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
Atop a half-mile-high mountain deep in the heart of the A Shau Valley in central Vietnam, a poisonous worm snake winds itself onto the edge of a spade. After a fleeting glance, the U.S. sergeant holding the spade, Tammi Reeder, 34, flicks her wrist and flings the vermilion serpent into the double-canopy jungle surrounding this mountaintop enclave. It is the fourth such snake in an hour and about the millionth over the past several weeks, so this group of 10 U.S. military personnel, 2 civilian anthropologists, and more than 70 Vietnamese workers have developed a resigned tolerance for reptiles.
We are in a cloud forest, three miles from the Laos border in the A Luoi District, an hour’s helicopter ride from anything. Verdant trees—banana, banyan, traveler’s palm, and cassia—are rooted in curried mud. A wet layer of humidity wilts the jungle. The group’s mission is to find and repatriate a warrant officer whose Huey helicopter went down in May of 1967 with three other crew members. Those three were rescued within 48 hours. In the days afterward, several attempts were made to retrieve him too, but heavy enemy fire made it impossible.
This search is one of more than 15 that take place annually under the charge of the Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii—400 military personnel and civilian anthropologists and archeologists who so far have conducted more than 80 Prisoners of War/Missing in Action operations in the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, and many other places. On average, JPAC identifies 2 soldiers a week in its forensic laboratory, which is the largest in the world. There remain today more than 78,000 missing soldiers from World War II (of which 35,000 are deemed recoverable), more than 1,800 from Vietnam, 8,100 from Korea, 126 from the Cold War, and 1 from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
To decide which of this multitude to try to locate, JPAC’s Casualty Data section analyzes each case, assessing such factors as the political stability of the country, available weather windows, safety, and accessibility. Once adequate information has been collected and analyzed, the intelligence, operations, and laboratory sections decide whether or not to pursue a recovery. Basically, they go for the easiest to reach—an approach that gets more difficult with every passing year.
All the cases involve the dead. The wistful, angry conviction that grew up in America after Vietnam that prisoners were still being held has spurred JPAC to pursue thousands of reports of “live sightings” throughout Southeast Asia. Not a single case was found to be credible. While they continue to follow up any such leads, investigators do not believe that any living soldiers are being held from past wars.
Augustus Goodman, the 30-year-old anthropologist in charge of this mission, has the regal stance of a nineteenth-century explorer and the quiet manner of a philosopher. “It’s an amazing endeavor. Not many other cultures go as far as—” He stops. Perching on a small rock, he gazes out to the jungle and away from the work going on behind him, where the sound of shifting, sifting earth is constant and quiet and Peter, Paul & Mary songs from a generation ago filter from a tiny tape player hung on a tree limb. Goodman wears a baroque wedding band of gold and gunmetal on a parachute cord around his neck, and a torn-off corner of a T-shirt tied kerchief-style over his shoulders. He speaks Greek and is learning Vietnamese. “How far we go to honor those who died,” he continues after the pause. “It says a lot about our society.”
The United States has not always gone so far. The search for missing soldiers postwar is relatively new. Historically, U.S. soldiers were given a burial only when time, family connections or money, and manpower would allow, and even then it tended to be unceremonious and expeditious. The missing, however, remained eternal mysteries to their families.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that any attention was afforded the missing at all. Then the Army’s Quartermaster General’s Office published lists of burial rosters from 72 national cemeteries and over 300 local cemeteries to aid families in their search for missing soldiers. Roughly half the 316,000 Union dead who had been buried were eventually identified, but Confederates were far more elusive. Few were buried in marked graves, and typically only officers were afforded proper burial with identification.
The most earnest effort to find missing Civil War soldiers, however, came not from the military or the government but from Clara Barton. Famous for founding the American Red Cross, Barton, who had also been the country’s first battlefield nurse, was perhaps the nation’s best known woman in the immediate after-math of the war. With President Lincoln’s blessing, and very limited congressional funding, she began the Office of Correspondence With Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army inside her own living quarters in a boardinghouse on the corner of Seventh Avenue and E Street, NW, in Washington, D.C.—and thus became the first female to head a federal agency.
