The newly established Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has dispatched a remains recovery team to the Cambodian island of Koh Tang, where three Marines were left behind following the final battle of the Vietnam War.
The excavation site is believed to hold the remains of Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall or Pvt. Danny Marshall, according to official documents from DPMAA’s predecessor, the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command.
The three-man gun team was left behind in the confusion of a troop withdrawal following a brutal May 15, 1975, battle between about 200 U.S. Marines and entrenched Cambodian Khmer Rouge soldiers in what became known as the “Mayaguez Incident.”
The dig began Jan. 14 and is expected to run through the end of March.
The location of excavation site has not been made public, but it’s likely to be one of two areas where the heaviest fighting occurred. In 2013, a seven-member JPAC investigation team spent a week on the island’s east and west beaches.
Months later, JPAC told Stars and Stripes that the team did find enough evidence to bring one site before the administrative body that decides whether to allocate funds for a dig.
A recovery operation, such as the one ongoing on Koh Tang, means that the site was approved by the board, and the likelihood of finding remains is high.
Officials have declined numerous requests from Stars and Stripes for information related to the excavations.
“This is an ongoing mission and details can’t be discussed at this time,” DPMAA spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan said.
However, the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office has declassified some of the documents since the investigative dig occurred. Heavily redacted copies are housed in Texas Tech University’s Vietnam War archives.
According to a document dated November 2013, investigators found a water well where former Khmer Rouge soldiers claimed they killed and buried an American soldier after the battle.
Any American remains found there would likely belong to Hargrove, because most accounts say that Hall and Marshall were taken to the mainland and executed.
In additional to Hargrove, Hall and Marshall, two other servicemembers remain missing from the battle.
Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney’s body was left behind on west beach in the haste of the withdrawal, and former combatants claimed he was buried on the beach. There is no public record of his body being recovered, or his remains identified.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Elwood Rumbaugh was lost at sea near a downed helicopter.
Although that site has been located, according to the Texas Tech documents, it was not explored at the time due to inclement weather. No other recovery operations have been announced.
In May 1975, Khmer Rouge forces captured the SS Mayaguez, an American container ship, several nautical miles off the coast of the Cambodian island of Poulo Wai. It didn’t take long for President Gerald Ford to authorize a rescue operation.
In the one-day battle that followed, 38 U.S. servicemembers were killed and approximately 50 were wounded. The ship and crew were released shortly thereafter.
Immediately after the battle, when it became apparent that Hargrove, Hall and Marshall were unaccounted for, Navy SEALs and Marines asked to make a rescue attempt for the missing but were denied. U.S. Navy ships were recalled from the area, closing the chapter on U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
While accounts of enemy combatants differ, most say that Hargrove was captured on Koh Tang and executed. Hall and Marshall were taken to the mainland and executed there.
Since the early 1990s, documents show that JPAC investigators have excavated sites, both on the mainland and on Koh Tang, and have collected numerous fragments and sets of remains, including as recently as 2008.
During an excavation in 2008, a set of remains that was unearthed was determined to likely be Caucasian, according to Charles Ray, former ambassador to Cambodia and deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs.
JPAC documents state four samples were sent for analysis. It’s not made clear in the documents if the samples are something as small as bone fragments or as large as full sets of remains.
No results from any of the excavations on Koh Tang and subsequent analysis have been made public.
Running out of time
Members of Hargrove’s family hope his remains soon will be returned.
“By them being on the island, I hope it is a good sign that we will be receiving Joseph’s remains soon,” said Hargrove’s cousin, Cary Turner. “I’ll keep praying they will do the right thing and send Joseph home.”
But, the time to recover the remains is running short.
A Russian consortium leased the island from the Cambodian government in 2008, and construction has already begun on what will one day be a casino, resorts, a seven-hotel complex and luxury villas aimed at drawing 300,000 tourists annually from China, Korea and Japan.
“POW/MIA investigators will lose access to the island once the investment company moves in full-time to develop the resort,” an accounting document from March 2013 said. “A Cambodian POW/MIA committee member emphasized the urgency of conducting Tang Island investigations as soon as possible.”
by Matt M Burke – Stars & Stripes