Villagers help sift through soil searching for remains.
A remote jungle site 12 kilometers north of Snuol in Kratie province may have yielded
the remains of an American serviceman killed in 1971 when his helicopter was shot
The archeological dig underway in the province is one of several operations being
run by the US military's Joint Task Force-Full Accounting. The current mission is
in Cambodia to find and repatriate the remains of Americans who went missing during
the Vietnam war. JTF-FA also runs annual operations in Laos and Vietnam.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Dembroski, the detachment commander in Cambodia, says
the UH-1 helicopter was one of ten bringing soldiers into the area when it was hit
in the tail. The helicopter kept flying for 500 meters before the pilot lost control
and it crashed into a tree. Another helicopter also crashed the same day. The first
helicopter was carrying four US military personnel and at least six members of the
South Vietnamese Army.
"If they were evading fire, they'll throw as many people on there as possible,"
says Dembroski. "So we don't know for sure. But [there were] at least six [South
The recovery team was aided by the testimony of a Cambodian witness and an American
survivor, who was captured and made a prisoner of war. The survivor knew that one
American died at the crash site. He and the other two surviving US servicemen left
the site together.
"He last saw them when [the three] were evading [capture]," says Dembroski.
"They're [both] missing in action."
An anthropologist with the Central Identification Laboratory based in Hawaii (CILHI),
Richard Wills, says the team first needed to find the crash site before using a map
drawn by the US survivor to locate the remains. Not much remained of the helicopter
because locals had scavenged the site, but a burned area made finding it easier.
"When we started digging we found small stuff the locals didn't find. It wasn't
as badly scavenged as other sites," says Wills.
Initially the team looked for remains at the crash site itself. But the team had
more success once they extended the search and moved backwards from the point of
Dembroski is cautious about what they have found. He says they have uncovered "possible
human remains" as well as evidence related to the missing serviceman. A definitive
answer, however, requires DNA testing, which takes an average of two years.
Recovery operations are only one facet of the work done by JTF-FA during annual missions
to Southeast Asia. There is also an investigation team of linguists and analysts
who interview witnesses and work closely with the Cambodian government to identify
future excavation sites.
Dembroski says the investigation team follows up leads, regularly checking what it
finds with information in the archives and testimony from previous witnesses.
"We don't just drop in on a site and start digging," says Dembroski. "There's
a lot of preparation that goes on beforehand."
In February the JTF-FA team investigated information relating to ten missing journalists,
including photojournalists Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, son of the actor Errol Flynn.
One of those interviewed as a second-hand witness was American journalist Zailin
Grant, who was friends with both Stone and Flynn and had done a lot of independent
research. Zailin had witnesses who identified three potential burial sites.
Colonel Neil Fox from JTF-FA headquarters in Hawaii says the investigation centered
around an old airfield just out of Kratie, where they had reports that "important
foreigners" were held.
"We dug extensive test pits at two of the sites to determine if full scale excavation
was warranted. It was not," says Fox. JTF-FA not only looks for missing servicemen,
says Fox. It also tries to find civilians missing in the conflict, including journalists,
nurses and missionaries.
Dembroski says that in it's ten year history JTF-FA has located and repatriated the
remains of 25 Americans who went missing in Cambodia, but there are still 60 unaccounted
"We don't always find human remains," he says, "but we might get closure
on a case."