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At long last, 2 MIAs head home

Second of two parts

The three Toledoans piled into a cab with the man and drove off. They changed cabs several times and wound up on the banks of the Saigon river in a seedy part of town. There, their contact left them.

He said he would be back “soon.”

It was raining and Mr. Saam, Jim Taylor, and Dan Foote didn't know where they were.

“We were getting nervous,” Mr. Foote said. “We didn't know if we were being set up, or what.”

But then the small Vietnamese man returned, this time carrying two packages wrapped in paper. After handing them over to the Americans, he sped off into the night on his moped.

Mr. Saam placed the packages in the suitcase to keep them dry. He and his friends grabbed a cab and headed back to their hotel. Once back in his room, the three carefully unwrapped the packages.

They contained two nearly complete skeletons, but no dog tags or other form of identification. Tom picked up a femur bone and held it against his own leg.

“The guy who this bone belonged to had to be about 5-foot-11,” he told his friends. “There aren't any Vietnamese that size.”

They were sure. They had the bones of two Americans who had died three decades before. Two MIAs. Two men. Two comrades they would be bringing home.

Missing in action

Tom Saam's jaw dropped, and the color drained from his face.

A Vietnamese-American had just told him that family members in Vietnam had what they thought were the remains of two American servicemen missing in action during the Vietnam war.

A former Marine who served two tours in Vietnam, Mr. Saam had served three terms as head of the POW/MIA committee for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Ohio. This is why the man had approached him.

He called his friends and fellow Vietnam vets Jim Taylor and Dan Foote and told them what he had been told.

Mr. Taylor, the health and safety representative for the United Auto Workers at Ford's stamping plant in Maumee, and Mr. Foote, an aide to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), serve with Mr. Saam on the board of directors of DOVE (Development of Vietnam Endeavors), a Toledo charity.

DOVE officials were planning a trip to Vietnam, where the group had built several schools and a clinic. The trip would provide the three with the opportunity to recover the remains of the MIAs and a plausible cover for their activities.

“We were looking at the end of May. Memorial Day. It seemed fitting,” said Mr. Foote.

Over the next few months, the three Vietnam veterans worked out the arrangements for the hand-over of the remains with the Vietnamese man who had approached Mr. Saam, and with the U.S. embassy in Vietnam.

Officially, the government of Vietnam encourages it citizens to turn over the suspected remains of American MIAs and has established a Joint Task Force with the United States government to search for MIA remains. But many Vietnamese, especially those who opposed the Communists, don't trust the promises their government makes.

“The government says turn in the remains and there will be no problem,” Mr. Saam said. “The people have a different view. They're afraid of them. It didn't take me long to figure out he was afraid for himself and for his family in Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese-American flew to Vietnam separately to get the remains from his family. He'd arranged to meet the three men from Toledo in the park across from their hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

The remains had been in the possession of another family, which hoped to use them as a ticket out of Vietnam, but the family turned them over to the father of the man who contacted Mr. Saam because “their spirits were unsettled.”

The remains were placed on the altar in the home of the family, all devout Buddhists, next to the remains of their ancestors. They remained there for nearly 20 years.

Standing guard

After determining the bones they held were probably those of two Americans killed in the Vietnam War, Mr. Foote went to the lobby of the Majestic to find a bellhop, to help find a carpenter who could do some work fast. Mr. Saam and Mr. Taylor took turns standing guard over the remains in the hotel room.

Mr. Foote paid $7 each for two small wooden coffins. The remains were placed in them. He had taken two American flags with him from Toledo to drape over the small caskets.

A bleary-eyed Mr. Foote - the trio had been up all night - took a cab to Ton Son Nhut to pick up his boss, Representative Kaptur, and to brief her on what they had been given.

At 5 p.m. that day, the three Vietnam veterans and Miss Kaptur delivered the flag-draped coffins to the U.S. consulate.

In turning the remains over to U.S. officials, Miss Kaptur paid tribute to the fallen, and to the three Americans who had helped to bring them home.

“I am so proud to be here with these Americans today, the first Memorial Day of the new millenium,” she said. “This really takes courage.”

The remains were transferred to Joint Task Force headquarters in Hanoi, and then to Honolulu, where military experts will use DNA and other tests to try to determine their identity. It is likely to be months before the results are known.

But the wanderings of these two MIAs are nearly over, and perhaps their spirits are no longer unsettled.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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