Vietnam agreed today to open three previously restricted sites to the U.S. for future excavation in the search for American troops missing in action from the Vietnam War.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reached the agreement with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh in a meeting today in Hanoi. Vietnam still restricts eight sites, U.S. Pacific Command Casualty Resolution Specialist Ron Ward said in a briefing with reporters today in Hanoi.
The announcement reflects improving relations between the former combatants from a war that began 50 years ago and ended in 1975. Panetta’s trip underscores an effort by the Obama administration to expand the U.S. presence in Asia to counter China’s rising influence.
The U.S. says 1,666 personnel are still missing from the conflict and of those, 1,284 are in Vietnam. The three sites opened up for investigation include a location in the Quang Binh province in central Vietnam, just north of the former demilitarized zone line that divided North Vietnam from the South.
A U.S. Air Force F-4C was lost in the Quang Binh province in 1967, likely downed by hostile fire, and two pilots are believed missing, Ward said. The second site is in the province of Kon Tum near the Cambodia border, where an Army private is believed missing, and the last is in Quang Tri, where a Marine Corps F-4J aircraft went down, he said. One of the pilots ejected and the other is believed missing, Ward said.
Panetta and Thanh also returned artifacts taken by service members of both nations during the Vietnam War in the first such exchange of its kind, Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.
Panetta presented Thanh with the diary of Vietnamese soldier Vu Dinh Doan, which was taken by U.S. Marine Corps serviceman Robert Frazure in 1966. Thanh presented Panetta with personal letters of U.S. Army Sergeant Steve Flaherty, who was killed in action in 1969. Excerpts of Flaherty’s letters were used for propaganda broadcasts by Vietnamese forces during the war, according to the statement.
Both ministers agreed to return the items to relatives of the deceased soldiers, according to the statement.