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Vietnam Allows Access to Crash Site; Families Elated, Hopeful

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., June 21, 2005 – They were elated, yelling with joy. Some of them even hugged the defense official who announced June 17 that the Vietnamese government had agreed to allow Americans to visit the site where seven soldiers perished in a plane crash on Jan 3, 1971. But the excitement didn't last long.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Seven family members of servicemen still missing in Vietnam were elated when an official of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced that the Vietnamese government had agreed to allow Americans to search the area that's thought to be the airplane crash site where their loved one perished during the Vietnam War. Standing in the back row (from left to right) are Daniel F. Wenz, Jaime G. Holguin, David J. Palen and Elaine Palen. In the front row (from left to right) are Kathi Wenz, Sylvia R. Holguin, and Lorenzo Ramirez Jr. Photo by Rudi Williams
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Seven family members of the dead soldiers thought their more than 34 years of prayers were finally answered and the remains of their loved ones were about to be recovered and returned home to them. But that's not what the letter from the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons said.

"When the announcement was made, we were elated. We were screaming with joy," said Elaine Palen, sister-in-law of Sgt. Carl "Tony" Palen, one of the soldiers killed in the 1971 crash. "Then came the realization that this is a site survey, not a recovery. We'd been hoping that it was a recovery mission going to be taking place.

"It was a little bit of a disappointment when we found out that it was a site survey and not a recovery," said Palen, who was attending a luncheon hosted by the Army casualty office during the Defense Department's annual government briefings here. "Still good news, still progress being made, just a little bit of a disappointment because we were hoping they would finally be able to do the recovery."

The June 17 letter, signed by Pham Van Que, director of the Vietnamese missing persons office, was written to Army Lt. Col. Lentfort Mitchell, commander of Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Detachment 2, in Hanoi, Vietnam. It stated, in part, the "Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons has been in contact with Gia Lai Province Authority and concerned agencies to include two MIA cases 1625 and 1687 in the 82nd JFA deployment plan.

"With their approval, we request Detachment Two make necessary arrangements to assign our investigation team to survey the sites during July within the 82nd JFA in preparation for recovery works in the time to come," the letter continued.

"We believe that it is a strong evidence of Vietnam's efforts in accomplishing our humanitarian mission, contributing to further development of Vietnam-U.S. relations," the letter read.

"An announcement was made that access for a sight survey was granted to the Central Highlands of Vietnam for Case 1625 and our case, 1687," Palen said. "The case has been surveyed before. We hope that this continued survey will lead to a recovery effort soon. This is great news for the family. However, we're holding out good hope that a recovery effort will be made soon.

"We've been denied access to that region for a long time," Palen noted. "They haven't been able to get into that region because the Vietnamese denied access before."

Kathi Wenz, sister of another missing soldier, Army Spc. 6 Patrick J. Magee, said, "There were seven men on a Beaver U6A aircraft. They took off without a flight plan from what the record states. They were lost, and a rescue team went looking for them three days later. And that's all we knew.

"Six years ago, they thought they'd found the crash site," Wenz said.

A Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office report states that the men were on an administrative support flight from Qui Nhon to Ban Me Thuot, in South Vietnam, when radar contact was lost with the aircraft 14 miles southeast of Phu Cat at 11:20 a.m.

"The pilot did not file a proper flight plan, nor was a weather briefing obtained prior to takeoff," the report noted. "Search and rescue efforts were delayed until 7 p.m. on Jan. 5 because (the pilot, Capt. Ferris Rhodes Jr.,) had announced plans to remain overnight at Ban Me Thuot."

The report went on to say that a beeper signal believed to be associated with the aircraft was detected on Jan. 6, but no wreckage was found when it was investigated. "The search efforts were called off on Jan. 9 with no trace found of the aircraft or personnel being found," according to the report.

"As of this morning, they received a fax granting access to the Central Highlands by the Vietnamese, which had been denied before," said Jaime G. Holguin, brother of Chief Warrant Officer Luis Holguin who perished in the crash. "They can now get a survey for these two cases. From there, we're hoping that that leads to a recovery as soon as possible."

Lorenzo Ramirez Jr., brother-in-law of the missing soldier, said, "You hear so many things over the years, but you have to remain optimistic. This letter is a surprise for me. I'm hoping and wishful that something positive happens."

Chief Warrant Officer Holguin's sister-in-law, Sylvia R. Holguin, said Ramirez has been coming to the briefings since 1986. "I'm grateful for him being supportive of his brother-in-law since 1986 and (he) hasn't given up the faith."

"This is the first time I've come personally. Our family has come for nine years. I've heard the general stuff, which seem to stay the same year after year," Jaime Holguin said. "Being here personally, you get a little more details. Getting this type of information was definitely unexpected. We're wishful, always hoping and finally getting a step forward."

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