The fatal crash of a helicopter mission to recover the bodies of U.S. servicemen missing since the Vietnam War is bringing new attention to the soldiers and civilians putting their lives on the line a quarter century after the war's end to bring home missing Americans.
Through a Pentagon program called Joint Task Force Full Accounting, created in 1992, 604 sets of remains believed to be unaccounted-for Americans have been returned to the United States.
As recently as October, the remains of 11 U.S. Air Force servicemen classified as missing-in-action from the Vietnam War were identified and being returned to their families for burial. More are expected to return May 4.
"The recovery effort has continued at a fairly steady pace," says Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense Department's Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office, who says there are as many as 1,000 sites that await investigation.
A team of seven task force investigators and nine Vietnamese died April 6 when their Russian-made helicopter crashed in Vietnam. They were an advance team for future recovery sites and included the incoming and outgoing heads of the program there. It was the first loss of life for the program.
"These joint teams have maintained a truly remarkable safety record, particularly given the dangerous and difficult terrain in which they work," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday.
Their loss will be a blow to the program, says Ann Mills Griffith, founder of the National League of POW/MIA families. Of the three military personnel who died, she said, "It's not easy to replace people like that, they're all volunteers. There's an awful lot of commitment on the part of these guys who operate in the field out there."
Currently, 1,981 Americans remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, many of them pilots believed lost on land or over the ocean. Some 600 of those are believed to be lost at sea are not expected to be recovered.
The task force was created in response to presidential, congressional and public interest, and made possible by increasing cooperation between the target countries, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, according to the program. The United States spends about $20 million annually on recovery operations in those countries.
The task force has more than 180 investigators, analysts, linguists and other specialists representing all four services and Department of Defense civilian employees. Teams of more than 90 visit Vietnam four or five times each year for monthlong operations. They do investigations, archival research, an oral history program and remains recovery operations.
"Often times you excavate a site, you know which airplane it is, you may even find a dog tag of the serviceman, but you do not find his remains," says Greer. "So you keep looking, you move your excavation 20 yards to the south, or the west, or you find villagers who say, 'yes, we pulled him out of the cockpit and buried him over here.'"
The task force's operations are supported by casualty resolution specialists and anthropologists from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, representatives of the Defense POW/MIA office, and personnel from U.S. Pacific Command.
Task force teams also work with recovery officials from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Of the 2,583 American originally missing in 1975, most of the unaccounted-for, 1,923 of them, were lost in Vietnam, either on land or over water off the Vietnamese coast. Another 569 were lost in Laos, 81 in Cambodia and 10 in China.
Ordnance demolition specialists are important components of the teams, clearing recovery areas of land mines, bomblets from U.S. B-52s, and other unexploded ordnance. Other perils of the recovery missions include disease and wildlife, in particular a snake called the bamboo viper.
None Returned Alive
Finding and returning live Americans is the task force's highest priority. But no missing American has ever returned alive from Southeast Asia since "Operation Homecoming," the massive prisoner release of 591 Americans in 1973 by North Vietnam.
There have surfaced numerous, first-hand reports of unaccounted-for Americans alive in Southeast Asia, according to the program. But most of the reported "live sightings" turned out to be resolved through correlation with accounted-for personnel, and some have turned out to be fabrications.
The U.S. government says it has so far been unable to obtain definitive evidence that Americans are still being detained against their will in Southeast Asia. But officials say they don't discount the possibility.
A Global Effort
The Joint Task Force Full Accounting is just one part of a massive $100 million-a-year program to recover unaccounted for Americans from WWII to the present.
By far the majority of missing Americans remain unaccounted from WWII — 78,000, according to Greer. Thousands of them went down in ships and aren't expected to be recovered, he says. But the remains of airmen continue to be found, including some from recently excavated cites in Papau New Guinea and, in February, those of a 16-year-old P-51 Mustang pilot whose plane disappeared in heavy fog over northern France in January 1945.
Another 8,800 Americans are missing from the Korean War. And 124 are missing from the Cold War. Recoveries worldwide are on the rise, to about 100 each year, says Greer.
"We're doing many more a year ago than we were 10 years ago, because the pace has greatly increased in North Korea. It was zero, now we're doing 10 operations per year," says Greer.