Our Missing Soldiers: No Rest ‘Until They Are Home.’
During his recent visit to Hanoi, in addition to the exchange of letters and a diary written by a U.S. and a Vietnamese soldier, respectively, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta discussed with his Vietnamese counterpart the continuing U.S. search for the remains of our soldiers still missing from the Vietnam War.
Monday’s meeting did not yield many concrete advances in military cooperation. But as an additional symbolic gesture, Vietnam agreed to open three previously restricted sites to American excavation in search of the remains of still-missing U.S. soldiers.
To date, 980 sets of remains from the Vietnam War have been identified. But nearly 1,700 troops remain unaccounted for, and the remains of about three-quarters of them are thought to be in Vietnam, U.S. officials said.
Investigators say the acidic soil in Vietnam, which erodes bones quickly, and the aging and dying of those who witnessed the war, mean they are racing against a deadline of five to seven more years to successfully identify additional remains.
Additionally, and in advance of Panetta’s arrival in India on June 5, the Department of Defense announced that the United States and India have agreed to resume remains recovery activities in parts of Northeastern India.
The Department assesses that there are approximately 400 unaccounted-for service members from some 90 aircraft crashes in the area from World War II when brave Allied aviators flew numerous transport missions over and across the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains — they called it the “Hump” — to resupply units of the U.S. Army Air Forces based in China.
Secretary Panetta said, “This is a critical step toward bringing home our service members lost during World War II. The United States and India, working together, can help provide comfort to the families of Americans who were lost during the war.”
These two “action items” during Panetta’s Asian trip remind me of how important — how precious — it is for America to return its heroes from all wars home.
This is part of the spirit and the culture — the creed — of the U.S. military that you do not leave anyone behind—whether injured, captured, or dead.
The U.S. Army Ranger Creed, the oath Army Rangers take, includes these words: “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy …”
Nevertheless, it is sometimes impossible for our troops to bring our fallen heroes home.
In fact, there are more than 83,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts. But even more surprising, and daunting, a vast majority of those unaccounted for—some 74,000—are from World War II, still missing in Europe and the Pacific.
The Department of Defense takes the mission of “bringing them home” very seriously.
The yeoman’s work to achieve this is done by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), a 500-men organization activated in 2003 and working out of Hawaii to “conduct global search, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts.”
In its most recent annual report, JPAC reported that in FY 2010 it “identified 67 individuals including one from World War I, 36 from World War II, 17 from the Korean War, and 13 from the Vietnam War” and that it “deployed 77 JPAC teams to such places as France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to conduct investigation, survey, and excavation operations associated to missing Americans.”
I wrote about this honorable Command a few years ago.
While a lot of attention has been given, and continues to be given, to soldiers unaccounted for from our more recent war in Southeast Asia, there is an urgency to locate the remains of our World War II fallen because so many elderly witnesses, historians and immediate family members are leaving us — “time is running out.”
I mentioned then about JPAC’s search for the remains of the pilot of an ill-fated B-26 Marauder bomber that was attacked by German fighter planes and went down in flames in a cow pasture in Bauler, Germany. I have not been able to determine if his remains were found.
But, just a few days ago, an 11-memmber JPAC recovery team was excavating a World War II aircraft crash site in Liège, Belgium, hoping to find remains of American crew members.
And so the search continues, “Until They Are Home.”
Image: “Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.”