50 years after start of Vietnam War, US presses to recover remains
DANANG, Vietnam - Colleen Shine was only 8 when her father’s jet was shot out of the sky over Vietnam in 1972.
Lt. Col. Anthony Shine was declared missing in action after the A-7D reconnaissance jet he was piloting disappeared over jagged mountains near the border of Laos.
“My mother didn’t know if she was a wife or a widow, and we didn’t know if my dad might walk back in that door,” recalled his daughter, who became an activist with the National League of POW/MIA Families in the following years.
More than two decades passed before a recovery team was able to inspect a crash site believed to be the A-7D, but the Shine family was told no evidence was found. A helmet retrieved after the crash by a villager offered no clues either, they were told. Shine traveled to Vietnam in 1995 to see for herself.
“I went to the village, found the crash site, and when I found the villager with the helmet, it had my dad’s handwritten name in it,” she said. “I found parts of an airplane with serial numbers and bags and bags of stuff.”
The military team excavated the site.
“We were able to get enough remains to put in a ziplock bag,” she said.
The family finally buried him in 1996 in Arlington National Cemetery.
“I want people to understand the heart of this issue is so different than a clear-cut killed-in-action case,” said Shine, who lives in Virginia. “You don’t have a truth to face and move forward from. Uncertainty is a wholly different burden.”
The good news is that fewer and fewer families carry that weight. The decadeslong endeavor by the U.S. government — at the constant urging of the families — to recover the remains of servicemembers lost during the Vietnam War has slowly winnowed the number of missing. That effort has moved into overdrive.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Keane, commander of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command detachment in Vietnam, which is responsible for tracking and excavating the missing. JPAC is pushing to complete the fullest possible accounting before the end of this decade.
The Defense Department is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War this year, a milestone that underscores the necessity to speed up the search for MIAs because many first-hand witnesses in Vietnam are dying of old age.
About four years ago, the League of POW/MIA Families and others urged JPAC to finish the accounting work in Vietnam “within the lifetimes of the families,” said Ron Ward, a casualty resolution specialist with JPAC Vietnam.
According to the Defense Department’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, 1,672 servicemembers remain unaccounted for in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China from the Vietnam War.
Roughly 1,280 are believed to be in Vietnam, but almost half of those have been placed in a “no further pursuit” category because their remains have been deemed unrecoverable, such as in deep sea or in crash sites where personal effects are found but the remains have been lost to acidic soil and jungle conditions, said Ward.
About 2,600 servicemembers were originally MIA in Southeast Asia from the Vietnam War. Almost 1,000 remains have been located and repatriated since then, nearly 700 of them from Vietnam, according to the POW/Missing Personnel Office.
The Vietnam detachment is bearing down on the remaining 700 cases considered retrievable in that country. Investigations have been completed for about 100 sites that can be excavated.
In March and April, JPAC Vietnam completed one of the largest recovery activities held in years. Almost 100 people in six teams — twice the usual number — excavated sites in three provinces. Some teams were able to work on a second site.
The searchers found remains believed to be a soldier killed in a helicopter crash, and the remains were repatriated to JPAC’s Hawaii headquarters during a ceremony held at Danang Airport on April 9. A similar-sized field operation began this month.
Keane estimates that, at the present pace and funding and with a bit of good luck, the bulk of recoveries could be completed in five to seven years.
“After all this time, we are really close to going before Congress and saying we have done the best we can, done all the leads, done all the recoveries we can possibly do,” he said.
Ann Mills-Griffiths, chair of League of POW/MIA Families, who’s been involved in the issue for more than 40 years, agrees with Keane’s estimate — provided the resources for the “surge” are maintained.
The pace of recovery has quickened for a number of reasons, Keane said.
Several years ago, Congress increased funding for the identification and return of MIA remains from all foreign wars.
JPAC Vietnam is making that funding go farther by creating additional recovery teams staffed mainly by Vietnamese.
“The Vietnamese have been working with us a long time, and they have all this experienced personnel,” Keane said. “So instead of having a very large U.S. footprint of 14-some Americans on a team, we’ve cut that down to four — an anthropologist, linguist, medic and [explosive ordnance disposal] specialist — who join the Vietnamese.”
The Vietnamese teams are also more apt to get additional information during excavations because they mix well with the locals. On some occasions, curious locals have talked to the team and informed them that remains had been exhumed since war’s end and showed them the reburial site, Keane said.
The new configuration has roughly doubled the number of recovery teams now out in the field each year to 24, Keane said.
Perhaps the main reason JPAC is having more success in investigations is greater cooperation from the Vietnamese government and military.
“Right now, our relationship with the Vietnamese, you really couldn’t ask for more,” Keane said. “If we’d had this kind of relationship 10 or 15 years ago, we’d be so much farther along.”
Mills-Griffiths said that the Vietnamese have recently begun initiatives that the League has wanted for years, such as providing access to sensitive archives and to eyewitnesses.
Keane said the Vietnamese government is “really tired of getting poked in the chest” about the MIA issue when U.S. officials visit the country and ask about it.
“They want to put that part of history behind them,” Keane said.
In addition, the generation that fought in the war and was quite suspicious of U.S. intentions has largely retired from high office. Vietnam’s dispute with China over ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has led to the country strengthening ties with America, India and Australia, Keane said.
“To tell you how far we’ve come, we now have the names of all the surviving veterans of several very important [North Vietnamese] regiments that were involved in many battles — names of individuals, contact information, when they were with the unit,” Keane said.
This helps JPAC investigators more quickly locate eyewitnesses.
Those witnesses have been very useful in JPAC’s Trilateral Witness Program, in which JPAC coordinates with the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It allows JPAC to bring eyewitnesses over borders to crash and burial sites along the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, portions of which were in Laos and Cambodia. Because those areas were largely depopulated by the conflict, Vietnamese soldiers were usually the only witnesses to wartime events, Ward said.
“The success rate is fairly high because witnesses that we take back to Laos tend to be officers, guys who were highly placed and could read maps,” he said.
He recalled one case in which JPAC brought a Vietnamese officer back to the site of a 1972 battle in which a U.S. helicopter was shot down on a Laotian hill.
“He described in detail how they shot down the aircraft,” Ward said. “There was a skirmish, a shooting match with the Americans who were outnumbered, killed and buried there. We excavated the site, and those people were repatriated.
“We were able to tell those families that their men went down valiantly, still shooting it out.”
Gleaning information like this is a valuable “byproduct” of the search, he said, even if the remains of a servicemember aren’t found.
“Families didn’t only ask for remains,” Ward said. “They said, ‘We want to know what happened.’”
Still, it’s the return of some tangible remains that brings the greatest measure of peace.
Mark Stephensen waited more than 20 years for that moment. The oldest of four siblings, Stephensen was 12 when his father went missing on a night mission in an RF-4C over Hanoi in April 1967. The U.S. government issued a “presumptive finding of death” in the late 1970s, and the family held a memorial service for him.
“But I wanted a flag-draped coffin,” Stephensen said. “That’s what he was owed.”
In 1988, his father’s remains were identified and repatriated, landing in Oakland, Calif., where six airmen carried the casket out of the open back of the cargo plane.
Stephensen has a snapshot of the moment.
“In the background, there are three airmen standing at rigid attention with rigid salutes,” he said. “To me, that was the culmination of everything right there. That was the moment.”