Book Examines Ongoing Search For Vietnam MIAs
Associated Press Writer
When the U.S. government brings home the bones of another father, son or brother missing in the Vietnam War, it’s mainly local news. It would take the discovery of a living prisoner of war to guarantee Page One — an unlikely prospect 29 years after the fall of Saigon.
Yet the story of how the Pentagon conducts MIA search and recovery operations in Indochina and elsewhere has not gone unnoticed. Newspaper and magazine articles, TV reports and a handful of books have described the 12-year effort to bring answers and solace to families at a cost to Ame-rican taxpayers of about $100 million a year.
In "Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers," (Houghton Mifflin. 307 Pages. $25) author Earl Swift offers perhaps the most detailed treatment yet of what he calls "a mission unprecedented in recorded history...to find the remains of the missing. To send home all they find. To put a name, the right name, on each of their headstones."
From 2,583 Americans officially "unaccounted for’’ in Indochina when the war ended in 1975, the list has been pared to 1,871. Hundreds who crashed over water or simply vanished will never be found, officials concede.
Swift, a military reporter for the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va., des-cribes his experiences with an MIA team seeking the remains of four U.S. Army helicopter crewmen shot down in March 1971, during Operation Lam Son 719, a badly planned, ultimately disastrous attempt by Saigon’s U.S.-supported forces to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, North Vietnam’s jungle supply line.
Swift delves into the lives of the four — aircraft commander Jack Barker, co-pilot Jack Dugan, crew chief Billy Dillender and gunner John Chubb — and graphically reconstructs their last flight, what one analyst calls "basically a suicide mission,’’ to rescue trapp-ed South Vietnamese soldiers.
Those familiar with the subject would not quarrel with the author’s judgment that the Laos operation was both the "finest" and the "darkest" hour in U.S. Army aviation annals, nor with his description of the arduous task of finding and recovering Ameri-cans lost there.
Two Hawaii-based military units that have done this work since 1992, the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting and the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, recently merged into a new agency with the less cumbersome title of Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). But they continue to function as before — one investigating cases and managing field searches, the other supplying the experts who recover remains and perform the forensic analysis to identify them.
Too young to remember the war, Swift is properly awed by Laos’ re-mote and vivid landscape of jungled mountains and towering, rocky escarp-ments, where hazards range from un-exploded ordnance, to leeches, poison-ous insects and "Jake two-steps,’’ a deadly viper named for the distance one might travel after being bitten.
While braving such dangers, he writes, MIA teams rely on classic archaeological techniques to survey and excavate crash sites, "a decidedly preindustrial process of digging and dirt and sweat.’’
Even with metal detectors and satellite-guided location fixes, searches have become harder and results diminished with time. But because the missions are "political sacred cows with which no elected official dare interfere,’’ says Swift, they may continue past a point "where the risks outweigh the results.’’
After eight Americans and nine Vietnamese died in a helicopter crash in April 2001, some critics suggested just that – saying the money could better be used for other purposes such as economic development and health care in those countries.
As other visitors to the Hawaii lab know, the MIA recovery effort does not begin and end with Vietnam, but extends to Korea and World War II battlefields and crash sites.
Swift tells of being there as experts examined the skeletons of 19 members of "Carlson’s Raiders," a Marine force that attacked Japanese-held Makin Island in 1942, and was depicted in the Hollywood film, "Gung Ho!" He also observed the discovery of wreckage of a B-17 bomber in New Guinea.
In the end, the book deals equally with the disappointments as well as the successes of the ongoing search for Americans missing in action.