U.S. Remains Coming From Cambodia

Tuesday, February 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — U.S. officials on Tuesday sent back to the United States what are believed to be the remains of one of the last American soldiers killed in combat during the Vietnam War era.

More than 150 people attended a solemn ceremony at the airport of the Cambodian capital where a box containing the remains was covered in a U.S. flag and loaded onto a plane to be sent to an Army laboratory in Hawaii for positive identification.

It could take a year or more for the remains to be identified and the victim's family informed.

The remains were located by a team of about 50 Americans and Cambodians last week on Tang Island, off the Cambodian coast in the Gulf of Thailand.

The U.S. lost 18 servicemen in a battle there in May 1975 when three helicopters went in to rescue the crew of a civilian cargo vessel captured by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, which had taken over the country the previous month.

The island was much better defended than U.S. intelligence reports had indicated, and the civilian crew of the merchant ship Mayaguez was not even on the island when the attack took place. The debacle was the last U.S. combat engagement in Cambodia or Vietnam.

The remains are thought to be of a combatant killed early in the May 1975 battle. U.S. forces were prevented by heavy Khmer Rouge fire from retrieving his body, U.S. Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said.

Richard Wills, the excavation team's chief anthropologist, confirmed that a Khmer Rouge veteran had pointed out the spot where the U.S. serviceman was buried. The remains were recovered one day before the end of a one-month search and excavation mission.

Wiedemann said at the airport ceremony that it was a day of ``pride and gratification,'' describing the deaths of U.S. servicemen in the region as being for a noble cause.

Warfare pitting U.S.-assisted governments against communist insurgents in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam ended in 1975 with communist victories in all three countries.

When combat ended in Southeast Asia, the number of Americans unaccounted for totaled 2,583 Americans, including 74 in Cambodia.

``Soldiers came here with selfless motives on behalf of freedom ... and to fight for the nation's security,'' Wiedemann said.

The remains of a three-person U.S. Marine Corps machine gun crew left behind during the Tang Island battle will be sought in March 2002, said Col. Jeff Smith, the U.S. mission commander.