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Reflecting on POW/MIA Day 50 years later

From the desk of Heather Atherton, Legacies of War Board Member

2023 marks 50 years since the last POW was released from captivity in Operation Homecoming. Most look at the war as ancient history, yet for many refugees, veterans, including our surviving POWs, and the loved ones of more than 1,500 families awaiting MIAs who have yet to be accounted for, it has been 50 very long years.

Why has our government’s POW/MIA accounting promise fallen so short for the Vietnam War? In part it is a lack of pressure from constituents on their elected officials. Our youngest generations have only heard about the Vietnam War in passing. Textbooks treat it as an afterthought. There has been little focus on this war in history classes, given that we “lost” versus the great victory we achieved in World War II. The tragedy in not facing our failures or conflicts that really weren’t our fight to begin with, is to not learn from it, not prevent making the same mistakes again in the future.

Educating others about this war and the horrible choices and mistakes that were made has become my mission. I’m the proud daughter of a USAir Force veteran, 2nd Lt. Michael R. Moore, who served as a pilot for secret intelligence flight missions to identify targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from 1972-1973. It was very late in the war as the final Peace Accords were being negotiated, ratified, and tested by both sides. His squadron, the 361st TEWS, stationed at Royal Ubon AFB, Thailand in early 1973, continued operations as the Accords were signed and known POWs returned home. Tragedy struck when the Baron 52 mission was downed by enemy fire over Southern Laos on February 5, 1973. Of the eight men on board, the three pilots and navigator would be identified in a search and rescue mission soon after, but no trace of the four “backenders” from the 6994th Security Squadron that did the intel work in the rear of the plane were found.

Their families, primarily the families of Sgt. Joe Matejov and Sgt. Peter Cressman, fought for answers for the next 23 years, including testimony to Senate Select Committee for POW/MIA Affairs in 1992 to investigate the status of all POW/MIAs. Ultimately a site excavation was done in 1993 that only yielded a few dog tags, one tooth, and a few tiny bone fragments which were never DNA tested to even confirm whether they were human bones to rudimentary DNA technology at the time. Yet, the decision was made by government officials to declare the case closed and that the items found officially represented all of the men in the crash. These items were buried together in a single casket with a formal ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The Washington Post declared the case closed. This happened in spite of pushback from Senate Select Committee Co-Chair, Bob Smith.

Since my father’s passing in 2017, I have researched and examined this case, knowing how it haunted him for decades. In 2020 I joined forces with the Matejov family to push for this case to be reexamined given the wealth of declassified documents that continue to point toward the government’s premature declaration of the “backenders” being Killed in Action without any solid evidence. We need the public’s help to put pressure on leadership throughout the US, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to support the promise of a full accounting for all MIA cases since April 1973.

That support includes making available any remaining POW/MIA documentation stored in those countries available to families as well as officials. US relations with these countries has continued to improve since trade opened after the Senate Select Committee concluded. We hope they would be forthcoming in helping support resolving this part of our shared history, just as they are in working with the US in resolving the unexploded ordnance (UXO) issue throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Now is the time to also make solving these cases a priority with transparency of information and access as any organic remains in the acidic tropical soils may soon be destroyed.

As a board member of Legacies of War, we also need your help to share our Legacies Library. Educating Americans about the Secret War and the overall war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, is critical to supporting not only those still fighting for answers on missing loved ones, but for those who fled those countries and still bear the scars of that trauma. Many of those Americans and their offspring who were born here are Gen X and Millennials now, eager for information on the shared history of both nations, especially as their parents age and they expand their own families. Please support our Legacies Library with funds to expand our message and spread the word about its resources to those who want to learn and help them find solace in our shared backgrounds.

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