BREMERTON, Wash. (NNS) -- A USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) Sailor volunteered for a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) mission to Vietnam, in part because of his language skills and personal ties to the Southeast Asian country.
JPAC is a military organization responsible for recovering the remains of U.S. troops who went missing in combat during any of the nation's past conflicts.
Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic (AW/SW) Quang Dang, of Tacoma, Wash., born and raised in Vietnam until age 21, felt he would be the perfect choice for the mission since he could speak Vietnamese fluently.
"I asked my master chief if he thought it was a good idea for me to go, and he said yes," said Dang. "So I volunteered and was accepted."
Dang was flown to the JPAC headquarters in Hawaii where he was given an introductory course in the proper way to excavate a crash site.
"We had to be taught how to dig," Dang said. "If you don't dig the right way, you might miss something or damage anything you find."
After mastering the technique, Dang and his team boarded cargo planes to begin their journey to the crash site.
Once in Vietnam, the JPAC team realized their mission was not going to be an easy task.
Dang and 14 others were charged with trying to find out what happened to a U.S. Army helicopter crew 44 years earlier.
In 1965, in the Gia Lai Province of Vietnam's central highlands, a U.S. Army helicopter failed to return from a routine mission. Rescue aircraft spent months scouring the jungle, looking for traces of a crash and the four Soldiers who had been on board. The crew was never heard from again and was presumed dead.
The mountainside's dense jungle made Dang's team's recovery efforts impossible. The mountain was so remote and so thickly covered in jungle, trucks couldn't be used to bring supplies to the team. The only way to get on or off the mountain was by helicopter. A landing zone at the mountain's top was created by the team who blazed a trail to the bottom.
Before work at the crash site could begin, the teams built two camps. One, at the base of the mountain, housed the 60 locals hired by the JPAC team to assist in the excavation. The other camp, closer to the actual crash site, housed the team throughout the dig.
A grid was designed over the crash site in four-by-four, square-meter sections. Dang's team started in the middle of the grid. Every shovelful of dirt was poured into a bucket, the full bucket taken to a screening station and dumped onto the top of the screen. Then carefully, the dirt was sifted through the screen, leaving the dirt on the bottom and any remains on the top. The remains were then cleaned, labeled and cataloged. As each square in the grid was finished, the team moved outward until remains were no longer found.
"It's a little like looking for a needle in the ocean," said Dang. "Every bit of dirt we dug had to be sifted."
In the end, the team dug and sifted 6,000 square meters of dirt in 37 days on the mountain. They recovered remains and artifacts of all four Soldiers including Army air assault badges, aviator badges, dog tags and teeth.
The remains were placed in flag draped coffins and flown to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. Team members wore their dress uniforms and performed the solemn ceremony to honor their fallen comrades.
"These guys have been waiting, in a jungle they didn't belong in, for 44 years to come home," Dang said.
"Their families have been waiting and wondering. The wound never really healed for them, and to be able to find them, identify their remains and bring them home is beyond my feelings. I am happy and sad for the families - happy that we are able to finally give them answers, but sad at the same time."
The remains were turned over to JPAC's identification laboratory for analyzing before being returned to the family members.
According to JPAC, there are more than 88,000 American service members listed as missing in action from previous wars, and more than 1,780 of them are from the Vietnam War. JPAC and volunteers like Dang will continue to search for those service members until everyone has been found.
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