In a poignant echo of earlier services for long-lost soldiers, U.S. officials held a repatriation ceremony Friday for seven Americans killed last weekend while searching for the remains of Americans missing since the Vietnam War.
“All these men are heroes. They gave their lives for something they believed in,” U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson said.
He said the deaths of the seven Americans and nine Vietnamese in a helicopter crash April 7 would strengthen both countries’ commitment to account for people still missing in action from the war.
As a white-gloved military honor guard carried each flag-draped coffin aboard a C-17 military cargo plane at Hanoi’s airport, dozens of American and Vietnamese mourners held their hands over their hearts or at their brows in salute.
The ceremony was a haunting version of those held every time the MIA task force has recovered remains of soldiers who died decades ago during the Vietnam War.
The plane carrying the remains of the American servicemen arrived in Guam later Friday for refueling, and there was a brief tribute.
“These men died doing their duty. These men died in faithful service to a grateful nation,” said Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, the spokesman for the MIA task force based in Camp Smith, Hawaii, who accompanied the bodies to Guam. “This is a sad moment for us, but it is an honor to be able to bring these service members back to the United States.”
The plane later arrived at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, where family members were to participate in an arrival ceremony later Friday.
The Russian-built MI-17 helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded mountain in central Quang Binh province, about 250 miles south of Hanoi.
The Americans and Vietnamese were part of an advance team preparing to excavate six MIA crash sites next month.
A decision on whether the May excavation will be suspended or canceled will be made next week, Childress said.
Killed in the crash were the outgoing head of the Hanoi MIA unit, Army Lt. Col. Rennie Cory Jr., 43, of Fayetteville, N.C., and the man who was to replace him in July, Lt. Col. George D. “Marty” Martin III, 40, of Hopkins, S.C.
The other American victims were Air Force Maj. Charles E. Lewis of Las Cruces, N.M.; Master Sgt. Steven L. Moser of San Diego; Tech. Sgt. Robert M. Flynn of Huntsville, Ala.; Navy Chief Petty Officer Pedro Juan Gonzalez of Buckeye, Ariz.; and Army Sgt. 1st Class Tommy James Murphy of Dawson, Ga.
The United States has made accounting for the 1,981 Americans still listed as missing in action from the Indochina War--including 1,448 in Vietnam--a top priority in its relationship with its former enemy.
The fatalities were the task force’s first since it began operations in 1992. The Hanoi detachment is one of five in the region. Washington spends about $6 million a year on the searches.