MIA Facts Site

"Full Accounting, or,
Forced Acceptance:"
Response

On the Guestbook Archive page of this site is the following entry from the family member of an individual who was lost in a shootdown over Laos.  I am not familiar with this loss and, thus, am not able to comment on details.  I have inserted my own comments in the body of her message and have added some comments at the end.

Comments from MIA Facts Site Guestbook Archive

Her message is in this typeface, my inserted comments are in this typeface and color.

Begin quoted message from MIA Facts Site Guestbook Archive.

Dear Joe~

I'd like to present you with the following "MIA Facts" to add to your collection. Additionally, I'm interested in hearing your input regarding how you would rate them in your general classification of "Fiction and Fairy Tales." This input will be welcomed, as I am not only the author, but a relative of one of the men in question. Please read on.

Amanda Y. Kidd Freelance Journalist

FULL ACCOUNTING~ OR~ FORCED ACCEPTANCE?

The Truth Behind The POW/MIA Accounting Effort Of America's Missing Servicemen In Southeast Asia By:

Amanda Y. Kidd

Slowly since the war's end in 1973, and now more rapidly in recent years, America's missing servicemen of the Vietnam War are finally coming home. Or so it would appear to those who have not yet learned the sad truth behind the POW/MIA accounting effort.

The long-awaited dream of "closure" that the families of many of our nation's missing servicemen cling to with unyielding hope is being increasingly dashed by tragic inconclusiveness that leaves more questions than answers and proves to be severely counter-productive to the originally intended purpose of the U.S. Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO)~ (the sub-branch of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for missing service personnel).

"I think it's possible" states Kathie Preston Johnson, daughter of U.S. Air Force CMSgt. James Arthur Preston when asked if her father may still be alive.

Preston, a relative of this author as well, was declared Missing In Action along with a crew of seven other members of U.S. Air Force personnel when their AC-47D gunship, "Spooky 10" was lost to enemy fire over Laos on May 15, 1966.

Others aboard the aircraft were" Col. George W. Jensen; pilot, Capt. Marshall L. Tapp; co-pilot, Col. Lavern Ge. Reilly, observer, SMSgt. George W. Thompson, navigator, CMSgt. James E. Williams; flight engineer, and CMSgt. William L. Madison and SMSgt. Kenneth D. McKenney; door gunners.

Despite extensive search and rescue efforts immediately following the aircraft's loss, no trace of wreckage or any of the crew was ever located.

I do not know how "extensive" the SAR was, but, because this loss was in Laos, I suspect there was extensive SAR.  I recommend that folks read the article on losses in Laos.  The fact that SAR did not turn up any trace of the crew is telling.

Thirty-three agonizing years of waiting proved fruitless, not only for the Prestons, but for other families of the crew as well.

Joanne Reilly, wife of Col. Lavern Reilly, observer, has traveled to Laos in previous years with other MIA wives in search of the truth that the U.S. government has blatantly refused to provide.

I take issue with the statement that there is "truth that the U.S. government has blatantly refused to provide."  There are loss incidents in which aircraft and individuals were lost and wreckage was never located and no further information was ever developed.  In those cases, there simply is nothing to tell the family.  The fact that information is not provided means only that there is nothing to provide, not that anyone is refusing to provide information. 

Preston's son Terry is very matter-of-fact in his expression of disappointment toward the handling of his father's case. "I either want to see him walk through the door alive...Or I want someone to show me a body that will prove to me that he isn't."

Neither the Preston family nor the families of the seven others who were lost with him have been given either such means of closure."

In May 1999, the U.S. government presented each family with a highly inconclusive report signed by Dr. Thomas D. Holland, Scientific Director of the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, which claims that 23 small, non-mt-DNA-tested bone fragments "may" be those of one or all of the crew members.

The remains were highly-fragmented, rendering individual assessment impossible.

Ironically, closer evaluation of the written excavation report provided by Joint Task Force~ Full Accounting reveals repeated statements that no mass graves of the crew were ever located although three were claimed to have been dug by former members of the North Vietnamese ground troops who were directly responsible for the shootdown of the aircraft. Only once were soil disturbances noted which are reported to be associated with a single grave of one individual.

