WASHINGTON (AP) â€” A quarter century after the Vietnam War, America's search for 1,992 unaccounted-for servicemen goes on â€” mostly in archaeological digs for bones and other remains, but also in efforts to run down rumors of live Americans left behind when the last known prisoners of war went home in 1973.
As President Clinton will see this week when he becomes the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war, the search for clues and closure is a complex, costly and painstakingly slow process that has taken U.S. investigators to the remotest reaches of Vietnam, as well as to neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
``We're not going to stop looking, as long as we have the leads to pursue,'' said Robert Jones, head of the Pentagon's POW/MIA office, which oversees the search for remains from Vietnam and other wars.
Jones will be present when Clinton visits a rice paddy outside Hanoi, where it is believed Air Force Capt. Lawrence G. Evert, of Cody, Wyo., crashed in an F-105 fighter jet on Nov. 8, 1967. American forensics experts and anthropologists are working with Vietnamese to recover remains at the site.
Evert is one of 1,992 Americans listed as unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. About one-third of the total are Air Force personnel, and about one-quarter of the total were lost in what used to be North Vietnam. Nearly 1,000 were in the former South Vietnam and the rest were in Cambodia, Laos or China.
The Pentagon has stopped pursuing 646 of the 1,992 cases. The rest are considered open.
Clinton's visit to the excavation site Saturday is meant to highlight the administration's commitment to accounting for as many war dead as possible and to thank the communist government for its cooperation. During Clinton's presidency, 283 missing servicemen have been accounted for â€” nearly half the total accounted for since 1973, when U.S. troops completed their withdrawal and the last known POWs were sent home.
The number of Vietnam War servicemen unaccounted for has dropped from 2,583 in 1973 to 1,992 today.
Clinton also will hold talks with Vietnam's leaders and attend a ceremony in which remains recovered during a recent excavation will be repatriated and sent to an Army laboratory in Hawaii for identification.
``This visit is the culmination of a process that the president began with Vietnam eight years ago,'' Sandy Berger, the president's national security adviser, said last week. ``The cutting edge of that process from the very beginning has been, and remains today, achieving the fullest possible accounting of our POW-MIAs.''
The administration has been spending $5 million to $6 million a year on remains recovery operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, a portion of which pays for Vietnamese laborers who help sift through dirt and mud at long-abandoned crash sites in search of fragments of bone, clothing and aircraft debris.
In one such excavation effort, similar to the one Clinton will visit, anthropologist Ann Bunch, of Medina, N.Y., and her team have dug an 18-foot-deep crater in the middle of a rice paddy about 55 miles from Hanoi, where an American F-105 fighter plunged from the sky 35 years ago. Wielding hoes and shovels, Bunch's team fills metal buckets with mounds of earth, which is washed through wood-framed sieves, occasionally revealing a sliver of metal or rubberâ€” a clue to a decades-old mystery.
``We find tiny pieces, but sometimes that's all we need to put the whole puzzle together,'' Bunch said in a recent interview.
Jones, the Pentagon chief of POW-MIA affairs, said that although he sees no end in sight to remains recovery efforts in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese government is reluctant to allow it to continue indefinitely.
``The Vietnamese are seeking an end-date to our operations,'' Jones said.
During talks in Hanoi in August, Jones told Vietnamese officials that some in the United States believe that Vietnam is holding back remains of missing Americans, and he urged them to provide documents and other information that could finally settle what he called ``unresolved discrepancies.''
The Vietnamese reiterated their longstanding position: All recovered remains have been turned over to U.S. authorities.
The most difficult issue â€” both for the United States and Vietnam â€” is also the most highly charged â€” suspicion that Americans remained captive after the last known POWs returned home in 1973.
Speculation and rumor about the ``last known alive'' â€” Americans seen or heard by witnesses to have survived wartime crashes â€” have been fed over the years by Hollywood movies and reported sightings of Caucasians in Indochina. A Senate select committee on POWs and MIAs concluded in 1993 that while there is no proof that an American POWs survived the war, the possibility could not be ruled out.
Stony Beach, a Defense Intelligence Agency unit set up to pursue such reports, has found no hard evidence of Americans left behind, officials say, although the Pentagon is still working with Vietnamese authorities to resolve 29 remaining cases. As recently as August, during Jones' talks in Hanoi, senior Vietnamese government officials reaffirmed that no American prisoners were withheld, Jones said.
On the Net:
Pentagon POW-MIA Office: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/
Vietnam search teams: http://www.usa.or.th/embassy/jtf-fa.htm
Vietnam accounting: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/pmsea/statisticalâ€”reports.htm