Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Finding the secrets lost down No Name Creek

Finding the secrets lost down No Name Creek

Finding the secrets lost down No Name Creek

NO NAME CREEK - The original operation on March 21, 1970 in the remote jungles of

Rata-nakiri was top secret.

The six-man American Special Forces team, including Montagnard comrades-in-arms,

had been ferried in from Vietnam and dropped off by helicopter on a reconnaissance

mission that didn't exist "officially".

The highly-trained commandos, who carried no US-made equipment and bore no military

insignia, were part of a clandestine US operation obliquely named the "Studies

and Observations Group" or "SOG" for short.

Set up back in 1964 at the request of then-US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,

SOG would develop, according to SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam,

by John Plaster, into "the largest covert military unit since World War II's

OSS".

The Americans were desperate for on-the-ground intelligence as Hanoi was pouring

men and material down through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam along an elaborate

network of jungle tracks.

Plaster writes that by 1967 "NVA forces in Laos and Cambodia had climbed above

100,000 with 40,000 of them detailed as Ho Chi Minh Trail security; another 100,000

NVA passed down the Trail that year en route to South Vietnam".

With SOG fielding about 40 Americans at any one time in Laos and Cambodia, it was

their job "to penetrate enemy redoubts to wiretap, ambush, kidnap, mine and

survey the North Vietnamese."

The task was a dangerous one. SOG casualties ran at over 50 percent and many of the

Green Berets never made it home.

The team in Ratanakiri spent three days in the dense jungle just a few kilometers

from the Lao border, evading North Vietnamese trackers and collecting what information

they could in an area that was teeming with NVA troops.

By the time they reached the point where they were to be picked up, they'd taken

two casualities. A Huey UH1H helicopter hovered while the weary men scrambled aboard.

It rose to about 100 feet and then was hit by an RPG round that blew it apart, the

chopper crashing to the ground in a ball of flames. Seven Americans were lost.

FAST forward almost three decades. The "Vietnam War" is ancient history

for most, but the Americans still want to bring their boys home.

Dr. C.E. "Hoss" Moore stands knee-deep in the muck of the creek he calls

"No Name" near the Lao border, surveying the wreckage of the Huey UH1H.

He's one of eight Americans and an 80-man Cambodian crew that spent four weeks recently

looking for remains of the seven GIs lost back in 1970.

The late-fortyish, barrel-chested Kansan didn't serve in the Vietnam War, having

been exempted by a hearing defect. Hoss now feels like he's "doing his bit"

to help close the final chapter of the war effort.

The nearest Cambodian village is about 30 kms away, perhaps seven days' walk on foot

through some of the Kingdom's densest, seemingly pristine jungle, and it's hard to

imagine that war has ever touched this quiet land, now designated a National Park

where tigers, wild elephants and sun bears are said to roam freely.

"Inside the grid, Hoss is king," says US Army Capt Matt Fuhrer of the team's

anthropologist, who decides where and how deep to dig, and who may have to testify

in court years down the road if someone contests the US military's efforts.

On paper the concept is simple: identify a sight where it's believed there are remains

of Americans lost during the war, dig it up and sift through the dirt.

In reality the work is painstaking and tedious.

"Everyone thinks we come out here and dig up femurs," says Fuhrer, reflecting

on the fact that the team would be lucky if they found a few charred bone fragments

to take back to a lab in Hawaii for exhaustive examination.

The effort in Ratanakiri was particulary complicated and involved the cooperation

of the Vietnamese, Cambodians and the Americans.

The Americans knew about the crash but were unsure of its exact location. An initial

tip came from an 80-year-old man who had hunted in the region and remembered seeing

the helicopter wreckage.

In March 1987, a joint Cambodian-Vietmanese team entered the Dragon's Tail from the

Vietnamese border on foot. After a seven-day trek, including four on makeshift rafts,

the hunter led them directly to the crash site.

"One of our team members was crying," said RCAF Col Korm Sokhon, who took

part in the mini-expedition and remembers his crew wondering if the old man was leading

them on a wild goose chase.

With the site identified, a landing zone was carved out of the nearby jungle a year

later so that the recovery operation could begin in earnest in mid-January. The Americans

set up shop in Ban Lung, hired the work crews and security forces, and contracted

the services of Lao West Coast Aviation to ferry people by helicopter to and from

the remote dig area.

At the end of the day, remains were discovered, as they were at another recovery

operation at an F4 Phantom jet crash site outside of Banlung. However, US officials

are reluctant to speculate on any details of who may or may not be identified. That

process may take several more years back in the States.

As for the political debate surrounding the POW/MIA quest and the money being spent

on the effort, the boys in the field are happy to let others wrestle with it.

Quipped Capt Fuhrer: "We leave all that to echelons above reality."

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