Déjà vu: I was back in Vietnam in a helicopter. The distinctive “whop-whop” of the Vietnam-era Huey was now, in 1995, replaced by the shrill scream of two Russian turbo shaft engines. I was riding in an Mi-8 “Hip” cargo helicopter flown by pilots of the Vietnam Flying Service, in reality Socialist Republic of Vietnam Air Force pilots who were eking out money for a bankrupt government and country. On this mission, the Vietnamese airmen with me were supporting POW/MIA search and recovery efforts in their country.
Brigadier General Tom Needham, commander of Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA), slept across the aisle from me. Needham, a lanky paratroop general, had flown in that morning from his Hawaii headquarters. I commanded his counterpart organization, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), at Hickam Air Force Base.
Needham’s organization included linguists, intelligence specialists and other technical experts who could tell whether a pilot or crew member was likely to have survived a particular ejection or crash. Explosive ordnance technicians were also important members of his organization—the soft, moist earth of Indochina was sown with bombs and shells. These were even more dangerous two decades after the war had ended.
JTF-FA—formerly the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), and more recently renamed Joint POW/MIA Accounting Commission (JPAC)—used military experts from all services. They were creating the framework for the final answer to the long, divisive war in the three countries of Indochina—Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
By contrast, CILHI’s mission was wider in scope: We recovered and forensically identified Americans missing from all wars. We frequently sent teams to World War II crashes all over the Pacific, and occasionally in Europe or Latin America; and also to Cold War–era crashes in the Soviet Far East and even in North Korea. While our missions were truly global in range and scope, the bulk of our efforts supported General Needham’s work in Indochina.
Now, in May 1995, we were en route back to Hanoi’s Gia Lam airfield after a visit to our teams excavating an Air Force AC-130 gunship shot down in 1968 in the A Shau Valley. The A Shau had become a graveyard for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, especially during the fighting of 1968 and ’69. The teams had been working for two weeks, turning up wreckage and remains.
We had been flying northeast in a solid overcast for several hours and now were over the South China Sea, barely above the wave tops and trying to fly visually. Occasionally we ducked a few feet higher back into the overcast to dodge fishing boats that materialized out of the mist. I knew we were also dangerously low on fuel based on our time in the air.
The pilot, Major Nguyen Van Ha, stepped down out of the cockpit to confer with our escort of officials from the Vietnam Office of Seeking Missing Personnel—the ad hoc office of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Defense and Interior that assisted our searches in Vietnam. With worried looks they peered out of the small, round windows at the wave tops a few feet below us. Major Ha scrambled back into the cockpit and we banked to the left, rotors biting deeply into the thick fog. I shook Needham awake and mimed fastening a seatbelt. I saw waves washing into sand, then a row of thatch dwellings out the right side window. The Russian turbo-props screamed louder as we lurched and thumped roughly, landing onto the beach.
Major Ha grinned back at us from the cockpit, thumb up, but I noticed that his hand wavered slightly. I shook my head and smiled. It was just another hazardous day in bad weather and terrain for the Vietnam Flying Service.
More than a decade after the long bitter war ended, the U.S. military returned to Vietnam in September 1987 to commence search-and-recovery operations for its servicemen missing in that conflict. During those formative beginnings, the critical role for helicopter aviation quickly became apparent. Vietnam is a large country, and the crash and ground incident sites were frequently in remote, inaccessible locations. Helicopters were the fastest and safest way to many of these sites.
Our initial efforts to use U.S. military helicopters in the recovery missions were denied by Vietnamese officials because of political sensitivities. Their citizens, they maintained, might not understand the purpose of U.S. helicopters in their skies again.
The politics of diplomatic normalization was ever present in the thinking of the Vietnamese. Every concession made was a tough point of negotiation toward the eventual restoration of relations between the United States and Vietnam, and helicopters became a bargaining chip. The use of Vietnamese helicopters would also provide some much-needed funds for government coffers and work for their pilots.
My counterpart from Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense was a dour, tough soldier—Senior Colonel Tran Van Bien, a veteran of Dien Bien Phu and of what his countrymen called “the American War.” Bien and I spent many weeks together, slashing through triple-canopy jungle, scrambling up steep hillsides and flying in the noisy Mi-8s or the more powerful Mi-17s. Gradually we began to trust each other’s judgment and ability. Over a beer one rainy night in a tiny hamlet, through an interpreter, he talked about his wartime experiences.
Bien had been a deputy regimental commander around Khe Sanh during the time I was first there in 1967 and ’68. I described to him the trenches dug by their forces in February and March of 1968, and how they appeared to snake closer to the American perimeter each time I flew into the besieged fortress. He described the terror of the perpetual bombings and artillery fire intended to break up their forces encircling Khe Sanh. We spoke freely about the war years without rancor, and it was obvious that he respected the Americans he had fought in northern I Corps. Now we found ourselves working on the same team.