A one-woman operation, Barton’s effort would change the manner in which soldiers who had disappeared in war were handled by the United States military (among other things, she began labeling soldiers with their personal information, a practice that would result in dog tags by the turn of the century). More than 60,000 letters passed through her little office before it closed in 1868, and Barton not only answered more than 44,000 of these inquiries but also helped locate and identify 22,000 missing Civil War soldiers, most of whom had perished from wounds or disease.
The letters typically spoke to the anguish of not knowing, of the long, wretched vigil of wondering if, by some miracle, the writer’s son had been spared. In September of 1866 a grieving mother, Mrs. T. B. Hurlbut, from Upper Alton, Illinois, penned a desperate letter to Barton’s office. “I approach you with my great sorrow,” she wrote, “but hardly indulge the hope that you can do anything for me. My darling boy, my only son, was reported killed. . . . His body was not found, and the hope was entertained by his Regiment . . . that wounded he had fallen into the hands of the enemy, a prisoner and not dead. ... If he died on the battle field, I would that I knew it, and if he died at a farm house, how much I wish to know it. ... It may be well to add my son’s name to the many missing ones, and could you by any means give to me any knowledge of the last resting place of my darling one you would confer such a favor as none less desolate than myself can appreciate.–
Clara Barton was moved enough to keep Mrs. Hurlbut’s letter in a special envelope she titled “Scraps for My Book,” though most likely the poignant appeal elicited the form letter that the sheer volume of correspondence had forced Barton to compose: “Dear [recipient’s name], Your communication of [date] is received and the name of [missing soldier] placed upon my lists. It will be my earnest endeavor to bring these lists to the notice of returned soldiers everywhere. Be assured that as soon as any information of interest to you is gained, it will be promptly forwarded. Very sincerely yours, Clara Barton.”
Barton’s printed circulars of the missing had a distribution nearing 100,000. That a woman and a civilian planted the roots for what is today a $104 million operation through the U.S. Department of Defense to find and repatriate U.S. soldiers from half a dozen wars is remarkable. That her own little office would itself meet with the same fate as that of the soldiers she worked so tirelessly to find is, perhaps, more remarkable still.
This is Augustus Goodman’s first mission to the A Shau Valley in Vietnam, but the second for JPAC in as many years looking for this warrant officer. So far, along with viper, worm, coral, and cobra snakes, land and water leeches, stinging ants, and biting centipedes, they have found a rusted M-16 bayonet, what is possibly a whip antenna from a radio, a load-bearing equipment fastener typically used to attach items to a soldier’s belt, myriad burnt metal and plastic pieces, spent shell casings, and an unused .45-caliber round of the sort carried by pilots. Perhaps the most telling evidence found so far is the data plate off the plane, a tiny piece of metal that lists the serial number, make, and model of an aircraft and which can be correlated exactly to the 1967 helicopter that went down.
The previous mission found a compass, a survival knife, and a boot, along with a scattering of Plexiglas globules formed when the helicopter’s windshield melted. None of it is enough to classify our warrant officer on its own. The military’s standards for identifying a soldier are exacting; dog tags alone are not enough, nor is a data plate, or personal effects like boots, helmets, and wedding rings. Not even a bit of bone is enough. But all these items, in various combinations, establish an identity.
The dig is set up like an archeologist’s site, using block excavation in four-by-four squares measuring 9,100 square feet. Once location is established through military records, historical research, and on-site investigations, which include witness interviews, a team like Goodman’s will set up shop for a four- to six-week stay. Though teams often put up in nearby guesthouses or hotels, the A Shau Valley is so remote that the team first must build a tented base camp where they will eat, sleep, and shower. The dig is a half-mile trek from this camp, along an up-hill, downhill, uphill path over trampled leaves and honey-colored mud. It has rained for nearly 12 hours straight, and the ground is like an oil slick. The 100 villagers hired to work this site walk an hour or two in flip-flops each way to get to the digging area from Houng Phong, their village.
