LAOS RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES AND THE SEARCH FOR MIAs

LAOS RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES

The United States established diplomatic relations with Laos in 1950, following its limited independence within the French Union. Nationalists continued to push for an end to French colonialism. Laos gained full independence from France in 1954, but within a few years it entered into civil war. The United States supported a rightist regime in Laos. For nearly a decade beginning in 1964, Laos was subjected to heavy U.S. bombing as part of the wider war in Indochina. Following the change of regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, , a communist government also came to power in Laos. The government aligned itself with Vietnam and the Soviet bloc, implementing one-party rule and a command economy. U.S.-Lao relations deteriorated after 1975, and U.S. representation was downgraded. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Laos sought to improve relations with other countries. Full U.S.-Lao diplomatic relations were restored in 1992. In July 2012 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Laos, marking the first visit by a Secretary of State since 1955. Accounting for American personnel missing in Laos from the war was the initial focus of the post-war bilateral relationship. Since that time the relationship has broadened to include cooperation on a broad range of issues including counternarcotics, health, environment, and trade. [Source: U.S. State Department]

Laos was the only country involved in the fighting in the Vietnam War that maintained diplomatic relations with the United States. In 1992, Laos and the United States upgraded relations and exchanged ambassadors. Contracts were signed between Laos and U.S. companies to drill for oil and mine gold. The Lao government has cooperated with the United States in locating MIAs and controlling the drug trade.

The Economist reported: “America tends to be restrained towards a country that it punished severely during the Vietnam war. The Laotian government likes to remind the Americans that they dropped more bombs on Laos than they delivered over all of Europe during the second world war. In the absence of America's moral presence, Vietnam and China, neither of which is likely to promote liberal ways, remain the dominant foreign influences in Laotian politics. [Source: The Economist, April 26, 2001]

The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos during its "secret war" between 1964 and 1973 — about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II. Four decades later, American weapons are still claiming lives. When the war ended, about a third of some 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate. More than 20,000 people have been killed in Laos since then by ordnance, according to Laos' government, and agricultural development has been stymied. [Source: Bradley Klapper, Associated Press, July 11, 2012 ////]

Before 2012, the last U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles in 1955. His plane landed after a water buffalo was cleared from the tarmac. At that time, Laos was near the center of U.S. foreign policy. On leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his successor, John F. Kennedy, that if Laos fell to the communists, all Southeast Asia could be lost as well. While Vietnam ended up the focal point of America's "domino theory" foreign policy, Laos was drawn deeply into the conflict as the U.S. helped support its anti-communist forces and bombed North Vietnamese supply lines and bases. ////

Associated Press reported: Persistent human rights issues stand in the way of closer relations with Washington. The U.S. remains concerned about the plight of the ethnic Hmong minority, most of whom fled the country after fighting for a U.S.-backed guerilla army during the Vietnam War. Nearly 250,000 resettled in the United States. The U.S. has pressed Laos to respect the rights of returnees from neighboring countries. Washington also has been seeking greater cooperation from Laos on the search for U.S. soldiers missing in action since the Vietnam War. More than 300 Americans remain unaccounted for in Laos. ////

“And the U.S. is pressing the Laotian government to hold off on a proposed $3.5 billion dam project across the Mekong River. The dam would be the first across the river's mainstream and has sparked a barrage of opposition from neighboring countries and environmental groups, which warn that tens of millions of livelihoods could be at stake. The project is currently on hold, and Washington hopes to stall it further with the promise of funds for new environmental studies.” ////

Laos’s Postwar Relations with the United States

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975 the Pathet Lao was very hostile towards the United States, which supported it royalist enemies. Departing American aid mission personnel were forced to leave behind everything they could not carry aboard a plane. Aid projects such as the Operation Brotherhood hospital at Longtiang were abandoned overnight. In spite of Souvanna Phouma's assurances to the United States ambassador that the government would provide continuity in medical services, foreign nurses and other technicians were not replaced. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

No record exists of any discussion by the United States embassy--staffed at the chargé d'affaires level after the departure in April 1975 of Ambassador Charles S. Whitehouse--of United States "participation" in healing war wounds or of the reconstruction aid mentioned in Article 10c of the Vientiane Agreement. Even had the United States been predisposed to discuss these matters, the conditions of the takeover by the LPRP would have precluded it. *

