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Hearts & Bones : Thirteen Years After Lt. Col. Thomas Hart Disappeared in Laos, the Army Said It Had Found His Remains. His Wife, Anne, Couldn't Be Sure. Finally, the Army Admitted It Wasn't Either.

October 12, 1986|JOSH GETLIN | Josh Getlin is a Times staff writer

It is barely 8:30 a.m. on a sweltering August day, but the kitchen of Anne Hart's home in Pensacola, Fla., has already become a frantic command post. While the rest of the neighborhood awakens, Hart's phone rings incessantly.

As her children stumble in for breakfast, Hart dials attorneys in distant cities, rummages through boxfuls of U.S. Army documents and talks heatedly about her husband, missing in action from the Vietnam War. Holding a faded map of Southeast Asia, she stubs out her sixth cigarette of the morning and explains why she thinks hundreds of American MIAs--including Lt. Col. Thomas Hart III--may not be dead. Leaning forward, she speaks knowingly of conspiracy and a cover-up at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

To the casual observer--and a growing number of government officials--Hart appears to be disturbingly obsessed. "That woman wouldn't believe her husband was dead if it happened right in front of her," snaps one Army official.

More than 13 years ago, an Air Force plane carrying Thomas Hart and 15 other crewmen crashed into a Laotian jungle as it was returning from a search-and-destroy mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Army maintains that most of the men, including Hart, were burned beyond recognition that night and should be presumed dead.

Indeed, the armed services excavated the remote crash site last year and, after examining 50,000 bone fragments, scientists at the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii identified the remains of all the men aboard. The proof of Thomas Hart's death could not be more clear, officials thought. It was time, they added, for Anne Hart to get on with her life.

But they underestimated the 42-year-old mother of six. Bucking opposition from the Army and from some of the crewmen's relatives, Hart temporarily blocked return of the fragmentary remains. Meanwhile, she recruited forensic experts to review the Army's conclusions. They agreed that the seven bone fragments said to be her husband's--most of them no larger than a quarter--could not be identified as Lt. Col. Thomas Hart, or anyone else for that matter.

Last summer, in the wake of a critical report on the identification techniques used by the Hawaii laboratory and under pressure from Hart, Army officials backed down and rescinded the identification of her husband. It was the first time in history that such a decision had been reversed, and several other families are now seeking similar reversals.

Largely as a result of Anne Hart's persistence, the Army has instituted sweeping changes in identification techniques at the Hawaii laboratory. More important, the possibility that several identifications may have been mistaken--or even fraudulent--has prompted charges from members of Congress and forensic scientists that the Army is under pressure to identify as many fragmentary remains as possible, and thus defuse the politically troublesome MIA issue.

Beyond that, the story of Hart's 14-year search for information about her husband has come to reflect the emotional ups and downs of the 2,434 American families whose loved ones never returned from the Vietnam War. Torn between the absence of convincing word from the government and tantalizing reports from Indochina, they cling to shreds of hope as the years pass.

On the night that her husband disappeared, Hart says, "I was a shy, dutiful little Air Force housewife who believed everything the government told us about the war in Vietnam . . . but I've gone through some pretty major changes."

Now, as she lights another cigarette and twists her hair into tight, angry ringlets, Hart says she is combative, disillusioned and outspoken--but still no closer to an answer about her husband.

"On this issue, you learn very quickly to be a fighter, to not let somebody push you around," she says. "You learn that questions which surfaced long ago never really go away."

"At the time of the Paris peace talks, there was an inherent wariness that we were never told the full story about men still captive in Vietnam and Laos."

--Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., a negotiator at the peace talks.

ON THE AFTERNOON OF DEC. 21, 1972, ANNE HART WAS decorating the family Christmas tree and making plans for a whirlwind trip to Thailand. Within days she would enjoy a brief visit with her husband, who had left for Vietnam two months before.

Suddenly, one of her children rushed in to announce that a police car had just parked outside, its red light flashing. A grim-faced officer was approaching the door. "I knew immediately what it meant," Hart recalls. "Before that poor young man could even get a word out, I asked, 'Is he dead?' "

The news was painful--and direct. Hart's C-130 gunship had gone down near the Laotian village of Pakse; all the Army could say was that he and 12 others were missing. The remains of one crew member were recovered the next day. Two men who had parachuted to safety reported seeing no other survivors.

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