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For more than four decades, the families of Americans still missing in Vietnam have been relentless in their quest for answers.

A guardian of the POW/MIA issue, Ann Mills-Griffiths has devoted decades in the quest for answers to account for missing Americans in the Vietnam War. Now, she may be nearing the end of her own family’s wartime saga. As the longtime executive director of the National League of POW/MIA Families, Mills-Griffiths has met with presidential administrations, senators and representatives, testified before Congress, counseled POW/MIA relatives and flown thousands of miles into the former war zone to push for results.

Today, she is the league’s chairman of the board, and, although she hesitates to talk about it, her family is hoping for answers that could be coming soon from shallow waters along Vietnam’s northern coastline. That is where fragments of an F-4 jet fighter were found in 2011, nearly 45 years after vanishing on a low-altitude night bombing mission off the USS Coral Sea. Navy Lieutenant James Mills, Ann’s older brother, was the radar intercept officer. Lt. Cmdr. James Bauder was the pilot. They did not return during Operation Homecoming in 1973.

Divers found some of the plane’s debris off the coast of northern Vietnam after it had snagged fishermen’s nets. Mills-Griffiths says photographs of the wreckage, including a canopy frame, have confirmed that the F-4 is the one her brother and Bauder crewed. The unexpected discovery was announced privately during the league’s 2011 annual meeting. A team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is expected to return to the site this spring, to search for remains.

Since becoming the league’s director in 1978, Mills-Griffiths has been a tenacious advocate, while shunning publicity on her own loss. The group’s beginnings extend back to the late ’60s. At that time, according to the league’s own history, the U.S. government was keeping a low profile on the issue and urged families to refrain from publicly discussing the problem. Wives and other relatives of servicemen began to connect when stories of torture emerged. They flooded the North Vietnamese delegates in Paris with inquiries about their loved ones, and their clout rapidly grew.

President Richard Nixon met with some wives of missing soldiers over Christmas in 1969, before the group was chartered. “I saw their faith and courage and their love of country,” said Nixon. “I heard them tell me that their husbands had not gone to Vietnam simply for the purpose of getting back. In other words, they rejected totally the idea of ‘get out, if you will give us our prisoners.’”

For 35 years, Mills-Griffiths has been at the forefront of the organization, if not the entire issue. She was the most influential civilian when delegations laid the foundation for early cooperation with Vietnam. Her first Southeast Asia trip was in 1982, when U.S.-Vietnam relations were still tense. She was often the only woman among high-powered military and government diplomats, as they tried to develop workable solutions for complex issues in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. While her outspoken resolve and hands-on approach were sometimes controversial, they also inspired admirers. Bill Bell, who opened the first U.S. Office for POW/MIA Affairs in Hanoi, said, “She managed to lend credibility to government operations for justifiably skeptical families…while meticulously keeping the government bureaucrats honest.” Former prisoner Mike McGrath, two-time president of the NAM-POWs organization, said of Mills-Griffiths: “We can talk straight to her. She’s honest and doesn’t stretch the conspiracy theories. She is a realist, that’s why I respect her.”

There was no hesitation when the chairman of the board was asked if she is satisfied with the progress being made on the long-standing POW/MIA question. “You know me; I am never satisfied,” Mills-Griffiths said. “I won’t be satisfied until we have the fullest possible accounting.”

Two contemporary issues that concern her are domestic. The first involves the new, massive scope of the recovery and identification process, which now extends to unaccounted-for WWII veterans. Says Mills-Griffiths, “Our mission is to make sure they don’t increase WWII and Korean War recoveries by decreasing the effort on Vietnam War accounting, which is achievable in our lifetime.” Her second worry is unreliable JPAC funding, which falls under the U.S. Pacific Command. With looming cuts in the Department of Defense budget, there is concern that funding for JPAC, more than $100 million a year, might not be secure. The league has expressed alarm that some scheduled recovery and investigative missions “may now be in danger due to lack of funding.” In fiscal year 2013, JPAC has 38 missions planned in 19 countries. Typically, teams are deployed throughout the Vietnam War region about 10 times a year. Several land and underwater missions are scheduled this year.

Since Vietnam has more than 2,000 miles of coastline, underwater searches may be some of the most promising, albeit costly, operations. Clues to losses that occurred over or on the water have been preserved on the sea floor, waiting for the right technology and funding. A casualty resolution specialist based in Hanoi said, “Underwater sites will represent a large new frontier, should technology aid us in more successfully locating and recovering underwater crash sites.” According to the JPAC’s Ron Ward, “There are hundreds of sites off the coast of Vietnam of potential interest to JPAC, from single-seat aircraft to large helicopters and planes with multiple persons aboard.” Many pilots tried to evade capture by flying damaged or malfunctioning aircraft out to sea to improve their odds of being rescued.

Scouring the ocean bottom for remains and war wreckage is not new. JPAC has used Vietnamese boats with U.S. divers and equipment for years. But pinpointing sub-surface crash sites is complicated. Overwater incidents leave less visible evidence and have fewer witnesses than land-based ones. One of the most innovative search techniques is the use of oceanographic survey ships, under contract to the U.S. Navy. Two Pathfinder-class hi-tech vessels have already made appearances in Vietnamese territorial waters. The USNS Heezen was on station in 2009, and the USNS Bowditch did survey work in 2011. With a crew of 26 Merchant Marines, the 329-foot ships are equipped with multibeam sonar, sidescan sonar and magnetometer technology. According to Ward, “Digital images appear on a screen aboard the ship in real time, so there is some ability to detect crash sites while the mission is in progress, however, the sonar data must be analyzed by a trained underwater archaeologist.” Once possible sites are located, they are considered “anomalies” until divers or remotely operated vehicles are sent down to “ground truth,” or confirm the find.“If ground truthing determines there is a wreck present,” says Ward, “then JPAC will decide whether to take the next step, which is a full-blown underwater excavation.”

Complicating factors include underwater currents, weather, shifting wreckage and silt, which can submerge evidence. Water clarity is a factor but does not prevent sonar from “seeing” an object. However, under prime conditions, salt water tends to preserve human remains. JPAC cautions that this is a long process. Only one MIA case in Vietnam has been resolved via underwater recovery, and that was based on a witness statement. Hydrographic technology is considered experimental in the search for missing servicemen, but JPAC hopes to deploy more survey ships in the future. It has the last-known locations for every loss, including over water. So far, oceanographic vessels have been deployed off southern Vietnam up to the 17th parallel.

Ann Mills-Griffiths says the League of POW/MIA Families stands behind the new initiative expanding searches under water: “The increased military-to-military cooperation is something we’ve advocated for years.” She says it takes an ongoing effort by many, including the national veterans organizations. Mills-Griffiths acknowledged the contributions of organizations such as Rolling Thunder and Run for the Wall: “The intentions of the thousands who ride carrying our POW/MIA flag are deeply appreciated by all of the families and demonstrate the concern shared by countless thousands, even millions, across the country.”

While Mills-Griffiths is technically retired from the National League of POW/MIA Families, she still reports daily to her Falls Church, Va., office as a volunteer. Another career awaits her: She is determined to write the inside story of the POW/MIA accounting effort that has consumed more than half of her life.

The league’s next meeting to hear about the efforts to account for missing loved ones is in June. And, perhaps, an announcement will be appropriate on the results of the follow-up recovery operations of Ann Mills-Griffith’s brother’s incident.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.