The endless line of soil-filled buckets is passed from hand to hand in the energy-sapping 105-degree heat, then dumped onto thin-meshed screens. From time to time the screens turn up a bone chip, a boot eyelet or some fragmental clue about what happened to fellow servicemen in a war now 25 years and more in the past. No other nation in history has ever made such an effort to repatriate the remains of men lost in war.
The scenario is repeated nearly a dozen times each year in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. The Americans involved, military and civilian personnel from several commands, are under the operational control of Joint Task Force–Full Accounting (JTF-FA), the organization created in 1992 and assigned responsibility for determining the fate of nearly 2,000 American military personnel still listed as unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
JTF-FA itself is the analytical, investigative and negotiating arm of the mission. Its personnel compile dossiers on each person missing in action. They then work with host country governments to schedule investigation and recovery operations, locate and interview witnesses, and provide in-country logistical support to all field operations. JTF-FA operates three subordinate detachments in Southeast Asia. Detachment 1 in Bangkok conducts operations in Cambodia and also provides logistical support for all regional operations. Detachment 2 is in Hanoi [Colonel Haseman described Detachment 2 operations in the October 1996 issue of Vietnam] and Detachment 3 is in Vientiane, Laos. Bob Gahagan is one of many men and women participating in JTF-FA’s efforts who have suffered from the Laotian heat. More formally, he is Colonel Robert Gahagan, who served as the commander of JTF-FA Detachment 3 from 1998 to May 2000. After his two years in Laos, Gahagan, an armor officer and former battalion commander, became a department director at the U.S. Army Armor School at Fort Knox. Looking back on his time with JTF-FA, he said, ‘If I had to single out one thing that makes me proud of this effort, it’s the people I work with.’
JTF-FA’s partner in this important mission is the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), the operations and identification arm of the team. The CILHI has the scientific expertise to locate the crash sites and supervise field search and recovery operations. After repatriation of remains, the CILHI conducts the delicate, time-consuming work of identifying them at its state-of-the-art laboratory in Hawaii. The CILHI is actively involved in cases from World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts and contingencies — but most of its effort is spent on Vietnam War cases. Once remains are recovered, the CILHI is charged with their formal identification. Only then can a missing soldier, sailor, airman or Marine be removed from the MIA roster.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, there were 2,583 Americans unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Since then, recovery and identification efforts have reduced that number to 1,991, as of January 11, 2001. Of those, 642 may never be resolved — notably the several hundred American airmen whose aircraft went down at sea in water too deep for recovery operations.
JTF-FA Detachment 3 in Vientiane is the smallest of the three field detachments. It consists of a lieutenant-colonel commander, a senior civilian who acts as second-in-command, one logistics NCO and two NCOs who look after administration and operations. The detachment is augmented on a rotational basis by a Lao linguist who works on archival research. Also on hand are several Laotian foreign service nationals.
Detachment 3 was formed in 1992. Its personnel have their hands full. The detachment plans and coordinates all joint Lao–U.S. investigations and excavation operations, also coordinating closely with the Lao government on Laotian unilateral investigations. It strives to facilitate trilateral investigations in which U.S., Laotian and Vietnamese representatives work together to solve cases that cross national borders. Like its counterparts in Vietnam and Bangkok, the detachment investigates reports of live sightings, interviews walk-in witnesses, conducts an oral history program jointly with its host country officials and conducts joint archival research with military and civilian government offices.
The February-March 2000 joint field activity (JFA) in Savannakhet province was an attempt to bring to closure a poignant story. In 1969 a McDonnell RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down near Xepone. The reconnaissance officer ejected safely and was rescued, but the pilot was never found. He was last seen attached to his ejection seat. Thus the key to resolving this case was to find either human remains or physical evidence — such as pieces of an ejection seat — that would pinpoint the crash site. In addition to bone fragments, search crews look for dog tags, personal and life-support items (life vest, parachute, boots, etc.), clothing and flight gear (flight suit, buckles). Even the smallest piece of debris may be the key to finding human remains.