Relations with the United States suffered some of the same cutbacks as those experienced by Vietnam and Cambodia after the United States withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, but there were important differences. After 1975 Laos provided the United States the only official window to its former enemy states in Indochina. The United States was also willing to treat all departing Laotians as political refugees entitled to asylum, with hopes that third countries might eventually accept them for resettlement. And, in spite of the full economic and diplomatic embargo imposed by the United States on Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, United States diplomatic relations with Laos facilitated such occasional humanitarian aid projects as food and prosthetics. In this manner, the door to full diplomatic relations was kept ajar. *

Diplomatic relations with the United States were never broken, even though the United States Agency for International Development (AID) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) both withdrew, under harassment, and diplomatic representation in Vientiane and in Washington was reduced to the level of chargé d'affaires, with a limit of twelve persons and no military attachés. *

Relations eventually were reciprocally restored to the ambassadorial level in the summer of 1992. A tentative agreement to allow United States Peace Corps personnel in Laos fell through in the spring of 1992. The admission of Peace Corps workers was initially approved but then rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Apparently some party leaders feared that the volunteers might have a subversive impact on the Laotians, especially if deployed outside Vientiane. As of 1993, a country agreement was on the table, and the Peace Corps remained interested in sending volunteers but was waiting for Laos to initiate a program. *

Other United States agencies run small programs in Laos. In 1992 AID made a US$1.3 million grant for a prosthetics project. Because AID does not have an office in Laos, the program is administered from AID's office in Bangkok. The United States Information Service, the overseas branch office of the USIA, reopened a one-officer post in Vientiane in October 1992. The post concentrates on supporting English-language teaching activities and publications, press activities, and cultural and educational exchanges. Two Laotian Fulbright grantees were in the United States in 1993. *

Key Lao-American Issues: MIAs, Opium and the Hmong

Since the establishment of the LPDR, Laos and the United States have cooperated in varying degrees on two major issues of high priority to the United States. One is the search for information on the more than 500 United States servicemen listed as missing in action (MIA) in Laos. This problem has proved to be a surprisingly durable issue, which delayed an otherwise uncomplicated and mutually beneficial rapprochement between the two states. Starting in 1985, Laos treated the MIA issue seriously enough to undertake joint searches of known wartime crash sites of United States aircraft. However, the United States Senate Select Committee on Prisoner of War/MIA Affairs concluded in January 1993 that: "The current leaders of Laos, who are the successors to the Pathet Lao forces that contended for power during the war, almost certainly have some information concerning missing Americans that they have not yet shared." Further cooperation brightened the atmosphere of Laos-United States relations, even though a full accounting of United States military personnel lost in the Laos theater of war can probably never be achieved. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The second long-standing issue is the production and export of opium. In April 1993, Laos received a national interest certification on the issue of cooperation in counternarcotics activities. Opium traffic out of Laos is a tangible irritant to relations, however, particularly because of the suspicion that high-ranking Laotian officials, especially those in the military, are involved in protecting the trade. However, Laos has resented official United States pressure as an attempt to shift the blame for the problem. *

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration worked with the LPDR to maintain Laos's eligibility--despite its opium trade--as a potential United States aid recipient. In 1990 an economic aid project worth US$8.7 million was provided to help the hill tribes that grow poppies turn to substitute crops. Thus, the legal barriers to expanding Laos-United States consultation and commerce were essentially removed. Yet most-favored-nation treatment for imports such as coffee from Laos might conceivably have to await the full release of the last of the political prisoners held in the mountainous eastern provinces since 1975. *

An irritant in Laos-United States relations was the United States charge in 1981 that Laos had engaged in aerial spraying with deadly toxins--yellow rain--against Hmong villages. The United States government adopted the position that chemical weapons were used in Laos in the late 1970s through 1983. Such reports lost credibility after 1984, however, when the United States stationed scientific personnel in Bangkok to test any incoming evidence, which never appeared. *

See Hmong

Trade and U.S. Assistance to Laos

Following the 1986 introduction of some economic reforms, Laos' economy is essentially a free market system with active central planning by the government. The overarching policy goals for U.S. assistance to Laos are to improve Lao governance and the rule of law, and increase the country’s capacity to integrate fully within the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the global economy. [Source: U.S. State Department ::::]

The largest part of U.S. bilateral assistance to Laos is devoted to improving health. The United States also helps improve trade policy in Laos, promotes sustainable development and biodiversity conservation, and works to strengthen the criminal justice system and law enforcement. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the war, particularly cluster munitions, remains a major problem. The United States has provided significant support for UXO clearance, removal and assistance for survivors. ::::

