Aerial view of the JPAC site in Laos. Photo by Joe Ray.
When Penny Minturn was 16, she wore a bracelet that said “Maj. Don Lyon.” He was an Air Force pilot missing in action in the Vietnam War, and like many kids in her Missouri town who wore MIA-POW bracelets, she wanted to show her support. “As teenagers we were very anti-war, but we were also taught about sacrifice,” she says. “I wore it until it broke. I wrote to his wife.” Lyon, who had disappeared in Laos, never returned, and his fate remains unknown.
Minturn, now 56, remembers President Richard Nixon telling Americans that there was no fighting in Laos, Vietnam’s neighbor to the west. “So it’s funny to be here now,” she said, sweat beading her brow in the 95-degree heat as we surveyed the archeological dig she supervised.
It was April 2012, the end of the dry season, and we stood at a river bend in Southern Laos with orange-yellow dust on our boots. A rectangular pit the size of a suburban American home was to one side. It stair-stepped downward to the deepest point, about four meters below ground level, with sandbags stacked to hold up each vertical surface. White tape marked the perimeter like a crime scene.
To my other side, in the shadow of tangled branches, children rocked each other in a skinny wooden canoe, and shrieked whenever one of them splashed in. Farther down, on the opposite bank, a woman washed her clothes. The U.S. Air Force major who handled the press for this mission asked me not to include the name of the river, but I can say that it was low and lazy, and teal-colored where it caught the sun.
We were a 10-minute helicopter ride from the town of Xepon, where Minturn, a civilian, and the 15 American service members on her team slept at night. We were a five-minute walk from the nearest village, where the 60 Laotian laborers lived. We were in the very heart of the area once known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Right here, on a night in December 1968, two burning objects fell from the sky.
Never left behind
“There are no American combat forces in Laos” were Nixon’s precise words at a September 1969 press conference. With more than 30,000 U.S. troops already killed in the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement gaining ground, he wanted to reassure the public that the conflict was not spreading uncontrollably across Southeast Asia. But in fact, a U.S. airplane had been shot down over Laos in 1963, and by 1969, U.S. pilots there were very much engaged in combat. American leaders’ non-acknowledgment of the fighting in Laos is one reason it’s been called “the secret war.” Today we know more about it, but the jungle and soil have a way of keeping their secrets.
The Ho Chi Minh trail was not a single track; rather, it was a network of roads and paths that the North Vietnamese forged through mountains and jungle to get supplies to their allies in the south, the Viet Cong. It would prove critical to driving out the United States, which in 1968 had more than half a million soldiers fighting in the region. Well aware of the threat, the Americans rained destruction on the trail on such a scale that entire regions were defiled. U.S. forces dropped cluster munitions, set fires, and defoliated the forest with chemicals, as though taking as a literal order Air Force general Curtis Lemay’s threat to bomb the enemy back to the Stone Age.
When I first heard that the U.S. military was still searching for soldiers lost during the Vietnam War, my mind immediately flashed to living men: one-time prisoners gone native and now growing old in far-flung jungle towns. But in fact, as a captain in Honolulu informed me on our first telephone call, the possibility of finding live soldiers was exceedingly remote; what her command did, chiefly, was figure out how and where men had died.
Laotian workers examine a work list at the JPAC recovery site. Photo by Joe Ray.
Based in Hawaii, the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command — JPAC for short — is charged with finding the more than 83,000 Americans who fought in past wars and are still unaccounted for. The vast majority of that number were lost during World War II, but 1,672 are still missing from the Vietnam War, and 324 of those men disappeared in Laos. (Recovery doesn’t stop with recent wars: JPAC sought out 90 World War II personnel in a single recent mission to the Philippines.)
As most parts of the military shrink, JPAC is growing, adding staff to meet its new goal of identifying 200 of the missing per year, which would double its current average. It spends about $100 million a year worldwide and has over 500 military members and civilian staff. (It anticipated a boost to $119 million in fiscal 2013 before the sequester cut current budgets while also freezing increases.)
At the Laotian river bend, JPAC was looking for two airmen. On that night in 1968, records indicate they flew a B57 bomber on a strike mission above the Ho Chi Minh trail. They were working with a larger plane, a C123, which was tasked with spotting enemy truck convoys and lighting up the trail. As the B57 was making an attack run against a truck, it may have been hit with ground fire, and it collided with the C123. Both planes crashed, the C123 just over a hill jutting up to the north and the B57 here at our feet.
A form of archeology
After high school, Minturn moved to the American Southwest and became an archeologist specializing in the ancient Hopi and Zuni. She worked in cultural resource management, conducting archeological surveys, and also spent several seasons at Abydo in Egypt, where she dug up artifacts from the ancient Middle Kingdom. In 2006 she finished her doctorate in physical anthropology at Arizona State University, and a few years later her husband retired, freeing her to pursue an ambition she had harbored for a decade. Now she hunts for men like the one whose name she wore on her wrist.
Her pants, T-shirt, and baseball hat were all khaki, but she wore a tie-dyed rainbow bandana knotted around her crown. Flushed but upbeat in the humidity, she talked about her craft. In some ways, she said, this wasn’t so different from working with the Hopi or the ancient Egyptians. “You read the soil, pay attention to the details, and keep control of the site.” But this job had a different feel. “Everyone here is very introspective,” she said.