Each Southeast Asian country has its own policy for JTF-FA operations. Time and personnel strength for the Savannakhet recovery operation were limited by strict rules worked out jointly by U.S. and Laotian officials. In Laos each joint field activity operation is limited to a maximum of 30 days, and no more than 40 Americans are permitted in any one JFA iteration. JFA excavation operations in Laos must be conducted in geographic order from north to south, with the entire country covered before resuming operations elsewhere. In contrast, research investigations, which involve the search for witnesses and efforts to pinpoint the location where a missing American was last seen, can take place in any geographical area. Despite these constraints, Detachment 3 has been able to operate effectively. In 1973 there were 565 Americans missing in action in Laos. As of January 2001 that total was down to 420.
‘There are going to be some cases that will never be resolved because of various factors,’ Colonel Gahagan said, ‘but we are making steady progress.’ The small detachment averages five 30-day recovery operations each year. The advance research effort, coordination, planning and preparation for each operation are formidable tasks for such a small group. And the mission has become more difficult as the years pass.
‘We are in a real race for time,’ Gahagan explained. ‘Family members of our missing servicemen are aging. Witnesses on the ground are aging, too, and that may be even more critical to our success. And here in Laos, because of the soil conditions, human remains and physical evidence deteriorate very rapidly.’
The Savannakhet operation is a good example of U.S.–Laos cooperation. Laotian officials assisted in locating witnesses and in pinpointing the best possible search site. The entire American-Laotian team deployed by Lao air force helicopters — Russian Mil Mi-17s. Detachment 3 also has one full-time dedicated Lao helicopter, and the operation is augmented by a New Zealand charter company that provides additional helicopter transportation support.
Virtually all JFA operations in Laos are conducted from remote base camps. The country’s infrastructure is rudimentary, and there are no facilities in the countryside for Lao and American personnel that make up a JFA. For the Savannakhet operation, the team’s base camp at Ban Alang provided reasonably comfortable facilities. Tents on concrete pads, hot showers, good food and sports equipment made life as pleasant as possible during the arduous 30-day window for operations. ‘We go first class as much as possible,’ Colonel Gahagan noted, ‘and we never put the field teams in hotels. We live right on the site with our Lao counterparts and work there until the task is completed.’
From the base camp, each of three 10-man recovery teams is assigned to work a separate excavation site. A typical recovery team is headed by a captain from the CILHI and includes CILHI scientists, mortuary affairs personnel, life-support equipment specialists, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, medics and other technical personnel. Also on each recovery team are an anthropologist and an archaeologist from the CILHI, and several team members from the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), including an explosive ordnance disposal technician, a life-support technician, a medic/doctor and a linguist. Completing the team is a photographer from either the CILHI or PACOM. Teams deployed to Vietnam are slightly larger, usually including an additional mortuary affairs NCO and a communications technician.
A simultaneous work plan allows three or more sites to be covered during the 30-day duration of any JFA deployment. If circumstances warrant, two or three teams can converge on a single site, particularly when time or weather constraints might limit success. Fifty to 100 local workers augment each of the recovery teams at the excavation site. The objective is to complete work at each site within the 30-day period. Major problems result if an excavation is not completed within the time available — among them the loss of potential evidence because of scavenging and the effects of weather. The work of the archeologists is particularly important, since their thorough knowledge of soil conditions and excavation techniques enables them to pinpoint disturbances in the ground caused by the impact of an aircraft, an explosion or a field burial.
Their skills are key to site discovery, since time has erased virtually all surface indicators such as aircraft debris. While much of the heavy earthmoving labor is done by local people employed for that purpose, the site archeologist supervises digging and screening of earth down to’sterile soil,’ that is, ground no longer affected by the impact of an aircraft crash. Because of the remote location of field deployments and the rudimentary medical infrastructure in rural Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the doctors and medics who accompany the teams often are the only health professionals available in the area. Virtually every field deployment has needed medical support for illness, broken bones and other medical emergencies. JTF-FA doctors and medics also treat an average of 1,000 to 2,000 Laotian villagers during each JFA. Over the years they have saved 11 or 12 lives.
