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Lost Over Laos

Scientists and soldiers combine forensics and archaeology to search for pilot Bat Masterson, one of 88,000 Americans missing in action from recent wars.

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"It's from Shakespeare," Padilla added. "This is when King Henry V is about to go into battle and he's rallying the guys." The tattoo artist had edited Shakespeare slightly, substituting "mighty" for "happy" and inserting "forever" in the last line, but the sentiment remained true to the original.

In most criminal investigations, a case is considered “cold” if it remains unsolved for more than two weeks. The investigative trail in most of the JPAC cases, by contrast, has been cold for 20, 30 or 40 years, with witnesses dying, landscapes shifting and evidence degraded by time and weather, as at Site 1303. “It’s a puzzle with 10,000 pieces scattered around us,” said Mannon, gazing down at workers screening soil and hoisting buckets of dirt up the mountainside. “We’ve got to figure out how all the pieces fit together.”

After a few days of digging, those pieces began to pile up, making it look as if Bat Masterson had not bailed out after all, but had perished on the hillside in 1968.

By early November, Goodman had examined and bagged several hundred pieces of bone, which she labeled as “possible osseous remains,” for future scrutiny by JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Like the bones recovered previously from the site, these were burned bluish gray and broken into fragments the size of a fingernail, too damaged and small for DNA sampling, which usually requires at least two grams of dense bone, such as from an arm or a leg. Three other bone fragments from the site were also too damaged for DNA, but they were nonetheless big enough for Goodman to see that they were human. Since there was no village at Site 1303, no cemetery there and no history of human occupation, it was reasonable to suppose that the remains belonged to Bat Masterson.

Other evidence pointed toward that same conclusion. Three more coins—nickels dating from 1963, 1964 and 1965—were recovered, as were more than 30 unfired rounds from a .38-caliber weapon, most likely the sidearm Masterson carried on flying missions. "Most pilots carried a sidearm like that," Goodman said. "If you ejected from the plane, you'd keep it with you in the jungle. It wouldn't be with the wreck unless you were with the wreck."

While Goodman talked, cicadas buzzed high in the trees around us and a boombox near the impact crater churned out an odd mix of Elvis, Lao pop, zydeco tunes and a piece that I was old enough to identify as Wild Cherry's only hit "...Play that funky music, white boy! Play that funky music right!" This tune caused Hmong and Americans to dance as they sifted dirt, picked out artifacts and passed them along to Beth Claypool's roost on the hill above the screening station.

Claypool, 21, a Navy Parachute Rigger Second Class and the mission's "life support analyst," spent afternoons sorting through hundreds of pieces of broken metal, wiring, tattered cloth and other gleanings to determine their hidden importance. She traveled with a library of technical manuals and old photographs, which helped to identify occult bits of aircraft engines, rivets, snaps and buckles emerging from the dirt. I often sat with her at the sorting station and marveled at her ability to separate gold from dross. One day she pulled out a slab of rust, studied it for a few seconds and declared it a pocket-knife. "See the metal loop on the end of it?" she asked, pointing out the clasp that might have secured a line to the owner's vest. Setting aside the knife for Goodman to examine, Claypool turned her attention to an ordinary-looking screw with an oversize head and a short body. Noticing that it was threaded unconventionally—it tightened to the left instead of the right—she determined that it was the visor adjustment device from the top of a pilot's helmet; thus, its reversed threading. "No other screw looks like that one," she said. The rest of the helmet was never recovered, but this small piece of metal would prove to be a critical bit of evidence placing Masterson with the wreck.

Investigators have learned that even seemingly insignificant items can hold special meaning, especially for family members who often recognize the quirks of loved ones among personal effects. "We don't ignore any of that evidence," said Army Maj. Rumi Nielsen-Green, a media officer for JPAC. "We've had cases in which a wife knew that her husband always carried a combination of lucky coins, or a sister remembered the bundle of rubber bands her brother kept in his pocket. You never know what is going to help close the circle."

In the days ahead, other artifacts would emerge to round out the picture—the fragmentary remains of a parachute still folded neatly into a corner of its pack, a harness buckle, several zippers from a flight suit, a captain's rusty insignia pin and a metal insole from a pilot's boot. The insole was surprisingly small—size seven or so—but it was a likely match for Bat Masterson, who stood 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 137 pounds. "I knew what it was as soon as I saw it," said Navy Cdr. Joanne Petrelli, who uncovered the insole while swinging a pickax in the pit one afternoon. "It was the shape of a human foot. It was about the size of my husband's foot. He's small, too—and he's a marine."

While strongly suggestive, such evidence was hardly conclusive. That changed on the day that Army Sgt. Christophe Paul, 33, a combat photographer attached to JPAC, discovered a clay-caked sliver of metal in his screening tray, rubbed off the mud and reached for his radio.

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