Tuesday, April 14, 1998

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: The Fullest Possible Accounting

Vietnam, 1968. A brief stutter in America’s attention to the war in Southeast Asia focused on the crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo captured by the North Koreans. Troops in Vietnam were at ease during this new year, known to the Vietnamese as Tet. This would prove to be a trying time for the U.S and South Vietnamese coalition. During the previous year, terrorism against the Americans in the country was at its height. The North used the diverted attention to North Korea and the new year to its advantage by mounting a large-scale attack. It was known as the Tet offensive. This fatal blow would set the U.S. Forces back and claim the lives of many young American men. It was those young men not only during the Tet offensive but also throughout the war that would never see American soil again. Their cause would be a war that is still being fought to ensure that those who did not return are never forgotten.

Vietnam, 1998. It’s been thirty years since the Tet Offensive, and Americans are once again back in Vietnam. I find myself standing on a street corner in Hanoi gazing across the large lawn in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Hardly a prospect many Americans would think possible in this Communist held country. Uncle Ho, as he’s called here, is idolized much the same way as Vladimir Lenin in Russia, or Kim Il Sung in North Korea. Buildings bear his name, statues bear his glory, and propaganda blares his message across a nation united under communist aggression that he never lived to see. But unlike other socialist nations, Vietnam recognizes expansion and interaction with all nations as the key to surviving. Increased production of rice has made it one of the leading exporters. The United States, recognizing that the country made all its commitments to United Nations resolutions, lifted the trade embargo against the country imposed since the end of the conflict. With the end of the embargo came a flood of foreign investment, from Japanese resorts at China Beach to Cuban Cigar stores in Hanoi.

The lifting of the embargo brought more than just increased investment in the country. It also opened many doors for the United States to answer questions that have long gone unanswered.

My purpose in Vietnam is to document and meet a U.S. military organization stationed in Hanoi. Their mission is quite different than those before them. They’re not here to stop the spread of communism. They’re here to bring home those who are not accounted for from the war in Southeast Asia.

My journey begins as my Vietnam Airlines flight terminates at Noi Bai International airport. Evidence that this air base was bombed during the Linebacker campaign during the war has virtually disappeared, and the frame to a new commercial air terminal stands as a tribute to the Vietnamese people’s triumph. My driver and escort meet me at the airport to bring me in to the capital city. The trip there is a journey in itself. The driver uses his horn just as much as the gas peddle, and pedestrians walk in and out of the freeway while vehicles speed by in excess of 100 kilometers per hour. All along the highway are shops, stores, restaurants, and gas stations. Everyone in Vietnam seems to own a business, taking full advantage of their free market economy.

Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTFFA) operates Detachment 2 from the Missing In Action Compound in Hanoi. It’s here that I check in to my hotel right next door to the compound, under the watchful eye of government appointed minders wary of my electronic camera equipment.

Six servicemembers serve a remote tour and are stationed here for one year at a time. About once every other month, teams from JTFFA and the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) deploy to Vietnam to mount search and recovery operations based on the groundwork laid by the Detachment personnel in Hanoi. Their mission is not isolated to one area. It spans the entire country from the Chinese border to the Mekong Delta, and my mission consequently follows suit.

I’m in Vietnam during the 49th Joint Field Activity (JFA). These operations, occurring since 1992, involve about 130 people. During (JFA’s), team members deploy to a crash site or former battlefields and excavate the area in search of remains. The task is a difficult one. There are many obstacles that the teams face while in Vietnam.

Remains hunters search and find remains before the teams do and attempt to sell them to the United States government. This is in response largely to a distribution of flyers by one-time presidential hopeful Ross Perot proclaiming a $1 million dollar reward for the recovery of any live American left behind from the war. The official standpoint of the United States government and to the members of JTFFA is there are no Americans held beyond their will from the war in Southeast Asia. Over the countless live-sighting reports that JTFFA receives continually, all have been dead ends. To date, there has been no live repatriation of an American.

My purpose here is to document the efforts of Joint Task Force Full Accounting more extensively than News Agencies before me. An advantage to accomplishing this goal is being an active duty servicemember. I go where they (JTFFA) go, and in essence, treated like I am “one of the team”.

