Tarnished bits of metal lay among the rocks in a pass north of Vladivostok, on Russia's far eastern coast. There were .50-caliber machine gun shells, a silver-plated spoon engraved with the letters "USN," a fragment of human bone and what at first glance appeared to be debris from an American naval aircraft.
Lt. Col. Michael O'Hara of the Pentagon's Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, investigating reports of a crash site in the pass, reached that site in July. He suspected it contained scattered pieces of a missing Navy surveillance aircraft shot down in November 1951. The debris, he hoped, might help answer lingering questions about what had happened to the 10-member crew.
Some Pentagon and intelligence officials have long speculated that a small but significant number of the tens of thousands of Americans missing in action in World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam, or from spy planes shot down by the Soviets during the Cold War, were captured and held in the gulag, the Soviet Union's network of prison camps.
There is "a high probability" that "up to several hundred" American servicemen lived and died as secret prisoners of the Soviet Union, said Norman Kass, executive secretary of the American side of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POWs/MIAs, an organization created in 1992 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse.
Over the past 14 years, American investigators working for the commission have talked to scores of Russians who recalled meeting or hearing about U.S. servicemen in the gulag.
Russian officials say they can't find evidence to corroborate these reports. Kass and others engaged in the hunt say the Russians have failed to make available critical documents and witnesses.
Most of the American military personnel officially designated as missing in action, in all likelihood, died on the battlefield. But the numbers involved are substantial: During World War II, 78,682 Americans were missing in action; more than 8,100 officially remain missing from the Korean War, according to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. About 1,800 remain unaccounted for from Vietnam. An additional 77 of the missing were crew members of aircraft shot down by the Soviet Union during the Cold War whose bodies have never been found.
Only one found
Since the Joint Commission was established in March 1992, it has located the remains of one American serviceman lost in Russia - an Annapolis graduate, Capt. John R. Dunham, whose body was pulled from the Sea of Japan after his aircraft was shot down while on a secret surveillance mission on Oct. 7, 1952. His remains were buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1995.
From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, electronic surveillance planes tested the border defenses of the Soviet Union to map possible routes for American strategic bombers. A number of those surveillance planes were shot down. In up to 10 of those cases, investigators and officials with the American side of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission say, the Soviets might have rescued survivors.
Since 1992, U.S. investigators working in Russia have pored through archives and visited crash sites, former prison camps and graveyards. Russian officials have opened the files of several military archives to Russians with security clearances, working for the American side of the Joint Commission.
But Russian officials, Kass and others said, have failed to declassify many key intelligence files or make available former officers with the main security services - the KGB, military intelligence and the Border Guards.
Reports of American servicemen in the gulag began circulating early in the Cold War. A 1952 CIA report said "several transports of Korean POWS" had passed through transit camps into the prison system.
In February 1992, two former National Security Agency analysts claimed in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs that the North Vietnamese had turned scores of American prisoners over to the Soviets.
Those hearings were followed by the establishment of the Joint Commission. In June 1992, on the eve of a visit to the United States, then-Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin wrote to the same Senate committee that some Americans taken prisoner in Vietnam had been transferred to Soviet prison camps. Intelligence files, he said, also showed that at least 12 crew members of U.S. spy planes were in prisons or hospitals as of 1953, the year that Soviet leader Josef Stalin died.
In his letter, Yeltsin wrote that "the assurances by the former U.S.S.R leadership to the effect that the problem of MIAs in its territory was nonexistent were untrue."
Within a few months, the Kremlin backtracked, repudiating or contradicting these statements. But other circumstantial evidence seemed to support Yeltsin's statements.