The Desert Leaf — May 2013
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The Search For MIA Soldiers
Bob Rogers

Michael Andrew Miller grew up loving airplanes. Born in 1945, he earned his pilot’s license the same year he graduated from Tucson’s Rincon High School in 1963. While a student at the University of Arizona, he was active in the Air Force ROTC; he was commissioned a second lieutenant upon graduation in 1967.

After training in navigation, he was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson to become a Weapons Systems Operator on the F-4D Phantom.

In late February of 1969, Miller, then a first lieutenant, left the U.S. for his station at Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam.A month later, the F-4D in which he was the navigator went down in the canopied jungle of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ—then separating South and North Vietnam) in Quang Tri Province. His remains were never recovered.

According to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, 83,000 Americans are missing from past military conflicts. Known as JPAC, the agency has its headquarters and a central identification laboratory in Hawaii that uses several disciplines to identify human remains.

The forensics resources of JPAC include biological profiling utilizing anthropology, stratigraphic analysis using archaeology, dental records comparisons and frequency analysis of specific vision-correction eyeglass prescriptions.The agency also compares dog tag evidence and collects family reference DNA samples. The JPAC motto is “Until They Are Home.”

On April 18, 1965, U.S. Air Force Captain James Atlee Wheeler, a Tucsonan, flying an A1E Skyraider was shot down over the watery Mekong Delta in the Tri Ton District of An Giang Province of Vietnam. One witness reported seeing the nose and tail of an airplane at the crash site, along with a boot and a human foot.

A U.S. Joint Task Force for Full Accounting expedition in 1994 located the crash site, but found no evidence of wreckage or remains. A return expedition in 1998 intensified the search and noted the area had been heavily scavenged over the years.

Sifting through soil ranging from eight inches to a yard deep, the effort turned up minuscule bits of glove and flight suit material, helmet shell pieces, parts from a camera, a safety buckle and 12 small bone fragments.

In August of 2001, without enough evidence to conduct mitochondrial DNA testing, the Central Identification Laboratory determined, by the location of the crash site and the type of aircraft, that the remains belonged to Captain Wheeler. The bone fragments were turned over to Wheeler’s family for burial with full military honors.

First Lieutenant Miller’s family was first notified that he and the crew were Missing in Action, leading his parents to believe he could still be alive.According to Miller’s sister, Dorothy Morris, now of Prescott, the MIA designation may have been done to give the widow of the pilot, Major RobertnA. Belcher, more time to live on base with her three children. A year later, the crew’s status was changed to Killed in Action, Body not Recovered, though Miller’s parents continued to hope their son was still alive.

MIA Hunters is one of several civilian, non-profit groups that act in an unofficial capacity to help locate military wreckage sites where bodies may later be recovered by JPAC.

“The military is in the recovery business,” says Christopher Moon, head of MIA Hunters. “They’re not in the finding business. We are.”

When asked how the non-profit complements the work of government efforts, Moon notes that the U.S. government is also not in the bribing business.“We spend a great deal of money ahead of time for up-front results,” he explains. “It’s all done covertly.”

MIA Hunters mostly works in New Guinea because, according to Bryan Moon, father of Christopher, 650 American and Australian airplanes were lost there during World War II in the New Guinea campaign. Once crash and burial sites are confirmed, MIA Hunters turns the information over to JPAC’s recovery teams.

“We have headhunters on our payroll,” says Christopher, referring to New Guinean natives, “and we pay bonus money for every crash site located.”

Once the sites are located by locals, a group of tourists who book tours organized and led by MIA Hunters, arrives to look for evidence of recoverable human remains.

On a recent trip, an MIA Hunters team of 32 people confirmed 70 lost airplane sites; 55 were Allied forces and 15 were Japanese.

A 14-day trip with MIA Hunters runs $10,000, not including airfare, medical evacuation insurance, life insurance or vaccinations.

The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Stony Beach Program investigates livesighting reports related to the Vietnam War, by interviewing witnesses and touring sites in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As of January 2013, 17 reports remained of unresolved first-hand accounts of live sightings of POW/MIAs. Sixteen of these reported subjects were in captivity, one was not.

MIA Hunters has been working for several years trying to locate a living MIA in Laos who contacted his family in the U.S. six years ago and reportedly would like to come home, explains Christopher. Bryan adds that the man apparently has a wife and children in the mountains of Laos, and MIA Hunters’ attempts to contact him have been repeatedly thwarted by local police.

Moore’s Marauders, a Scottsdalebased non-profit group similar to MIA Hunters, is also working to recover MIAs. According to its website, Ken Moore, the organization’s founder, first reconstructed the story of his lost uncle, a B-29 pilot who had been MIA for more than 60 years. The enthusiasm and professionalism of the team supporting his first search led Moore to form the non-profit.

He says many sites in Southeast Asia are unintentionally still guarded by unexploded ordnance, so recovery eff orts face more restrictions at these sites than in other regions where the recovery work is safer.

Like JPAC, Moore’s Marauders uses a team of specialists and their own forensics lab to locate those left behind. Though they are willing to go anywhere, the Marauders find most of their work in China, recovering POWs and MIAs from the Korean War.

“There are many places where the U. S. government is not welcome,” says Moore. He’s spent years cultivating relationships within the People’s Republic of China.

“It’s a complex system in China,” he adds. “There’s a long history of coverups there, but the people are very family oriented and they are eager to help.”

He points out that JPAC is an oversized and underfunded bureaucracy and that non-profits, like Moore’s Marauders, are often more flexible.

A recurring issue that JPAC deals with is recovered military dog tags, often purchased by tourists visiting Vietnam.According to JPAC, 99 percent of the dog tags now sold on the streets are genuine, but not from POWs or MIAs. One tourist bought 1,444 tags and turned them over to JPAC, which set up a database for families to browse; the agency does not have the resources to actively return the tags to vets or their family members. Most of the tags were simply lost by vets or abandoned.

Another federal program seeking answers is the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, whose motto is “Keeping the Promise.” The role of DPMO is to communicate with the families of those still missing, through regional meetings and private consultations with relatives of POWs and MIAs.

As time passes, eye witnesses and family members die off , the elements take their toll on sites with remains of POWs and MIAs, and salvagers continue to make use of the metals and materials found at crash sites.

Claire Rogers is a local freelance writer.Comments for publication should be addressed to