Remains from an indigenous Southeast Asian were buried with those of an Army Reserve pilot from the Vietnam War at Arlington National Cemetery, America’s shrine for its fallen heroes.
According to internal POW/MIA documents, when the remains of Chief Warrant Officer 3 William Smith Jr. were turned over to investigators in Vietnam in 1999, a portion belonged to someone else.
Central Identification Laboratory documents stated that the unrelated remains had been identified and segregated from those of the pilot and that only Smith’s remains were shipped to Arlington for burial.
However, an internal memo from the laboratory obtained by Stars and Stripes said that did not happen.
After a ceremony that included a slow march, a horse-drawn caisson and a lone bugler, Smith was buried with foreign remains.
Laboratory anthropologist Gwen Guinan wrote in the internal memo that “subsequent to the shipment and the burial’’ it was discovered that a fragment of a leg bone that should have been separated from Smith’s remains “had been inadvertently included.’’ The memo, addressed to “record” and included in Smith’s case file, was dated Sept. 20, 2000, 12 days after Smith was buried.
No details were available on how the error was discovered or whether there is protocol that should have been followed after the discovery.
“That was a long time ago,” Guinan, who now goes by Haugen, wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Unfortunately, I am unable to comment.”
Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command officials, who now oversee the identification laboratory, declined to comment. Officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense also declined to comment. Arlington Cemetery officials said they received a sealed casket and followed the protocol in interring it.
“According to our records, we received the remains of CW03 William A. Smith, Jr. in a sealed casket,” Arlington spokeswoman Jennifer Lynch wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “Arlington National Cemetery interred the sealed remains in Section 66, Grave 6129, and appropriately marked the grave with a government headstone, bearing CW03 Smith’s name.”
Smith’s son, William “Bill” Smith III, told Stars and Stripes that the family was never told of the mistake.
“It doesn’t make me feel real good, but that was 13½ years ago,” Smith said, referring to his father’s burial. He said he had no plans to tell his father’s surviving family, which includes a brother and a sister.
“You bring up the word ‘Vietnam’ and they start to get upset. About something like that, I’m afraid they’d go ballistic.”
Smith believes the laboratory employees named in the documents — many who head the organization today — were cutting corners by not verifying that the separation had taken place before signing documents.
This is the latest blemish on the Defense Department’s accounting apparatus, and the latest in a string of embarrassments for JPAC and its laboratory. Just last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced he was reforming the Defense Department’s accounting operations after an internal review found them rife with mismanagement, waste and incompetence.
“You take care of the people who gave their lives to this country and you take care of their families,” Hagel said in announcing the reorganization.
Dedicated to serving US
William Smith Jr. was born to a military family in Georgia on June 24, 1945, at the tail end of World War II. During his youth, the son of an Army captain bounced around between locales like Germany before settling in for his teenage years in Battle Creek, Mich., according to his son.
Smith was outgoing, laid back and very difficult to anger, family members told his son, who was born after his father’s death.
On Dec. 22, 1967, Smith married Leslie Kay Harding, the son said. She quickly became pregnant.
The Army pilot dreamed of the day after his service was complete, when he could raise his son and care for his younger brother while making a living as a pilot for a major airline.
Due to injuries received during his first tour in Vietnam, Smith had an out for not going back, but he didn’t take it.
“That is how dedicated he was to the service of the country,” his son said.
He told his wife he wanted to be buried at Arlington if something happened.
On Sept. 27, 1968, the 23-year-old warrant officer commanded a UH-1D Huey helicopter on a mission over Kien Hoa province, South Vietnam, according to the internal laboratory documents. Lt. Quentin Hurst, Spc. 4 Kevin Green and Pvt. Jeffrey Niles were also onboard when the helicopter was struck by enemy ground fire as it approached the My Tho River. The helicopter crashed in flames.
Within minutes, U.S. patrol boats were on the scene, according to the documents. They found an oil slick in the area where the helicopter had entered the water, along with scattered aircraft debris and three flight helmets.
Two days later, the bodies of Hurst, Green and Niles were found floating in the vicinity of the crash site. No sign of Smith was found, and he was listed as missing in action.
According to his son, Smith’s wife held out hope that he was alive for years. Some in his family swore he was alive, based on persistent rumors that Smith was a prisoner of war.
The accounting organizations gave family members just enough information to keep them at bay, Smith’s son said, but never enough to make them whole.
“I had more questions than answers,” he said.
A military review board pronounced Smith dead Oct. 29, 1976. A funeral was held and a marker placed in the ground next to family in Augusta, Ga.
In 1993, a joint U.S./Socialist Republic of Vietnam team traveled to the area of Smith’s loss, looking for witnesses to the crash, but found none, according to documents.
Another joint team traveled to My Tho City in Tien Giang province, which is north of the former Kien Hoa province, in 1999. They spoke with three informants who said they had recovered remains and artifacts from a river while salvaging metal in 1976 or 1977. They took investigators to a site near the coordinates on file for the crash. The remains were handed over to Vietnamese officials and repatriated to the United States on May 5, 1999.
Two sets of remains
Central Identification Laboratory officials quickly realized there were two sets of remains in what they were given.
The remains included fragments of right and left pelvic bones, three fragments of left femur, a left fibula shaft, a fragment of left tibia, two fragments of right tibia and two rib fragments. Those remains were consistent with Smith’s stature, according to a memo to the Army CIL commander dated July 25, 2000.
Also included was a tibia shaft determined to belong to a smaller individual: “Anthropological analysis reveals that the remains are those of two individuals.”
The documents, signed by current JPAC CIL scientific director Dr. Thomas Holland, state that the tibia shaft “was segregated” and designated as unassociated remains.
The document confirmed that the majority of the remains were matched to Smith using mitochondrial DNA and that of his sister.
“Conversely, the remains of the smaller individual are assumed to be those of an indigenous Southeast Asian unrelated to the incident.”
The forensic anthropology report, dated June 7, 2000, and signed by current CIL director Dr. John Byrd, states that the Southeast Asian remains were removed.
That never happened, according to the memo by Guinan.
For Bill Smith III, a pall has now been cast over the laboratory’s success in recovering his father’s remains. He wonders why the leadership said the unrelated remains had been removed when they hadn’t been.
Despite it all, he doesn’t want his father’s remains be exhumed. He wants to let his father rest peacefully.
“What’s done is done,” he said.
Stars and Stripes researcher Catharine Giordano contributed to this report.