Remains of last soldier on Vietnam Memorial can go to final rest

Tech was key to ID of last name on 'Nam Memorial

HONOLULU -- On Oct. 27, Air Force helicopter pilot 2nd Lt. Richard Vandegeer - the last name on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington - will be buried in a solemn, private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, capping a decade-long recovery and identification operation by the Army Central Identification Laboratory, based here.

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Vietnam's last MIAs

For most Americans, the Vietnam War ended on April 29, 1975, when the U.S. ambassador to Saigon officially vacated his post. But for a small band of Marines, there would be one final mission to carry out before the longest war in American history could come to a close.

On May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge gunboats captured the U.S. merchant vessel SS Mayaguez in the Gulf of Thailand, approximately 60 miles off the coast of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge took the vessel to Koh Tang island. Soon after the capture, U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft located the ship. After diplomatic efforts failed to obtain the release of the ship and its crew, the Marines were ordered to undertake a daring rescue mission.

The Marine assault force from the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, headed for the beach on Koh Tang on May 15 aboard six Air Force helicopters, one of which came under heavy enemy fire as it approached the eastern shore of the island. The aircraft crashed into the surf with 26 men on board.

As the battle raged on Koh Tang, Khmer Rouge leaders set their captives free. A fishing boat carrying the 39 crew members of the Mayaguez and bearing white flags approached the destroyer USS Wilson, and the ordeal for the captured merchantmen ended.

Although half of the 26 Marines on board the downed helicopter were rescued at sea, the co-pilot, 10 Marines and two Navy corpsmen were never found. Like many others, their Vietnam did not end on that day.

The 13 Mayaguez MIAs

2nd Lt. Richard Van de Geer (AF)

Pfc. Daniel Benedett (USMC)

Pfc. Lynn Blessing (USMC)

Pfc. Walter Boyd (USMC)

Lance Cpl. Gregory Copenhaver (USMC)

Lance Cpl. Andres Garcia (USMC)

Pfc. James Jacques (USMC)

Pfc. James Maxwell (USMC)

Pfc. Richard Rivenburgh (USMC)

Pfc. Antonio Sandoval (USMC)

Pfc. Kelton Turner (USMC)

HM1 Bernard Gause (Navy)

HM Ronald Manning (Navy)

--by Dan Verton

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The identification by the lab, known as CILHI, took four years and the use of "the most cutting-edge technologies available" to sort Vandegeer's remains from those of the others killed in the crash that took his life, said John Byrd, a CILHI staff anthropologist. His work on the case included supervising archaeological digs on Koh Tang Island, Cambodia, where Vandegeer's helicopter crashed on May 15, 1975, in the last combat action of the Vietnam War.

In fact, from the Global Positioning System-based receivers and laser transits used to locate the aircraft to the radio e-mail systems accessed by search teams in remote areas, technology was a big part of the recovery operation. And it will remain so, as the lab continues to handle search-and-identification operations for soldiers of the Vietnam and Korean wars, and even those of World War II.

"Any veteran would appreciate knowing that our country would care enough to come looking and remove us from a mudhole and bring what was left back home," said Warner Britton, a retired Air Force pilot who flew helicopters similar to Vandegeer's in Vietnam. "But more important, the program gives some hope to families who lost these men."

Byrd said the seven water and land recovery operations on Koh Tang for remains from Vandegeer's helicopter started in 1991 and yielded a large number of "commingled" remains. Besides Vandegeer's remains, CILHI recovered what it believed to be remains from 10 Marine infantrymen and two Navy corpsmen from the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, on board Vandegeer's helicopter, known as Knife 31.

The number of personnel involved in the crash, as well as the large number of bone fragments, "presented a challenge to the science. . . . The more remains you have at a site, the difficulty goes up dramatically," Byrd said. Six Marines have also since been identified, and identifications of the two Navy corpsmen are pending.

Privacy statutes preclude Byrd from discussing individuals, but sources outside the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed the identification of Vandegeer and his burial date.

The lab tapped into the smarts of a forensic computer program developed at the University of Tennessee, called ForDisc, which automates the process of matching skeletal remains, Byrd said. ForDisc is based on an extensive skeletal database that comprises samples of racial and body types found throughout the population, Byrd said, and allows scientists from CILHI to quickly determine the probability of whether a femur of a certain length matches a tibia of a certain length, for example. Recent new methodology extends that capability to bone fragments as well.

This is a key piece of software, because the CILHI scientists work "blind" when they begin analysis of skeletal remains, with no prior knowledge of the physical characteristics or even the number of individuals involved in an incident, according to a command briefing. It's also more useful than DNA in cases where the number of individuals involved raises the possibility that the same base pair sequence will show up in more than one set of remains, Byrd said.

But ultimately, it is often dental records that affirmatively identify remains. "The anatomy of teeth, cavity patterns, restorations and extractions can lead to the identification of an individual," much like fingerprints can, said Army Lt. Col. Cal Shiroma, a CILHI forensic odontologist.

CILHI maintains an extensive dental database, called the Computer Assisted Post Mortem Identification system, which contains the dental records of all U.S. personnel missing in Asia. Shiroma can scan in as many as 30 X rays of a recovered tooth and use the database's search engine to generate candidates for a match. A computerized dental radiography system then fine-tunes that match, Shiroma said.

Vandegeer's remains were first identified in 1995, and the process was completed last November. Independent authorities then spent nearly one year confirming those results, sources said.

CILHI's computer and communications support is provided by Resource Consultants Inc. in Waipahu, Hawaii. The records of the missing servicemen from three wars, as well as data related to recovery operations such as maps, aerial photographs and scientists' field notes, currently occupy 30GB of storage space, on-site consultant Gary Stephens said.

A gradual thaw in U.S. relations with North Korea has resulted in an increase in recovery missions in that country, said Stephens, and the command has started a crash imaging project to scan into a database literally millions of pages from the records of the Korean War MIAs, a project that in its infancy has already consumed 39GB of storage space.

"I believe what we do here is meaningful to the American people, especially the families [of the men missing in action]," Byrd said.

Dan Verton also contributed to this story. Brewin, Computerworld's wireless and mobile reporter, landed in Danang, Vietnam, with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, on July 4, 1965.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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