The long journey home began Oct. 14 on the runway of the Gia Lam airport northeast of Hanoi. The remains of an American serviceman shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 had been missing in hostile territory until last spring, when his bones were unearthed by the Vietnamese.
What was left of a man who died half a generation ago was packed into a makeshift casket, draped with an American flag and loaded aboard a transport plane with four other sets of remains also thought to be missing American servicemen. A day later, the C141 Starlifter with the flag-draped cargo touched down on American soil at Hickam Air Force Base outside Honolulu.
Over the next two weeks, these skeletal vestiges of men who had been brought home at last from the Vietnam War were scrutinized as clues in a posthumous manhunt by a team of identification specialists. To establish their names beyond doubt meant that the missing men could be buried in their country in honored graves, and the suffering of their families could be put to rest. Unraveling the identity of each man was not so much a matter of verifying a death as bringing a life full circle.
The work was based on X-rays, dental records and expert knowledge of how human bones reflect the idiosyncracies of a human being.
At the center of the hunt was a jolly Japanese scientist named Tadao Furue whom everyone calls Doc.
"Some Japanese journalists said I was bewitched by the bones," he said. "But people's bones tell many stories. How they lived. What they did. They are one's own diary."
Each set of remains was assigned a number. In three cases, preliminary findings of the Vietnamese government were confirmed. In the fourth case the remains proved to be parts of the first three sets, remnants of a trio killed in a helicopter crash.
The remains in the fifth case were an unexpected mystery. Until the bones were matched with the records of an Air Force major with a wife and four children, a navigator who was shot down 17 years ago on a secret electronic warfare mission over Quang Ninh Province, they were known by a number: 0035-82.
How the military determined who 0035-82 was, is the subject of this story. Who the man himself was is the subject of part two.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that puts such an emphasis on bringing its war dead home; Japan is another. As part of a humanitarian tradition, the remains of men killed in World War II and Korea are still being recovered and repatriated. Teams continue to search crash sites in New Guinea; the bones of soldiers occasionally surface on farmland in Europe.
Attention now is focused mainly on Vietnam. Maps pinpointing the last known location of missing men paper the walls at the Joint Casualty Resolution Center, a Hawaii-based humanitarian task force. Of the 57,939 American soldiers killed in battle or in accidents during the war, the bodies of 1,138 could not be recovered at the time of their deaths. At the war's end, an additional 1,363 men were listed as missing in action or as prisoners. All but two have been declared dead.
Next month, 10 years will have passed since the signing of the Paris peace accords that provided for the return of the POWs and for an accounting of all MIAs. A decade later, the number of missing Americans, now categorized as "unaccounted for," stands at 2,493, including 40 civilians. For families waiting for final word, the time has been doubly difficult because the issue of the unaccounted for has been tangled in political and diplomatic machinations.
Since 1973, the Vietnamese have returned 79 sets of remains to the United States. Insisting his country posseses no more, Nguyen Can, a counselor with Vietnam's U.N. delegation in New York, asks: "What is the benefit for us to keep the remains?" the Vietnamese, who have yet to account for 100,000 of their own dead, according to the Vietnam Veterans of America, maintain they are not in a position to search for American remains and resolve the issue as long as the United States bars trade with Vietnam and restricts credit.
But activist groups in the U.S. such as the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Aisa are convinced the Vietnamese are holding remains to bargain with. According to some reports the remains of French soliders are still in Vietnam and have been recovered when their families bought them back. In June 1980, a former Vietnamese mortician, wearing a motorcycle helmet to hide his identity, dramatically contradicted Vietnamese claims, testifying before a House committee that the remains of more than 400 Americans were stored in a warehouse.
The U.S. position on that charge is that the Vietnamese have not given a satisfactory reply.
Meanwhile the Reagan administration has pledged to resolve the MIA issue. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, in a speech last July, termed unaccounted for Americans "a matter of the highest national priority."