I am not familiar with the case but, if there are "claims" that the PAVN buried some or all of the crew, these claims :  (a) are not necessarily accurate; and, (b) do not mean that such graves are still recoverable, given conditions of climate and terrain and the passage of time.  I recommend this article on identification.  Another concern is the alleged statements by members of the "North Vietnamese ground troops" who shot down the aircraft.  Who talked to these troops?  What is the provenance of such a report?   How did these PAVN know that this was the aircraft they shot down -- after all, these guys were likely exchanging fire with US aircraft day in and day out.

Nonetheless, on December 13, 1999, despite the inconclusiveness of the "group identification" and the lack of mass graves, the Pentagon released its official, public announcement that all members of this crew of U.S. military service personnel are now "accounted for".

The writer does not state the results of the excavation(s) of the site.  Often, excavations will turn up crew-related equipment and artifacts that provide evidence as to the fate of the crew.  Could it be that the metal clips of parachutes, personal items such as rings, watches, and the like; sidearms issued to crewmembers and identified by serial number; still-buckled seat belts; and other material were recovered?  If so -- and I suspect such is the case -- those items are just as valuable as human remains in determining the fate of the crew.  The human body is torn to shreds in aircraft crashes and these shreds deteriorate quickly in the tropical climate of SEAsia.  However, metal artifacts that are normally found in crash sites tend not to deteriorate as rapidly or completely and thus provide valuable evidence.

Evidence of possible survival of several crew members have been met with apathetic disinterest from those within DPMO. Live sighting reports, captivity photographs, and accounts of the name "Preston" having been heard by several returned POWs while still in captivity have not deterred the agencies from their adament decision.

There are no unknown photographs of men in captivity, thus it is not possible that there are "captivity photographs" of any of these men.   Every photograph of an American in captivity has been identified.  Yes, I know that there are family members who look at a photograph and claim that it is a photo of their missing man.  For example, one photo was identified by over twenty families as being of their missing family member.  When the man in the photo returned, he was not any of the twenty who identified him and his own family had not identified him in the photo.  As for a name having been reported by returnees, refer to the article at this link.   Live sighting reports are simply not reliable; read this article

A full-military memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery is scheduled for May 15, 2000~ The 34th anniversary of the crew's loss date. Sadly, the coffins will be virtually empty of human remains while questions persist regarding the true fate of the eight men aboard the ill-fated gunship, "Spooky 10".

Despite the years of agonized waiting, closure has evaded the families of those who have yet to return to American soil. The despair in the voice of Melinda Preston Wood, the youngest of Preston's three now-adult children, reflects the equally helpless sentiments of numerous other families who have suffered similar tragedies of the government's "empty coffin, group burials" in the past. "But what can we do about it?" she wonders. Sadly, it appears that very little can be done unless massive policy changes occur in Washington, D.C.

The blatant refusal to consider the feelings of MIA families has become the primary fatal flaw among those within the United States' national POW/MIA accounting agencies.

"They're going to have the ceremony whether we go or not" states James Preston's daughter, Kathie Johnson.

Tragically, Johnson's words well-summarize the practice of "forced acceptance" that has already buried numerous empty coffins in Arlington National Cemetery. Now, yet another such burial will attempt to silence her father.

Without a complete overhaul of accounting policies at a national level by political leaders who remain sympathetic to the POW/MIA issue, it leaves one with no choice but to shudder at the thought of whose voices will be wrongfully silenced next.

NOTE: Amanda Y. Kidd is a Georgie freelance journalist and a relative of CMSgt. James Arthur Preston~ Missing In Action~ Laos. Comments regarding the above article are welcomed and the author can be reached through the following contact information:

Telephone: (770) 258-9585 E-mail: AKidd13036@aol.com

Relative of CMSgt. James A. Preston~ USAF~ MIA~ Laos

End quoted message from MIA Facts Site Guestbook Archive

My Comments

Now, let's look at some facts that the author chose to omit.  The eight men in question were the crew of an AC-47D gunship, callsign Spooky 10. 

Gunships over the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Think about this.  The AC-47D gunship was an old, WW II vintage, fixed wing, two-engine, prop-driven aircraft that was loaded to its maximum weight with fuel, ammunition, flares, and weapons.  The onboard weapons varied a bit but generally were rapid firing Gatling guns that put out several thousand rounds per minute.

These aircraft operated over Laos by flying, usually at night, over the  "Ho Chi Minh Trail" -- a road and trail network that crossed the North Vietnam - Lao border in the southern part of North Vietnam.  The North Vietnamese moved just about all the men, material, equipment, ammunition, and other supplies that they used in the south over this trail.  Movement was by foot; by trucks; by specially built bicycles that carried supplies while a person walked along, pushing the bicycle; and, by pack animal. 

