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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Then began the painstaking and often thankless task of
searching for the wreckage of crashed US planes and the remains of their
The jungle was so thick that often the only way the search team
could move around was to tramp through streams, exposing them to
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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."
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