The dig takes place on a treacherous slope leading to a steep ravine full of white-veined rocks and shallow trees in an area that would have been classified just a few weeks ago as a double-canopy jungle but which has since been cleared. (For every tree that is cut down, the U.S. government reimburses Vietnam, which theoretically uses the money to re-forest.) The grids are measured above-ground and dug out anywhere from a couple of centimeters to several feet, depending on the crash site and the terrain. The task is essentially to dig until “sterile” (undisturbed) ground is reached and then to move to a new location. Buckets of earth are filled and handed down a line of dozens of Vietnamese and sent to the covered screening station, where the dirt is dumped onto screens and sifted for clues. “Anything not of the earth” is the mantra for choosing what to look for.
To Goodman, a forensic anthropologist who wears a red MIA bracelet for a soldier named Charles Wallace (1967), trying to find a missing combatant requires as much archeology as detective work. He begins by reconstructing a battle. Burnt ammunition suggests where units were fighting and, if they were an “air loss,” whether or not they were potentially found by the enemy, whether they ejected from a seat mid-flight or died from the blast. If unspent casings are found, it can be assumed the soldier was killed on impact. If not, he may have died fighting. “We know the chopper burned and where it went down,” Goodman says, “so we don’t need to document every piece of burnt ammunition or metal.” Unlike regular archeology, which seeks to find and preserve every single item found, a dig like this ranks material evidence. Not every piece of poncho plastic or scorched metal has to be saved; only those materials that can aid in the identification.
After days and weeks of sifting dirt with few findings, the team drags. Monotony is the enemy here. Fog rolls in every afternoon before the rains. Cries of locusts and birds fill the jungle nightly to create an otherworldly surround-sound. A fine mist hangs in the air after the rain. Charcoal deposits and scorch marks on the rocks have oxidized, leaving red and gray streaks, the unification of machine and megacosm.
The A Shau Valley is a mean, pulchritudinous land, alive with poisonous creatures, where the beautiful and the deadly live in constant, fitful juxtaposition. The team must be ever on alert: bamboo trees are thick with fire ants; half-buried rocks covered in slick moss sit atop ancient land mines; tiny waterfalls are alive with miniature rainbows and thirsty leeches; bomb craters turned gardens bloom with cerulean and flaxen wildflowers. It is a land full of portent, charged with a color-saturated dewy beauty, victim of its own history and its own environment.
Tim O’Brien, in his book of short stories
As a result of lessons learned during both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War (and even, somewhat, from the Mexican War of 1846–48, in which almost none of our 13,000 killed were recovered) the military created a division assigned the task of accounting for war dead. The new Graves Registration became part of the Quartermaster General’s Office and was charged not only with marking and burying the dead but also with identifying unknown soldiers.
That did not include, however, extensive searches for soldiers missing in action. In August of 1917, when America had been in the Great War for less than six months, Gen. John J. Pershing requested the establishment of an overseas graves-registration service to inter American casualties in European cemeteries created near where they had fought. Soldiers now wore dog tags, which aided the identification process. At its peak Pershing’s graves registration had 350 officers and 18,000 enlisted men working in France, Italy, Belgium, Russia, and several other countries, and by 1919, 80,000 U.S. soldiers had been buried in more than 500 cemeteries in Western Europe.
A 1930 article from The Quartermaster Review tried to articulate the difficulty of finding these soldiers: “At best, a human body is not particularly conspicuous on a modern battlefield, among trenches, shell craters and resulting debris, stretching beyond the limits of vision. This is especially true when it is considered that our uniform is designed to blend with the ground and to render our soldiers as ‘invisible’ as possible to hostile eyes. Further, men were instructed and instinct prompted them, to take advantage of all available means of shelter from the withering fire of the enemy. Anything and any place offering the slightest shelter from those indescribable blasts of death unceasingly sweeping over and around them was to be taken advantage of. ... A minute’s thought here will help one realize the enormity of the task confronting those engaged in this work.”