Yet until last October, no remains had been returned since July 1981. In December 1981, a delegation from the Vietnam Veterans of America met with the Vietnamese in Hanoi. The trip was criticized in the U.S. because a wreath had been laid on Ho Chi Minh's tomb in VVA's name. But that visit led to another in Hanoi last May, at which time Vietnamese said they had found five sets of remains. In the past some remains sent back proved not to be Americans. This time the Vietnamese planned to release the remains only after they had made preliminary identifications. To assist, the Joint Casualty Resolution shipped the Vietnamese medical and dental records, and it was arranged for an official U.S. "repatriation team" to travel to Vietnam in October to bring the remains home.
Pall bearers removed the flag-draped "transfer-cases" from a C-141 Starlifter in a ceremony Oct. 15 at Hickam Air Force base near Honolulu. The cases were placed aboard a military ambulance bus and driven to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, or CIL-HI as the facility is known, a fenced-in complex of two squat cinderblock buildings in the international section of the Honolulu port.
The cases were trundled into a high-ceilinged, white-walled room that is off-limits to the public by directive from the Secretary of the Army. Mercury arc lamps dangle above stainless steel tables and sinks. At one end stand a couple of American flags. There are "reference" skeletons on display, maps of Vietnam that pinpointed "incident sites," banks of cabinets crammed with thousands of photographs of remains, and racks of calipers, compasses, dental mirrors and osteometric rulers.
There are 206 bones in the human body. The science and art of analyzing them, especially where legal matters are concerned, falls under the rubric of "forensic anthropology," a discipline that owes much of its development to the emphasis placed on identifying war dead after World War II. During the Civil War, over half the soliders killed were buried without being identified. Since 1947, when a Central Identification Laboratory was first set up, the percentage of soliders unable to be identified has gotten smaller and techniques have advanced.
And necessarily so: While helicopters expedited recovery and better dental records made the overall job of identification easier during the Vietnam war, problems posed by some cases were exceptional. Soldiers were literally destroyed in Vietnam, their bodies atomized by lethally sophisticated weapons such as rockets, or shredded by mines or shattered like glass in high-speed air crashes. Jet fuel fires were hot enough to incinerate teeth -- teeth being among the most durable substances in nature. And if bodies were not recovered immediately, decomposition was hastened by Southeast Asia's acidic soils, flesh-eating insects and a humid jungle climate that could skeletonize a body in a week.
But by combining techniques of forensic anthropology with a process called cranio-facial superimposition, developed at the laboratory by physical anthropologist Tadao Furue, CIL-HI has been able to establish the identity of a man from less than 16 ounces of remains. In the last 15 years the lab has been unable to pinpoint the identity of a set of remains in only four cases -- cases that now form a tiny pool of candidates from which the military eventually hopes to select a body from the Vietnam war for burial in the tomb of the unknown solider at Arlington.
Furue, at 57, has worked at CIL since 1951 and plays a major part in making identifications. He can tell if a man was right or left handed simply by the texture and shape of the joints of the arm bones. His years of bone-work have endowed him with a kind of X-ray vision. He often catches himself noting the skeletal conformation of dancers on television when he's home watching a variety show with his wife.
With superimposition, he has perfected a photographic technique that enables him to exactly match a picture of a soldier's face with a picture of whatever is left of his skull and, thus to hunt for the discrepancies that might prove the two are not the same. The pictures come from service records, wedding portraits, high school year books, snapshots at the officers' club. Furue's technique is precise enough that he is occasionally bedeviled by the habit people have of writing on the back of photographs because pen impressions on the backside can show up as cranial features on the front.
Describing his work, Furue opened a notebook and turned to a page that depicted the smiling face of a solider on his wedding day. He withdrew a small white card from beneath the picture and suddenly the grin grew ghastly, the eyes sank into black sockets and bone loomed under the flesh -- an entire life compressed in a moment.
For the purposes of CIL, that demonstration serves as persuasive evidence that two unimaginably different faces can be one and the same. The lab is the sort of place where temporary fixtures like eyes and hearts are referred to as "soft tissue." Given its grave purpose and somber atmosphere -- research skulls staring from desk shelves -- it's impossible to forget that people are mortal creatures, that youth passes and the skin lies on the skull no more permanently than a light veil of snow on a warm spring morning.
