Vietnamese photos already are helping to identify missing U.S. servicemen

October 22, 1992|By Michael Ross and Melissa Healy | Michael Ross and Melissa Healy,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The family of a Kentucky serviceman missing in the Vietnam War has been notified that photographs obtained by U.S. officials clearly show the pilot's body amid the wreckage of his fighter plane after it was shot down over North Vietnam 24 years ago.

In at least one photograph of Lt. Col. Joseph C. Morrison, whose F-4D fighter aircraft was downed Nov. 25, 1968, his name tag is clearly visible, one official said.

While the family could not be reached for comment, the information about Colonel Morrison appeared to be the first concrete indication that a trove of photographs and other records recently obtained from Vietnam are helping investigators account for some of the 2,226 U.S. servicemen still officially listed as missing in Indochina.

A day after a presidential emissary, retired Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., returned from Vietnam with more archival material, Pentagon officials began notifying families of the missing as investigators sifted through the documents, seeking to determine how many cases can be resolved on the basis of the new evidence.

"In a lot of cases, it's clear who's in the picture," said Deborah DeYoung, a spokeswoman for the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, which for the past year has been investigating the fate of missing servicemen and the government's efforts to account for them.

In other cases, the bodies of those pictured are not identifiable, but the photographs are still considered valuable for the "clues" they may hold to the fates of other missing men, Ms. DeYoung said. "There may be a lot of clues these pictures hold that are ancillary to the people pictured," she added.

Mr. Vessey briefed acting Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger on the weekend trip that he and several other officials made to Hanoi to discuss the cache of materials. Knowledgeable sources said many of the documents had been unofficially provided to the United States over a period of at least several months.

Confronted with the evidence from their own archives, the Vietnamese agreed to open up the remainder of their files on the missing servicemen and prisoners of war to resolve the controversy that has long stood in the way of efforts to normalize U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former POW who accompanied General Vessey, met separately with White House officials, but a briefing for President Bush, first scheduled for today, was postponed until tomorrow to accommodate the president's campaign schedule.

Until Mr. Bush is briefed by Mr. Vessey and Mr. McCain, all further information about the photographs and related documents will remain confidential, officials said.

"Nobody is going to talk about the substance of this material until they have had a chance to see what it all means, get the information to the families and brief the president," one official said.

However, a senior Pentagon source added that officials believe the documents brought back by Mr. Vessey, along with the photographs obtained in recent months, will eventually constitute only a small portion of the MIA-related materials that Vietnam is expected to hand over to the United States after years of denying their existence.

"We've only seen the tip of the iceberg here," the Pentagon official said. "This is going to be a long process."

So far, the take from Vietnam's new openness includes not only documents and more than 4,000 photographs, but such personal items as flight suits and helmets, sources said. More such artifacts are expected to make their way to the U.S.

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