In far-flung rain forests and its futuristic lab near Pearl Harbor, the Central Identification Laboratory (CILHI) strives to recover and identify the bodies of fighting men who never came home from America’s wars. Its mission combines old-fashioned bushwhacking and detective work with the latest in forensic technology.
Earl Swift accompanies a CILHI team into the Laotian jungle on a search for the remains of Major Jack Barker and his three-man crew, whose chopper went down in a fireball more than thirty years ago. He interweaves the story of the recovery team's work with a tense account of Barker's fatal attempt to rescue trapped soldiers during the largest helicopter assault in history. Swift is the first reporter ever allowed to follow a recovery mission, as these unique archaeological digs are called, in its entirety, and he got his hands dirty, combing the jungle floor for clues amid vipers, monsoons, and unexploded bombs.
Where They Lay resounds with admiration for those who fell and those who seek them. But Swift also raises hard questions about these recovery missions. Is it worth $100 million a year to try to bring home the lost from old wars? Is it worth the lives of today's soldiers? (Seven Americans died in the line of duty just months before Swift went in country.) And is the effort compromised by the corruption among native officials overseeing missions in their countries?
As new conflicts draw our attention, Where They Lay throws brilliant light on war's cost to soldiers and to those they leave at home.
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About the Author
EARL SWIFT is the author of three previous books, including Where They Lay, a 2003 PEN finalist. He lives in Virginia with his daughter Saylor.
Read an Excerpt
Their buddies called it suicide, and maybe it was.
They climbed aboard the Huey knowing the enemy expected them. They did it knowing their guns were no match for the cannons that waited. They knew they'd be lucky beyond hope to get past them, and luckier still to get back. They climbed aboard the Huey just the same.
Time was short. Just over the border, their allies were surrounded and outnumbered and taking heavy fire. They depended on the four aboard the helicopter to get them out.
So on a Saturday in March 1971, the Huey skimmed over the mountains into the wide, wild valley beyond, following a rutted, two-lane highway into Laos. The country below was a tangle of splintered hardwoods and sheared bamboo, the jungle's floor laid bare in wounds that stood fresh and red against the green. Off to starboard, a chain of low hills marked the northern edge of the Xepon River's flood plain. Looming ahead was its southern boundary, an escarpment a thousand feet high that showed its bones in cliffs streaked pink and gray. Worn into the rock was a notch a kilometer wide. In it was the pickup zone.
The flak started miles out. The Huey's pilots slalomed the bird among arcing yellow tracers and blooms of brown smoke as it dropped toward the target. Its gunners opened fire with their M-60s, sweeping the trees on the helicopter's final approach.
The reply was overwhelming: Bullets raked the chopper's thin metal skin, whistled into the cabin, tore into man and machine. Then came something worse — a blur, rising from the trees, a telltale plume — and a flash. Fire swallowed the Huey. It hit the ground in pieces.
Other choppers circled low over the burning wreckage, crews marking the spot on their charts. None landed. North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed the bamboo thickets and forest around the smashed chopper, too many to risk a recovery mission. America was forced to leave the Huey, and the four, where they lay.
Which is what brings me, on a gray summer morning thirty years later, to a vibrating seat in the cabin of a Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter. And why its course takes me from a former American air base beside the Mekong River into the same valley, toward the same rampart of cliffs, in the battered highlands along the Vietnam-Laos border.
Somewhere down there is what's left of Jack Barker, John Dugan, Billy Dillender, and John Chubb. For two generations their remains have lain in a remote corner of this remote land, as bamboo and hardwood saplings erupted into new jungle around them, as monsoon rains scoured the red-clay earth and swooning heat baked it dry. Their comrades have grown old. Their children have had children of their own. Today, finally, their countrymen have arrived to take them home.
Sitting beside me are the soldiers and scientists, most too young to remember the war, who will search for the Huey's crew, men and women who for the next four weeks will live in a camp of canvas and nylon and lashed bamboo in the Laotian back country, and who will pass their days on an archaeological dig carved into the wilderness.
