Potential evidence related to Americans still missing after the final battle of the Vietnam War may lead to extensive excavation efforts on an island off the coast of Cambodia, giving renewed hope to the families of the missing.
A seven-member team of investigators from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting command spent a week investigating two sites on Koh Tang island,
where the heaviest fighting took place during the May 15, 1975, battle, Stars and Stripes
JPAC officials last month did not provide specifics about the sites or exactly what was found, but were able to provide enough evidence to bring one of the sites before a JPAC body that decides whether to allocate funding for an excavation.
Only solid cases with evidence of Americans' remains are brought before the board, and family members of the missing soldiers say this may be the chance for their loved ones' remains to come home.
Daphne Loney, whose brother Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney was killed in an ambush during the battle, said she hopes it's a possibility his remains will be found.
"My brother was very dear to my heart," she told Stars and Stripes. "I thought no one really cared about Ashton . . . I want his bones to come back to American soil. It was the country he fought for."
While investigating the island in September, the JPAC team inspected a site on its east beach and another on its west beach, said Army Maj. Jamie Dobson. In addition, the officials interviewed witnesses from the battle.
The JPAC excavation decision board will get the information and use it to determine if an excavation is warranted.
But even if the excavation is approved, it may take some time before digging begins. Such sites can stay on the approved list for years, families of the missing have complained, and Dobson did not say when the board would convene to hear the case or start the excavation.
There may not be much time, though. Developers plan to turn the island into a resort, although it's not clear now how the construction plans could affect JPAC's decision.
The battle, referred to as the "Mayaguez Incident," killed 15 service members. Another 23 Air Force personnel died in a support force crash in Thailand, and three Marines were left behind on the island and killed by their captors. The bodies of Loney, Air Force Staff Sgt. Elwood Rumbaugh, who was lost at sea; and the three Marines left behind — Pfc. Gary Hall, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, and Pvt. Danny Marshall — are the only remains that have not been found.
In 2012, Em Son, the Khmer Rouge commander of the island during the battle, told Stars and Stripes
that he discovered Loney's body wrapped in a poncho and left on the beach, and he had him buried nearby.
But there are some who doubt Son, because he was arrested by a Cambodian tribunal looking into Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Son told Stars and Stripes he executed Hargrove and saw him, Hall, Marshall, and Loney be buried. However, Son has not disclosed their potential burial sites, said JPAC, although he insists that he has shown investigators the sites and American remains were found.
There remain questions about JPAC's investigations, as well. Stars and Stripes reported receiving documents that include accusations that JPAC did not fully record their work on the island.
But remains were found on the island during another investigation, held in 2008, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs Charles Ray said last month the remains were "probably Caucasian."
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