WHERE THEY LAY: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers

By Willbanks, James H. | Military Review, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview
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WHERE THEY LAY: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers


Willbanks, James H., Military Review


WHERE THEY LAY: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers, Earl Swift, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, 2003, 307 pages, $25.00.

On 20 March 1971, Major Jack Barker and his crew were flying in support of Operation Lam Son 719, the South Vietnamese attack on North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos. While attempting to extract South Vietnamese soldiers trapped at a firebase about to be overrun by the North Vietnamese Army, Barker's aircraft was struck by intense enemy ground fire that severed the tailboom. Because the crash site was in Laos, the bodies of the American fliers were never recovered.

In 2001, a U.S. recovery team arrived in the Laotian jungle to search for the remains of lost Army aviators. In Where They Lay, journalist Earl Swift artfully interweaves a vivid narrative about Barker's fatal mission with a firsthand account of the recovery team's attempt to locate and bring home the crew's remains. The result is a dramatic story of dedication and selfless duty.

The recovery team was headed by a civilian anthropologist from the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (since combined with Joint Task Force-Full Accounting [JTF-FA] under one command and renamed the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command). The crash site had been identified through exhaustive research of the flyers' mission and a thorough on-the-ground search by a JTF-FA search team.

The recovery team, accompanied by Swift, traveled to the remote area where they set up camp. For more than a month the team braved heat, insects, and unexploded ordnance to locate the missing crew. Aided by Laotian workers, team members painstakingly laid out a grid the size of half a football field and began what looked like an archaeological dig, effectively moving a mountain of dirt one bucket at a time in search of evidence that the helicopter had actually gone down at the site, and more important, looking for the crew's remains.

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