Once the remains were brought into the lab, five files were opened, and numbers assigned -- 0035-82 through 0039-82. The cases were unbuckled and their contents photographed. A photographic record is kept of every step of the identification process. After the bones were cleaned with water and hydrogen peroxide, the first major task was to "segregate" them -- in essence to sort the bones into categories of race, weight and height. Each soldier's skeleton would be reconstructed on a litter stand to insure that his remains had not been "commingled" with another.
As they proceeded, Furue, identification specialist Leslie Stewart and CIL supervisor Carl Whitzel measured bone lengths and diameters, and studied zygomatic processes -- the bony indentations by which muscles are attached. Where remains had been commingled, bones were compiled by type, and then sorted to make symmetrical pairings. Gradually, on one of the litter stands, 0035-82 emerged in the shape of a man.
Next, the specialists took inventory of the bones, preparing a skeleton chart, a dental chart and a chart that compared the right and left side of a skeleton. The skeleton chart depicted the skeleton of a complete human being. For each bone missing from the remains, Furue blacked in the corresponding space on the chart.
As it turned out, the chart for 0035-82 was mostly white. While badly weathered, the skeleton was in good shape except for some damage about the face, and was "fairly complete," according to the commander of the lab, Maj. Johnie Webb.
But apart from the evidence of the skeleton, one telltale clue pinpointed the name of 0035-82.
Long before the remains arrived in Hawaii, back when the military had been alerted by the Vietnam Veterans of America that a set of remains had been recovered from Quang Ninh Province, the Joint Casualty Resolution Center dispatched four files to the Vietnamese. The jackets contained the medical and dental records and a brief account of the fate of four men thought to have been killed in that area.
Information on all unaccounted for Americans is amassed and stored in a computer as part of a JCRC project called Operation Bright Light. The data ranges from the serial number of aircraft engines, coordinates of crash sites, radio call signs and last known location, to biographical information such as blood type, race, height, religion and color of eyes.
One of the files sent to the Vietnamese was the record of a fair-complected Air Force captain, who had been promoted to major while he was missing. When he was shot down in December 1965, he weighed 155 pounds and was 69 inches tall with brown hair, brown eyes and O positive blood. He was a Catholic, a navigator attached to the 17th Bomb Wing. He was lost in grid zone 48 Q over the Quang Ninh province in an F-100, serial number 1231, radio call sign Apple Five.
Meanwhile the records deparment at CIL-HI, which works in concert with the JCRC, assembled the medical and dental records of approximately 20 soldiers believed to have been killed in the province.
Furue had examined the teeth and jaw bone of 0035-82 and found a "unique pattern" on the left side -- indications of a fairly common condition known as temporomandibular joint syndrome, or TMJ syndrome, a stress-related condition that stems from a poor fit between the jawbone and the jaw socket and affects the bite. It can result in muscle strain, migraine headaches, a locked jaw and a variety of other ailments, and it can be relieved by wearing an orthodontic device in the mouth.
The records revealed that an Air Force major shot down over Quang Ninh province suffered from TMJ syndrome, and in fact had been fitted with an acrylic mouthpiece to relieve his discomfort.
If there were any doubt that 0035-82 had suffered from the syndrome, it was dispelled by the evidence in the mouth of the skull. There, attached to the left side of the lower jaw, was the plastic device.
It was the first time Furue had ever seen such a mouthpiece still with the skull.
The lab was now certain of the man's identity, and knew that the Vietnamese who had tentatively identified the remains as another soldier had been led astray by mistaking the TMJ mouthpiece for a denture. But one of Furue's refrains is, "I do not trust myself, I only trust facts." To be absolutely sure, Furue, as was his customary procedure, set about demonstrating why the soldier could be not any of the other men whose remains had been returned. After checking and cross-checking, he, Whitzel and Webb were satisfied.
On Oct. 22, CIL's recommendations were mailed by Federal Express to the Armed Services Graves Registration Board in Washington, and four days later were accepted. On Oct. 29, the remains of the missing soldier were shipped to the army mortuary in Oakland. As the missing soldier had been a major in the air force, it was the air force that notified his widow. She told her four children. The burial was scheduled for Nov. 8 at Arlington National Cemetery. A granite headstone inscribed with her husband's name would mark the grave.
The bones labled 0035-82 belonged to a man named Robert Douglas Trier. He died 17 years ago today. Next: The life of Robert D. Trier.