The Vietnamese grew increasingly enthusiastic about the success of the recovery missions as cooperation increased and the tempo of the recoveries sped up. A bone fragment brought a wave of excitement; a tooth—particularly one with a restoration—was as distinctive as a fingerprint and a cause for celebration. Over time, the rolls of the missing slowly dropped as we made identifications and returned the remains to families who had waited for decades.
There were counterparts from other ministries also working with us, particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These were able young diplomats and bureaucrats who worked on negotiations, recovery coordination and the actual recoveries. They were changed out frequently after they became proficient in dealing with Americans, performing intricate negotiations for access to crash sites and coordinating logistics and transportation while improving their English.
One of my first counterparts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the late 1980s was Le Van Bang, the deputy director of the North American Division. He later would be the first ambassador to the United States when normalization occurred.
We began flying to crash sites with some apprehension but soon found that the pilots of the Vietnam Flying Service were very capable and competent. They paid strict attention to maintenance, although the increasing age of the aircraft was apparent.
We frequently saw the deadly Russian helicopter gunship of Afghanistan, the Mi-24 “Hind,” and the ubiquitous—if ungainly— An-2 “Colt” fixed-wing biplanes on remote airfields, particularly near the border with China. Two An-2s had participated in the only air raid against U.S. forces during the war, in January 1968, bombing the secret radar site at Phou Pha Thi in Laos with mortar rounds converted to bombs. One of the lumbering aircraft was shot down by an Air America helicopter crewman with an M-16 rifle and crashed near the site, killing the two-man crew. Groundfire drove the other one off, and it crashed some distance from the site.
Phou Pha Thi, also known as Lima Site (for Landing Site) 85, became one of the most controversial stories in the convoluted “Secret War” in Laos. Some of the “civilian” American technicians escaped, others were killed and still others remain missing after North Vietnamese infantry overran the mountain outpost following the “air raid.” Those technicians’status as “sheep-dipped”— military personnel posing as civilians— would carry overtones of secrecy until the early 1980s when the Air Force officially declassified and told their story.
During our recovery operations in Laos, the same arrangements were made for use of helicopters—pilots and crewmen of the Royal Lao Air Force flew them. Unlike Vietnam, where most were fighter pilots cross-trained in helicopters by Russian or Chinese instructors, most of the Royal Lao Air Force personnel were trained solely on helicopters in Thailand by Thai or U.S. personnel. They simply switched sides after the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975. Their helicopters were poorly maintained and the crews paid little attention to safety. I saw Lao pilots downing beers at lunch more than once. We frequently flew over shattered wrecks of Lao Mi-8s and Mi-17s upcountry. Eventually a commercial New Zealand helicopter company supplanted the Lao military helicopters for carrying our personnel. But cargo, including the explosives used for destroying ordnance discovered on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was still ferried aboard Lao aircraft.
Cambodia remained off-limits to our efforts until the political situation changed in 1991. Most of their helicopters were fast becoming unserviceable, so we used U.S. Army and Marine helicopters during recoveries there. Even though we found that it was far more expensive to operate them than to use indigenous aircraft in Laos and Vietnam, the big CH-46s and HH-53s permitted cargo and personnel to be moved in single lifts, a tremendous advantage. The downside was that their powerful rotor wash frequently blew the thatched roofs off dwellings in villages.
American recovery personnel have logged hundreds of flights all over Indochina. Most of them have been uneventful—but some have been terrifying.
In October 1988, a JCRC-CILHI team excavated an H-34 crash site in eastern Laos, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was the deputy commander of the small JCRC at the time and frequently led missions. The Lao Mi-8s had struggled all day through squalls and bad weather hauling crews and cargo from Savannakhet, on the Thai border to the crash site near Vietnam.
One other American and I were on the last flight in, now in growing darkness and worsening weather. Our cargo included two 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel, explosives and blasting caps, used to detonate unexploded bombs and other ordnance. I sat in the only open space in the crowded compartment—on top of a fuel drum, holding the box of detonators on my lap. As we neared the camp, a rain squall moved in, obscuring the ground and the tops of trees. During the last few feet of descent the rotors clipped the foliage of the canopy, causing the aircraft to shudder and lurch. I pitched off the fuel drum and into the wall of the aircraft, spilling detonators all over the floor. Once we were safely on the ground, my team members told me they had thought the aircraft was crashing.
In 1989 I left the JCRC for the Army War College and thought I’d left behind the issue, and Vietnam, for good. Senior Colonel Tran Van Bien remained, nominally the second in command though in actuality he was the one who made things happen. I graduated from the War College, was promoted to colonel, and was serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense when the Gulf War started two years later. When American airmen were taken prisoner, I became the special adviser to the secretary of defense for POW/MIA matters.
As soon as hostilities ended in Kuwait and Iraq and Operation Yellow Ribbon was completed, I found myself returning to Indochina. The scope and pace of the recoveries was outstripping the capabilities of the tiny JCRC, CILHI and the small office in the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that analyzed shootdowns and captures.