Field deployments are risky operations due to the large amount of unexploded ordnance in most of the areas where JTF-FA teams are working. Hundreds of Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese civilians are killed or maimed each year from unexploded ordnance. Explosive demolitions specialists scour and clear every operational area before any work begins.
Laos is the most bombed country in history. ‘More ordnance was dropped on this little country than in all of World War II,’ Gahagan noted. ‘Our men and women risk their lives every day they walk around out there.’
Disease is another threat to teams in all three countries. Malaria and dengue fever are endemic throughout the region. There are also poisonous snakes and centipedes to contend with, as well as the constant concern about heat casualties among workers.
JTF-FA Detachment 1 in Bangkok, Thailand, is responsible for all operations in Cambodia. Compared to the large efforts in Vietnam and Laos, the scope of Cambodian operations is smaller because there were only 65 Americans missing in Cambodia. Detachment 1 conducts one JFA in Cambodia per year. The one held in January 2000 consisted of an investigation and two recovery operations. As in Laos and Vietnam, the Cambodian armed forces provide extensive helicopter support and also have allowed American aircraft to visit excavation operations on a case-by-case basis, a privilege not available in either Laos or Vietnam.
Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Smith, who commands Detachment 1, volunteered for the assignment after hearing a JTF-FA briefing while he was a student at the Naval War College. His detachment consists of six other U.S. military personnel, one American civilian and four Thai civilians. The Cambodian government, he said, has been ‘extremely easy to work with. There are far fewer restrictions and conditions imposed on our operations, as compared to the situation in Laos or Vietnam.’ In addition to its investigative and recovery responsibilities in Cambodia, Detachment 1 also provides logistic support for all three of JTF-FA’s field detachments. Bangkok was selected for the region-wide logistical support mission for a number of reasons. It is a regional hub for many U.S. government offices and also offers easy access to manpower and resources. The Thai government provides great assistance to the mission by providing access to U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Base, which serves as the hub for deployments of all JTF-FA and CILHI teams to Southeast Asia. ‘We stay pretty busy,’ Colonel Smith noted.
The largest of the JTF-FA elements is Detachment 2 in Hanoi. The challenges faced in the search for closure on Americans missing in Vietnam are much the same as in Laos and Cambodia, but the numbers are larger. Army Lt. Col. Mike Peppers heads an office of six permanently assigned personnel, augmented full-time by two American linguists fluent in Vietnamese.
In May 2000, Colonel Peppers was in the mountains of central Vietnam, accompanying the 60th JFA team to work in Vietnam. That mission, conducted between April 25 and May 24, 2000, was staged mostly from Da Nang. The team of 96 personnel included six recovery elements, plus two investigative elements and a research and investigation team. Like Detachment 3 in Laos, Detachment 2 conducts five JFAs in Vietnam each calendar year, but they are larger than those in Laos.
‘We average around 100 men per JFA,’ explained Detachment 2’s operations officer and deputy commander, Air Force Major John Fisher. ‘We don’t have the same restrictions on team size and geographical constraints as Laos does.’
The areas that were covered in May 2000 illustrate the broad scope of the recovery operations in Vietnam. Investigation elements worked on leads in 13 provinces scattered all over the country. Recovery teams worked at six excavation sites in five different provinces. Quang Ninh, the northeasternmost province in Vietnam, posed unusual weather challenges. ‘We can only get in there about two or three months a year because of the weather,’ Major Fisher said. ‘So our Vietnamese counterparts suggested this would be the best time to get in there and get busy now, while we could.’
The Quang Ninh crash site was very difficult to reach — a steep mountainside covered with bamboo and thick jungle foliage. Temperatures rose above 100 degrees, and poisonous snakes, centipedes and the steepness of the terrain posed health and safety hazards to the American and Vietnamese workers. Most sites also had the hazard of unexploded ordnance. Another team assigned to a crash site in Thua Thien province required technical rock climbing skills to gain access to the crash site.
