Mias: Help From Hanoi

On a hillside in Vietnam's Quang Binh province, American experts and Vietnam laborers have dug a massive pit. They work shovelfuls of dirt through fine, wire-mesh sifters. In three days, they turn up only bullets, metal fragments and aircraft springs. Their mission: to find proof that a Navy pilot was killed when he flew his A-7 attack jet into the mountain in 1968. "It's very grueling work," says Maj. Brenda Bradley, 42, her brown T shirt soaked with sweat. And there is no guarantee of success. Says Sara Collins, the search team's archeologist: "Sometimes there is simply not enough left to make an ID."

On their 14th trip to Vietnam in three years, American MIA hunters last week were only halfway to their target:accounting for all 119 U.S. servicemen who were reported--or could possibly have been--captured in Vietnam, yet never came home. An additional 2,154 servicemen also are still classified as missing in action; the searchers may be able to resolve the fates of only a few. But at least Vietnam has eased their burden. Amid uproar over the release last month of dubious photographs purporting to show U.S. prisoners still in captivity, Hanoi has thrown open its classified war files. American specialists have retrieved fading, insect-eaten war reports from military headquarters and libraries around Hanoi that they can cross-check with U.S. records to locate remains. The most dramatic discovery:an 84 page report documenting evidence on this trip than on all my other trips here put together," says team leader James Coyle. "It helps us confirm our own records and pinpoint crashes."

Suddenly, almost nothing is off-limits to the U.S.experts. "They are doing more for us than we'd do for them," says Robert Destatte, chief research analyst at the newly opened U.S.MIA office in Hanoi. "Can you imagine the Pentagon giving the Vietnamese access to our classified military files?" When rumors began circulating that two Navy fliers were still being held west of Da Nang, U.S. experts were permitted to visit prison camps in the area. No Americans were found. The Vietnamese turned over classified war documents describing the dawning of an f-4 Phantom fighter over the Red River Delta in 1966. Local militiamen, an antiaircraft crew and a MiG fighter pilot all report that the U.S.pilot, Air Force Col.John Robertson, was in the plane when it crashed.

Still, finding physical evidence to back up the newly unearthed records remain agonizingly difficult-and sometimes impossible. That frustrates Vietnamese officials, who are seeking their own reward: the trade,loans and investment that would result from improved ties to the United States. "The pilot flies his plane into a mountain and he and his plane are blown to bits," said Ngo Hoang, deputy director of Vietnam's MIA office. "Yet Americans think he's alive. What can we do?"

Vietnam may be doing what it can to resolve the MIA issue, but officials in Washington say that alone won't thaw relations. It is only the first step in a what administration officials hope will be a two step process. They also want Vietnam to apply pressure on the government it installed in Cambodia to negotiate a settlement to that country's festering civil war. The Americans say normalization talks will begin only after the Phnom Penh government endorses a U.N. plan for a cease-fire leading to internationally supervised national elections. Still, the United States is "very pleased" about Vietnam's stepped-up assistance on the MIA search, says a State Department official. The hunt goes on, but a long era of mutual suspicion appears to be ending.