U.S. exports to Laos include diamonds, metals, aircraft, vehicles, and agricultural products. U.S. imports from Laos include apparel, inorganic chemicals, agricultural products, and jewelry. Laos is working toward accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and has committed to joining the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Both of these processes require trade and regulatory reforms, which should make the investment climate more attractive to U.S. companies. WTO and AEC requirements also reinforce fuller implementation of the conditions of the 2005 U.S.-Laos bilateral trade agreement. The United States and Laos have a bilateral investment agreement and have signed a civil aviation agreement. ::::

See Unexploded Bombs

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton Visits Laos in 2012

In July 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Laos. Bradley Klapper of Associated Press wrote: “Decades after the U.S. gave Laos a horrific distinction as the world's most heavily bombed nation per person, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged to help get rid of millions of unexploded bombs that still pockmark the impoverished country — and still kill. Clinton, gauging whether the nation can evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia, met with the prime minister and foreign minister, part of a weeklong diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia. It is part of a larger Obama administration effort to reorient the direction of U.S. diplomacy and commercial policy as the world's most populous continent becomes the center of the global economy over the next century. It is also a reaction to China's expanding influence. [Source: Bradley Klapper, Associated Press, July 11, 2012 ////]

“Clinton said she and Laotian leaders "traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future." Laos is the latest test case of the Obama administration's efforts to "pivot" U.S. foreign policy towards Asia. In her meetings, Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong River as well as investment opportunities and the joint efforts to clean up the unexploded bombs dropped across Laos over what was once called the Ho Chi Minh trail. ////

“Clinton visited a Buddhist temple and a U.S.-funded prosthetic center for victims of American munitions. There, she met a man named Phongsavath Souliyalat, who told her how he had lost both his hands and his eyesight from a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday, four years ago. "We have to do more," Clinton told him. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together." ////

CBS News reported: Clinton was the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Laos in 57 years. As neighboring China sees its regional influence grow, Laos has started to reach out for diplomatic engagement with the United States after decades of isolation. U.S. officials say the two countries are working together on issues such as human trafficking, education exchange and Laos' desire to become a member of the World Trade Organization.The U.S. is expanding its outreach in the region to open new markets for American-made goods as part of its "economic statecraft." [Source: Margaret Brennan, CBS News, July 11, 2012]

American MIAs in Laos

As of 2012, more than 300 American personnel were missing from Laos, where the U.S. bombarded supply lines of communist guerrillas fighting U.S. forces in neighboring Vietnam. American MIA search teams have been working systematically from the Pathet Lao caves in the north all the way down to the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south.

In February 2006, Reuters reported: “The remains of four U.S. Army soldiers who died together 35 years ago in Laos during the Vietnam War have been identified and are being returned to their families for burial, the Pentagon said. The soldiers were lost on March 20, 1971, on a mission to extract troops in the Savannakhet Province of Laos, when their UH-1 H Huey helicopter was hit by enemy ground fire and exploded, the Pentagon’s POW/MIA office said in a statement. The remains were identified as those of Maj. Jack Barker of Waycross, Georgia; Capt. John Dugan of Roselle, New Jersey; Sgt. William Dillender of Naples, Florida and Pfc. John Chubb of Gardena, California. Barker and Roselle were piloting the helicopter with Dillender and Chubb on board, the statement said. Their remains were recovered during investigations by joint U.S.-Lao search teams and recently identified by American forensic experts in Hawaii, the Pentagon said. As of 2006, a total of 839 Americans have been found and accounted for in Southeast Asia since the end of the war and 1,807 remain missing. Of those found and identified, 208 have been from losses in Laos. [Source: Reuters, February 14, 2006]

In November 2004, Will Dunham of Reuters wrote: “Six U.S. airmen killed when their plane went down in Laos in 1966 in the Vietnam War have been identified with genetic tests and other methods, the Pentagon said. They were crew members aboard an AC-47 "Spooky" gunship that was flying a nighttime reconnaissance mission over southern Laos when it went down in flames on June 23, 1966, in a heavily wooded area in Khannouan Province, the Pentagon said. The six Air Force airmen are: Col. Theodore Kryszak of Buffalo, New York; Col. Harding Smith of Los Gatos, California; Lt. Col. Russell Martin of Bloomfield, Iowa; Chief Master Sgt. Harold Mullins of Denver; Chief Master Sgt. Luther Rose of Howe, Texas, and Chief Master Sgt. Ervin Warren of Philadelphia.. Greer said the cause of the crash remains unknown. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, November 2, 2004 >><<]