Navy lieutenant commander Curt LaRose, visiting from the JPAC office in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, suggested why: “The people that we’re going after are brothers in arms. It’s a deeply humbling experience to think it could have been me, it could have been any one of us, and to know that our teammates would come looking for us decades later.”
Among the military personnel assigned to this mission — 11 men and four women drawn from all four branches of the U.S. armed services — were a medic, a Laotian-American linguist, and a bomb-disposal technician, a blonde Minturn had nicknamed “Cherry Bomb.” There was also a specialist in life-support equipment, fragments of which were relatively likely to have survived. Air Force master sergeant Jerry Cameron stood at ease and listed for me some of what he was keeping an eye out for: parts of oxygen tanks, ejection seats, survival kits, parachutes, and helmets. The Americans had built a few shelters and a latrine, and a colleague’s wife in Vientiane had sent them chocolate chip cookies, but otherwise there were few comforts.
There will come soft rains
I was visiting at the end of the second month-long mission to excavate the site. The first mission, led by a different anthropologist, had upheld the theory that the bomber they were looking for had crashed here. When Minturn arrived, she brought in a backhoe. As her team dug more deeply over days and weeks, the ground became darker and oilier and the concentration of metal in the soil jumped. By around three and a half meters down they could smell the jet fuel.
Now, though, Minturn was in a race against time. Once the rains started, which could happen within days, the river water would rise and overtake the dig, threatening to move artifacts or carry them away completely. Minturn had prepared for this by moving masses of unsifted debris to higher ground for later sorting, but she still felt a sense of urgency. One lost shred of metal or shard of bone could mean the difference between a family finding out the fate of a missing cousin or brother and it remaining a secret.
At the site of a 44-year-old plane crash on a shifting riverbank, the archeological remnants come mostly in shreds and shards. But the team had found a four-foot-long piece of oxidized aluminum, part of an airplane wing. It was sitting on a tarp out in the open, tantalizingly tangible, half of it twisted into an exotic flower by explosive force. On seeing it I assumed it must hold concrete information, but we were many months from the sort of corroboration JPAC seeks before it will confirm a pilot’s identity.
Most of the artifacts found were no larger than a quarter, revealed only at the sifting station. There, the Americans in their khakis worked with Laotian women in traditional wrap skirts, everyone in hats to protect against the sun. They faced one another over sorting trays, combing through debris by hand while spraying it with river water from a hose. “It gets very quiet when we find something,” Minturn said. Mercedes Crossland, an Air Force staff sergeant, said that when she was sifting, she felt a bond with the Laotian women across from her despite the language barrier. “You become one,” she said.
JPAC anthropologists Owen O’Leary (left) and Penny Minturn. Photo by Joe Ray.
Parts that speak to the whole
The mission yielded scraps of life-support equipment, airplane parts, and bone, all of which were being shipped back to the lab in Hawaii, where they would undergo rigorous forensic testing. JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory is the largest forensic skeletal lab in the world. To make sure bias didn’t interfere with science, another anthropologist would be assigned to the case there, one who didn’t know the suspected identities of the remains.
Months after my visit to Laos I called John Byrd, deputy scientific director of the JPAC lab, who explained some of the techniques they use to identify the dead. The lab compares mitochondrial DNA from pieces of bone to samples from possible relatives. It has created search engines based on dental records and eyeglass prescriptions, both of which are now widely used in the civilian world. It uses microscopy and statistical modeling.
Byrd was most excited about a groundbreaking piece of software the lab has been developing in partnership with Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. It takes advantage of the fact that the military has taken chest X-rays of incoming service members since World War II. These images capture the collarbone, a part of the body unique to every person. “It’s analogous to a fingerprint,” Byrd said.
The new software overcomes the challenge of comparing a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional image. It takes a 3D scan of a collarbone, and rotates it around to show many different angles. Outlines of every angle can then be compared to the database of chest X-rays. The software, Byrd said, was almost ready to be used in casework.
The JPAC recovery team in Laos. Photo by Joe Ray.
Ten months after my visit to Laos, I contacted JPAC hoping to find out if an identification had been made, but I was told that the case of the two missing airmen was still open and active, and there were plans to return to the site. This was not unusual: From the initial historical research through excavation and lab work, identifying just one soldier can take years.
But the return won’t come until 2014 or later. The budget sequestration that looms as we go to virtual press forces JPAC, like other military organizations, to furlough its civilian employees for two days in each two-week pay period. JPAC says that will make it impossible to do recoveries, and will limit its recovery investigations.
None of the Americans I had met on the riverbank doubted that their efforts were worthwhile. “It’s all about trying to make a difference for these guys,” Minturn said. America may have its secret wars, her work says, but those wars’ soldiers deserve better than secret death.
This issue’s cover photo, a helicopter on a 2000 JPAC mission in Laos, is by Thierry Falise/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
Elisabeth Eaves is the author of Wanderlust: A love affair with five continents and Bare: The naked truth about stripping. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Forbes, and Marie Claire, among other places, and she is an editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.