Some Missing May Never Be Accounted For
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
Washington, Feb. 22, 1996 We dont think well ever be able to recover remains for 567 of [the 2,162 Americans still missing in Southwest Asia], said James Wold, deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA Affairs.
The revelation was made in a report to Congress last winter. It prompted accusations by some that the Pentagon is forsaking the missing. But Wold refuted that notion. He said such an announcement "generates the most publicity because it's the first public recognition that no matter what we do or what host governments [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia] do, we'll never be able to recover some remains. This is no different from past wars from which there still remain thousands of missing Americans. "
The decision was based analytically on our review of all the cases, Wold noted.
There are a number of reasons why some missing may never be accounted for, Wold said. "Americans became missing or were killed under a wide range of circumstances," he noted. Losses include downed aviators; soldiers known to have died on the battlefield, but whose remains were not recovered due to enemy actions. There were, for example, soldiers who drowned while crossing a river whose remains could not be found.
A small number disappeared from their unit or were lost while off duty in Vietnam. The assumption is they met with foul play, although the circumstances and location of their loss remains unknown.
Some of the most difficult cases to solve involve airplane crashes at sea, Wold said. There are 470 unaccounted cases of individuals lost at sea: 449 in Vietnamese waters, 15 in Cambodian waters and six in Chinese waters. This includes aviators whose planes crashed at sea, persons who perished when their vessels sank and those who fell or were swept overboard and a few swimmers swept out to sea," Wold said. After reviewing the cases of every overwater loss, 366 individuals were determined to have been lost at sea, and their remains are believed to be unrecoverable.
There are also cases involving ground action loses, Wold said. "A platoon or company of men, perhaps, was involved in a battle by a fastmoving stream where a person swept down stream is never recovered.
Service members missing in Southeast Asia receive the most publicity, but DoD hasn't forgotten the missing from World War II, the Korean War or the Cold War, the retired Air Force brigadier general said.
"We're trying to increase dialogue with other countries about Americans missing in prior conflicts," Wold said. "Last August, we completed the 12th U.S./Russia Joint Commission plenary session in Moscow. There's a lot of productive activity going on and we're getting additional information."
The United States is trying to get the North Korean government to conduct joint investigations into the whereabouts of U.S. service members buried in cemeteries in that country. Officials are also asking the Chinese government for access to military archives to help account for Americans missing from the Korean War.
The United States isnt giving up on accounting for any of the missing, Wold emphasized. DoD is conducting major joint field activities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, he said. "We recently completed two significant joint investigations in Cambodia. The Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and the Life Science Equipment Laboratory at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, are extremely busy working on these cases. Were also engaged in a major research and document declassification effort concerning Vietnam and Korean War losses."
Vietnam turned over more important documents in 1995 than ever before, Wold noted. "In terms of joint field activities," he said, "the cooperation is good and they're very flexible
"I must say the same thing about Laos," he continued. "But Laos doesn't have as many resources per capita as the Vietnamese to work with us on joint field activities.
Cambodia is a little different, Wold said. There are 77 outstanding cases in Cambodia. "We concluded a very successful operation off Tang Island, on the coast of Cambodia. This was related to the Mayaguez incident in 1975. [The Khmer Rouge captured the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez. President Ford sent in Marines to rescue the crew. A total of 15 Marines died and 50 were wounded in the operation].
The salvage ship USS Brunswick dredged around a helicopter that was shot down and crashed in the surf. "Navy divers recovered remains and artifacts that may lead to accountability in several cases," Wold said. "We also investigated another helicopter crash northeast of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
Letters explaining the results of DoD's report ZeroBased Comprehensive Review of Cases Involving Unaccounted for Americans in Southeast Asia are being sent to families of missing service members. The analytic review represents the first time the U.S. government has assessed all information and material collected since the Vietnam War ended.
"Information about individual cases isn't classified, but it may be restricted because of privacy concerns," Wold said. "So the information can't become public until the families are notified."