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Clinton Hails Partnership Born of War in Vietnam

Asia: President visits site where U.S. and Hanoi are working to recover the remains of an American airman.

November 19, 2000|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIEN CHAU, Vietnam — It was a sign of the changing times. Almost exactly 33 years after Capt. Lawrence Evert was shot down on a bombing mission over northern Vietnam, America's commander in chief journeyed to a remote rice paddy Saturday and watched as Vietnamese and Americans together painstakingly dug and sifted through dense clay earth in search of the pilot's remains.

"Once, we met here as adversaries. Today we work as partners," President Clinton said in an emotional event designed to help bring closure to the past while acknowledging that America will not abandon those who lost their lives in Vietnam--or any war of the past 60 years.

The United States will "keep at it" until it brings home "every possible fallen hero," Clinton pledged. At the same time, he said, Washington is committed to building a new future "of friendship and cooperation" for the people of the two former enemies.

"While working together to recover those who were lost in a long-ago war, we reduce the chances that any of our children will know war," the president told 150 Vietnamese workers aiding a team of American military, forensic and anthropology experts working in knee-deep mud or sifting by hand.

Standing quietly next to Clinton were Dan and David Evert, who last saw their father July 31, 1967, when he boarded a plane in Phoenix bound for Vietnam. Capt. Evert was shot down 14 weeks later on Nov. 8--on his 41st bombing mission and his daughter's fourth birthday. His second daughter was born five days later.

"When we were 6 and 8, we used to talk about how we would come over to Vietnam . . . and rescue him. We kind of feel like that's what we're doing right now," said younger son David, now 39 and a resident of Chandler, Ariz.

Since the dig began in late October, the excavation team has found wiring, fiberglass, metal scraps and a partial serial number from an F-105 Thunderchief, the same kind of aircraft that 29-year-old Capt. Evert was flying when he went down near Tien Chau, a farming village 17 miles northwest of Hanoi. A week ago, the team discovered small bits of human remains, as yet officially unidentified.

The Evert brothers told reporters how impressed they were by the dedication of the Vietnamese in searching for the remains of a man dispatched to blow up a railway bridge on their land.

"It's very touching to see the Vietnamese people working to push the mud through, to find the little pieces. We want them to know that we love them and we don't hold any animosity towards them at all," David Evert said.

"We feel it's a time for healing for everybody," he said.

On a private visit the day before, the Everts joined the Vietnamese digging through the rice paddy and sifting for tiny fragments. In the field where their father went down, they also buried pictures of their family, including 13 grandchildren born over the decades to Capt. Evert's four children, and a Missing In Action bracelet with his name on it.

Joint Recovery Project Has Shown Results

As a result of the joint recovery project, the remains of 283 Americans have been found and returned since Clinton took office, according to Lt. Col. Franklin Childress of the Joint Task Force. The number of U.S. military personnel still missing in Vietnam is 1,498, with 494 more missing in Cambodia, Laos and China.

In contrast, about 80,000 Americans are listed as missing in action from World War II and roughly 8,000 from the Korean War.

MIAs and prisoners of war in Vietnam are the most sensitive--and contentious--issues between Washington and Hanoi, because of allegations and bitterness among families and veterans associations. Some U.S. groups still contend that Vietnam is divulging only part of what it knows.

"Until the Vietnamese deal honestly with the issue of the 'last known alive' POW, any reference to the Vietnamese 'full cooperation' is a lie," Dolores Alfond, chairwoman of the National Alliance of Families based in Bellevue, Wash., said this month.

"Until representatives of the U.S. government challenge the Vietnamese on the 'last known alive' POWs, any reference to the POW issue being this nation's highest national priority is a lie."

But others assert that the Vietnamese have provided unprecedented assistance. "Although questions remain about archival access, the Vietnamese military has let us do things the American military would never allow a foreign country to do," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was also shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and spent six years as a POW in that city.

"We've gone into their prisons, gone into the defense headquarters. Can you imagine us letting a bunch of Vietnamese into the Pentagon to run around under similar circumstances?" McCain said.

Cooperation is no longer one-way. Clinton brought with him 350,000 pages of documentation, the second installment of information to help the Vietnamese recover their own 300,000 missing in action.

U.S. Vets Helping Ex-Enemies' Families

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