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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dicing with death in hunt for MIAs

Dicing with death in hunt for MIAs

M ajor Tony Lowe smiles and says of searching for MIAs in Cambodia: "It isn't a

stroll in the park." In fact it has been physically demanding and downright

dangerous.

He was in a helicopter which was hit by ground fire, has been

"eaten alive" by bloodsucking leeches and even had a brush with a

tiger.

The US Air Force officer who this week led the final MIA searches

in Cambodia had a lucky escape on the previous mission in Rattanakiri.

An

unknown gunman fired on one of the team's UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters as it

flew low over the jungle, punching a hole in a wing-mounted external fuel

tank.

Major Lowe, 41, said: "It was lucky it was an ordinary round not a

tracer round which could have blown up the fuel vapor left in the

tank."

The searches carried out along the Vietnamese border were some of

the most arduous carried out by Detachment Four of the Joint Task Force - Full

Accounting.

The bamboo jungle was so dense that the team had to shin down

rope ladders from their helicopters to hack out a landing area with

machetes.

Then began the painstaking and often thankless task of

searching for the wreckage of crashed US planes and the remains of their

pilots.

The jungle was so thick that often the only way the search team

could move around was to tramp through streams, exposing them to

leeches.

Major Low said: "I can remember after one day I was doing a

Major Lowe believes that Hanoi will continue to cooperate in the search

for MIAs despite Washington last week lifting its economic embargo on the only

country to ever defeat it in a war.

US Vietnam veterans groups have

vociferously argued against ending the trade ban, claiming it was the only lever

the US had to encourage the Vietnamese government to support efforts to track

down the fate of missing servicemen.

He said: "I'm not an expert on the

situation in Cambodia but I have spoken to my colleagues in Hanoi. They said

that Vietnamese government has been giving exceptionally good cooperation and

they said they had no reason to believe the attitude would change if the embargo

was lifted."

check for leeches and rolled up my pants and found my socks

were drenched in blood from them. It wasn't just that but the heat and humidity

were such that we would lose 10 pounds in weight every.day from sweating.

Several of the team members said it was the worst conditions they had

encountered anywhere in the world."

In one case they found numerous

pieces of an F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber which had been shot down less than a

kilometer from the Vietnamese border.

Major Lowe said: "Reports from the

wing man said the plane struck the trees and crashed in a ball of flame. We

could not find any human remains. One of the ejector seats had not been fired

and the other one was so badly burnt that we could not tell if it had been used

or not."

Despite the best efforts of the US team, enthusiastically

assisted by Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers, no human remains were found

and an open verdict had to be passed on the case of the airmen.

There

were many similar conclusions to cases in reports from Cambodia back to the JTF

headquarters in Hawaii.

But the hardships and risks involved in the field

work are worthwhile.

Major Lowe said: "This might sound corny but as far

as the military is concerned it is a great honor to be involved in this work.

"It is not frustrating as long as we know we have done the best job we

can to solve the cases."

Major Lowe was in college when the Vietnam war

ended but has friends who fought in the Vietnam war and didn't come

back.

He said: "It is partly that that led me to volunteer for this work,

partly out of respect for fellow service men who have given their lives, it was

a whole package of things that said this is the right thing to be

doing."

The JTF team in Phnom Penh, which consists of just three

permanent staff based at the US Embassy, have also followed every report of

living American survivors from the war - but all have proved to be red herrings.

One well-circulated rumor had a black GI deserting or getting separated from his

unit and settling down in a Cambodian village. He was said to have married a

local woman and had children but then was either executed during the Pol Pot

years or died of natural causes. Again when Major Lowe and his men investigated,

they could find no hard evidence to back up the story and believe it is simply

that.

However he said: "There is a remote possibility that there are

American survivors living in Cambodia and we won't rule out anything. Remember

that there were those Japanese soldiers who were found on a Pacific island in

the 1970s who couldn't believe that the Second World War had ended."

As

well as the field work the JTF in Phnom Penh also have to interview the many

people who turn up at the embassy claiming to have information which will help

tracking down MIA.

Major Lowe said: "We take every one them seriously

though they mostly come here with the belief that they can trade information for

money or visas, they don't realize that we never pay anything."

Major

Lowe will be staying on up to November to wind up the JTF operation in Phnom

Penh but for now it is back to the jungles and paddy fields to wrap up the

remaining cases. This time the terrain will not be such a problem as the

searches will be carried out in Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham and Siem Reap.

Instead the greatest threat to the team will be posed by KR guerrillas in the

area.

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