In a solemn repatriation ceremony, a box holding unidentified remains believed to be those of a US Marine killed more than 25 years ago was placed aboard a plane Tuesday bound to the US from Cambodia.
A POW/MIA team made up of Cambodians and Americans found the remains last week on the island of Koh Tang, the scene of the last battle the US fought with Indochinese communists, back in 1975.
Lieutenant General Pol Saroeun, chairman of the Cambodian POW/MIA Committee, and US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann signed a certificate transferring custody of the remains from Cambodia to the US.
A US honor guard, representing the four branches of the US military, placed a US flag atop the metal casket before boarding the plane at Pochentong Airport.
“Today is a day of pride and gratification,” Wiedemann said. “We look forward to returning a loved one…to bring [another] family a sense of closure.”
On May 15, 1975, US marines landed on the island near Sihanoukville to rescue the 39-member crew of the merchant marine ship Mayaguez, seized by Khmer Rouge forces three days earlier.
Eighteen Americans were missing after the botched rescue attempt. Hours before those marines landed, the Mayaguez crew had been released and picked up by a US warship.
The remains found last week are en route to the Central Identification Laboratory in the US state of Hawaii, where research will be done to identify them.
So far, 15 sets of remains have been recovered from Koh Tang; nine have been positively identified.
The three remains still missing are believed to be those of three Marines left behind when US military forces evacuated from Koh Tang 14 hours after the battle began.
Those remains are believed to be in Sihanoukville, where Cambodian witnesses have said the three Marines were held prisoner, said Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Smith of the US Joint Task Force for Full Accounting.
A US MIA team will begin an excavation on the mainland in March 2002.
At least 64 US military personnel are still unaccounted for in Cambodia.