Underwater Recovery Team Searches for Aviators Lost in Vietnam War
An underwater recovery team is in Northern Vietnam searching for the remains of two naval aviators who are believed to have crashed into the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovery team is made up of Department of Defense civilians and service members from the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines.
"We brought the mobile diving and salvage unit team with us, and they're overseeing the diving aspect of the mission," said Army Staff Sgt. Dan Bevell, a recovery non-commissioned officer for DPAA who specializes in underwater recovery missions.
DPAA has been out to this site before, so the team's recovery leader, anthropologist Rich Wills, knew the GPS coordinates where he wanted to begin the search. Divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One marked the search area with a buoy and began working.
The water in the search area is a cloudy green near the surface, and once the divers descend 20 feet to the search site, they usually can't see more than an inch or two in front of their faces.
"The visibility down there is less than a foot," said Navy Diver 2nd Class Kyle Loftren after a six-hour shift underwater. "It's like learning what it's like to be blind for a day, and learning how to do everything by touch."
Searching in zero-visibility conditions is slow and methodical work. The surface team has to lower an aluminum frame down to the divers. The divers then stake the two-by-two-meter square frame onto the search area.
After the frame, or "grid," is in place, the divers dredge the sediment out of the grid with an underwater vacuum hose. The hose sucks the sediment into a large metal basket. Once the divers dredge the whole grid to a specified depth, the topside team raises the basket onto the barge and sifts through all the sediment.
"We're looking for anything that is man-made ... anything that is not natural to the environment," said Roger Antrim, a DPAA life support investigator. On this particular site, the team is keeping an eye out for signs of life-support equipment like material from a parachute, a life vest, or an ejection seat. These items are more telling - or "diagnostic" - than a piece of the actual airplane. A piece of an airplane wing, for example, would prove a plane crashed here, but it wouldn't prove any aviators were still in the aircraft when it crashed.
It's like learning what it's like to be blind for a day, and learning how to do everything by touch.
In order to find what may be small bits and pieces of material, the team members put the sediment onto screens and run water through it to wash away the sand and mud. Once the dirt is washed away, the team sifts through the remaining shells and rocks. Antrim told the team to be on the lookout for anything that may look like human teeth or bone fragments.
"When in doubt," Antrim said, "take it out, and put it in the bucket. We'll take a closer look at it and see whether it's just a shell or a rock or something."
The underwater recovery team will spend about six weeks in Vietnam searching for signs of the lost aviators in an effort to try to provide answers for the family members the aviators left behind.
"I speak for a lot of folks in our organization who are combat veterans [of] Afghanistan or Iraq. This mission obviously holds a very special place for us," said Marine Capt. Bobby Fowler, the recovery team leader. "We would want something like this to happen if something ever happened to us like what happened to these two aviators who we're looking for today."