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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Since neither teeth nor DNA was available in Masterson's case, it was finally closed, February 7, 2006‚ on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Later that month, Air Force officers presented the findings, along with Masterson's dog tags, a few coins, other effects and a copy of the case file, to his wife.

Her reaction was surprising. "I told them I didn't agree with any of it," she said. "It's all based on circumstantial evidence. I still don't know that he is dead or alive. He could be in a POW camp." Fran clings to that hope, based on the 1972 intelligence report that listed Masterson as captured.

But what about the dog tags, the bone fragments, the unused parachute, the insole matching her husband's foot size?

"All circumstantial," she said. "They just want to close this case and get it off the books. We've gone all this time. What's the hurry?"

She has appealed the findings, which will be reviewed by a board of senior military officers from all service branches, and if necessary, returned to the laboratory for further investigation.

Meanwhile, the remains of Bat Masterson will stay where they have been since last Thanksgiving, locked in a Hawaiian laboratory, halfway between Laos and home.

Robert M. Poole was executive editor of National Geographic. Photographer Paul Hu lives in Hong Kong. Army photographer Christophe Paul is based in Washington, D.C.

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