“Their remains were recovered by a team of U.S. and Laotian specialists, headed by an American forensic anthropologist, in May and June 1995, Greer said. A local villager in October 1994 had identified an area where personal effects, aircraft wreckage and a crew member's identification tag were found. The remains were transported to facilities in Hawaii, where scientists used forensic techniques including mitochondrial DNA sequencing, dental remains and X-rays to identify them, Greer said. "We're very pleased that we're able, even decades later, to help some of the families close this very sad chapter in their lives," Greer said. The Pentagon said 1,849 Americans remain missing in action from the Vietnam War, and more than 88,000 from all wars. <<<

Sometimes the remains that were found didn’t belong to soldiers. In November 2003, the remains of Charles Dean were brought home. The brother of presidential candidate Howard Dean, he disappeared when he was 24 years old while traveling in the Mekong River during a trip of Southeast Asia in 1974. It is believed that he and a traveling companion were captured and killed by the Pathet Lao. There were rumors that Charles may have been a spy but most think he was just an adventurous backpacker. He appears to have been imprisoned for a while. His remains were found near Bolikhamsai.

See Vietnam

Remains of Six MIAs Missing Since 1965 in Laos Brought Home in 2012

In July 2012, FoxNews and Associated Press reported: “The remains of six servicemen, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and are being returned to their families for burial with full military honors, the Department of Defense's POW/Missing Personnel Office announced. The crew aboard an AC-47D aircraft nicknamed "Spooky" failed to return from a combat strike mission in southern Laos on Dec. 24, 1965. All contact with the crew was lost following an initial "mayday" signal. Search efforts for the crew and aircraft were unsuccessful. [Source: FoxNews.com, AP, July 5, 2012]

Those on board were Air Force Col. Joseph Christiano of Rochester, N.Y.; Col. Derrell B. Jeffords of Florence, S.C.; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Chief Master Sgt. William K. Colwell of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Chief Master Sgt. Arden K. Hassenger of Lebanon, Ore.; and Chief Master Sgt. Larry C. Thornton of Idaho Falls, Idaho. Col. Joseph Christiano's oldest child, Barbara Annechino, was 21 at the time, and said that she had never given up hope that her dad may be alive, the Democrat and Chronicle reports. Christiano was 43 years old at the time of the crash in Laos. He was a career serviceman and veteran of World War II and Korean War.

A joint United States-Lao People's Democratic Republic search team investigated a crash in Laos in 1995, when villagers said they remembered seeing an aircraft crash in December 1965. The team was able to recover small pieces of wreckage, which prompted further investigation. The joint search and recovery teams returned to the site four times between 1999 and 2001, conducting additional interviews with locals as part of the investigation. The team then began excavating the site, but did not recover any human remains at the time. Search efforts were suspended for a while and resumed in 2010 and 2011, when remains were located.

The Department of Defense reported that the joint team has since recovered human remains, personal items and military equipment, which scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command identified using dental records and other evidence. The six men's remains were buried as a group in a single casket representing the entire crew in Arlington National Cemetery, the Department of Defense said.

Looking for MIAs in Laos

The Washington Post described one American team looking for MIAs that arrived in a Russian-made heliocpter at the base of hill in Saravan province is southern Laos to search for a U.S. Navy pilot shot down while making a bombing raid on the Ho Chi Mohn Trail. Ellen Nakashima wrote: “The team hiked down a long, steep slope and, putting spade to soil, dug in a space roughy 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...Pairs of villagers rocked trays slung from bamboo poles, massaging red dirt through quarter-inch wire mesh. As a boombox blasted a Motown mix, the American team members scanned for pieces of zipper, boot, oxygen hose, what investigators call life support material.”

On January 11, 1968, an MR-2, a military spy plane, crashed into the side of a limestone mountain in the Phou Lounag area of eastern Laos in foggy weather while dropping devises that can help detect the movements of enemy troops. Searchers had use mountain-climbing equipment to locate the wreckage on a ledge.

Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “A number of factors have contributed to the recent surge in recovery and identification operations. Prodding from family members has created a strong political constituency for POW and MIA work, boosting the federal budget and personnel for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the military unit charged with finding missing warriors. At the same time, advances in forensic science and DNA testing make it easier to identify a long-dead soldier or sailor on the basis of very little physical data—a bone fragment, a few teeth, a lock of hair—even in cases which have languished unsolved for decades. And, since the mid-1980s, improved relations with Vietnam and other Asian nations has meant better access for teams scouring the jungles for evidence. All of this has led to the growth, in sophistication as well as size, of the JPAC command, which employs more than 400 people and combines expertise in criminal investigation, archaeology, linguistics, bomb disposal, DNA processing and a number of other specialties for a single purpose—to account for all Americans who ever disappeared in battle. [Source: Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu, Smithsonian magazine, August 2006 /~/]

"Nobody goes to the effort we Americans do," says Army Brig. Gen. Michael C. Flowers, commander of JPAC, headquartered at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. "From the time we go to boot camp we learn to take care of one another. And we make the promise that no one gets left behind. We will go back again and again to look for those who might still be alive or those who have fallen."/~/

“In most criminal investigations, a case is considered “cold” if it remains unsolved for more than two weeks. The investigative trail in most of the JPAC cases, by contrast, has been cold for 20, 30 or 40 years, with witnesses dying, landscapes shifting and evidence degraded by time and weather, as at Site 1303. “It’s a puzzle with 10,000 pieces scattered around us,” said Mannon, gazing down at workers screening soil and hoisting buckets of dirt up the mountainside. “We’ve got to figure out how all the pieces fit together.” /~/

Looking for MIAs in Vietnam, See Vietnam.

Looking for the Remains of a MIA Pilot in Laos

On the search for Michael J. "Bat" Masterson, an American pilot shot down over Laos in 1968, Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “It took some persistence to find Bat Masterson's crash site. By the autumn of 2005, when I arrived in rural Xieng Khuang Province of Laos with an anthropologist and a recovery team of nine service members from JPAC, the United States had already spent years in delicate negotiations for access to the region. Since the war, there has been periodic unrest among the indigenous Hmong hill tribes, old allies of the French and, later, of the Americans who fought there. Central authorities in Laos, a Communist regime since 1975, were understandably touchy about opening the region. Thus it was 1993 before the first investigators were admitted to northern Laos to search for Masterson, with follow-up missions in August 2004, October 2004 and July 2005. [Source: Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu, Smithsonian magazine, August 2006 /~/]

“Each foray into the mountains yielded a few scraps of new evidence—a 1967 quarter from the site, which fit the time frame of Masterson's disappearance; two 20-millimeter cannons consistent with the A-1 Skyraider's armament; parts from the plane's parachute assembly; many fragments of the blue glass used exclusively in the Skyraider's canopy; and a few shards of bone thought to be human. The bone was in such small pieces and so badly burned, however, that it contained little organic material, which made it an unlikely source of DNA to link Masterson and the wreck. /~/

“But the crash site—prosaically logged in military records as Case No. 1303—was almost certainly Masterson's: it fit the coordinates noted by his comrades in 1968, and the aircraft debris made it clear that the downed plane was a Skyraider, the only one of its kind lost in this part of Laos. Although the place had been thoroughly scavenged prior to our arrival by villagers looking for scrap metal and other useful bits of hardware, members of the recovery team were optimistic that a month's excavation might finally solve the mystery of Masterson's fate. /~/

“Archeological Work” in the Search for a MIA Pilot in Laos

Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Near the top of the cleared area was the impact crater, a black hole in the red earth. A swath of jungle had been peeled back, revealing a grid of four meter squares climbing down the mountainside and ending where a dense green wave of vegetation reared up at the edge."We're just now getting into a very productive part of the dig," said Elizabeth "Zib" Martinson Goodman, the civilian anthropologist in charge of recovery operations. "On most archaeology sites," said Goodman, "you dig down through the topsoil, sifting for artifacts until you reach the sterile layer, the undisturbed layer of soil below the surface." On this hillside, the stratigraphy was confused. The plane punched through the sterile profile. Scavengers later excavated around the plane, tossing the dirt containing wreckage and human remains down the hill. Monsoons subsequently scattered the evidence. Any remaining artifacts would be dispersed downhill from the crater. [Source: Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu, Smithsonian magazine, August 2006 /~/]

