U.S. troops return to Vietnam to look for MIAs
Web posted at: 12:27 p.m. EST (1727 GMT)
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SON LA PROVINCE, Vietnam (CNN) -- About a quarter century after American combat troops pulled out of Vietnam, a new generation of U.S. servicemen is returning to the country. Their mission is to search for the remains of 1,500 Americans still listed as missing in action.
The helicopters the U.S. teams are using are Soviet-made and the pilots are Vietnamese army veterans.
One recent mission took a search team to Son La province, near the Laotian border, where they were greeted by hilltribes who had not seen an American since the war ended.
The team was searching for the remains of a U.S. Air Force navigator Earl Hopper, who has been listed as an MIA since his plane went down in the area in 1968.
Fragments of bone
Pilot Keith Hall ejected from the flaming aircraft, was captured and finally sent home in 1973.
"I was on fire and burning badly and my throttle completely froze up. We didn't have much we could do and it was time to leave the airplane," said Hall, who retired as a colonel from the U.S. Air Force.
"The most difficult part for me is not knowing what happened with Earl. I'll perhaps never know," added Hall, who did not accompany the search team to Vietnam.
After locating the crash site on a jungle-covered mountain, the team of military personnel and anthropologists made the grueling trip from its camp each day to conduct the painstaking search.
"We're looking for small fragments of bone," said forensic anthropologist William Belcher. "When you have a plane hitting the ground at 500 mph, the bone fragments are the size of a nickel or a penny."
The searchers have shipped the few fragments they have discovered near the site to a U.S. Army lab in Hawaii for further study.
Vietnamese aid searchers
Meanwhile, in a rice paddy south of Hanoi, another team is searching for the body of a U.S. pilot shot down 30 years ago.
"It's modern archaeology combined with forensic investigation," said David Rankin, a Honolulu-based forensic anthropologist who is leading the search near Hanoi. "Basically, we treat this as a medical/legal investigation, as you would a crime scene, natural disaster or an airplane crash."
Those who are aiding in the search say that, despite the past conflict which pitted U.S. troops against the North Vietnamese, the residents around the search sites and the Vietnamese officials are unfailingly courteous and helpful.
"This is my fifth time into Vietnam. I've never run across anyone who holds any animosity against the Americans," said U.S. Army Maj. Ronald Stafford.
Pete Peterson, the U.S. ambassador in Hanoi and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Vietnamese officials have gone out of their way to help in the search for missing Americans, despite Vietnam's own estimated 300,000 who remain missing from the conflict.
"The cooperation in the fullest possible accounting is excellent and we need to give the Vietnamese credit for having stayed the course on that," Peterson said.
Putting ghosts to rest
The U.S. military mounts four or five search expeditions to Vietnam each year, at a cost of about $1 million each. Sometimes all that the expeditions yield beyond a bone fragment is a piece of a helmet or part of a shoe.
Every so often, in a somber ceremony, small boxes containing what are thought to be recovered American remains are placed in coffins at Hanoi airport for the long flight home. Each ceremony marks one more attempt to put the lingering ghosts of the Vietnam war to rest.
"It's very important, especially for the families who lost their loved ones," Hall said. "Until they know the fate of those who are missing, they can never close this chapter in their life."
Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.
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