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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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The excavation looked like textbook archaeology, laid out with pegs and strings in geometrical precision, but in other ways it was unique. "Most archaeology gets done in places where people want to live," said Goodman, "like flat places where you can walk around." As she spoke, we were listing like sailors on a heeling sailboat, straining to keep balanced on the nearly 45-degree slope. "We often wind up in places like this, where it's pretty remote and hard to maneuver, or in Papua New Guinea, where we work knee-deep in cold water and mud the whole time," she said. "Half the challenge is just getting there and being able to work." In July 2005, the previous season at Site 1303, frequent rains shut down excavations for days, and on those occasions when work was possible, the footing was treacherous. "The challenge was to get up the hill without breaking your leg," said Goodman, who had supervised the previous excavation.

Our conversation was interrupted by the crackling of a two-way radio on Goodman's hip. A disembodied voice came from the speaker: "We've got something for you."

Another radio voice answered: "Roger. I'm on it." The second voice belonged to Staff Sgt. Steve Mannon, 32, a burly marine in wraparound shades and a dark green polo shirt, who was already scrambling downhill, where workers with picks and shovels had backed away from the hole. They made room for Mannon, the team's unexploded ordnance (UXO) expert, who got calls like this throughout the day. He had come to examine a rusty-looking cylinder, about the size of an egg roll, which the diggers had turned up. Mannon pulled off his sunglasses, squatted in the pit and opened a knife, using the blade to pick the mystery object out of the dirt. "Another 20-millimeter round," he pronounced, easing the ordnance into a satchel, clapping his shades back on and trudging uphill to a jungle path at some distance from the work area. We stopped under a red and white sign emblazoned with skull and crossbones and a warning in English and Lao: "DANGER!!" it read, "UXO!" Just beneath it was a pit in which Mannon had collected another 50 such rounds, part of the Skyraider's 2,000-pound payload. He added the morning's find to the growing pile, which would double in size in the course of our weeks here.

"What would happen if you set off one of these rounds?" I asked him.

"Depends on where you hit it," he answered. "You could be blinded, or it could just take most of the meat off your hand."

When this dig was finished, Mannon would bury the recovered explosives to forestall an accidental detonation—a constant threat to farmers or anyone else who puts a spade to earth in this ordnance-packed landscape.

The United States dropped more than two million tons of explosives on Laos between 1964 and 1973, making it the world's most heavily bombed nation per capita, according to the United Nations Development Program. In the years since, the United States has spent millions to disarm ordnance in Laos, but bombs remain a hazard. That is why each recovery group is assigned a specialist such as Mannon, one of several team members on loan to JPAC for this mission.

Like other people deployed here, Mannon had seen combat in the current Iraq war. He admitted that he missed the excitement of battle, but he found the work in Laos rewarding. "There is no more honorable mission than this one—bringing one of our guys home," he said.

Even across the distance of time, a special bond links Bat Masterson to comrades who never knew him. "It's part of the code, man," said Sgt. Daniel Padilla, a soft-spoken 22-year-old marine from San Antonio, on loan to JPAC as radio man and communications specialist. He held out his right arm to illustrate the point. There, between his elbow and wrist, the code was tattooed in blue ink:

We few, we mighty few, we band of brothers, for he today who sheds his blood with me, shall forever be my brother.

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