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
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."