The remains of a Vietnam Warera U.S. serviceman who has been missing in action (MIA) since his plane was shot down over Mondolkiri province near the border with Vietnam in 1964 have been found, according to media reports.
Staff Sergeant Lawrence Woods, born in 1925 in Clarksville, Tennessee, was aged 38 when his crew of eight from the 5th Special Forces Airborne division was hit by enemy fire during an aerial resupply mission from Nha Trang to a point near the Vietnam-Cambodia border, according to official records.
The Fairchild C-123 “Provider” aircraft crashed inside Cambodian territory and was completely destroyed by fire except for the tail section, and no parachutes were seen leaving the aircraft. A post-crash search of the aircraft recovered seven bodies but Lawrence Woods’ remains were never found.
“They couldn’t find my father’s remains because he was in the back of the plane, and that’s where the plane blew up,” Lisa Szymanski, who was 13 when her father went to Vietnam, told the Associated Press, adding that despite being informed of the crash, the lack of a body gave the family hope that he was being held as a prisoner of war.
Details of when and how the remains were actually located or the precise position of their retrieval were not immediately available. The U.S. Embassy referred questions to the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, which has not yet replied to questions.
But according to a newspaper report from Lawrence Woods’ hometown, Ms. Szymanski was informed that DNA evidence obtained from family members at an earlier stage of the investigation had established the identity.
Mondolkiri provincial police chief Nhem Vanny said on Sunday that police were unaware of any recent investigations in the area and had heard no reports of remains being found in years, though it is possible that the remains were recovered some time ago.
“In 2004, some U.S. soldier’s remains were found here, though it wasn’t a body, just small pieces of bones,” he said.
Those remains, which were discovered after a 26-member U.S. recovery team carried out multiple searches in Mondolkiri in January and February 2004, were sent for testing to JPAC’s headquarters in Hawaii following a military ceremony at Phnom Penh Airport.
U.S. officials at the time declined to elaborate on the nature of the Mondolkiri remains and no further information was ever released.
On Monday, the U.S. POW/MIA specialist in Cambodia, Peter Loverde, declined to speculate on whether the Mondolkiri search mission almost a decade ago led to the identification of Lawrence Woods.
The crash in 1964 happened early in the Vietnam War, with Lawrence Woods and his 5th Special Forces Airborne—which had been recently created for the purpose of waging “unconventional warfare”—were among the first U.S. combat troops committed to the campaign.
Declassified case files show that a 30-man joint U.S.-Vietnamese investigating team had previously visited a crash site in Mondolkiri and across the border in Vietnam in May 1997, carrying out an extensive search and mapping mission accompanied by two local witnesses of the crash.
“A large amount of aircraft wreckage was found…but [the search] located no evidence of remains, personal effects or life support equipment,” the case report said.
Most of the U.S. servicemen lost in Cambodia were airmen whose planes were shot down later in the war during secret bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which wound through eastern Cambodia and was the major supply route for the North Vietnamese.
The first mission to recover MIAs in Cambodia was carried out in July 1990. Since then, 28 U.S. service personnel have been recovered by JPAC search teams, leaving 53 Americans still unaccounted for.
In May, almost 38 years after they were shot down in 1975 during fighting that followed the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of U.S. merchant vessel S.S. Mayaguez, the remains of 13 U.S. Marines whose helicopter crashed during a subsequent U.S. assault on Koh Tang were buried together at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, after the remains of private Daniel Benedett were accounted for on January 30.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)