SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has potentially found evidence related to Americans still missing from the final battle of the Vietnam War and may head back to Koh Tang island for an excavation in the near future, officials said.
A seven-member investigation team spent a week on the island off the coast of Cambodia in September, where it investigated two sites located in areas where the heaviest fighting occurred, JPAC officials said last month.
JPAC officials declined to provide specifics on the sites, what was found or any potential correlation to a particular missing servicemember, but they said they did find enough evidence to bring one site before the administrative body that decides whether to allocate funds for a dig.
Since only concrete cases are brought before the board, the revelation has given hope to the families of the missing.
“My brother was very dear to my heart,” said Daphne Loney, sister of unaccounted for Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney, who was killed in an ambush during the battle. “After all these years knowing the others were found, I hope it’s a possibility he will finally come home. I thought no one really cared about Ashton.”
While on the island, JPAC investigators inspected one site on the island’s east beach and one on its west beach, according to spokesman Army Maj. Jamie Dobson. JPAC officials said they interviewed witnesses from the May 15, 1975 battle between U.S. Marines and Cambodian Khmer Rouge soldiers to help identify potential sites.
The case will now go before JPAC’s excavation decision board, which meets monthly to decide whether a more costly excavation is warranted at a particular site. For that to occur, there needs to be compelling evidence that American remains will be recovered.
“Typically an analyst will submit a case to the excavation decision board if he or she believes there is enough evidence to warrant a recovery operation,” Dobson said. “Some considerations include finding material evidence linking the site to an individual’s case or the corroboration of circumstantial evidence supporting the location as a potential site.
If the site is approved for excavation, it will then be added to the master excavation list.
Some families of the missing have complained that correlated sites can languish on the list for years. Dobson did not say when the decision board would convene to hear the case or when it might launch an excavation.
Developers have announced plans to turn the small island, less than 50 miles off the coast of Cambodia, into a resort. It’s unclear how those construction plans might affect any JPAC decision.
Loney was only 20 when he and approximately 200 other Marines, Navy corpsmen and Air Force pilots fought for their lives on Koh Tang, an isolated scrap in the Gulf of Thailand. Their mission was to rescue the hostage crew of an American merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez.
The grueling 14-hour battle, often referred to as the “Mayaguez Incident” and widely regarded as the last battle of the Vietnam War, claimed the lives of 15 servicemembers and an additional 23 Air Force personnel who died in a support force crash in Thailand. Three Marines were left behind and later reportedly killed by their captors.
Loney; Air Force Staff Sgt. Elwood Rumbaugh, who was reportedly lost at sea; and the three left behind — Pfc. Gary Hall, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove and Pvt. Danny Marshall — are the only ones who have yet to be recovered.
Loney, a charismatic, jovial, family man, was gunned down while walking point during a foray into the jungle during the battle, survivors said.
“He was bigger than life,” said battle survivor Al Bailey, who was with him when he died. “He didn’t think he could be destroyed.”
Em Son, the Khmer Rouge commander of the island during the battle, told Stars and Stripes in 2012 that he found Loney’s body wrapped in a poncho on the beach after the Americans left and had him buried nearby.
Since that time, however, Son had been picked up by the Cambodian tribunal looking into Khmer Rouge atrocities, leading some to question the truthfulness of his information on the missing.
Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the U.N.-backed tribunal provided the following statement: “I am further limited on what I can make comments on by ECCC Internal Rule 56 which reads, ‘In order to preserve the rights and interests of the parties, judicial investigations shall not be conducted in public. All persons participating in the judicial investigation shall maintain confidentiality’,” Olsen said.
U.S. Embassy officials in Cambodia declined to comment.
Many survivors of the battle and families of the missing believe Son — who told Stars and Stripes he executed Hargrove and witnessed the burials of Hargrove, Hall, Marshall and Loney — has withheld the truth about the missing, including potential burial sites, possibly in fear of prosecution by the tribunal. Son insists he has shown JPAC the correct sites, and that American remains have been found.
Despite testimony of the alleged witness, attempts to locate the missing men have been hampered by poor record-keeping at JPAC labs. Documents provided to Stars and Stripes include allegations that JPAC investigators failed to fully record their work on the island during excavations, some of which potentially covered some of “the only evidence thus far related to the possible fate of one of those that was left behind.”
American remains were potentially found during an excavation on the island in 2008, according to former ambassador to Cambodia and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs Charles Ray.
Ray told Stars and Stripes last month that preliminary findings from the island indicated an unearthed set of remains were “probably Caucasian.”
But Dobson denied any American remains were found in the 2008 excavation.
“Comments made on site are preliminary,” Ray said. “But you know [JPAC’s] backlog is such I don’t recall [a subsequent] briefing on that particular recovery.”
Battle survivors and family members said they hold out hope that remains of the fallen will be found.
“I want his bones to come back to American soil,” Daphne Loney said. “It was the country he fought for.”