A common sentiment, expressed most publicly by Col. Theodore Roosevelt, who requested that his son Lt. Quentin Roosevelt remain buried where the air-man had fallen, reflected a desire of families to leave their sons in the land where they had been killed. Nearly half of all families made such requests during the Great War. Today eight enormous cemeteries, consolidated from the hundreds set up during the war, hold American casualties of World War I in France, Britain, and Belgium. More than 1,600 remain buried as unknown soldiers, and another 3,000 remain missing in action.
Similar cemeteries were established during World War II in Europe, the Philippines, and North Africa. Today Graves Registration is called Mortuary Affairs and sends its charges out scouring the earth with JPAC personnel for American soldiers missing in action from World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and even the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In November of 1996 a Washington, D.C., General Services Administration carpenter with airy blue eyes and a passion for history named Richard Lyons was charged with ridding a house of vagrants before its slated demolition and subsequent redevelopment. At the three-story red-brick building, halfway between the White House and the Capitol, he wandered up to the top floor and looked around. Between the rafters Lyons spied an envelope turned a crisp yellow. He found a ladder nearby, climbed up, and braced himself by grabbing hold of the floor above him. When he did, thin metal clanged against the wood, and he pulled down a tiny tin sign. MISSING SOLDIERS OFFICE 3RD STORY ROOM 9 MISS CLARA BARTON , it read.
Holding the sign, Lyons climbed higher. He found old gauze bandages, three nineteenth-century women’s blue shirts, one of which had a hole in the sleeve. He found thousands of Civil War—era letters, files, abolitionist publications, old photographs, inkwells and steel pen points, women’s straw hats, hand-held ladies’ fans, funeral bunting, and rosters with the names of soldiers listed on them. He found walls with molding white satin wallpaper and an upside-down number nine hanging on one door.
All told, he discovered more than 20 boxes of material. “Get rid of it,” he re-members the developer ordering him. But Richard Lyons didn’t. Instead he started researching. He learned that Clara Barton, whose living quarters had been room nine, had hung white satin wallpaper in her office and that she was rumored to have once had a bullet go through the sleeve of a blue shirt she was wearing while caring for a wounded soldier. He also learned that no one knew where her old office had been located.
After his researches, Lyons took a vacation day from work, boxed up all he had found, and brought it home. Then he began a mission of his own.
By World War II the military had had much experience with both casualties and the missing in action. Better records of soldiers were kept, including medical and dental charts, which made identification easier. To search for the missing, the Graves Registration service instigated, for the first time, special search teams divided into three groups: those that would follow up on all reports and rumors regarding buried or missing soldiers, those that would dis-inter a body after a gravesite was discovered, and those that would attempt to make identification.
The search teams entered small towns to scout around for possible gravesites. Clergy and local citizens were interviewed, and any existing records studied. If a body was found, a dog tag or personal I.D. papers were generally enough to identify it, though fingerprints and dental records were often used in the absence of other material. Even watchmakers’ and jewelry makers’ records could be pivotal in identifying soldiers. The conditions under which World War II had been fought—particularly the sheer number of battles and soldiers involved—were unlike any our military service had encountered. More than 18,000 still lie unidentified in foreign graves today, in addition to the missing whose bodies were never recovered.
By the time of the Korean War the military had begun using physical anthropologists and forensic experts in identification laboratories. As before, dental and medical records were checked, and fingerprints were now compared, if possible, with those in FBI files. When every possibility for identification had been exhausted, remains were placed in flag-draped coffins and shipped to Hawaii for burial. These unknown soldiers were given quiet ceremonies; the government knew attention would bring controversy. After the Korean War 8,200 men were unaccounted for, most of whom remain so today.
Korea was the first conflict in which the U.S. government attempted to embalm remains and ship them back home while the war was still under way. The national sentiment that had existed when Colonel Roosevelt ordered that his son be buried where he’d fallen was gone, in part, presumably, because Korea was not a popular war and did not enjoy the public support of World Wars I and II. When a general named Walton H. Walker was killed in a vehicle accident just before Christmas 1950 in South Korea and his body was immediately flown home for interment at Arlington National Cemetery, the families of other soldiers demanded the same treatment for their sons.
