Thursday, January 9, 2014


Unexploded bombs from the war guard the entrance to 'Craters Restaurant'
A pair of 750 pound bombs are standing upright, on either side of the restaurant stairs I’m approaching. They look like two short, fat, metallic pillars, not dangerous explosives. Beyond them, twin 500 pound bombs are guard the entrance. These bizarre decorations are a permanent part of this establishment; all four of these old weapons of destruction have been cemented into the floor. You couldn’t tip them over if you wanted to. 

This is 'Crater’s Restaurant' in Phonsavan in northern Laos, and I’ve stopped in for dinner. After ordering a dish of noodles, I look around at the unusual décor. Like so many other places in town, it is adorned with the martial refuse from the warring past. 

It’s not just American bombs on display either, decorating the walls inside are a pair of ancient, long barreled rifles, along with an old crossbow. A traditional weapon of the Hmong, crossbows are still used for hunting in this region. The single shot rifles look ancient. These old weapons were the only arms used on the Plain of Jars, until the French, North Vietnamese and Americans showed up. As simple folk from primitive highland cultures, the Hmong were forced to fight in a very modern war. 

Old traditional Hmong weapons mounted on the wall
Against the back wall are a pair of small Buddhist statues, with offerings and incense placed in front of them. They are dwarfed by another old disarmed artillery shell sitting right alongside. It escapes me as to why they would leave a symbol of destruction, right next to a peaceful Buddhist shrine. 

With business slow tonight, the owner’s family is watching a Vietnamese television show, since this dining room also makes up their living space. On the old TV, a Vietnamese chanteuse belts out an American love song. Yes, times here are changing. 

US Recovery team heads for MIA excavation site in Laos. (Photo: JPAC - Press Center)
I hear a familiar accent; turning to a nearby table I notice two casually dressed westerners. Few Americans come to this remote corner of Laos, I wonder, what are these two men doing here? They both have short haircuts, and a serious look about them. Striking up a conversation, I’m surprised to learn that both of them are not only American, but they are also currently serving in the US military!  American soldiers are the last people I expected to find here in Phonsavan, or anywhere in Laos. 

They aren’t in uniform, but they are here to work. Their purpose on the Plain of Jars, is to search for the remains of American military men who are still ‘Missing In Action’ from the war. These two soldiers are on a mission to locate the bones of MIA’s. 

During the fighting here, most Americans involved in the war effort took part in aerial missions, so those still missing on the Plain of Jars were usually involved in aircraft crashes. Hundreds of US Air Force jets, CIA planes and helicopters crashed all over Laos during the long years of conflict from the 1960’s to 1970’s. 

“We have 170 digging sites identified,” one of the anonymous soldiers tells me. Most of the searching is done on old crash sites, and it’s only in recent years that these American investigators were allowed access to these sites to look for remains.

Why put an explosive next to a Buddhist shrine?
Locating the old crash sites has been a difficult task. Many aircraft crashed in remote mountains, where wreckage and pilot remains were gradually covered over by jungle growth. As for aircraft that crashed in more accessible areas, the broken wreckage that marked the sites was often carted away by locals and sold for scrap years ago. When crash sites are found today, search teams have to look for bones of pilots and crewmen by digging and excavating. 

These two investigators are currently excavating a crash site outside Phonsavan. In this case, it was the site of a small spotter plane known as a ‘Raven’, that had had an airborne collision with an F-4 fighter jet. They were searching the site for the pilot’s remains. 

“It’s a combination of archaeology, anthropology, and forensics,” the younger soldier tells me. As opposed to the over-simplified forensics work portrayed on popular American TV shows, actual forensics work done on these crash sites is meticulous, time consuming work. 

Working in the distant countryside, the search team had to get permission to excavate crash sites not only from the Laotian government, but also from hill tribe leaders in remote villages. 

“When we work in the villages, they are way out,” the soldier tells me. “They’re Animists. We have to sacrifice an animal so as to not upset the spirits (before digging begins.) It’s usually a cow. They pick it, and it’s always something expensive." 

As part of the process, local men are taught excavation skills, and employed to work alongside investigators. Grids are carefully layed out, and digging begins. If aircraft parts are found, the part types and serial numbers are matched to missing aircraft. Great care is taken not to miss any small bone fragments, often the only human remains left after a high speed crash. If few bones are present, dog tags found at the site can help verify that the missing pilot died at the scene. 

Hundreds of Americans remain missing in the mountains of Laos
The process of searching for America’s missing soldiers is slow, but progress is being made. The younger soldier was excited about their recent discovery of a finger bone at one digging site. The bone is being sent back to a Hawaii military lab where the remains missing in action soldiers are processed. There they will test the bone to see if it’s human. If it is, they will proceed to DNA testing, and compare results with DNA samples taken from families of soldiers still classified as MIA. Hopefully a match will be found, and the family of the missing pilot will finally receive closure. 

As for the Laotians, many of them are puzzled as to why the Americans would go to so much trouble, and spend so much money, to find a few bones from soldiers who died more than three decades ago. Much like Vietnam, the Laotian government has neither the money to search for their missing war dead, nor the technical ability to conduct DNA testing. Hundreds of thousands of Asians who remain missing from the wars in Southeast Asia, will never be found or identified. Their families know their loved ones died during the war, but they will never have a grave to mourn over, and closure eludes them.  

There are still 308 American servicemen classified as missing in action from the war in Laos. With so many crash sites yet to excavate, the MIA search teams will be working in the remote mountains of Laos for years to come. 

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