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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The United States counts more than 88,000 Americans as missing from its recent wars—some 78,000 from World War II; 8,100 from the Korean War; 1,805 from the Vietnam War; 126 from the cold war; one from the Gulf War of 1991; and one from the current Iraq war. About half are considered "unrecoverable," lost at sea or sequestered in sunken vessels.

But another 45,000 are thought to be recoverable, and in the years since Vietnam, military investigators, working with civilian scientists from the world's largest forensic anthropology laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base next to Honolulu, have made an arduous effort to whittle down the roster of the missing. Although focused initially on Southeast Asia, the recovery missions have circled the globe, from Tibet to Hungary to Russia and Papua New Guinea. More than 1,200 service members have been recovered and identified since 1973. Most of these—841 by the military's tally—were repatriated from battlefields in Southeast Asia; others came from North Korea, China and the scattered theaters of World War II.

A number of factors have contributed to the recent surge in recovery and identification operations. Prodding from people like Fran Masterson and other family members has created a strong political constituency for POW and MIA work, boosting the federal budget and personnel for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the military unit charged with finding missing warriors. At the same time, advances in forensic science and DNA testing make it easier to identify a long-dead soldier or sailor on the basis of very little physical data—a bone fragment, a few teeth, a lock of hair—even in cases which have languished unsolved for decades. And, since the mid-1980s, improved relations with Vietnam and other Asian nations has meant better access for teams scouring the jungles for evidence. All of this has led to the growth, in sophistication as well as size, of the JPAC command, which employs more than 400 people and combines expertise in criminal investigation, archaeology, linguistics, bomb disposal, DNA processing and a number of other specialties for a single purpose—to account for all Americans who ever disappeared in battle.

"Nobody goes to the effort we Americans do," says Army Brig. Gen. Michael C. Flowers, commander of JPAC, headquartered at Hickam Air Force Base. "From the time we go to boot camp we learn to take care of one another. And we make the promise that no one gets left behind. We will go back again and again to look for those who might still be alive or those who have fallen."

It took some persistence to find Bat Masterson's crash site. By the autumn of 2005, when I arrived in rural Xieng Khuang Province of Laos with an anthropologist and a recovery team of nine service members from JPAC, the United States had already spent years in delicate negotiations for access to the region. Since the war, there has been periodic unrest among the indigenous Hmong hill tribes, old allies of the French and, later, of the Americans who fought there. Central authorities in Laos, a Communist regime since 1975, were understandably touchy about opening the region. Thus it was 1993 before the first investigators were admitted to northern Laos to search for Masterson, with follow-up missions in August 2004, October 2004 and July 2005.

Each foray into the mountains yielded a few scraps of new evidence—a 1967 quarter from the site, which fit the time frame of Masterson's disappearance; two 20-millimeter cannons consistent with the A-1 Skyraider's armament; parts from the plane's parachute assembly; many fragments of the blue glass used exclusively in the Skyraider's canopy; and a few shards of bone thought to be human. The bone was in such small pieces and so badly burned, however, that it contained little organic material, which made it an unlikely source of DNA to link Masterson and the wreck.

But the crash site—prosaically logged in military records as Case No. 1303—was almost certainly Masterson's: it fit the coordinates noted by his comrades in 1968, and the aircraft debris made it clear that the downed plane was a Skyraider, the only one of its kind lost in this part of Laos. Although the place had been thoroughly scavenged prior to our arrival by villagers looking for scrap metal and other useful bits of hardware, members of the recovery team were optimistic that a month's excavation might finally solve the mystery of Masterson's fate.

"We're just now getting into a very productive part of the dig," said Elizabeth "Zib" Martinson Goodman, the civilian anthropologist in charge of recovery operations. Goodman, an ebullient 36-year-old raised on an apple orchard in central Washington State, showed me around the site, where a swath of jungle had been peeled back, revealing a grid of four meter squares climbing down the mountainside and ending where a dense green wave of vegetation reared up at the edge.

Near the top of the cleared area was the impact crater, a black hole in the red earth. "On most archaeology sites," said Goodman, "you dig down through the topsoil, sifting for artifacts until you reach the sterile layer, the undisturbed layer of soil below the surface." On this hillside, the stratigraphy was confused. The plane punched through the sterile profile. Scavengers later excavated around the plane, tossing the dirt containing wreckage and human remains down the hill. Monsoons subsequently scattered the evidence. Any remaining artifacts would be dispersed downhill from the crater.

That is where a marine and a soldier, stripped to their T-shirts and sweating, chopped away with pickaxes at the lower edge of the clearing. Each shovel of dirt was dumped into a black plastic bucket labeled for this particular grid and conveyed up the hillside by a brigade of some 50 Hmong workers. On the brow of the hill, a score of Hmong villagers, working with Americans from the JPAC team, strained each bucket of soil through quarter-inch screens to recover the tiniest clues from the site—twisted bits of olive drab metal, mud-streaked screws and rivets, strands of insulated wire, melted gobs of plastic and the occasional stinging centipede lurking in the dirt. One afternoon, as I was sifting earth at the screening station, I uncovered a scorpion in my tray. A Buddhist co-worker walked over, calmly lifted the irate arachnid out with a trowel, set it free at the jungle's edge and blithely returned to work.

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