Their buddies called it suicide, and maybe it was.
They climbed aboard the Huey knowing the enemy expected them. They did it knowing their guns were no match for the cannons that waited. They knew they’d be lucky beyond hope to get past them, and luckier still to get back. They climbed aboard the Huey just the same.
Time was short. Just over the border, their allies were surrounded and outnumbered and taking heavy fire. They depended on the four aboard the helicopter to get them out.
So on a Saturday in March 1971, the Huey skimmed over the mountains into the wide, wild valley beyond, following a rutted, two-lane highway into Laos. The country below was a tangle of splintered hardwoods and sheared bamboo, the jungle’s floor laid bare in wounds that stood fresh and red against the green. Off to starboard, a chain of low hills marked the northern edge of the Xepon River’s flood plain. Looming ahead was its southern boundary, an escarpment a thousand feet high that showed its bones in cliffs streaked pink and gray. Worn into the rock was a notch a kilometer wide. In it was the pickup zone.
The flak started miles out. The Huey’s pilots slalomed the bird among arcing yellow tracers and blooms of brown smoke as it dropped toward the target. Its gunners opened fire with their M-60s, sweeping the trees on the helicopter’s final approach.
The reply was overwhelming: Bullets raked the chopper’s thin metal skin, whistled into the cabin, tore into man and machine. Then came something worse — a blur, rising from the trees, a telltale plume — and a flash. Fire swallowed the Huey. It hit the ground in pieces.
Other choppers circled low over the burning wreckage, crews marking the spot on their charts. None landed. North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed the bamboo thickets and forest around the smashed chopper, too many to risk a recovery mission. America was forced to leave the Huey, and the four, where they lay.
Which is what brings me, on a gray summer morning thirty years later, to a vibrating seat in the cabin of a Russian-builtMi-17 helicopter. And why its course takes me from a former American air base beside the Mekong River into the same valley, toward the same rampart of cliffs, in the battered highlands along the Vietnam-Laos border.
Somewhere down there is what’s left of Jack Barker, John Dugan, Billy Dillender, and John Chubb. For two generations their remains have lain in a remote corner of this remote land, as bamboo and hardwood saplings erupted into new jungle around them, as monsoon rains scoured the red-clay earth and swooning heat baked it dry. Their comrades have grown old. Their children have had children of their own. Today, finally, their countrymen have arrived to take them home.
Sitting beside me are the soldiers and scientists, most too young to remember the war, who will search for the Huey’s crew, men and women who for the next four weeks will live in a camp of canvas and nylon and lashed bamboo in the Laotian back country, and who will pass their days on an archaeological dig carved into the wilderness.
They will commute to work in craft all too similar to the ruined machine they seek, and face a host of dangers once they land — steep terrain, triple-digit temperatures, withering humidity, and thickets aswarm with scorpions, foot-long centipedes, and bright green vipers so venomous their nickname is “Jake Two-Steps,” said to be how far their victims get before dropping.
The mosquitoes carry malaria, and dengue fever, and God knows what else. Tigers patrol the jungle. And if this weren’t worry enough, the ground is laced with unexploded ordnance, leftovers of the fighting that claimed Jack Barker and his crew — half-buried bombs and antitank mines and rockets and grenades and baseball-sized bomblets that, jostled the slightest bit, can all these years later turn an arm or leg into a puff of pink smoke.
The Mi-17 is short on frills. The cabin smells of exhaust. The sound of the rotor varies from deafening whine to bone-jolting bass chord. Hot wind buffets in through open portholes. The floor is plywood; the bare-metal bulkheads are stenciled with instructions in Cyrillic. It has the look and ambiance of an old and neglected school bus.
Only school buses don’t yaw sickeningly as they travel. They don’t boast clamshell doors like the big pair forming the cabin’s back end, doors between which I can see a thin but significant stripe of bright Asian airspace. I watch the gap for a while, see that its width keeps time with the Mi-17’s shivers, which course through the frame like a dog shaking dry.
School buses aren’t typically driven by committee either. The helicopter’s cockpit is crowded with Laotian military men. I can see four of them from where I sit, all speaking and pointing past a pair of jerky windshield wipers into the sky ahead. All are in bits annnnnd pieces of uniform. The pilot is a skinny guy in a bright yellow T-shirt. His left hand is pressed against his headset, as if he can’t hear over the chatter around him.
There are a couple dozen of us aboard, squeezed into troop seats that line the cabin’s sides. My view of those on the far side is blocked by luggage stacked four feet high down the length of the wide aisle. None of it is tied down. The pile — backpacks and suitcases, hard-cased gear and tools — teeters with each banking turn the big chopper makes. Somewhere behind us, another Mi-17 carries a similar load of people and equipment, and sprinkled elsewhere in the sky are four smaller Eurocopter Squirrels, carrying a handful of people apiece.
In all, fifty Americans are in the air. Most work for the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, where thirty civilian anthropologists and more than one hundred military specialists perform forensic detective work under the microscope and in the wildest of wilds, all aimed at bringing home those lost in America’s wars. Others are with Joint Task Force–Full Accounting, a puree of the different services that manage the lab’s visits to Southeast Asia and conduct the research that pinpoints where its teams should dig.
Beyond the rain-streaked porthole behind me, wispy clouds race past. I push my forehead against the glass to see the ground below, catch a glimpse of squares and trapezoids and narrow rectangles of bright green, a quiltwork of rice paddies stitched together with dikes that follow the land’s irregular contours. A cloud interrupts the view. Then another. A moment later we fly through a bigger, thicker mat of vapor, and then there’s nothing but white out there.
Up in the cockpit, water drips from the ceiling, and the three guys assisting the pilot are gesticulating more than ever. The pilot is half out of his seat, squinting. The windshield looks painted over. Some of my fellow passengers shift nervously in their seats. They know the lay of the land, that with every minute we’re in the air, the terrain below gets taller and steeper and rockier, that the bottomland from which we took off gives way to a jumble of mountains and solitary karsts, pinnacles of limestone that jut skyward like the teeth of some enormous buried dragon. They know, far better than I, the Mi-17’s limitations. Among them: This machine lacks ground-reading radar. We’re flying blind.
A big fellow to my right rests his arm on the luggage in front of us and lowers his head into the crook of his elbow. He’s been resting that way for a long minute when we burst into the light. Everyone in the cabin seems to take a deep breath at once; even the chopper’s crew chief, a stur...