Two Nations Grieve

Joint Task Force on American MIAs
Vietnamese Co-operation
Site Excavation of Case #0112 (Roscoe Fobair)
Fobair Family Reaction to JTF work
The Search for Vietnamese MIAs
A Vietnamese mother still searches for her son's remains
Vietnamese and Americans Help Each Other.
Vietnam Challenge, a 1200 mile bicycle journey, brings reconciliation

click to enlargeThe search for the remaining 1460 American MIAs and over 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs is an emotional wound that has not yet healed. A striking dichotomy exists between American and Vietnamese efforts — and ability — to recover their MIAs.

Joint Task Force for Full Accountability on American MIAs (JTF)
In 1992, a Joint Task Force of Americans and Vietnamese was set up to search for the 1565 Americans in Vietnam who were unaccounted for at the end of the war. Their mission is "to coordinate and execute all U.S. Department of Defense efforts in Vietnam to achieve the fullest possible accounting." As of August, 1999 the JTF has conducted over 2000 investigations; undertaken more than 300 excavations; and sent 271 remains to Hawaii for DNA identification. 105 identifications have been completed and the families notified.


Vietnam is a full partner with the United States in the search for U.S. MIAs. It has provided archival access and turned over 28,000 documents to helping locate crash and burial sites. Vietnam even secretly let U.S. searchers into Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum when rumors surfaced that American prisoners were being held there in underground caves. And it has allowed U.S. teams into cemeteries under the cover of darkness to dig up bodies that reports indicated might be those of Americans.
"The Vietnamese military has let us do things that the American military would never allow a foreign country to do. We've gone into their prisons, gone into their defense headquarters. Can you imagine us letting a bunch of Vietnamese into the Pentagon to run around under similar circumstances?" Senator John McCain, (R-Ariz.)

Joint Task Force Case #0112
Captain Roscoe Fobair's case number is #0112. Work at his crash site was one of 30 field excavations conducted in Vietnam in 1998, and the second of two crash sites visited by Ambassador Peterson in Assignment Hanoi. Here is some additional background on the case.

JTF work on site of Capt. Roscoe Fobair, - click to enlargeOn July 24th, 1965, the F-4 carrying Captain Ross Fobair and Captain Paul Kiern was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Captain Kiern successfully ejected from the burning plane. He was later captured and held as a POW. Fobair apparently was unable to eject. The plane crashed into the side of a mountain 80 miles west of Hanoi. No search effort was possible due to the crash site's location in hostile North Vietnam.

From the minute any pilot is downed, the Air Force starts a file that contains all information collected on the missing individual. In the case of Fobair, there was a great deal of reliable information. The plane was the first to be shot down by a Soviet supplied surface-to-air missile. Both Radio Hanoi and Van Nghe, a Vietnamese newspaper, reported the incident identifying Fobair by name. After his release in 1973, Capt. Kiern reported that a Vietnamese had told him that a body had been recovered from the aircraft.

With over 1400 MIA cases to resolve, the JTF must weigh the feasibility of being able to locate a body. The accessibility to the site, the validity of the evidence and supporting research obtained are all evaluated. In case #0112, it was decided that chances of recovery of Captain Fobair's body were good and further investigation was warranted.

In 1993, members of JTF visited Vo Mieu village and interviewed three eyewitnesses to the crash. Two witnesses said they found a badly burned body lying near the wreckage and buried it. But after nearly 30 years they were only able to narrow the location of the grave to an area of several hundred meters on the side of a hill. The team surveyed the area, but saw no evidence of a crash site or a grave. After a subsequent interview of the same witnesses, four years later, JTF investigators recommended that both the probable crash and burial sites be excavated.

The crash site was first excavated in November, 1997. A crew of 20 military personnel and 90 Vietnamese laborers spent three weeks clearing 381 square meters of the mountainside. Standard archeological methods were used: a grid was established; earth was removed in layers and put through a sieve. A forensic anthropologist reviewed all materials believed to be remains. The team recovered one tooth fragment, two .38-caliber rounds of ammunition, a U.S. penny, a piece of helmet shell and a F-4 aircraft data plate (which did not correlate exclusively to Fobair's plane.) No grave was located. The tooth was sent to Hawaii for DNA analysis. Two subsequent excavations revealed little more. No burial site was ever found. The project area was closed on September 19, 1998. No further excavation is planned.

Captain Roscoe Fobair was posthumously promoted to Lt. Colonel.

Fobair's family's reaction
Bruce Giffin, Fobair's nephew, came to Vietnam to visit the site while the JTF team was searching for his uncle's remains in November, 1997. It was an emotional time. "Ross" was like a big brother to Giffin and his uncle's loss had deeply affected him. Giffin and producer Sandy Northrop met several times during his visit and often discussed the costs and ramifications of the JTF effort. Giffin later wrote her this letter to clarify his thoughts.

"...My journey to Vietnam in search of Ross has changed my life. I've given numerous presentations on Ross, the search for all the MIAs, how that's impacted what our two countries are doing and how our family is coming to terms with Ross' loss. I've often asked myself, 'Why Ross? Why was he the first pilot to be shot down by a SAM (surface-to-air missile)? And why on his last scheduled mission? I've thought about... the question you posed...Is this exercise worth the 5 million dollars per tooth found? Could our money be spent in better ways?.. I've (tried) to figure out for myself how to justify the expense and commitment of resources...

In Vietnam, I asked a lot of the troops why they felt the recovery of MIAs was an important issue. The reply I most often got was that 'As a soldier, I want to know that if I too were to pay the ultimate price for my country, that my country would make every effort to bring me home...'

