The story of how former resistance fighter Uon Sayon came to acquire the purported remains of three US servicemen missing since the war in Vietnam had just the right amount of detail and evidence to make it plausible, if a bit fantastic.
The servicemen had been held in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp until they died in the late 1980s. The prison guards, knowing the importance of recovering the remains of the US POWs, quietly passed them to Cambodian contacts.
The Cambodians, in turn, smuggled the remains across the border to this country, hoping to contact US officials without being detected by Vietnamese government agents trying to keep the prisoners’ existence secret.
To back up his story, Uon Sayon produced something he thought proved the authenticity of the bones: the three men’s personal military identification—their “dog tags.”
All Uon Sayon wanted was a US visa for himself and four or five others who, for eight years, had kept the bones a closely guarded secret, and were now risking their lives to send home the three US soldiers.
But when Uon Sayon met with US MIA investigators last week, he was not showered with thanks from a grateful nation. Rather, he learned, he was the latest in a long line of Cambodians who have been conned by Southeast Asia’s MIA evidence counterfeiters.
During the past two decades, the US has spent millions of dollars searching for more than 2,500 servicemen who disappeared in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Sixty-four US nationals are still listed as missing in Cambodia.
Around these elaborate recovery operations, a bizarre cottage industry has been born, with con men selling bones and fake dog tags to unsuspecting people who are sure the remains are their ticket to a better life.
Wrapped neatly in three clear plastic bags, Uon Sayon’s packages of decaying bones obviously belonged to someone—but not missing soldiers. Though the worn metal tags looked genuine, the three names and identification numbers didn’t find matches in the US military’s MIA data base.
The meeting was another false start for US MIA investigators Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey E Smith and Sergeant Vina Chhouk, who make monthly visits to Cambodia from Thailand as part of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting mission.
Smith and Vina Chhouk, a Cambodian-American, spend at least a day of their monthly trip investigating bogus information.
There are plenty of tips to investigate, from stories of downed helicopters to sightings of live POWs. Almost every day, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh receives reports of missing US servicemen, along with dog tags and boxes or bags of bones, an official said.
Some of the dog tags are genuine and were left behind in Vietnam by the soldiers who served there. But many others were produced after the war, probably on the original machinery abandoned by the US military when it left Vietnam, said Smith, the Joint Task Force’s Detachment One commander.
People often buy the tags, and sometimes bones, from a third party at considerable cost, Smith said. They hope that when they present them to the US Embassy in they will either receive money or a US visa.
Last year, an old woman in Kompong Cham province came forward with ten sets of US dog tags that she had bought for between $3 and $5 each.
“We went through everyone one of them…and she had some that matched dog tags that had showed up earlier, false dog tags,” Smith said.
“She thought she would get something from it,” he said.
Smith told her about the scams people run and told her to warn her friends.
Thiem Sen, bureau chief at the US section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the Cambodian-US MIA task force, says that fake MIA material is a new phenomenon in Cambodia and the majority of it originates in Vietnam.
“Many Cambodian people buy bones and dog tags and other material, not knowing that these fakes are made in Vietnam,” Thiem Sen said.
At times the people with supposed information on MIA remains begin by trying to negotiate for a US visa or money, which Smith said is “generally a bad sign.” The people with legitimate information, he said, often don’t ask for anything.
The official US policy is that no money or payment in kind, such as a US visa, is given in exchange for information on possible remains.
“We tell them this is a humanitarian issue,” Smith said. “We’re trying to provide answers for the families. That’s what drives us, and generally drives the Cambodians who assist us. And we get great assistance almost all the time.”
Many of the people who come forward with information or evidence genuinely think they have remains, Smith said. But they usually have acquired them second hand and with patchy stories of where the remains emanated.
Without a location on where the bones were retrieved, or other details regarding the circumstances of death and identity of bones, there is little investigators can do to make an identification.
“That’s why we pass the word to each of the provinces, that if they have someone that knows something, to let them know…don’t dig up the remains. Leave them there. Because then when we go, at least if we’ve got a location where the remains came from,” Smith said.
Last known locations of MIAs are stored in a data base, along with dozens of other details that can help investigators piece together an identity. When a crash site or last know location corresponds with where remains are discovered, it is much easier to identify who they belong to, Smith said.
Some 17 sets of remains have been found and identified since operations began to recover the 81 US nationals thought to be missing in Cambodia following their withdrawal from the region in 1975.
Of the 64 people still listed as missing, there are remains currently with the US military’s Central Identification Laboratory in the US state of Hawaii that are pending verification that could prove a match with some of the MIAs.
Positive identification of remains can take up to two years, depending on the amount and type of remains recovered, Smith said.
A 30-day recovery mission is undertaken once a year in Cambodia. One site currently under investigation is off the coast of Sihanoukville, where the remains of three US Marines from the disastrous Mayaguez operation in 1975 are thought to be buried. The other site is in Stung Treng province near the border with Laos, where a downed US aircraft was recently discovered.
For all the wrong information offered to the MIA investigators, some tips have led to sites like these. So every story must be investigated. The majority of the tips are worthless, Smith said, “But you’ve got to wade through those to hopefully find the nuggets in there as well.”
During the meeting with the MIA team, Uon Sayon seemed genuinely shocked that his ticket to the US turned out to be nothing but old bones and fake dog tags.
But he vowed to contact his friend who was the purported prison guard in Vietnam and get more details on who the bones in the three bags belonged to.
Uon Sayon said later in the week that his friend had compensated him for his wasted trip to Phnom Penh by providing him with better information than before. He is now on the trail of an American soldier allegedly living in Kompong Cham province.
As for Smith and Vina Chhouk, the search for remains continues. The day after speaking with Uon Sayon, they met with a Cambodian man who said he knew the location of seven US POWs living in a Vietnamese prison camp.
As proof, he brought the men’s dog tags. The first three Vina Chhouk and Smith checked were identical to the dog tags supplied by Uon Sayon.