One of the most significant advances achieved by JTF-FA has been the resolution of cases involving missing persons who, either through debriefings from returned prisoners of war or photographs and other documentary evidence, were last known to have been alive after being shot down or captured. These so-called discrepancy cases have been among the most contentious issues of the postwar accountability effort, and resolving them is the highest priority for JTF-FA detachments. At the end of American involvement in the war in 1973, there were 196 individuals who were listed as ‘last known alive’ in Vietnam but not accounted for by the Vietnamese. By January 2001 only 41 individuals remained on that list. In Laos, the number of those last known alive has been reduced from 81 to 63, and in Cambodia, from 19 to 15.
Another controversial area of JTF-FA’s accountability is the investigation of so-called live-sighting reports of Americans held in the region against their will. There have been 119 live-sighting reports to date, and every one of them received immediate and intensive investigation. Not one single report was found to be a valid instance of a missing American serviceman.
Both the CILHI and JTF-FA personnel are highly qualified in their specialties. JTF-FA detachment commanders go through a particularly rigorous selection process. Prerequisites include successful battalion- or squadron-level command. Candidates are scrutinized to determine whether they can operate in a remote environment and deal effectively with senior officials of the host country.
Although most CILHI and JTF-FA personnel are too young to have fought in Vietnam, they are singularly dedicated to resolving the fate of their fellow servicemen. Every person involved in the process says his or her biggest disappointment is when an arduous search turns up physical evidence of a crash site or incident, but no remains are recovered. ‘We never want to give up on a single person,’ one team member said. ‘We just owe it to them and their families to do everything we can to resolve each and every case.’
Slowly but surely, that resolution effort proceeds. Recovery of remains is just the first step in final resolution of a case. The remains are treated with honor during every step of the long journey from Southeast Asia to Hawaii for continuation of the identification process. Solemn ceremonies are conducted at the airport of the country of departure, with traditional military protocol and honors rendered to each returning serviceman’s remains.
Detachment 2 personnel were privileged to participate in a ceremony on April 25, 2000, marking the repatriation of six sets of remains. The ceremony at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport included U.S. Ambassador Douglass B. Peterson and Senator John McCain, both of whom had been prisoners of war. Peterson’s words on that occasion sum up the sense of honor and dedication of the men and women working to reach that ‘best possible accounting’ of Americans still missing in Southeast Asia: ‘Never before in the history of mankind has any nation done what we are doing.’ We can only hope that history will not require us to do it again.
Editor’s note: On April 7, 2001, a chartered helicopter carrying 16 members of an MIA search team crashed into a mountainside in Quang Binh province, about 280 miles south of Hanoi, in heavy fog. The search team members, none of whom survived, included seven Americans and nine Vietnamese who had been preparing for the excavation of several crash sites for JTF-FA on a mission that was to begin in May.
Among the seven Americans killed in the crash were both the current commander of the task force, Army Lt. Col. Rennie M. Cory, Jr., and Lt. Col. George D. ‘Marty’ Martin III, who was scheduled to take over command in July. The other Americans lost were Air Force Major Charles E. Lewis, Master Sgt. Steven L. Moser, Tech. Sgt. Robert M. Flynn, Navy Hospital Corpsman Pedro J. Gonzales and Army Sgt. 1st Class Tommy J. Murphy. The nine Vietnamese search team members included eight military officers as well as Nguyen Thanh Ha, deputy director of the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons, Vietnam’s own MIA search group.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, this was the first fatality of American servicemen on active duty in Vietnam since the Vietnam War, and also the first loss of life in any joint recovery operation.
This article was written by Colonel John B. Haseman, U.S. Army (ret.) and originally published in the August 2001 issue of Vietnam Magazine. Colonel John B. Haseman retired from the U.S. Army in 1995. He served in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division in 1967-68, and in February 1973 he was one of the last advisers in Vietnam to leave the field. For additional reading, see: MIA: Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, by Paul D. Mather.
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