TIEN CHAU, VIETNAM — Just over 33 years ago, a young Air Force pilot from Cody, Wyo., swooped down somewhere near this village 17 miles west of Hanoi in attempt to bomb his target: a railway bridge used to carry cargo from China and the USSR.
Capt. Lawrence G. Evert, it seems, became the target instead. On Nov. 8, 1967, anti-aircraft fire knocked his F-105D Thunderchief out of the sky and into the Vietnamese countryside, still a stretch of fertile red earth, covered with rice paddies and yam fields. "I'm hit hard," he said in his last transmission. His comrades didn't know how hard until he failed to report again.
Tomorrow, two of his sons will join President Clinton in visiting an excavation site here in the hope they might soon know the fate of a father who never came home from the Vietnam War. Lt. Col. Evert, promoted posthumously, is one of 1,992 unaccounted- for US military personnel who went missing in action here, in Laos, and in Cambodia.
Their visit to the excavation site, one of 570 recovery operations since the US Joint Task Force-Full Accounting started looking for the remains of MIAs (Missing in Action) in 1992, is one of the more emotional aspects of Mr. Clinton's historic trip to Vietnam. US officials in Hanoi say Vietnamese cooperation on the matter, treated mostly as a humanitarian issue, was one of the key factors that paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US in 1995.
Dan and David Evert, now residents of suburban Phoenix, Ariz., were eight and six years old when their father, then 29, disappeared. As boys, they used to hatch plans of going to Vietnam to rescue their dad.
The brothers have come here in search of "a little bit of healing," says Dan Evert. "You always have hope that he was still alive." But as they watched other prisoners of war coming home from Vietnam, their hopes were dashed. "Our family sat together as we watched the prisoners get off one by one, and to see the last of the planes emptied and for him not to be there was very, very tough."
Villagers sift through buckets of mud and pluck out mangled metal fragments for analysis. Their findings are sent to the US for analysis in repatriation ceremonies - such as one that will be attended by Clinton and the Evert sons on Saturday. So far, what appears to be a piece of bone and a data plate from the plane are the most specific shards that could determine whether the crash remains belong to Colonel Evert.
The muddy mire of this rice field was pinpointed by a witness who, upon hearing that this operation was under way, came here from Ho Chi Minh City to tell investigators that he saw the plane shot down. Another man and his wife attested to having filled in the crater created by the crash.
The US spends about $19 million a year to carry out excavations like this one, and says it will continue as long as there are still leads. "There is a tradition in the US military that says we don't leave our dead on the battlefield," say Lt. Col. Franklin F. Childress, Chief of Public Affairs for the task force. "Unfortunately, in the case of the Vietnam War, we didn't have any choice."
Some veterans groups feel that the US military should have acted more quickly to find the MIAs. All, indeed, will be listening to Clinton's comments closely, concerned that he might issue some sort of apology for the US role in the war. In recent weeks, senior Vietnamese officials suggested that the US should offer war reparations, or at least additional support for victims of Agent Orange, a defoliant used by US forces that has been blamed for causing birth defects.
Among those groups that turned down an invitation to come on the trip was the National League of POW-MIA Families. "We declined to participate in the current visit, mainly because you don't get much done in such large groups," says Ann Milles-Griffiths, whose brother disappeared 34 years ago. "There are a lot of people who think this should have been saved for the next president. It's problematic and controversial because it carries a lot of baggage for him."
For those working on the site, however, it is a difficult and meaningful mission. US Army anthropologist Dennis Danielson was here as a marine in 1966 and lost friends during the war. "It's wet, muddy, slow, and dirty," he says. Adds Senior Mast-Sargeant Gina Noland, in her 19th year in the Army: "This is the best job I've ever had," she says. "It makes me feel good that if something happens to me, they won't leave me behind."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society