In Laos, Sifting the Earth for American Dead
Team Is Part of Search for Vietnam MIAs
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 1, 2004; Page A01
SARAVAN, Laos -- On the first day of the dig, Franklin Damann spied what appeared to be a bone fragment resting on the soil surface. But he could not be sure. He put it in a Ziploc bag labeled "Possible Osseous Remains."
He hoped that the fragment, and several more found over the next few days, would yield DNA to help identify U.S. Air Force Col. Norman Dale Eaton or his navigator, Lt. Col. Paul E. Getchell. Their B-57 exploded and crashed on a remote hill in southern Laos in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War.
Damann, a forensic anthropologist, and about a dozen U.S. service members shoveled and sifted hundreds of buckets of dirt from that metal-pocked hill in February. In several equally isolated and treacherous sites in Cambodia and Vietnam, other teams were also scanning for every shard of steel, canvas, plastic, bone or, best of all, tooth that might help identify men who died in the Vietnam War, more than 1,800 of whom are still missing.
Since 1992, 10 times a year, the military has sent teams to the old battlegrounds of Southeast Asia to search for Vietnam combatants' remains. Two to six teams go on each trip. So far, they have accounted for 724 Americans, according to the Pentagon.
But time is running out. Witnesses are dying. Investigators are now talking to people who can remember their fathers telling them about a crash site. The most accessible areas already have been excavated, and bone disintegrates more readily in the acidic soil of Southeast Asia.
It is an arduous yet optimistic endeavor, costing $100 million a year spread over five agencies. Though the military has long proclaimed that no man or woman shall be left behind on the battlefield -- and made recovery efforts for several years after World War II and the Korean War -- it took the emotional upheaval of the Vietnam War to spur the government to undertake a continuous search effort. Scientists and recovery teams have been finding and identifying remains of those killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific.
They have identified remains of about 500 service members from World War II, Korea and the Cold War. The U.S. military estimates that 88,000 service members are still missing from all wars. The effort to find them is destined to continue, officials say, as long as the United States sends its men and women into battle zones.
"I can't think of a more noble mission," said Marine Capt. William P. "Bay" Dobbins, 29, leader of a team searching for the remains of a Navy pilot downed in southern Laos. Dobbins, who served in Iraq last year, said he had been waiting for this job with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. "I love the idea of bringing these guys home," he said.
So it was that on a chilly morning in February, a dozen soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines and Damann, who works at the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu, piled into an aging Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter at the team's base camp in southern Laos. Twenty minutes later, they landed on a hill in Saravan province that was traversed by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of paths used by the North Vietnamese to ferry supplies along the border with Laos into South Vietnam. The team hiked down a long, steep slope and, putting spade to soil, dug in a space roughly as long and wide as an Olympic swimming pool.
About 90 Laotian villagers, who live a day's trek away and were hired for a small daily wage, were already there. They formed a bucket brigade down the slope, men and women with high cheekbones and broad faces, wearing old jeans, Nike caps and wool head scarves.
Pairs of villagers rocked trays slung from bamboo poles, massaging red dirt through quarter-inch wire mesh. As a boombox blared a Motown mix, the American team members scanned for pieces of zipper, boot, oxygen hose -- what the investigators call life support material.
The hill was not an easy one. At a 35-degree angle, it had a view at 3,700 feet of a valley below filling with deceptively fast-moving clouds. Army Sgt. Robert Bryson, in charge of team safety, warned the crew: "This site is dangerous. When the pilots say go, there's no lollygagging or we'll be here overnight."
During a mission three years ago, seven military personnel and nine Vietnamese died when their Mi-17 helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded hill.
The site was surveyed last summer by Joan Baker, an anthropologist who also works at the Honolulu forensics lab. She found no crash crater, leading her to conclude that the plane had exploded before it plunged. Her investigative team found hundreds of pieces of fan blades, wires and bolts strewn over more than 350 square yards. Then she saw a small metal object nestled in the roots of a tree. It was a dog tag, bearing Eaton's name. "It was pretty exciting," Baker recalled. "I couldn't believe it for a minute. I was like, 'No!' " Team members planted a yellow stake wherever they found even a jot of debris, turning the hill into a dandelion field of stakes.
Damann held up a slice of rusted metal to the gray light filtering through the trees. The words "cylinder hydraulic actuating" were still visible. The metal plate was engraved with the manufacturer's name, Glenn L. Martin Ltd., Baltimore, Md., which in the 1960s retooled the British-made B-57s from straight-and-level planes to dive bombers.