In the Cam Lo district, several hours north of where Augustus Goodman is working in the A Shau Valley, another JPAC team is busy. An earthy blond biological archeologist named Dr. Elizabeth (“Zib”) Martinson Goodman sifts through sandy soil that tumbles in loose clusters down the sun-baked hill in an area yet untouched by the season’s monsoons. Her hair is looped through a baseball cap, and she wears a red MIA bracelet just like Goodman’s on her wrist (David S. Price, lost in Laos). At JPAC they call her the Sure Thing because she’s had bone finds on four of her five missions; it is a formidably successful track record. She is the team leader in charge at this site, and the last name is no accident; she is also Augustus’s wife.
“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.”
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.
Though there remains to this day some tension over the MLA issue with countries like Vietnam, North Korea, and Burma, JPAC efforts have managed to find and identify close to 1,200 missing soldiers. Today the search for the missing has been as significantly aided by technology as it has by improved political relationships. JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI), in partnership with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockville, Maryland, enables identifications through DNA technology not only on the twentieth century’s missing soldiers, like those found in the field by JPAC’s 18 teams, but even going as far back as the Civil War with cases from the pioneering, doomed Confederate submarine Hunley and the USS Monitor , which sank off the Carolina coast in 1862.
The flat-roofed, slit-windowed, two-story red-brick building 15 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., that houses AFDIL is a reminder of creative architecture’s decade-long holiday in the 1960s. But the lab’s wholly banal exterior belies the gravity of the cases inside. Victims of the September 11 attacks were identified here, as were Uday and Qusay Hussein, the Columbia astronauts, and Michael Blassie, the casualty interred in the Vietnam War’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Dead from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are also identified here and correlated with a DNA reference database maintained in a nearby warehouse that stores samples from more than 4.5 million soldiers and civilians working at the Department of Defense.
Average cases from JPAC take a month to complete because the material received contains such limited amounts of DNA. James Canik, the AFDIL deputy director, says DNA work is not like the technology portrayed on popular television shows. “It’s an exacting science, and answers often lead to other questions. Here we are able to work at very low levels of DNA compared with other labs, but [DNA] breaks down over time and Southeast Asia is a particularly difficult environment. The material degrades quickly.” He adds, however, that AFDIL processes an incredible 800 specimens per year. “No other lab in the world can sustain that,” he says.
It is a far cry from Clara Barton sitting in her small office laboring over her hand-printed rolls.
At first no one seemed to believe that Richard Lyons had discovered Clara Barton’s long-lost office. His find did manage temporarily to halt the building’s demolition, and no one doubted that he’d happened on historical relics of some value. But the addresses didn’t match. Clara Barton’s office, according to record, had been at 488½ Seventh Avenue, NW, far different from the current 437, and the area hadn’t changed much since her day. Lyons, whose own father had been missing in action in the South Pacific during World War II until the family discovered him in a hospital three weeks later, vowed not to relinquish the boxes until he was sure the building would be restored and given its historical credit. He persevered, making call after call for months.
Finally, Gary Scott, the regional chief historian with the National Parks Service’s National Capital Region, agreed to look at some of what Lyons had found. Scott later called the discovery one of the “rarest and perhaps most revealing” he had seen in his two-plus decades in the Parks Service. He immediately contacted Andrea Mones at the GSA, the owner of the building. Lyons was vindicated. Altruistic to the end, he ceded everything once he was sure the building would be memorialized. Today it is the only surviving intact boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., from its era, and although plans are incomplete as of this printing, the building is scheduled to open as a children’s museum in 2007. “This links Clara Barton’s two lives,” says Chris Frey, an associate at Noble Preservation Services, which is helping restore the house and planning the museum. “If Richard hadn’t found this building, her life would have been interpreted differently.”
And the mystery of the incongruous addresses? Lyons thinks he has solved that too. “In 1870 the address changed,” he says, “from 488½ to 437, and no one bothered to keep track. It just went missing.”