They will commute to work in craft all too similar to the ruined machine they seek, and face a host of dangers once they land — steep terrain, triple-digit temperatures, withering humidity, and thickets aswarm with scorpions, foot-long centipedes, and bright green vipers so venomous their nickname is "Jake Two-Steps," said to be how far their victims get before dropping.
The mosquitoes carry malaria, and dengue fever, and God knows what else. Tigers patrol the jungle. And if this weren't worry enough, the ground is laced with unexploded ordnance, leftovers of the fighting that claimed Jack Barker and his crew — half-buried bombs and antitank mines and rockets and grenades and baseball-sized bomblets that, jostled the slightest bit, can all these years later turn an arm or leg into a puff of pink smoke.
The Mi-17 is short on frills. The cabin smells of exhaust. The sound of the rotor varies from deafening whine to bone-jolting bass chord. Hot wind buffets in through open portholes. The floor is plywood; the bare-metal bulkheads are stenciled with instructions in Cyrillic. It has the look and ambiance of an old and neglected school bus.
Only school buses don't yaw sickeningly as they travel. They don't boast clamshell doors like the big pair forming the cabin's back end, doors between which I can see a thin but significant stripe of bright Asian airspace. I watch the gap for a while, see that its width keeps time with the Mi-17's shivers, which course through the frame like a dog shaking dry.
School buses aren't typically driven by committee either. The helicopter's cockpit is crowded with Laotian military men. I can see four of them from where I sit, all speaking and pointing past a pair of jerky windshield wipers into the sky ahead. All are in bits and pieces of uniform. The pilot is a skinny guy in a bright yellow T-shirt. His left hand is pressed against his headset, as if he can't hear over the chatter around him.
There are a couple dozen of us aboard, squeezed into troop seats that line the cabin's sides. My view of those on the far side is blocked by luggage stacked four feet high down the length of the wide aisle. None of it is tied down. The pile — backpacks and suitcases, hard-cased gear and tools — teeters with each banking turn the big chopper makes. Somewhere behind us, another Mi-17 carries a similar load of people and equipment, and sprinkled elsewhere in the sky are four smaller Euro-copter Squirrels, carrying a handful of people apiece.
In all, fifty Americans are in the air. Most work for the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory, where thirty civilian anthropologists and more than one hundred military specialists perform forensic detective work under the microscope and in the wildest of wilds, all aimed at bringing home those lost in America's wars. Others are with Joint Task Force–Full Accounting, a puree of the different services that manage the lab's visits to Southeast Asia and conduct the research that pinpoints where its teams should dig.
Beyond the rain-streaked porthole behind me, wispy clouds race past. I push my forehead against the glass to see the ground below, catch a glimpse of squares and trapezoids and narrow rectangles of bright green, a quiltwork of rice paddies stitched together with dikes that follow the land's irregular contours. A cloud interrupts the view. Then another. A moment later we fly through a bigger, thicker mat of vapor, and then there's nothing but white out there.
Up in the cockpit, water drips from the ceiling, and the three guys assisting the pilot are gesticulating more than ever. The pilot is half out of his seat, squinting. The windshield looks painted over. Some of my fellow passengers shift nervously in their seats. They know the lay of the land, that with every minute we're in the air, the terrain below gets taller and steeper and rockier, that the bottomland from which we took off gives way to a jumble of mountains and solitary karsts, pinnacles of limestone that jut skyward like the teeth of some enormous buried dragon. They know, far better than I, the Mi-17's limitations. Among them: This machine lacks ground-reading radar. We're flying blind.
A big fellow to my right rests his arm on the luggage in front of us and lowers his head into the crook of his elbow. He's been resting that way for a long minute when we burst into the light. Everyone in the cabin seems to take a deep breath at once; even the chopper's crew chief, a sturdy, sullen-looking Laotian soldier in camouflage fatigues, grins for an instant as we speed eastward, the clouds now below us.
The mood doesn't last. Eventually we'll have to descend back through the clouds.