"We'll be pulling stuff all day," said Damann, a lanky Louisianan who analyzes skeletal remains to figure out a person's size, sex, race and other characteristics. As it turned out, the team would not be pulling stuff all day. After lunch, the clouds rolled in, obscuring the valley below. Bryson gave the word to load up the buckets and gather the tools. "It's time to get off the hill," he said. The son of a Vietnam Nam veteran, Bryson is a mortuary affairs specialist, or 92-Mike in Army lingo. He was on his 31st recovery mission to Southeast Asia, has worked directly with MIA families and relishes the satisfaction of delivering a memento to a wife or parent. "There are cases where a family member said, 'He always carried a 1945 buffalo nickel,' and then you go to the site and dig and pull it out of the dirt," he said. "There are the wedding rings, the crucifixes, wallets with pictures." Working one World War II case, he said, he found letters ready to be mailed home. "You bring them home to a wife or mother, and the gratitude is immense. That's pretty amazing you can do stuff like that."
Elderly locals are another source of information. Khampoy Khun, a grandfatherly man with an impish grin, was trying to clear a rice field about a decade ago when he came upon metal aircraft parts poking up from the soil. He eventually told his story to American investigators and led them to a site where a Navy pilot had plowed into a hill in April 1970. "I would be very glad if the Americans find what they are looking for and can return the remains to the families," said Khampoy, 70, cheering on the Americans and Laotians digging, hauling and screening soil. "I think the families back home are hoping the remains will be found." He had one request, though: that the United States do more to remove unexploded ordnance left from the war. "I am very poor," Khampoy said. "And I cannot work my rice fields with the unexploded bombs. It's all over the place." In February, the team looking for the Navy pilot's remains unearthed a 500-pound unexploded bomb. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. air campaign dropped more than 2 million tons of explosive ordnance on the hills and valleys of Laos, the world's most heavily bombed nation per capita, according to United Nations Development Program statistics. Some of the craters were as large as houses. Up to 30 percent of the ordnance, it is estimated, failed to detonate and continues to kill about 200 people, many of whom are children, each year, according to the program. In fiscal 2003 the United States spent $1.2 million on clearing the ordnance in Laos, about one-fourth of the total international donor aid to the effort, U.S. officials said. After 30 days, Damann, Bryson and their team flew back to Honolulu. Another team took their place in March to continue the dig. All the evidence found is bagged and sent to the lab. There, a different set of anthropologists examines the remains and the life support material. The lab, which is part of the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, identifies on average two Americans a week. The best way to make an identification is to match a tooth, especially one that has had a filling or a drilling, to dental records, Thomas Holland, the lab's scientific director, explained in a telephone interview from Honolulu. "No two fillings are alike," he said. "That's really how most identifications are made." Even as the difficulty of the missions has increased, the technology has improved, Holland said. These days, up to 70 percent of cases are identified by matching mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the maternal line, from remains to a relative from the same maternal line, he said. About five grams of dense bone, the type found in the arm or leg, is needed to gather enough DNA for an identification.
In the mid-1990s, the military began taking a DNA sample from all service members in case it is needed for identification.
On the night of Jan. 13, 1969, Eaton and Getchell took off from Phan Rang Air Base in South Vietnam. They flew west toward Laos, to drop bombs and napalm on a target along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an effort to disrupt the enemy's supply line. Eaton's last recorded words before the plane crashed were "Off target," according to a wartime Air Force report. A C-130 pilot who was flying nearby, directing Eaton's strike, said that his cockpit was lit up by the flash from the bomb Eaton dropped, and lit up again five seconds later by the B-57's crash, according to the report. No parachutes were seen. A two-second emergency beeper signal was heard by another aircraft in the area, but it was unclear if that was from Eaton or Getchell. Eaton, then 43, had always said that when he went, he wanted to "go down in a ball of fire," his wife, Jeanne Eaton, now 75, recalled in a telephone interview from Alexandria. He loved to fly, loved "that wonderful, celestial feeling," she said, though he had his concerns about the war. Eaton's oldest son, Paul Eaton, 53, is now a major general in the Army, stationed in Baghdad, the commander in charge of training the nascent postwar Iraqi army. Getchell was 32, slender, dark-haired and a carpenter with a philosophy degree. "He was always learning and reading," and looked forward to teaching, recalled his widow, Teresa Getchell, 67. As the years passed, the two women, who have never remarried, gradually came to terms with their husbands' deaths. For Getchell, it has been so long since her husband died, she said, that finding any remains now will not mean much. "It will just verify what I feel is already the case, that he's gone," she said from her winter home in Bradenton, Fla. For Eaton, the search holds out hope for some peace of heart. "The very fact that they found my husband's dog tags, at least there's a substance there, there's a reality," she said. "Hopefully, they will find some tangible evidence of him." In March, the team that took over from Damann found more possible remains at the site. The evidence will be sent to the lab. A new team returns in June to continue the hunt.
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
Ann Mills Griffiths
National League of POW/MIA Families
1005 North Glebe Road, Suite 170
Arlington, VA 22201