“That is where a marine and a soldier, stripped to their T-shirts and sweating, chopped away with pickaxes at the lower edge of the clearing. Each shovel of dirt was dumped into a black plastic bucket labeled for this particular grid and conveyed up the hillside by a brigade of some 50 Hmong workers. On the brow of the hill, a score of Hmong villagers, working with Americans from the JPAC team, strained each bucket of soil through quarter-inch screens to recover the tiniest clues from the site—twisted bits of olive drab metal, mud-streaked screws and rivets, strands of insulated wire, melted gobs of plastic and the occasional stinging centipede lurking in the dirt. One afternoon, as I was sifting earth at the screening station, I uncovered a scorpion in my tray. A Buddhist co-worker walked over, calmly lifted the irate arachnid out with a trowel, set it free at the jungle's edge and blithely returned to work. /~/

“The excavation looked like textbook archaeology, laid out with pegs and strings in geometrical precision, but in other ways it was unique. "Most archaeology gets done in places where people want to live," said Goodman, "like flat places where you can walk around." As she spoke, we were listing like sailors on a heeling sailboat, straining to keep balanced on the nearly 45-degree slope. "We often wind up in places like this, where it's pretty remote and hard to maneuver, or in Papua New Guinea, where we work knee-deep in cold water and mud the whole time," she said. "Half the challenge is just getting there and being able to work." In July 2005, the previous season at Site 1303, frequent rains shut down excavations for days, and on those occasions when work was possible, the footing was treacherous. "The challenge was to get up the hill without breaking your leg," said Goodman, who had supervised the previous excavation. /~/

Finding Something Among Unexploded Bombs in the Search for a MIA Pilot in Laos

Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Our conversation was interrupted by the crackling of a two-way radio on Goodman's hip. A disembodied voice came from the speaker: "We've got something for you." Another radio voice answered: "Roger. I'm on it." The second voice belonged to Staff Sgt. Steve Mannon, 32, a burly marine in wraparound shades and a dark green polo shirt, who was already scrambling downhill, where workers with picks and shovels had backed away from the hole. They made room for Mannon, the team's unexploded ordnance (UXO) expert, who got calls like this throughout the day. He had come to examine a rusty-looking cylinder, about the size of an egg roll, which the diggers had turned up. / Mannon pulled off his sunglasses, squatted in the pit and opened a knife, using the blade to pick the mystery object out of the dirt. "Another 20-millimeter round," he pronounced, easing the ordnance into a satchel, clapping his shades back on and trudging uphill to a jungle path at some distance from the work area. We stopped under a red and white sign emblazoned with skull and crossbones and a warning in English and Lao: "DANGER!!" it read, "UXO!" Just beneath it was a pit in which Mannon had collected another 50 such rounds, part of the Skyraider's 2,000-pound payload. He added the morning's find to the growing pile, which would double in size in the course of our weeks here. [Source: Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu, Smithsonian magazine, August 2006 /~/]

"What would happen if you set off one of these rounds?" I asked him. Depends on where you hit it," he answered. "You could be blinded, or it could just take most of the meat off your hand." When this dig was finished, Mannon would bury the recovered explosives to forestall an accidental detonation—a constant threat to farmers or anyone else who puts a spade to earth in this ordnance-packed landscape. /~/

“After a few days of digging, those pieces began to pile up, making it look as if Bat Masterson had not bailed out after all, but had perished on the hillside in 1968. By early November, Goodman had examined and bagged several hundred pieces of bone, which she labeled as “possible osseous remains,” for future scrutiny by JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Like the bones recovered previously from the site, these were burned bluish gray and broken into fragments the size of a fingernail, too damaged and small for DNA sampling, which usually requires at least two grams of dense bone, such as from an arm or a leg. Three other bone fragments from the site were also too damaged for DNA, but they were nonetheless big enough for Goodman to see that they were human. Since there was no village at Site 1303, no cemetery there and no history of human occupation, it was reasonable to suppose that the remains belonged to Bat Masterson. /~/

Other evidence pointed toward that same conclusion. Three more coins—nickels dating from 1963, 1964 and 1965—were recovered, as were more than 30 unfired rounds from a .38-caliber weapon, most likely the sidearm Masterson carried on flying missions. "Most pilots carried a sidearm like that," Goodman said. "If you ejected from the plane, you'd keep it with you in the jungle. It wouldn't be with the wreck unless you were with the wreck." /~/

