HANOI, Vietnam -- More than 15 years after Operation Homecoming brought 591 American prisoners of war home from Hanoi, the question of U.S. soldiers missing in Vietnam and neighboring countries remains one of the most vexing and politically sensitive issues dividing Washington and Hanoi.
During the past year, as a result of discussions between President Reagan's personal emissary, Gen. John Vessey Jr., and Vietnamese officials, Vietnam has given the MIA search higher priority.
In the closing months of 1988, Hanoi agreed to joint U.S-Vietnamese investigations of sites where American planes went down during the war. And American experts have been allowed to come to Hanoi to examine a group of 80 remains that may include those of some missing Americans.
Officials here say that by the end of January it should be possible to resolve the 70 cases the United States has called "most compelling" -- cases where American investigators say there is evidence the missing men were in Vietnamese custody, for example, but Vietnam has never offered an accounting.
Vietnamese officials also are beginning to respond to some of the charges that have provoked the greatest suspicions among families and friends of the missing men -- such as the accusation that Hanoi has stored hundreds of sets of remains in a warehouse and is doling them out slowly to win political concessions from Washington.
Dang Nghiem Bai, head of the North American section of the Foreign Ministry, says Hanoi has in its custody remains it has not turned over to American authorities.
But he says many of the remains are not American soldiers', and Vietnamese investigators want to weed out non-Americans before releasing the remains -- often only a few bones in a set -- to the United States.
He produces two file folders, marked "Secret," with photographs of partial skeletons arranged beside a ruler.
"These are the bones of a child," he says, pointing to the first folder. The other set are those of a woman.
Bai blames the Voice of America for broadcasting a report years ago suggesting that if people help find the remains of missing Americans, they will be able to go to the United States.
"This has provoked people to dig up many graves," he says. "The United States says it has corrected this story on the air, but even if you do it 10 times, it's no use."
If bones are removed from crash sites, they are much more difficult to identify, especially when there are only a few fragments.
When American investigators have a chance to comb an undisturbed crash site, they approach it much as an archeologist might -- not just picking up dog tags, identification cards and remains, but noting exactly where each was found.
Then they try to match this information with the Pentagon's extensive files on each of the nearly 2,400 Americans missing in the war, a Defense Department official explains.
If, for example, the investigators know that five people were on an airplane and they find parts of five skeletons, they may be able to make quick identifications of two men. Perhaps the teeth will match dental records or there will be dog tags with the remains.
Investigators may find a third set of remains at the pilot's seat, and thus feel confident they know what happened to him. Other clues may let them match other remains with other men known to be on that flight.
"But if there were only remains," removed from the crash site, the official says, "we couldn't identify them."
Other investigators have spent thousands of hours working on the Pentagon's files from two directions. They look at each missing man's file to try to determine what happened to him. And they also check every report that may offer new information about a missing American. There have been nearly 8,500 such reports since 1975.
They focus especially on reports where people claim they saw living Americans. In 1988, for example, officials received a photograph of a Western-looking man at a Vietnamese drug rehabilitation center. They were able to identify him as a Vietnamese whose father was European. But the case is added to their list of so-called live sighting reports.
Of 1,092 first-hand reports, 965 have been resolved. Most of them -- 726 -- are about people who already have been accounted for.
Nearly one-fourth of these 726 were about one man -- Robert Garwood. Garwood was a "no-kidding POW" for several years, the Defense official says, but then went over to the Vietnamese side. He later changed his mind and returned to the United States.
Another 239 reports were found to be fabrications.
That leaves 127 unresolved reports, cases where the Pentagon does not yet have enough information either to substantiate the report or to disprove it.
After sifting through this mass of information for more than a decade, Pentagon experts say with some conviction that they have no evidence any Americans are still held prisoner in Vietnam -- or in neighboring Laos or Cambodia.
"However," the Defense official says, "we cannot rule out the possibility."
While most of the missing are listed as MIA/BNR -- missing in action, body not recovered -- one man still is carried on the books symbolically as a prisoner of war to demonstrate the government's determination to seek the fullest possible accounting for all the missing.
Some activist groups insist that living Americans are still being held in Laos or Vietnam.
But Brig. Gen. James W. Shufelt, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency staff that analyzes MIA information, charges some of these groups -- including one called Skyhook II, founded by former U.S. Rep. John LeBoutillier of New York -- are simply milking the issue to raise money.
The bottom line for such groups, Shufelt told DAV Magazine last year, is "collecting money with no payoff in terms of information for the next of kin or return of any live POW."
The main organization of relatives of the missing men, the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, has criticized such efforts as irresponsible.
The league's publications say the private prisoner hunts "interfere with legitimate efforts to confirm the existence of POWs as well as government-to-government negotiations to account for those still prisoner, missing or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia."
Ann Mills Griffiths, the league's executive director, says most victims of what she calls "fraudulent fundraising" are Americans who have just become involved in the issue.
"The families are the most realistic people," she says.
While she and other family members intend to press the government to continue efforts to find out what happened to their missing relatives, they recognize that the fate of many will never be known. They realize, Mrs. Griffiths says, that even the fullest possible accounting may leave many mysteries unsolved.
Officials here in Hanoi ask that Americans remember there are many Vietnamese families, too, who do not know what happened to their relatives during the war.
"When someone dies, we want to have their remains to bury them, to pray for them," Bai says. Both Buddhist belief and Vietnam's tradition of venerating ancestors call for proper burial.
But in the cases of more than 300,000 Vietnamese who died in the war, whose bodies were lost in the jungles or dumped into the sea, there never has been an accounting, and there probably never will be.
Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida
Published Jan. 12, 1989
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