With the success of the Gulf War, and pictures in major news magazines of Americans purportedly still in captivity in Vietnam, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney broadened the scope and increased the pace of recoveries fourfold. A bipartisan Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, chaired by Senators John McCain and John Kerry, examined every aspect of the issue for a year.
A deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA Affairs and Policy was established—and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO). The small JCRC became the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting with detachments in Bangkok, Hanoi, Vientiane and Phnom Penh. Brigadier General Needham, noted for straightening out complex situations, became the first commander. More analysts and supervisors were added to the DIA office. CILHI was expanded considerably, with more and higher leadership at every level, including the commander. From being chief of staff of DPMO, I was sent to command CILHI in July 1993.
On my last mission into Vietnam in 1996, Bien and I boarded an Mi-8 and flew to a crash site between Dien Bien Phu and the Chinese border. A C-130 Hercules trans- port had slammed into a karst mountain high on a ridge in 1969, the only Hercules lost in the North. Its mission had been to supply a guerrilla team in the mountains by parachute. Our recovery personnel climbed for hours to reach it, and then hung suspended from ropes to recover the wreckage and remains.
I told the soldiers that it was my last mission and I’d be going on to a short final assignment before retiring after 32 years service. Bien made a short speech in Vietnamese that summed up our relationship—“once enemies, now friends”—and presented me with a hand-carved Vietnamese pipe as a symbol of our success and friendship. He remarked that he’d see me in “Saigon” in a couple of days and I could meet his family.
“You mean Ho Chi Minh City, don’t you?” I joked.
“No, Saigon. Phu Tho, Cholon and Saigon make up Ho Chi Minh City,” he replied. He and his family lived in Saigon.
I never kept that appointment with Bien. My last sight of him was through the little window of the Mi-8 as we hovered over the crowd. The rotor wash and blowing dust made everyone crouch down, backs to the blast except Bien. He smiled, waved and saluted as we banked away toward Hanoi.
A year later I retired, and my wife and I returned to our home near Arlington National Cemetery across the river from Washington, D.C. We frequently visited the gravesites of many of the missing who had been recovered and identified during my last decade in the Army. Every Memorial Day is special to us.
We visit gravesites of friends lost in conflicts, accidents or to illness. My wife puts flowers on the graves. The solemn, white tombstones are a stoically quiet but visible symbol of the sacrifices Americans have made to keep our nation free. The graves of the crew recovered from a C-130 lost in North Vietnam—my last mission— were also special because they reminded me of the dangers that both American and Vietnamese friends are facing to keep up the search.
Friends and colleagues in the Defense Prisoner and Missing Office told me that Senior Colonel Tran Van Bien frequently asked about me and wished me well, and I passed those greetings back to him. Then, on April 7, 2001, a dread that constantly hung over both Vietnamese and Americans became a reality—an Mi-17 with a recovery team of 16 Americans and Vietnamese aboard slammed into a fog-enshrouded hillside in Quang Binh Province of the Central Region of Vietnam, killing everyone aboard.
Among the seven U.S. passengers were the incoming and outgoing JTF-FA Hanoi detachment commanders, two American lieutenant colonels. Other Americans killed in the weather-related accident were from JTF-FA and CILHI headquarters in Hawaii. Among the nine Vietnamese aboard, one was now–Lt. Col. Nguyen Van Ha, the pilot, and another was Senior Colonel Tran Van Bien.
On a chilly morning three weeks later, my wife and I attended a memorial service in the Fort Myer, Va., chapel. The audience included representatives from the Vietnamese embassy, DPMO, JTF-FA and CILHI, as well as POW/MIA family members.
I thought about the years and years of effort and the obstacles overcome by two nations once antagonistic, now united in a common effort. I thought of all Americans who had sacrificed everything to keep us free, especially in that divisive war. I remembered Bien’s stoicism and willingness to go to great lengths in the early days when both sides were warily searching each other’s motive and resolve. Vietnam grieved for its missing as we did, but without the resources.
Returning relatives to their ancestral homeland for burial was a Confucian tradition, especially important to the close-knit families of Vietnam. More than 300,000 Vietnamese were missing from the American War while roughly 2,500 Americans were unaccounted for when the war ended in January 1973. Bien had a mask of toughness, but fondness for soldiers of any nation. In nearly three decades of war, French and American bullets and bombs had missed him, but a joint humanitarian effort had taken his life along with seven Americans and eight other Vietnamese.
Military crash and safety experts under the U.S. Pacific Command temporarily suspended operations while they examined all facets of the incident, but nine weeks later helicopter operations supporting search and recovery operations in Indochina resumed.
Flying, especially in helicopters in bad weather and rugged terrain, has a price associated with it. This time it was paid in blood and pain, by two nations who were once enemies, now friends.
Colonel William Jordan (ret.) served two tours in Vietnam and spent 10 years working on POW/MIA issues, including as deputy commander of the Joint Casualty Resolution Center and commander of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii. For additional reading, see: MIA: Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, by Paul D. Mather; and Code Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of the U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War, by George J. Veith.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.