Army Sgt. Christophe Paul, 33, a combat photographer attached to JPAC, discovered a clay-caked sliver of metal in his screening tray, rubbed off the mud and reached for his radio. "Hey, Zib," he said. "What is the name of the guy you are looking for?" "Michael John Masterson," she answered. "I think I have his ID tag here." Goodman came bounding over, examined the dog tag and rendered a verdict: "Looks like Chris is buying the beers tonight," she said, setting off a ripple of cheers down the hillside. Everyone crowded around for a look at the tag, which was stamped with Masterson's particulars. Goodman also noticed that the tag was bent, as the insole had been, most likely from the impact of his crash. /~/

Analyzing Materials Found at a MIA Crash Site in Laos

Beth Claypool, 21, a Navy Parachute Rigger Second Class was the mission's "life support analyst," Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “ spent afternoons sorting through hundreds of pieces of broken metal, wiring, tattered cloth and other gleanings to determine their hidden importance. She traveled with a library of technical manuals and old photographs, which helped to identify occult bits of aircraft engines, rivets, snaps and buckles emerging from the dirt. I often sat with her at the sorting station and marveled at her ability to separate gold from dross. One day she pulled out a slab of rust, studied it for a few seconds and declared it a pocket-knife. "See the metal loop on the end of it?" she asked, pointing out the clasp that might have secured a line to the owner's vest. Setting aside the knife for Goodman to examine, Claypool turned her attention to an ordinary-looking screw with an oversize head and a short body. Noticing that it was threaded unconventionally—it tightened to the left instead of the right—she determined that it was the visor adjustment device from the top of a pilot's helmet; thus, its reversed threading. "No other screw looks like that one," she said. The rest of the helmet was never recovered, but this small piece of metal would prove to be a critical bit of evidence placing Masterson with the wreck. [Source: Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu, Smithsonian magazine, August 2006 /~/]

“In the days ahead, other artifacts would emerge to round out the picture—the fragmentary remains of a parachute still folded neatly into a corner of its pack, a harness buckle, several zippers from a flight suit, a captain's rusty insignia pin and a metal insole from a pilot's boot. The insole was surprisingly small—size seven or so—but it was a likely match for Bat Masterson, who stood 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 137 pounds. "I knew what it was as soon as I saw it," said Navy Cdr. Joanne Petrelli, who uncovered the insole while swinging a pickax in the pit one afternoon. "It was the shape of a human foot. It was about the size of my husband's foot. He's small, too—and he's a marine." /~/

Despite the chaos of the wreckage, the extensive scavenging and the acidic soil eating away at bone and steel for nearly four decades, the team had culled more than enough evidence to close Site 1303. When we decamped from Laos, the jungle would creep in and gradually obscure the drama of loss and restoration that had unfolded here. What little remained of Bat Masterson was carefully labeled and placed in 26 small plastic bags, each keyed to the place and date of its discovery. Other artifacts, consisting of personal effects and material evidence, filled another 75 bags. The entire yield fit neatly into a black Pelican briefcase, which Goodman secured with two brass padlocks and kept in her possession for the long journey home. To guarantee the integrity of these investigations, JPAC follows a strict protocol, maintaining a chain of custody from field to laboratory, as if the evidence had to withstand courtroom scrutiny. /~/

“At Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base the findings from our recovery team—and those from others—were subjected to rigorous scientific review in the Central Identification Laboratory. Only then could identifications be confirmed, families briefed and remains sent home for burial. Goodman and the other anthropologists signed over their evidence to the laboratory, which triggered the meticulous review process. While she wrote her excavation report, the rest of the case was analyzed by other lab specialists and finally sent for outside review. "There's peer review at every step," explained Thomas Holland, the lab's scientific chief, who collects the outside reviews and scrutinizes them. "That's when I write the final report, which makes the identification and spells out the justification for it. By that time the case has to be airtight." /~/

Depending on the quality of the evidence and the complexity of the case, a review can take up to a year. This can be excruciating for families who have already endured so much—but it would be even worse if the process concluded with a case of mistaken identity. "We don't want any doubts," said Holland. "Our goal is to make certain that there is never another unknown soldier." In 2005 alone, the Central Identification Laboratory resolved a hundred cases, almost evenly divided between Vietnam and World War II. Some were identified by DNA sampling but most by dental records, still the most reliable means of providing a name for the dead. Since neither teeth nor DNA was available in Masterson's case, it was finally closed, February 7, 2006‚ on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Later that month, Air Force officers presented the findings, along with Masterson's dog tags, a few coins, other effects and a copy of the case file, to his wife. /~/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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