When Saigon fell in April 1975, ending America's thirteen years of open war in Southeast Asia, 2,583 U.S. servicemen were unaccounted for. That might seem a modest number next to the legions lost in the country's earlier conflicts. Tens of thousands of soldiers died nameless in the War Between the States, after all; national cemeteries are crowded with them, Yankee and Reb who died in battle and were buried close to where they fell — dozens to a grave at Richmond, beneath acres at Gettysburg and Petersburg, a thousand miles from home in the desert of New Mexico. Another 78,000 American bodies were never recovered from World War II, from planes lost in the mountains of New Guinea and from island beaches seized by landing marines, from ships sunk a mile deep, from the blood-nourished fields of Normandy.
Half a century on, there's been no sign of 8,000 men who fought in North Korea. Most probably died on the rimy shore of the Chosin Reservoir, or in smaller firefights that never earned titles. Others simply vanished on battlefields their country did not win and could not search.
But Vietnam, more than any of those costlier conflicts, proved to be a slow-healing wound in the American heart, and those who never came home a source of gnawing unease. Many vets had friends whom they'd fought beside, whom they'd seen or spoken with moments before they vanished, and whose fate was uncertain. Thousands of families lacked proof that a husband, a father, a son was gone. All yearned for answers.
So, since the mid-eighties, the U.S. government has been embarked on a mission unprecedented in recorded history: To return to the places where planes went down, ambushed patrols left people behind, men simply disappeared. To find the remains of the missing. To send home all they find. To put a name, the right name, on each of their headstones.
It sends an expedition into Southeast Asia ten times each year. One trip is to Cambodia, where the fates of almost 60 Americans remain unresolved. Four of the trips, or "joint field activities," are to Vietnam, from which more than 1,400 men have yet to return; on each, five or six recovery teams fan out through the countryside, so that over the course of a typical year, Americans excavate better than twenty sites there. And half of the trips are made to the Lao People's Democratic Republic — to this landlocked, xenophobic throwback of stone-simple villages and roadless jungle, where nearly 400 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines remain unfound.
Five times a year, American recovery teams fly here on U.S. Air Force cargo planes. The Laotian government permits only fifty people per joint field activity and monitors their movements closely. They land at Vientiane, the capital, where their visas are processed. From there they fly to Savannakhet, a city on the Mekong, halfway down the Laotian panhandle. At an airport where the United States once ran supply flights to troops fighting the Communist Pathet Lao — ancestor of the present government — team members climb off the planes and onto trucks, which trundle them a quarter mile to a helipad. Then, loaded onto Laotian Mi-17s, they fly away from the modern world and into country seen by few Americans in thirty years.
I have flown 12,000 miles and across twelve time zones to join the mission as its unofficial fifty-first member, to witness its work in the jungle and immerse myself in the technological leaps of the past fifteen years that have made it possible. I've come, too, with questions about this massive effort, questions like: Why is the government doing this now? Is it necessary at all? Is it worth $100 million a year? And: Why are the people of Southeast Asia, with hundreds of thousands of their own missing, helping us?
It is my third visit to the region. Like those previous, it began with a seemingly endless flight across the Pacific to the vast weirdness of the Bangkok airport, a humid stew of peoples and languages, of smells and long lines and impenetrable crowds where, while waiting for a passport stamp, I was mesmerized by a gargantuan video screen that loomed over the terminal; on it, a Thai and his trained parrot whistled the theme from The Andy Griffith Show. Jetlagged and muddle-headed, I flew on to Laos, a territory slightly smaller than Oregon and shaped like a long-stalked head of broccoli. China and Burma lie to the north, Cambodia to the south. To the west, beyond the muscular Mekong, is Thailand; no bridge linked the two until 1993, and only one does so today. Vietnam lies to the east, across a border of high mountains.
It is poor even by Third World standards — too poor, really, for its socialist government to control any real wealth or production, or to provide much in the way of services. There's not a foot of railroad track. Vast portions of Laos are unelectrified. Most of the country lacks running water, and in the few cities where it exists it's unfit to drink. Outside of the same handful of cities, health care is virtually nonexistent, education is paltry, the economy is preindustrial, and living conditions border on the medieval. It is a world lit by fire. Much of the population subsists on family rice plots, crossbow hunting, and foraging.
