Remains believed to be those of two U.S. servicemen from the Vietnam War era were flown out of Cambodia Tuesday for testing at a U.S. Army laboratory in Hawaii.
The remains were found in Sihanoukville, 115 miles south of Phnom Penh, during a month-long mission carried out by a 36-person team comprising members of the U.S. military's Joint Task Force-Full Accounting unit, its Hawaii-based Central Identification Laboratory and Cambodian searchers.
The remains could be those of two servicemen who were lost in a May 14, 1975 while attempting to rescue the crewmembers of the American merchant ship Mayaguez. The Mayaguez had been captured by the communist forces of the Khmer Rouge who had just taken power just a few weeks earlier, said Lt. Col. Jeff Smith, the mission commander for the MIA search in Cambodia.
All 40 crewmembers of the ship were released safely by Cambodia, but 18 members of the U.S. Marine rescue mission were lost on the island of Koh Tang. Some are thought to have survived for several days.
Smith said the two men whose remains may have been recovered were believed to have been transferred from the island to the mainland alive. He would not speculate on who they could be, adding that the identification process will take one to three years.
He said the remains were found after "a gentleman heard that we were working in this area and he came to us and told us the location where the two soldiers were buried."
In a one-hour ceremony chaired by U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn and Lt. Gen. Pol Sarouen, chairman of the Cambodian POW/MIA committee, the bones were officially transferred Tuesday.
"It is a bittersweet moment, painful to recall the tragedy that led to the death of these men but also a moment of satisfaction to have the opportunity to bring them back to their family and country," Quinn said in a speech.
During a moment of silence, a U.S. Air Force officer carried two cases containing the remains to two metal coffins. After the remains were transferred, a U.S. Marine and a U.S. Navy officer sealed the caskets, and then helped a U.S. Army officer drape an American flag over each one.
The servicemen then carried the caskets onto a U.S. Air Force C-130 transport plane, which departed for Bangkok, Thailand and then on to Hawaii.
Of the 81 U.S. servicemen who were lost in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, five have been positively identified and their families notified, said Smith.
The official MIA/POW search missions in Cambodia started in 1992. The last repatriation ceremony took place in January 1998.