A major portion of this trip consists of remote site visits. I accompany the Detachment commander during his routine site inspections. Our mode of transportation is a Russian built MN-17 helicopter that is based at Gia Lam airport outside Hanoi. The airport was the setting for Operation Homecoming in 1973, the place where over 600 prisoners of war were returned to U.S. custody. No evidence here indicates that the operation ever took place, and the only mention is a brief commentary from the commander, LTC John Kelley.

“You know you stand on the same soil American prisoners found their freedom ride home.”

It was more of a rhetorical question, one that I would remember. Despite the lack of public acknowledgement, an overall sense of recognition descended on the quiet passengers of the helicopter on our first trip out to the sites.

The trip to Son Lau Province, near the Laos-Vietnamese border northwest of Hanoi, is relatively short. The distance may be small, but the gap between the area we were visiting and the present day were not. The mountainous regions in Son Lau is extremely remote, and hold the answers to the fate of a missing US Air Force pilot of an F-4 Phantom fighter jet. The plane was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile, and the high performance jet slammed into the side of the mountain. Rescue efforts at the time of the crash were impossible inside this communist held territory.

JTFFA reached the crash site nearly thirty years later. The site is so remote the airplane wreckage was complete, immune from the scavengers that raided other crash sites in the country. Here, the teams work hand in hand with Vietnamese and ethnic people known as the Hmong. This nomadic tribe settled in the mountains of Northeast Vietnam and until the JTFFA teams arrived, had no exposure to Caucasians. Their acceptance of the Americans despite their lack of contact with them was amazing. It was obvious many didn’t understand their goal through their work, but tirelessly assisted the teams in digging, sifting, and sorting through the dirt and rubble.

My arrival in Son Lau sets the community abuzz. A widespread fascination with my electronic camera descends among these people, and many are distracted from their daily routine to admire the technology they live without on a daily basis. This technology does not hamper their efforts to modernize their village. JTFFA teams live among primitive but effective water canals and resources in the small Hmong settlement. From here, they operate their base camp, which is at the foot of the mountain that they climb to nearly four times a day.

The ascent to the top of the mountain is a treacherous one. Over two thousand man made stairs mark the trail to the dig site. It takes me about forty minutes to reach the site from the base camp. The site is a massive and elaborate archaeological excavation. Detailed and systematic trenches span the mountainside where the airplane crashed, while the wreckage sits near the foot of the mountain.

The trenches are designed to find bone fragments, life support gear, or personal belongings of the pilot. The impact of a high performance jet is so powerful, the size of bone fragments at the site is no bigger than a half-dollar, so finding other effects are almost necessary for a positive identification. Finding anything that could belong to the airplane or the pilot is a momentous occasion, and motivates the teams to keep digging.

We stay in Son Lau for several hours. LTC Kelley inspects the living conditions, primitive as they are, and the progress of the dig site. A brief rest for pictures and a demonstration of my camera to the people, and the commander ushers us back on the helicopter.

The trip back enables me to focus on what I had just witnessed. This initial preview into the world I was about to embark filled me with the deep sense of commitment shared by everyone. The fact that former enemies share the same goal, or that so many different people can be so enthusiastic, and not really know the man they are looking for, is a concept that those who don’t understand the purpose have a hard time grasping.

I later interviewed Former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Carl Mundy, who was in Vietnam to return to Khe San, the marine garrison he served in during the Vietnam conflict. After receiving his briefing at the Missing in action compound, he summed up the feelings in a most appropriate manner.

“There’s no time limit on this, there’s no working hour limit, there’s no expense limit. It’s just the mission of trying to find a buddy that you intend to look for and bring home. It’s an important value and effort that America needs to understand.”

Kane Farabaugh is a Marseilles native. He’s been stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, and Yongsan Army Garrison, Seoul, South Korea. He currently is stationed at Yokota Air Base, Tokyo, Japan, and travels the Pacific hemisphere to document the United States military in action. His assignments bring him to locations like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, and Australia. Farabaugh is currently attempting to be the first military broadcaster allowed in to North Korea to document the U.S. government’s effort to find those missing from the Korean War.