- Historic Sites
A search begun in a Washington, D.C., boardinghouse 140 years ago continues today as a $100-million-a-year effort to reunite the U.S. military and American families with their missing soldiers
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
“I always gardened with my mom,” she says, crouching into a crevice behind a boulder. “I still go to my mom’s and weed. It’s honest, healthy work; I like to be close to the earth. A change in dirt tells a story.” Beyond the main story she is digging out—a ground loss from April 1968, when a Marine patrol was ambushed—she is also trying to decide how deep to go now that a grenade has ended up in the screens just minutes ago from a fresh bucket of dirt. Unexploded ordnance and land mines are a constant concern; before an area is excavated, it is de-mined, but metal detectors can’t always find every danger. An Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician accompanies each JPAC team. (“An old EOD is a good EOD” is an often cited military maxim.)
When the grenade appears, the entire team evacuates the dig site and retires to a tarp-covered break area up the hill. Sgt. James Traub, Martinson Goodman’s EOD, moves toward the abandoned dig with a metal detector and headphones. Beyond his solitary figure lies an expanse of sloping green hills and rice paddies, the Cam Lo River looping iridescently through the landscape, and a single red-clay road almost garish as it seams through the greens; not a single house is in sight for miles. It is spring in Vietnam, the hottest time of year, when the sun, white-scorched in the sky, becomes a sort of environmental weapon. One member of the team referred to this season as “walking into a hair dryer.”
The plight of missing men really became a public issue only after the Vietnam war.
Sergeant Traub signals the all clear, then tells Martinson Goodman, “You want to hand-dig, that’s fine and dandy, but going in with an ax is asking for trouble.”
She surveys the area around a boulder. “We have a lot of sandstone cobble mixed in,” she says. “You can see the red. There’s still some fill here. Let’s not tunnel. Just take what we can from the outside, and then we’ll make a judgment call.” Unlike the myriad vermin found on Augustus’s site, this area is about the unexploded remnants of war. They found a rifle grenade on the last dig and just recently a bomblet on this one, as well as what looked to be the makings of a homemade land mine, a can with a trip wire attached to it, rusting inside a little earthen crevice.
Sometimes they find Vietnamese and American remains commingling at a site (there are hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese missing in action, but the country does not have the resources for digs like this). The Vietnamese and Americans work the sites together, sifting the screens, collecting buckets of dirt, smiling awkwardly, and leaving much unsaid.
The material evidence found so far includes bits of a poncho liner, an American gas mask, the sole of a military boot, a C-rations spoon, and what looks like a belt buckle. “Here guys dumped their loads in an ambush or whatever, so the hillside is full of stuff,” Martinson Goodman says. “We photo document it, then leave it. It’s a hard thing for an archeologist to do: leave something. It goes against my training.” She glances up toward the screening station where the team has launched into a resounding, off-key rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and stabs her trowel into the dirt.
“Sometimes I’m sleepless in Danang because I’ve had to leave stuff behind.”
The plight of missing men really became a public issue only after the Vietnam War. That conflict’s lack of popular support made the MIAs a potential crisis for the government, and political leaders wanted to assure their constituents that every effort was being made not to leave America’s lost sons on hostile territory. Paul Mather, a military historian with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, thinks that “in the case of Vietnam, there not only wasn’t the national sense of patriotism [of the world wars], but there were also serious reservations on the part of the public whether we should even be involved in the war. In comparison with World War II, I believe that many Vietnam-era families who lost loved ones felt bitterness toward our own government. Sons and husbands—and daughters also—were sent off to fight a war that just didn’t quite turn out right in the end. And no one was sure the sacrifice was worth it.”
This, coupled with the formation of the National League of Families, which maintained constant pressure on Congress to negotiate with Vietnam for both prisoners of war and the missing in action, ensured that combatants in the military service of the United States would never again be forgotten on a battlefield.
Accounting for casualties, prisoners, and missing soldiers began in Southeast Asia in 1963, and the search for remains went on throughout the war when it was possible. But it began in earnest with teams similar to the Goodmans’ six months after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Paris Peace Accords, which ended the war, established in Article 8b that “the parties shall help each other to get information about those military personnel and foreign civilians of the parties missing in action, to determine the location and take care of the graves of the dead so as to facilitate the exhumation and repatriation of the remains, and to take any such other measures as may be required to get information about those still considered missing in action.” Nevertheless, the tense political relations between the two countries kept the search in Vietnam sporadic until the 1990s.