But, here's what I believe to be the most important reason of all...and that's what I've taken to be the meaning of Ross's death... Ross was a part of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, a half thought-out strategy formulated by politicians and their advisors....Get engaged in a civil, nationalistic war for causes that are not clear to us. Muddy the waters with the specter of communism. Send over our young and best and brightest. Commit them to killing, fighting and dying. But only let them fight with one hand with the other tied behind their back. (Don't allow them to attack SAM sites.) Use strategic bombing to minimize your casualties. Sit back and wait for the enemy to come crawling to the peace table, begging for relief. Of course, it was a complete failure. Strategic bombing has never won wars... it usually pulls the people together to defend their homeland. In an agrarian country like Vietnam, bombing buildings didn't mean much. And that's the lesson: Understand the true dynamics of the conflict before you commit your young people to go fight, kill, and die.

To me, that's the meaning of each of the teeth we find today. And if our search costs the equivalent of five million dollars per tooth, that's money well spent. It reminds us, time and again, that these teeth represent the human cost of implementing a flawed foreign policy. And that as a country, we cannot afford to make that mistake again."

Vietnamese and Americans Help Each Other.
American veterans have begun returning to Vietnam. Many come to revisit a moment in their lives they have not been able to understand. Some, however, are returning with the intent of helping Vietnamese (like Mrs. Hy) try to locate their loved ones. Since 1994 the Vietnam Veterans of America organization has supplied information on the fates of about 8,000 Vietnamese MIAs. In 1998, the organization provided key maps of mass graves that U.S. troops dug with bulldozers; a video tape of the battle of Kham Duv near DaNang; and identification papers and photographs that GIs had taken from corpses as mementos. So far Americans have helped recover over 850 Vietnamese MIA remains. Vietnamese searching for their MIAs have in turn been able to provide new clues to the identities of American soldiers by handing over dog tags and other identifying information they have found.

click to enlargeVietnam Challenge
In January, 1998, World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports, a non-profit organization in Charlotte, North Carolina, brought American and Vietnamese veterans, many disabled, together on a 16-day, 1,200-mile bicycle trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Three blind veterans rode tandem bikes with American partners, and seven partially paralyzed vets used specially designed three-wheeled hand cycles. The event was a defining moment for many American veterans who were returning to Vietnam for the first time. To learn more about the event and the reactions of the veterans visit the World TEAM web site: Vietnam Challenge at

The search for Vietnamese MIAs
Vietnam's losses were catastrophic and in effect wiped out an entire generation. As many as 3.8 million Vietnamese, North and South, soldiers and civilians, were killed. Another 300,000 are listed as MIA. The North Vietnamese Army did not have sophisticated medical and dental records, or even metal dog tags for its soldiers. It is unlikely many Vietnamese MIAs will ever be found or identified. But the Vietnamese have not given up.

Every Sunday night, Vietnam National Television broadcasts a program in which people ask for help in finding their still-missing loved ones from the war. It is one of the nation's most watched TV shows. The Vietnamese "People's Army Newspaper" has featured a column called "Comrades Whereabouts" containing information related to Vietnamese MIAs. Families are invited to send in information. Thanks to these programs and columns, people have been able to network with others who have information pertaining to MIAs.

click to enlargeA Vietnamese mother still searches for her son's remains
Pham Kim Hy, featured in Assignment Hanoi, is one of many Vietnamese mothers who lost a son. Dung — his name means "brave" — was only 20 years old when his letters stopped. Mrs. Hy had a box with his mementos, but mementos were not enough.

When the war ended in 1975 Mrs. Hy set out to find her son's remains. Finding Dung's remains — even finding out where and how he had died — would, she knew, be a formidable undertaking. The Vietnamese Army had no computerized records, so she sought out veterans. From her inquiries, Hy pieced together information on Dung's unit, the Baza Brigade, and learned it had led an attack on the Dak To airfield.

Hy's son

A year later, Mrs. Hy and her husband, Trinh, set out for Dak To, 1,000 miles to the south, armed with maps. It was the first of four trips to the southern battlefields she would make. The four trips spanned 21 years and often depleted the family's $100 monthly pensions. The couple scoured battlefields, climbed mountains, struggled through jungle so thick it required a machete to hack a pathway. Hy approached each unmarked grave with the hope that it would contain the remains of her only son.

In the Buddhist religion, a soul cannot find peace until it has been properly buried. For the Vietnamese, their unaccounted-for soldiers are destined to wander aimlessly, forever lost. "Pity the souls of those lost thousands," Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du wrote, "They are the ones for whom no incense burns."

"Each time before I dig, I would burn incense in the Vietnamese tradition to ask that I might find my son's remains. I said, 'Son, help us to find your remains.' In some holes, we found a grenade, a soldier's canteen, a piece of rotten hammock, or a rotten plastic bag which was used to rap the soldier's body. We searched in 14 different localities, and dug up 45 graves, but this was all we found (indicates nothing)."

click to enlargeFrom each grave site Mrs. Hy took a vial of earth. Eventually she realized the futility of continuing her effort. She chose a grave site at a military cemetery outside Hanoi and poured the vials of dirt she had collected into an empty concrete slab, creating a permanent place of homage to her son. Mrs. Hy visits Dung's grave each week bringing offerings of incense, fruit and flowers. Recently, Mrs. Hy, now 68, was told by workers clearing the area near Dak To, that a new grave had been uncovered. She plans to set off on her fifth trip in Fall of '99.

The Mission: Reconciliation
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