Class Rings, Bone Fragments and Fish Ponds

by Mark Ashwill at CounterPunch

Two U.S. Navy planes came in fast over a bridge in Dong Phong Thuong, North Vietnam. It was June 1965.

Cloud cover forced them to descend extremely low. The enemy was waiting.

Heavy ground fire erupted and the plane of Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Crosby of San Diego was on fire as it plummeted toward a fish pond.

The RF-8A reconnaissance aircraft rolled before it crashed, spraying up water and mud.

Thus began a May 2017 San Diego Union-Tribune article about one of the few successful recovery of the remains of a US soldier who was killed during the “Vietnam War.” Correction:  It wasn’t “the enemy” who was waiting but rather Vietnamese resistance fighters whose ultimate goal was national liberation and unification. In that split-second on a sultry day in June 1965, the planets aligned and the soldiers defending their homeland got lucky.

The enemy was the pilot of the RF-8A reconnaissance jet who, like many others before and after him, found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before the US, it was the French in the 1st Indochina War. Some of these soldiers had spent most of their adult lives, including their late teenage years, engaged in combat instead of doing what most young men do: find a job, pursue higher education, fall in love, and start a family.

What was left of Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Crosby at the bottom of that pond located 73 miles south of Hanoi? Not much after more than 50 years in a tropical climate and an area with acidic soil.  His wedding ring, lighter, pieces of his uniform, and some bone fragments, according to the report.

Grinding a Political Ax with a Carte Blanche Budget

This is a common story and yet the search goes on at a cost of well over $100 million a year worldwide. Most of the work is focused on Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, the site of most of the USA’s most recent three-front war.

In the case of the 2nd Indochina War, the US came, it destroyed, and was finally forced to beat a hasty retreat in the waning days of April 1975, as its client state, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) imploded and NVA regulars raced south.

Then it frantically began the search for POWs who are figments of overactive political imaginations and the remains of the relatively few US combatants who paid the ultimate price for their participation in that war, be it as draftees or enlisted men. These are real but exceedingly difficult to find with the passing of each year.

While Crosby’s death, like any other human’s, was tragic, and while my heart goes out to his family, he was one of 58,300 US Americans who died during the war while 3.8 million Vietnamese were killed, over half of whom were civilians. The percentage of US deaths was 1.53% of the total number of Vietnamese. Let that sink in for a moment.

To put things in binational perspective, there are at least 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs compared to 776 US MIAs, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), formerly the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). The total number is 1246 of whom 470 are classified as “non-recoverable,” meaning they died but that the DPAA does not “believe it possible to recover” their remains.

The search for POWs and MIAs became a hot button issue in the years and decades following the war, so much so that it had to be addressed before diplomatic relations could be normalized in 1995 under President Clinton. This was in spite of pressure from the US business community that realized it was late to the economic game in post-1986 Đổi Mới (Renovation) Vietnam. The ubiquitous POW flag, an anachronism almost from day one, was introduced in 1972. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter established the National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which falls on the third Friday in September.

One key difference was that the US could afford the luxury of launching annual recovery expeditions, including anthropologists, medics, and a large contingent of local workers, while Vietnam could not. The fact that this booming cottage industry creates so many local jobs is viewed as a bright spot from a local perspective.

It’s also a means to a political end; help a former enemy find its MIA remains and Vietnam will be rewarded with good relations. (The carrot and stick approach was also used to good effect when the US wanted Vietnam to repay a number of loans incurred by its former enemy, the Republic of Vietnam. This later resulted in a scholarship-for-debt program known as the Vietnam Education Foundation.)

Return on Investment (ROI)

The Defense Department has long spent more than $100 million a year on recovery efforts for its missing troops. For FY 2021, which ends on September 30, 2021, the POW/MIA Accounting Agency has a budget of nearly $130 million and about 700 employees worldwide. The average annual civilian salary is $143,000. Here are the number of remains they found from 2016 to 2021:

2016: 163
2017: 183
2018: 203
2019: 218
2020: 200
2021: 200

That’s 1,167 in six years. In case you’re counting, that amounts to $650,000 per remains in FY 2021 so far. As if $130 million a year were not enough and in the spirit of public-private cooperation, the DPAA accepts donations, a shining bureaucratic example of chutzpah.

As of a few years ago, the DPAA, based in the US Embassy in Hanoi, known to the Vietnamese government as the US MIA Office, was staffed by eight full-time US Americans, including two officers, two non-commissioned officers, and four civilians. There were also about 20 Foreign Service (Vietnamese) nationals work as administration and logistics assistants, security guards, drivers, and housekeepers.

In FY 2021, the joint field activities (JFAs) involve approximately 95 U.S. personnel, plus their Vietnamese counterparts. These teams work on  investigations and excavations throughout the country for a period of approximately 30 days per JFA. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the first DPAA-led JFA, but in its place, three all-Vietnamese teams began the 141st field activity at the end of October 2020, including sites in Lang Son, Yen Bai, and Quang Nam provinces.

