Thursday, April 27, 2000

Local professor aids search for MIAs

Missions seek remains from Vietnam War

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the U.S. bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire near Xepon, Laos, in 1972, the pilot ejected and was rescued four nights later.

        The navigator in the two-man crew couldn't get out. He went down with the plane, which crashed into the side of a mountain.

        He is one of 2,028 U.S. troops missing in action in Southeast Asia. And a College of Mount St. Joseph professor was one of 12 peo ple recently sent to find and identify his remains.

        Beth Murray was in charge of an 11-person military crew that turned up material from the flier's flight suit and parachute. But no bones or teeth, most commonly used to make a positive identification, were found.

        “It wasn't that sobering of an experience until three guys from the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) came out to help,” said Dr. Murray, 41, an assistant professor of biology at the Delhi Township school and one of only 59 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the United States.

        She took a sabbatical, returning to teach last week. The monthlong dig ended April 7.

        “These guys were there when they were 20. Now they're 50, 60 years old,” she said. “To hear them talk about their lives, their kids, their jobs, it made you realize that the guy in the plane never had a chance to do those things.”

        Forensic anthropologists identify decomposed, burned or skeletonized human remains. They often work with forensic pathologists to investigate crimes.

        Dr. Murray volunteered for the mission, one of 11 planned in Southeast Asia this year by the U.S. Joint Task Force Full Accounting program to search for remains of missing U.S. troops. The Hawaii-based task force, consisting of 160 investigators, analysts and linguists, was established in 1992.

        Official recovery operations were started by the United States in Vietnam and Laos (1988) and Cambodia (1991).

        In 1999, the program repatriated 40 sets of remains thought to be U.S. troops and returned the remains of 25 positively identified Americans to their families; 351 cases were investigated and 61 sites excavated.

        Dr. Murray's was one of three teams working from a central base camp in Laos. Defense Secretary William Cohen visited another of the teams in Vietnam to emphasize the Pentagon's commitment to find remains of Vietnam-era MIAs.

        Dr. Murray could not reveal the name of the man her team was looking for. He is not from the Tristate.

        She oversaw an excavation site some 75 feet square.

        Dozens of hired Laotians formed a human chain and moved more than 1,000 cubic meters of soil. The location of bits and pieces of life-support equipment confirmed villagers' accounts of how the plane came down.

        But there wasn't much left on the Laotian mountainside. Before the dig, the site was marked by a bomb crater.

        The military uses satellites to lay out a grid of such crash sites. The archaeological team strings a grid to maintain control.

        The site was a 10-minute helicopter ride from the base camp. Everywhere they went, team members were guarded by armed Laotian communist troops.

        “All over Laos, from the air, we saw these round bomb craters with water buffalo drinking out of them,” Dr. Murray said. “They weren't lakes.”

        In 1971 and '72, the United States routinely bombed its downed planes in Laos and Cambodia to prevent the loss of intelligence information and to keep secret its bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

        The trail was used by the North Vietnamese to move troops and supplies into South Vietnam.

        According to the defense department, 428 troops are missing in Laos, including 260 from the Air Force.

        Dr. Murray's team's findings were enough to persuade the military to send another team to the site to continue to search for remains.

        “With DNA technology the way it is, it won't take more than a few bone fragments to substantiate the identity,” she said.

        Such technology allowed the military in 1998 to exhume the previously unidentifiable remains of a Vietnam veteran from the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. The remains of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, buried in 1984 as a symbolic unknown Vietnam war victim, were returned to his family and reburied.

        Dr. Murray has worked with law enforcement throughout Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana on more than 100 cases of skeletal identification. In 1994, she was one of four anthropologists who helped identify 68 passengers from the crash of an American Eagle jet in Indiana.

        She also has analyzed bones of early area settlers found beneath Music Hall and at Newport Junior High School.


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