snuol district, Kratie province – The stillness in this shaded, shallow valley near the Vietnamese border belies the violence that occurred here more than three decades ago when a US helicopter crashed flaming through the jungle canopy, breaking apart in the trees and killing most of the soldiers on board.
One US crewman lay dead on the ground, recalled a US soldier who survived the crash and was later captured by the North Vietnamese. The POW was released in 1973 and eventually interviewed by US military investigators, who used his account to help piece together what happened that day so they could find the helicopter wreckage and possibly the bodies of US dead.
A team from the US Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, the agency that has scoured similar sites throughout Southeast Asia looking for the remains of missing US servicemen, is finishing a 30-day mission in Cambodia this week, sifting through this site looking for one of the US dead.
Possible human remains have been found at the site, which was first discovered in 1993 about 12 km north of Snuol, said Richard Wills, an anthropologist with the US team. Behind him a bucket brigade of Cambodian laborers shuttled dirt into large mesh screens, where every bit of debris was picked over. Others used hoes to scrape away a thin layer of earth from the clearing.
“We found more wreckage than we expected. This wasn’t as scavenged as some other sites,” Wills said, standing in a small depression where he said the charred outline of the helicopter could once be seen. “We’ve located some evidence that may be linked to the crew member.”
The investigators’ work is based in part on a map drawn by the POW years after the March 1971 crash—a relic of an otherwise forgotten incident that played itself out thousands of times during the war in Vietnam. Some 55 US servicemen and five civilians are still believed missing in Cambodia, many the victims of fighting that took place amid the rubber plantations in the country’s northeast. Investigators say 1,939 servicemen are still unaccounted for throughout Southeast Asia.
Remains of 640 US citizens have been identified and returned to their families since 1992, according to the US military. Some 25 sets of remains have been recovered from Cambodia, said task force commander Michael Dembroski, who is leading this most recent mission. Dembroski said it can take as long a two years to identify what are often little more than bone fragments found in overgrown crash sites and long-forgotten graves.
Human remains were recovered last year by a similar excavation team on Koh Tang island, where in May of 1975 US soldiers fought a vicious battle with Khmer Rouge forces who shot down three US helicopters.
Eighteen US soldiers were missing following a failed assault on the island, and although the US military said a “sizable” number of US dead have been recovered from the island, the remains found last year turned out not to be missing US citizens.
Even when they fail to turn up US remains, these recovery missions are still important for all of those who fought throughout Southeast Asia, said US officials visiting the dig last week.
“This is an extremely important humanitarian venture…for reconciliation with the past,” US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said.
(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)
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