Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Daniel Lovering, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, November 17, 2000
Vinh Phuc, Vietnam — Air Force Sgt. Gina Noland sweeps her hand over three trays of twisted metal, electrical wire and shreds of vinyl, all caked with mud from the depths of a rice paddy. Nearby, several workers in conical hats dig for scraps from an American fighter jet that plunged from the sky here 33 years ago.
“Most of this is aircraft skin and bits of rubber,” said Noland, a 38-year-old master sergeant from Sacramento, outfitted in muddy rubber overalls and a baseball cap. “We would love to find fabric, a helmet, an oxygen mask, items that stay on the individual’s body.”
Noland is one of 12 Americans on a U.S.-Vietnamese POW/MIA team working at an excavation site in this tranquil expanse of rice fields 17 miles northwest of Hanoi. President Clinton will pay homage to the 58,000 Americans killed in Indochina during a visit to Vinh Phuc tomorrow, part of his historic four-day visit to Vietnam, the first by a U.S. president since the Vietnam War.
The Pentagon says the number of U.S. servicemen unaccounted for in Southeast Asia has dropped from 2,583 in 1973 to 1,992, including 1,499 in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, in contrast, lost 2.7 million dead, and approximately 300,000 are still missing.
The search for the lost Americans — most of them downed pilots — has gained symbolic and political meaning for a U.S. public eager to heal lingering psychological wounds from a disastrous war.
At the Vinh Phuc site, workers believe they have found the F-105 Thunderbird piloted by Capt. Lawrence G. Evert, a 29-year-old father of four from Cody, Wyo. Evert’s plane was the last of four to descend on the Phuc Yen railway bridge — a North Vietnamese supply line to Russia and China — on the morning of November 8, 1967.
The jet’s fuselage was hit by anti-aircraft fire, causing it to burst into flames and crash, according to witnesses. Evert’s plane, which was loaded with a 3,000-pound M-118 bomb, was the 40th American aircraft to be shot down in the previous four weeks.
In his last known radio communication, Evert said “I’m hit hard” seconds before the plane plowed into the rice field at Vinh Phuc, according to U.S. military records. Since he went down so deep in enemy territory and no parachute was seen by other U.S. aircraft, a search and rescue was never attempted.
The search for Evert’s remains began in 1993, with U.S. teams returning in 1995, 1998 and again this year as they finally pinpointed the crash site. Excavation is expected to last about 30 days.
Clinton’s visit to the site is also meant to thank the Vietnamese government for its cooperation on the MIA issue, one of the bright spots in the relationship between Washington and Hanoi that has developed since normalization of ties began in 1995.
The Vietnamese waited 10 years after the war ended before handing over the first five remains of American MIAs. In 1988, the first joint U.S.-Vietnamese search team began excavation work.
To date, there have been 63 joint excavation projects in Vietnam. Sites are located and prioritized using evidence gathered from military records and interviews with Vietnamese witnesses in 17 of the nation’s 61 provinces.
During Clinton’s presidency, 283 MIAs have been accounted for — nearly half the 591 found and identified since most U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. In 1996, Clinton appointed Douglas “Pete” Peterson as America’s first postwar ambassador to Vietnam. A former Air Force fighter pilot, Peterson had spent more than six years as a POW in Hanoi.
“Over the past decade, we have moved, step by step, toward normalized relations with Vietnam,” Clinton said last week in Washington, “based on one central priority, gaining the fullest accounting of American prisoners of war and Americans missing in action in Southeast Asia. Continuing cooperation on these issues is on the top of my agenda for this trip.”
Greater cooperation from Hanoi on POW/MIA issues led Clinton to sign a bilateral trade pact with Vietnam last July, which is expected to mean millions of dollars in trade and investment when it takes effect next year.
The hunt for the remains of missing U.S. servicemen has already provided thousands of jobs for laborers, who help sift through dirt and mud in search of fragments of bone, clothing and aircraft debris. The Clinton administration is spending $5 million to $6 million annually on recovery operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
At Vinh Phuc, which is one of 13 current excavation sites in Vietnam, there are as many as 300 workers.
Other U.S. contributions to the Vietnamese economy include research projects on the effects of the Agent Orange toxic defoliant, which Vietnam maintains has caused 500,000 people to either die or contract serious illnesses, and a $1.7 million package given in June to support the removal of unexploded ordnance and an estimated 3.5 million land mines left over from the war.
The Vinh Phuc crash site resembles an archaeological dig — cordoned off and accessible only by a rickety wood-slat walkway. Vietnamese workers knee- deep in mud carve out chunks of clay-like soil and heave them into buckets that are transported to a shelter, where other workers in plastic ponchos hose off the contents on screens looking for debris.
Dennis Danielson, an anthropologist and Vietnam veteran who served as a U.S. Marine Corps private in 1966, is responsible for analyzing the remains.
“We found a silver-dollar-size piece of bone,” said Danielson, who has been searching for missing U.S. soldiers in Vietnam since 1994 and has helped identify the remains of some 15 servicemen.
While little has been found of Evert, certain items such as 30-caliber shell casings that might have been included in the ill-fated pilot’s survival kit or pistol may provide some clues to his fate. The few human remains found will undergo DNA testing at a U.S. military forensics lab in Hawaii and, if successfully identified, will be repatriated.
Two of Evert’s sons, Dan and Dave, arrived in Hanoi Wednesday night and will join Clinton in his visit to the site. The president is also scheduled to attend a repatriation ceremony later that evening in which three sets of identified remains of U.S. servicemen will be flown back to the United States from Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport.
Army Capt. Mark Johnson, who heads the Vinh Phuc team, says the 2-week-old operation has been a success.
“We have recovered wreckage that correlates to the F-105 and possible pieces of human remains,” he said. “We also have a data plate inscribed with information that identifies the type of aircraft.”