In Vientiane I obtained the papers I'd need to travel into the interior, walked unpaved streets among mildewed concrete buildings, witnessed the capital's uneasy courtship with the West after years of self-imposed exile. My lavish hotel rose from a neighborhood of squalid shacks and patrolling soldiers. Rats swam past my table at a riverfront bar. At one Vientiane nightspot, I saw a Laotian rock band cover Pink Floyd's "The Wall." At a restaurant in the city's center I braved Jeo Mengda, which the menu described as "Chilli sauce with the smell of the water bug served with boiled vegetables." After six days in town, I caught a ride south, into the panhandle, to meet the incoming teams.
Before long the Mi-17 slows, and its pilot sends us corkscrewing downward, fuselage shuddering, blades whacking the air. Some passengers shut their eyes. An army sergeant to my left keeps his open. He stares out the porthole between us, nodding, then glances over to me. I evidently look nervous. He taps my shoulder, jabs a thumb toward the cockpit. "This guy's good," he yells over the rotor.
"Yeah?" I say. "How can you tell?" I look to the cockpit and decide not to do it again: One of its occupants is now trying to catch the drips from the ceiling with a small towel, so that they don't land on the man at the controls.
"He's found a hole," the sergeant says. "He waited until he found a hole, and now he's gonna just circle down through the clouds until we're below them."
Sure enough, our turn tightens until we're heeled over hard, the spinning ground filling the portholes, and we have to steady the luggage to keep it from toppling. We drop as if sucked down a drain, the clouds a white blur as we pass through the overcast. When we level out, we're just below the ceiling and just five hundred feet off the ground. Treetops seem to reach for us. We zigzag over the forest, the portholes pelted by rain, until a narrow strip of asphalt comes into view, its surface pitted with deep holes, shoulders scalloped and broken. We bank into a wide right turn to follow it.
The chopper fishtails eastward, slicing through the misty tentacles dangling from the clouds' bellies, the ground rising gradually beneath us, and so we go for miles, sandwiched in a dwindling wafer of clear air between jungle and blindness. I stare down at the road, which looms closer with every minute. It's cracked and gouged, and in places the pavement disappears completely, is replaced by stretches of cinnamon-colored mud and tiny ponds that reflect the overcast sky.
"Route 9," the sergeant yells. The chief highway across the Laotian panhandle. A major link between Vietnam and Thailand. It doesn't look the part, and I turn a troubling thought: This is a country without money for basic highway repairs. How much can it possibly invest in pilot training? In aircraft maintenance?
The rotors throb. Below, rice paddies shimmer. We cross unbroken miles of forest, then a river stained coffee brown, then a village of thatch-roofed huts on stilts bunched around a bare-dirt clearing, water buffalo loose among the buildings. A second village slides by, no more than 150 feet under the Mi-17's wheels. I can see chickens on the ground and a knot of children peering up at us.
Just beyond the settlement I notice another feature of the landscape: a hole, an almost perfect circle, big enough to swallow one of the village's huts. Another appears. Another. Still another. They're everywhere, some of them fifty feet or more across, most filled with opaque water. They're punched into rice paddies, bunched in threes and fours around villages. They line Route 9. I can see others hidden by the jungle, betrayed by round gaps in the canopy. In places they're so tightly spaced the ground resembles the surface of a golf ball. Bomb craters.
The Mi-17's whining turbines deepen in pitch. The big machine again slows, and ahead, through the veil of a stiffening rain, a patch of bright blue appears. The chopper flares, nose high, and settles slowly onto a concrete pad. The helicopter's crew chief throws open the hatch to a shock of wind and rotor noise; I grab my backpack from the stack in the aisle and follow the sergeant out. A hard rain is falling, and we jog across spongy ground past already-parked Squirrels — and past a concrete pedestal that rises knee-high from the grass, its top adorned with a crumbling Communist star, a relic from the days when this was a North Vietnamese maintenance camp.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Where They Lay"
Copyright © 2003 Earl Swift.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents I. In the Land of the Lost 1 II. The Missing 63 III. Bone Work 155 IV. Pieces of the Past 193 V. Answers 235 VI. Perseverance 269 Notes 287 Acknowledgments 305