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Helping appreciate pain, frustration of MIA families


"President Clinton can't tell me he knows how I feel," Shirley Hilton says. "He doesn't know how I feel. He can't." But anyone, the president on down, might get a better idea how Shirley Hilton feels by reading the report on the search for the remains of her husband, Airman 1st Class Robert L. Hilton. It just arrived from Hawaii. Not only will this report help you appreciate the pain and frustration of MIA families, it will also cure the tendency to immediately dismiss those paranoid-sounding claims that Vietnam has stifled efforts to resolve the remaining MIA cases.

First, some background:

Robert Hilton, then a 29-year-old radio operator on an HU-16 amphibious rescue plane, disappeared in the Gulf of Tonkin in March 1966. His plane was attacked by shore batteries as it sat about 700 meters off an island called Nghi Son, in Thanh Hoa province. Hilton and his comrades were trying to pull a downed fighter pilot out of the gulf when an explosion ripped through the tail section of the HU-16. Hilton was killed instantly.

His family in Glen Burnie was told that the airman's body sank into the sea with his shattered aircraft. He was survived by Shirley and three small children.

Seven years ago, Shirley Hilton and her daughter Cheryl Shannon received word from the Joint Casualty Resolution Center in Honolulu that new information had developed about the attack off Nghi Son and the disappearance of Airman Hilton.

Remarkably, two Vietnamese refugees, interviewed by a JCRC liaison in Bangkok in 1988, had recalled the incident in which Hilton died and how, three days later, the body of a white American in a dark jumpsuit, helmet and boots washed ashore. The witnesses -- one a fisherman, the other a boy at the time of the attack on Hilton's plane -- said villagers from Hai Thanh and local militia members removed a wallet, wedding ring and wristwatch from the body. The body was then carried to a hamlet called Long Moi and buried in a grave about 1 1/2 meters deep.

The information was impressively specific. But was the story true? And, if so, was the body that of Airman Hilton? There was only one way to tell -- locate the grave and exhume the remains.

Despite having what sounded like a good lead -- and, by then, the increased cooperation of the Vietnamese -- the JCRC announced no immediate plans to visit Nghi Son or Hai Thanh. That frustrated Shirley Hilton and Cheryl, who started cranking out even more letters of inquiry to Air Force officials, congressmen and senators. An Air Force liaison officer who spoke with Cheryl in 1989 did not know if her father's remains would ever be recovered.

Months went by. Then years.

In 1993, the Vietnamese released a black-and-white photograph showing what was purported to be wreckage from Airman Hilton's aircraft. The photograph, released from the Central Army Museum in Hanoi, was obtained by members of the U.S. Joint Task Force assigned to locate the remains of MIAs in Indochina. The photo showed four Vietnamese soldiers examining a section of fuselage. Translated by the Joint Task Force, the hand-written note on the back said: "American aircraft shot down by the people and troops of Thanh Hoa during the rescue of a pilot who had parachuted into the ocean on 14-3-1966."

Then, something else arrived in the mail -- that dispatch from the Joint Task Force, in Hawaii. This one reported that a team of eight Americans -- translators, search and recovery specialists and ordnance disposal experts -- had reached Thanh Hoa province, met their Vietnamese government counterparts, then requested access to Nghi Son and Hai Thanh.

Shirley Hilton showed me the team's report yesterday. Here are some choice passages:

"Host government cooperation during this investigation was poor.

"Vietnamese government officials did not allow [investigators] to inspect the last known location for [Airman Hilton] because the site is in a military sensitive area.

"Unknown officials obviously coached witnesses to deny knowledge of aircraft crash sites near Nghi Son island in order to mislead U.S. investigators.

"Three life-long residents of Nghi Son village . . . provided unreliable, apparently coached statements that no American aircraft ever crashed near the coast of Nghi Son island. . . . All three witnesses repeated the same information and on several occasions presented the information in verbatim form.

"Thanh Hoa province officials refused [investigators'] request to use the global positioning system. . . . The team routinely uses this system in Vietnam to obtain accurate grid coordinates.

"Local officials in Hai Thanh prevented villagers from approaching closer than 15 meters to any American team member. On two occasions, aged villagers attempted to approach and speak with American team members, but local officials forcibly removed the aged villagers from the area."

Remember all this next time you hear Bill Clinton brag about Vietnamese cooperation in MIA investigations. However much it increased in recent years, it hasn't been enough for Shirley Hilton and Cheryl Shannon. Since 1988, they've been holding out hope for something -- the burial of Airman Hilton's remains -- that, the previous 20 years, they had learned never to expect. Sure, the war's over, it's time to move on. But not when reports like the one from Hawaii arrive in the mail. "What do I do now?" Shirley Hilton wants to know. "What now?"

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