The US goal was to interdict -- break up, stop, or interfere with -- this flow of supplies.  This is where the AC47D -- and later the AC130A -- gunships came in.   These prop-driven aircraft were excellent for attacking ground traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail because

bulletthey could carry a lot of weight;
bulletthey had a long "loiter time" -- that is, they were stingy on fuel and could hang around for a long time;
bulletThey were stable flying platforms; that is, the gunners could get and hold a good sight picture.

Thus, the AC47D Spooky and the AC130A Spectre gunships were launched almost nightly over the Trail.  They would go to areas where high concentrations of supply movement was known to be.  The aircraft would orbit over the target area and look at the area through infra-red sensors, low-light television cameras, night vision scopes, and even drop flares to light up the ground.  Once they had located activity -- on the Trail, in supply dumps, at river crossings, and the like -- they would direct high volumes of fire onto the target.

Of course, the North Vietnamese knew all about this and they were determined to protect the lifeline for their troops in the south.  So, they protected the Trail with anti-aircraft weapons -- heavy machine guns, radar guided machine guns, even surface to air missiles.

What happens when a gunship is hit

From time to time, the North Vietnamese gunners fired at and hit a US gunship, either the AC47D or the AC130A.  When the gunship was hit, the crews rarely survived.

bulletIn one incident, an AC130 was hit in the wing.  The pilot turned the aircraft toward Thailand, leveled it off as the fire spread up the wing, and put it on autopilot.   The whole crew ran back to the rear ramp -- it was normally open during operations -- where they parachuted out and were rescued.
bulletIn another incident, two crewmembers were next to the open ramp, pushing out flares when the AC130A was hit and burst into flames.  Instantly the interior of the aircraft was an inferno -- two men near the ramp fell back into the flames as the aircraft pitched toward the ground and two others at the tail end of the ramp were blown out by an explosion.  These two were rescued and everyone else died in the explosion and crash.

The AC47D is better known as the C47, or the WW II nickname "Goony Bird," or by its civilian name, the DC-3.  Either way, it was a small aircraft.  The AC47 did not have a rear ramp -- the only way out was through the windows in the front and through a small door in the side.  When Spooky 10 was hit, the aircraft burst into flame and exploded.  Without a doubt, the thousands of pounds of fuel, ammunition, flares, and the like exploded almost instantly.  Men would have been shredded by the explosion and their remains burned in the intense heat of the ammo and fuel fires.   The explosion and subsequent crash and burn of one of these flying ammo dumps was not something that people survived.  Combine this with the fact that whatever was left of the men's bodies lay in the jungle for over 30 years, it is no mystery that "The remains were highly-fragmented, rendering individual assessment impossible."

Here are two examples that should illustrate why only tiny bone fragments are recovered from the sites of aircraft lost in combat. 

  1. In the late 1980s, as the B-1 bomber was becoming operational, a B1 with a crew of four flew into the side of a mountain in Texas.  Two mangled remains were recovered along with eight pounds of pieces of human flesh.  Blood and DNA taken from the pieces of flesh identified the two men whose bodies were shredded in the crash.  What would have happened had their "remains" lay there for thirty years? 
  2. Some weeks ago (in October 2000), I watched a documentary on A&E or the History Channel -- I forget which.  It was about six commercial airline crashes in the US.   One of these was an airliner that crashed on takeoff from an airport in Pennsylvania -- an engine fell off, the aircraft climbed then banked steeply and dived into the ground.  Every one of the over 100 people on board was identified solely by dental identification.  Their bodies were so badly shredded and burned that they were unrecognizble -- some of them were not even recognizable as humans.  Imagine what would have happened had those remains lain on the ground for 25 to 30 years -- what would have been recovered?  That's right, tiny bone fragments and, possibly, a few teeth.

This is exactly what happened to Spooky 10 and to all the other folks who did not get out of a crashing aircraft -- bodies were destroyed in the explosion, fire, and crash to the point that, thirty years later, only tiny bone fragments are recoverable.    I   understand a family's need to see a body laid out in a funeral home but the sad fact of war is that, in combat, people do not die peacefully -- they die horribly, often with their bodies torn apart, that's what weapons are designed to do.

Posted on 9 Feb 00, Revised November 13, 2000

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