U.S. investigators catalog relics in Hanoi, hoping to determine fate of MIAs

November 15, 1992|By New York Times News Service

HANOI, Vietnam -- Up a musty stairwell in a museu commemorating the triumphs of the People's Army of Vietnam, a team of American investigators sit hunched over laptop computers and a camera tripod, trying to end what for many American families is the continuing torment of the Vietnam War.

Every half-hour or so, a group of Vietnamese museum workers slowly make their way up the steps, lugging another assortment of relics collected from the enemy, the United States, in that long-ago war.

The relics examined by the Pentagon investigators one morning last week included a U.S.-issue military parachute, a pocket flare gun, an airman's helmet with the wearer's name on it, a blue felt Air Force captain's cap, a plastic flap from the fuel tank of an American military jet, a single pink cotton handkerchief and a pair of red and white socks -- all hidden away for years in the Museum of the People's Army, the national war museum in Hanoi.

This, the American investigators say, is what they have been waiting for.

If they are correct, these bits and pieces, along with thousands of black-and-white photographs stored elsewhere in the museum, will allow the United States to determine the fate of many of the 2,265 Americans who are still officially listed as unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

It was only last month that the Hanoi government, apparently mortified by the discovery that an American researcher had alerted the Pentagon to the treasure trove in the museum, agreed to allow a Defense Department team to come in to study the full collection.

The commander of the American investigators now working in Vietnam, Lt. Col. Jack Donovan, described Vietnam's new open-access decree as a breakthrough.

"I've heard this described as the central biggest development since 1973 in terms of accounting for missing Americans," he said.

It was in 1973 that U.S. ground forces pulled out of Vietnam.

Until last week, U.S. investigators had only guessed at what might be found in the war museum, three blocks from Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in the heart of the Vietnamese capital. Only a small fraction of the articles were actually on display in the museum, which draws a steady stream of visitors.

Now they know it contains personal items and military gear taken from scores, perhaps hundreds, of American soldiers, pilots and sailors who were captured or killed in North Vietnamese territory.

"My gut feeling is that our work is going to be very valuable," said James Minihan, 26, a Navy petty officer from Jacksonville, N.C., who spends his days at the museum tapping away on the keyboard of a laptop computer, cataloging the relics. "The Vietnamese have kept very complete records on this material."

Vietnam hopes its cooperation will help lead to normal diplomatic relations with the United States.

Hanoi is desperate for Washington to lift the economic embargo in effect since the end of the war.

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