In 1967, US Staff Sergeant James Lee Van Bendegom went missing after his patrol was ambushed along the Cambodia-Vietnam border. Last month, 47 years after he had been taken captive, the teenage soldier’s remains were finally returned to his family, the US Embassy said on Friday.
Van Bendegom, a Wisconsin native, was just 18 when he dropped out of high school to enlist, according to his former hometown’s newspaper, the Kenosha News.
In mid-July 1967, Van Bendegom’s infantry division was conducting a search party along the Cambodian border. They were overrun, dozens died, and Van Bendegom and another soldier, both wounded, were taken prisoner, according to the POW Network, a historical archive of missing US soldiers and prisoners of war.
Other Americans also taken prisoners were told Van Bendegom and the other soldier died of their wounds in a Cambodian field hospital.
The surviving members of Van Bendegom’s unit were released in 1973 after 2,064 days of being beaten, starved and tortured, a veteran who had fought in the same patrol told the Kenosha News.
The Van Bendegom family searched, and an army case manager sent out 30 search missions, but no remains or any evidence of the missing soldier were found.
Then, in 1986, a Vietnamese woman smuggled human remains of various nationalities to US authorities in Thailand. Presumably exhumed from a mass grave, according to an army case manager quoted in the News, the jumble of body parts didn’t initially lead anywhere.
“At the time, the information provided by the Vietnamese national did not correlate with any unaccounted-for American service members,” the embassy statement said.
However, the remains were recently reanalysed, and, with improved technology using two different kinds of DNA analysis, a left radius was matched to Van Bendegom’s brothers.
“My mom got a call from the military saying, ‘We’ve found remains of your son’,” the soldier’s brother Michael Van Bendegom told the News.
Two weeks ago, Van Bendegom’s remains were sent home to his 89-year-old mother, who saw her son buried with full military honours.
More than 1,600 American service members from the Vietnam War remain unaccounted for, 52 of them believed to be in Cambodia.