure used. Although the VNOSMP official accompanying the anthropologist to her home told the woman that she would receive no money for the remains, even if they were American, she still hoped that she would be compensated for her time and expenses. The anthropologist’s impression was that she was an honest woman who thought she was doing the right thing.

People had gathered outside her home and curiously watched as she retrieved the remains from a room in the back of her home. She had kept them in a plastic 5-gallon water container. The top of the container was covered with a piece of green plastic and tied in place with yellow plastic rope.

As is standard practice, the team members photographed the container before it was opened. Bob removed the green plastic and immediately decided that the remains were Vietnamese. Two thighbones were visible, and the hip sockets were tiny–probably too small to be American. The anthropologist removed the remains and laid them out on the front porch. The examination took only about 15 minutes. There was no duplication of bones, indicating that only one individual was represented by the remains. The skull was small and short front to back, the facial bones were flat, the nasal bones were very small, and the nasal opening wide and short–typical Asian traits. The hips were also small, the greater sciatic notch narrow and shallow, the auricular platform flat, and the pubic bones triangular–these were the bones of a small male. What stood out most about the remains was the edentulous mandible–the individual was old enough to have lost all his teeth, and the bony mandible had changed shape in response to the loss. When the anthropologist articulated the lower jaw (mandible) with the temporomandibular joints (jaw joints), the head had the typical appearance of an elderly man–the lower jaw jutted forward. The woman had the skeleton of a Vietnamese man who had died when he was more than 70 years old.

When the VNOSMP official explained to the woman what she had, she slid down in her chair, placed her hands together in front of her face as if to pray, and slowly rocked back and forth as she cried and apologized to everyone. She was obviously distraught that she had been duped by a bone dealer and embarrassed that she had held the remains of one of her fellow Vietnamese in a plastic container in the back room for five years. If she had suspected they were Vietnamese, she would have immediately buried them. Everyone in her village would soon know that she had been swindled, and her three taels of gold were forever gone.

The dealer who sold the unfortunate woman those remains probably swindled people on a regular basis. He had probably exhumed a grave in the middle of the night, bought a dog tag (they can be easily purchased in Vietnam’s bigger cities) and concocted a story about having found the remains in some remote area. After getting her $1,500, the dealer no doubt repeated his scam elsewhere.

Unscrupulous Dealers

The other side of the coin, the unscrupulous dealer, is usually what turns up at field forensic reviews. A week after the foregoing episode, for example, Bob examined remains that had been turned in by five sources. The team met in a large room at the Saigon office of the VNOSMP, and each group of remains was laid out on a long conference table. While Bob examined the remains, two members of the U.S. Research Investigation Team (RIT) interviewed the owners.

The first two cases, each accompanied by a dog tag, turned out to be adult Vietnamese females. The third case consisted of cow bones, a dog tag, and an altered currency control card. The card was encased in hard plastic and looked old and, to the untrained eye, authentic. But some of the words had been carefully touched up with pen and ink, and there were typographical mistakes. On one side of the card was: CERTIFICATE PULL: [soldier’s name] PERMANENT GRADE: PILOT NAVIGAT CAPTAIN FUNCTION DUTY OFFICE CHARGE COMPANY COMMANDER SERVICE NUMBER. PEOPLE: AMERICAN – POS UNIT AIR FORCE SPECIAL UNIT. On the other side of the card was: U.S. MILITARY ASSISTANCE COMMAND, VIETNAM CURRENCY CONTROL PLATE

One case consisted of two plastic bags that held pieces of a termite mound–not even a single bone. The remains, which had been turned over to one of the joint US/SRV investigation teams, had reportedly been recovered from an aircraft crash site. Joint Task Force-Full Accounting policy is that anything suspected of being human remains and all bones and teeth must be examined by a qualified CILHI physical anthropologist before they can be discarded. In fact, there is a list distributed to all Joint Task Force offices in Southeast Asia of CILHI physical anthropologists who are authorized to examine and turn back remains while in the field. This hold and examine policy also applies to excavation teams where an archaeologist is on hand. Having a physical anthropologist examine the remains eliminates the possibility of discarding human remains that might be mistaken for those of a cow, dog or pig.

A particularly industrious dealer brought in 11 small heat-sealed plastic bags, each containing a broken bone fragment and a dog-tag rubbing. Based on the extremely small size and age of the individuals represented by the remains, it was clear that all of the remains were Vietnamese. In fact, the anthropologist could tell that many of the bones came from the same skeleton–another case of partitioning remains. A check of the dog-tag rubbings revealed that none was an American service member listed as missing in action.

The mistaken belief that bones can be exchanged for money will probably persist despite the best efforts–including announcements on television and in newspapers–by the Vietnamese government to discourage the idea. Some Vietnamese citizens simply continue to hope that there is money to be made by turning over American MIA remains. In fact, we have heard rumors of rewards ranging from a few hundred to a million dollars. But unscrupulous dealers duping innocent people of their hard-earned money is not the only problem. The misconception that the United States will pay for remains not only hinders U.S. efforts to repatriate remains, but it also increases the cost of the MIA program. It is difficult and costly enough to find, identify and repatriate American MIA remains, much less wasting time and money on retrieving and examining animal and Vietnamese remains.

Perhaps soon the word will get out that taels of gold for American remains lead only to tales of woe.


This article was written by Robert W. Mann and Thomas D. Holland and originally published in the December 1998 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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