The 142nd field activity began on February 19 and ended on April 18.  The underwater recovery team was slated to continue until May 1. This was scheduled to be the first joint JFA since the COVID pandemic began in February 2020.

Recovered remains believed to be those of US soldiers are transferred to DPAA’s laboratory in Hawaii, covered by the $130 million budget, for further analysis and identification by forensic anthropologists.

The multimillion dollar investment is not only in human resources but also equipment. In December 2020, the DPAA office in Hanoi issued a solicitation for a contractor to provide it with the following equipment in Danang from January 2021 to December 2023 to assist with its MIA mission:

4-seater cars;
7-seater SUV;
16-seater vans;
25-seater minibuses;
40-seater coaches;
Trucks: 1.25-ton, 2.5-ton, 3.5-ton, 5-ton;
Forklifts: 3-ton, 7-ton;
Cranes: 15-ton, 18-ton.

The solicitation noted that “The vehicles provided shall possibly transport about 100 DPAA personnel and about 35 tons of cargo to the excavation sites located in the dangerous and mountainous terrains.” Another business opportunity for Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

From a macro perspective, if the US didn’t get involved in so many unjust and unnecessary wars, usually at minimal human cost to itself and its soldiers but incomprehensible human and other cost to the countries in which these wars are fought, there wouldn’t be a need for expensive expeditions in search of bone fragments (for DNA analysis and verification), class rings, lighters, and pieces of clothing.

While it is comfort for a child to visit a father’s grave, what is most important is his memory, which his family will always cherish, and his legacy, which lives on in them and their children.  As we approach the 50th commemoration of the end of the war, four years and counting, the time to move on is long overdue. But, like the war itself, and most of the United States’ bloodstained history, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the ability to come to terms with and overcome the national past, as Germany did in the post-World War II era, remains a distant dream.

Children of the Dead Share a Bond

One way to help promote healing in both countries is to bring together the sons and daughters of men from both sides who died in the war so that they begin to comprehend the magnitude of each other’s loss. One such effort is the 2 Sides Project, which was founded in March 2015 by Margot Carlson Delogne, whose father, Air Force Captain John W. Carlson, was killed in action near Bien Hoa in 1966.

As the website explains, “First, six of us went to Vietnam to meet with 20+ Vietnamese whose fathers died fighting on the other side.  Now we’re a nonprofit with the goal to connect even more people similarly affected by the Vietnam/American War, and eventually by more recent wars.  We know that facing the other side and our own fears leads to more understanding, and lasting healing.  We discovered that when we came together in Vietnam.”

While the children of the dead share a bond, there is a crystal clear difference between the two groups. While the Vietnamese died as martyrs defending their nation from yet another foreign invader, the US soldiers who were killed died in vain. This truth is painful to hear, especially if you’re a family member or true believer.

I wrote about the canyon-like imbalance in the number of dead between the two countries in a 2015 article entitled The Wall Times 65: Commemorate That:

Here’s a simple exercise that will help you comprehend the horrific magnitude of the loss of human and, more specifically, Vietnamese life during that war.  The next time you’re standing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. thinking about the 58,000+ Americans who died in what was essentially a war of national liberation, perhaps including friends or family members, reach out, touch the black granite, close your eyes, and multiply The Wall by 65.

Imagine: No Wars Equals No POWs, MIAs, or KIAs

My sincere wish is that the remaining US MIAs, all 776 of them, rest in peace and that their families are at peace. It’s high time to retire that tired old black and white flag that flies above thousands of government buildings, silhouette of a man’s bowed head, watchtower, barbed wire and all.

It reeks of self-pity and narcissism, the widely held sentiment that US lives are more important than non-US lives. They should also toss the National POW/MIA Recognition Day into the trash bin of history. As for the DPAA, that $130 million would be better spent on the living, including the survivors and victims of war legacies in Vietnam and other countries in which war legacies such as Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) continue to deform, maim, and kill.

If the US stopped waging imperial wars, there would be no POWs or MIAs, fewer broken hearts, and fewer shattered nations. As a former insider whose transformation began while standing at the Brandenburg Gate after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “the scales fell from my eyes,” as he put it, Andrew J. Bacevich opined in a March 2021 article America’s Longest War Winds Down – No Bang, No Whimper, No Victory, that

“Only when Americans openly acknowledge their imperial transgressions will genuine repentance become possible. And only with repentance will avoiding further occasions to sin become a habit. In other words, only when Americans call imperialism by its name will vows of ‘never again’ deserve to be taken seriously.”

While I don’t expect to see or hear this acknowledgement in my lifetime and probably the next, it is the only way forward.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.