Operation to recover remains of soldiers
Twenty years after the end of the Vietnam War, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. It was July 11, 1995. A U.S. Consulate was established in Ho Chi Minh City in August of that year. Not everybody agreed with the decision. Associations of veterans expressed their strong objections, and especially, the associations of Vietnam War veterans held fierce protests every day. They shouted out that it was too soon to establish diplomatic relations with the enemy of the cruel war after losing tens of thousands of their fellow soldiers and that was not the way to console the souls of the dead.
At the time, I received a phone call from House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He asked me to go to Vietnam as a representative of the House to visit and celebrate the newly-established U.S. Consulate and also visit the site of an operation to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. Since other congressmen could not make the trip, I had to leave for Vietnam with only my aides. I visited the old U.S. Embassy building located in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
It was the place of the horrible scenes where Vietnamese workers there were hanging on and falling off from the last U.S. military helicopters and Vietnamese people were desperately crawling over the walls of the building. These horrible situations at the time were broadcast live on TV news worldwide for several days. I was told that there were plans to refurbish the place and make it into a museum.
The next day, I went to the recovery site where about 50 Vietnamese women were searching hard for remains, digging the ground carefully with their hands. With them, six U.S. Marines were trying to find anything they could, even fragments of spoons. Full of disappointment, they told me that they had tried their best for a month to find the dog tags or other remains of soldiers by searching the whole place thoroughly, following word from the people of the village that they saw a U.S. fighter jet crash, but not even a piece of metal was found. Then, they said that they planned to move to another place after one more week of searching.
The whole cost of the search, including payments to those Vietnamese women, was paid by the United States. Maybe because of the money they earn, the women working at the site looked happy, talking and laughing with each other. It was because what they earned working at that site for a day was more than the monthly wages of their husbands. According to a story from the Marines there, in only one out of 10 cases, they found the remains of soldiers at a place people reported as a crash site. At that time, the U.S. government paid $1 million per body to the Vietnamese government if the discovered remains were confirmed to be that of a U.S. soldier. The U.S. government hoped that it would discover thousands of bodies but the actual number was very small.
The U.S. government also searched North Korea to find the remains of dead or missing soldiers of the U.S. and allied forces. The U.S. government agreed with North Korea on the joint operation to look for remains in 1993, and performed 23 searches from 1996 to 2005. As a result, 226 bodies were discovered and 72 bodies were identified as those of the allied forces. As the cost of discovery, $28 million was paid to North Korea.
Among the discovered bodies, 12 were confirmed to be those of South Koreans through DNA tests, and they were returned to their country after 62 years on May 25. Their recovery was due to the efforts of the U.S. government. The bodies of Privates Kim Yong-soo and Kim Gap-soo were among them. Kim Yong-soo was a 17-year-old student and his uncle Kim Gap-soo was a 34-year-old father of two who had to leave his family behind. They enlisted on the same day, and their deaths were three days apart.
The efforts of the U.S. government to find, regardless of the cost, the remains of those who died fighting for their country are intended to show the nation how valuable those lives sacrificed for their country are. The U.S. government also makes such efforts because it believes that they raise not only the morale of the military and their families but also pride and patriotism in the whole nation.
“You are not forgotten.”
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of Kim Chang Joon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).