Researchers Search Archives for Lost Heroes
Declassified Air America Papers Hold Clues to Fates of Men Missing in Vietnam
A UT Dallas symposium held in cooperation with the CIA last April may have indirectly helped investigators trying to determine the fate of 1,737 U.S. personnel missing from the Vietnam War.
Two researchers decided a trip to UT Dallas’ McDermott Library might provide leads for some of their cases after they learned about the symposium that explored rescue missions by Air America, a secret proprietary airline of the CIA.
The two men, Hung M. Nguyen and Khuong H. Vu of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), are in the midst of a three-week search of the Civil Air Transport/Air America Archive.
Since 1985, the McDermott Library’s Special Collections Department has been acquiring materials about Air America pilots and employees in Southeast Asia. The CIA has been donating copies of secret documents to UT Dallas as they have been declassified over the past 10 years.
“We read about the CIA collection in the newspaper and that Special Collections at the McDermott Library had all of the Air America collections donated by Air America people,” said Nguyen, the senior investigator. “We couldn’t come in April since we were at the National Archives in Maryland, but we wanted to come here during this year.”
Their mission: Scour reports, documents, after-action reports that might offer clues to the disappearance of U.S. soldiers and officials. They are especially interested in Air America’s operations in Laos, where American and North Vietnamese forces were not supposed to operate but did.
“We look for a date that corresponds to the time of one of our case incidents,” Nguyen said. “It could be in the area where we lost a plane or an individual. We check the personnel log to see who else was involved, a survivor, and try to talk to them for additional information.”
In the first week and a half Nguyen and Vu have already found preliminary leads for some of their cases. Direct contact with former Air America employees has been helpful. “I’ve already contacted a couple of members, and they came back with an answer or introduced me to people who might be able to help,” Nguyen said.
“One of the reasons our CAT/Air America Archive has become such a great source for the history of the organizations is that the members have been generous over the years in donating their materials to us,” said Paul Oelkrug, C.A., coordinator of Special Collections. “The collection is comprehensive in its scope and makes this a destination source for the material.”
After developing relevant information, the team often investigates the case in Vietnam or Laos. The two attempt to find a crash site or burial site with the help of Vietnamese officials or witnesses.
“If we confirm a location, we will recommend the case for excavation. If approved, the recovery team will excavate the site with an anthropologist,” said Nguyen. “If they find remains, they are brought back to the Central Identification Lab in Hawaii, where the identification process begins.” Bones, teeth and material evidence are correlated with all historical evidence and peer-reviewed by independent experts.
In 2006, after 52 years, the remains of Civil Air Transport pilot James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern were returned to the United States. He was considered one of the first U.S. casualties of the Vietnam conflict when his plane was shot down during the siege of the French-controlled fortress of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. His remains were identified in Hawaii by mitochondrial DNA testing that was compared with a family reference sample.
As native Vietnamese, Nguyen and Vu speak the language, which helps during interviews with officials and witnesses. Nguyen left Vietnam in 1973 and was raised in the U.S. He ran a medical laboratory for patient treatment and served 21 years in the U.S. Air Force. He joined a predecessor of JPAC, the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, in 1993. That organization merged with the Central Identification Lab Hawaii in 2003 to form JPAC.
Vu left Vietnam in 1980 to spend a few years in Thailand. He came to the U.S. in 1982 and eventually joined the U.S. Navy, where he became a cryptologic technician. “He is one of the best Navy-trained analysts we have,” Nguyen said.
The process to complete a case can take years — about 74 Americans on average are identified each year — and Nguyen and Vu work as a team. “If I locate something, I will discuss it with my partner,” Nguyen said. “It is like a big puzzle. This week I was looking for certain things, and my partner found the person I was looking for in his box. Each of us is aware of what the other is reviewing.”
“We systematically try to cover as many documents as possible,” added Vu. “We work on documents separately, but sometimes they cross over.”
One primary topic of the UT Dallas-CIA symposium in April was the deaths at a secret radar facility in northeast Laos. Its purpose was to direct all-weather bombing of Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital. Remotely situated near a sheer cliff, the site was operated by U.S. Air Force personnel posing as civilians for Lockheed Corp. On March 11, 1968, the site was overrun by North Vietnamese. The assault resulted in the single greatest ground loss of USAF personnel for the entire Vietnam War. Ten of the technicians remain unaccounted for.
“That is still an active case for us,” Nguyen said. “Ten people – that is a lot. The site is on our excavation list. It is a dangerous area with a lot of ordnance. It is a steep mountain with falling rocks. We have to make sure it is safe before our excavation team goes in.”
As more CIA documents are delivered to the library's Special Collections, the team expects a return visit may be in order, particularly if their current research yields information that will help find missing Americans.
But before then, they will return to headquarters in Hawaii, venture back to the National Archives, and again stop in Hawaii en-route to Vietnam, all in the name of continuing their research and investigations.
Hung M. Nguyen and Khuong H. Vu of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command are in the midst of a three-week search of the Civil Air Transport/Air America Archive.
|In April, UT Dallas held a symposium in cooperation with the CIA to acknowledge and commemorate
Air America rescue efforts during the Vietnam War.
The Joint POW/MIA
The mission of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts. JPAC is located on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. JPAC also maintains three permanent overseas detachments to assist with command and control, logistics and in-country support during investigation and recovery operations.
McDermott Library's Air America memorial pays tribute to the men who gave their lives in service of the clandestine airline.
The Air America Collection