A ghost among ghosts in Vietnam Return: A Vietnam veteran spends 10 days at an old battlefield to help find the remains of 24 fallen comrades.

Sun Journal

August 14, 1998|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Special Operations group at Kham Duc did not officially exist.

Hidden within a legitimate Army camp in the remote Vietnamese jungle, the little corps of secret soldiers spent part of 1968 making raids into Laos.

The American government denied at the time that it was undertaking such raids to carry the war outside Vietnam.

But James D. McLeroy knew, because he was sent to take charge of Special Operations at Kham Duc only weeks before his tour of duty in Vietnam was to end. And the North Vietnamese knew about the missions because they were already in position to overrun the camp when McLeroy was flown in.

A bloody three-day siege ended on Mother's Day 1968, when a lucky break in the weather allowed McLeroy and most of the other troops to escape. By then, the first lieutenant had had his fill of war in Vietnam. He left the Army and staked out a new life as an international investment banker.

Unlike some veterans, McLeroy never felt drawn to revisit Vietnam. But in June -- 30 years after leaving Kham Duc -- McLeroy returned to the old battlefield for one last mission: to reclaim the dead.

Now 59 and living in Scottsdale, Ariz., McLeroy had been compiling oral histories from other soldiers who were at Kham Duc in hopes of writing a book about the largely forgotten battle.

His efforts came to the attention of the Pentagon's Joint Task Force -- Full Accounting, which works to resolve the fates of American service personnel still missing in Southeast Asia.

McLeroy knew such work was under way, but had no idea of the scope. The joint task force, chartered in 1992, has more than 180 investigators, linguists and researchers from every branch of the armed forces. Its annual budget is $20 million.

Exactly 2,081 U.S. service personnel are still unaccounted-for in Southeast Asia. Last week the number shrank as the task force closed five more cases.

While all those missing fathers, sons and brothers represent a lot of pain, it's a fraction of the toll from other conflicts. The Korean War left about 8,000 American servicemen missing, and more than 78,000 GIs remain unaccounted for from World War II.

The task force, though, concentrates on Vietnam.

Caged prisoner

In the troubled wake of that war, few images tormented the public more than that of an American prisoner languishing in a bamboo cage.

The last prisoners of war emerged from Vietnam 25 years ago on Sept. 15, but tales of survivors persist. The military created the joint task force with that issue as its primary focus.

Each passing year makes the likelihood of finding live captives more far-fetched. The task force's real success has been in locating and identifying remains. It has cleared 186 missing-in-action cases since 1992.

The process is time-consuming. Investigators don't just fan out across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos looking for gravesites. They pick individuals from the missing-in-action list, then start tracking down their final whereabouts.

That means researching records of battles and where they took place, interviewing veterans and even sitting down with former Vietnamese adversaries to find out how particular clashes played out.

The advent of DNA testing in the past few years has made the task force's work easier. Now, scientists at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii can use mere fragments of bone to make identifications.

Starting with a piece about twice as big as a thumbnail, Army scientists clean the bone and then grind it into a paste. DNA from the paste gets compared with blood samples from surviving relatives of a missing serviceman.

Kham Duc represented a challenge for the investigators. Twenty-four soldiers remain missing from the battle there and at the nearby outpost of Ngok Tavak -- an unusually high number for one conflict. Most task force sites involve plane crashes, where only one or two bodies are found.

Researchers had little to help them figure out where to start looking for remains at Kham Duc until they ran across the work of McLeroy and another veteran of the battle, William Wright, who also had investigated the fate of their comrades.

The team assigned to Kham Duc decided on an unusual approach: The veterans would be flown to the battlefield to point out where people were killed.

Like the battle itself, the process of returning to Kham Duc happened so quickly that McLeroy had little chance to stew over it. The task force sent him to Hawaii for an endurance test to make sure the old-timer would be up to the physical rigors of the trip.

That part, McLeroy said, was no sweat. The cool mists of Hawaii were nothing compared to the crippling heat of Vietnam still vivid in his mind.

Back to Kham Duc

On June 25, after a last-minute visa and a flurry of inoculations, McLeroy found himself back at Kham Duc.

McLeroy said the feature that had brought the camp to Kham Duc in the first place was an incongruous 6,000-foot runway, built in the 1940s when the emperor of Vietnam hunted tigers, leopards and elephants in the remote jungle bowl.

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