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Timewatch: Missing in action

Updated Tuesday 7th February 2006

Will there ever be a definitive explanation of what happened to Americans lost in Vietnam and still missing in action?

United States flag by war memorial Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission From 1961 to 1973 American warplanes flew more than a million missions over Vietnam. America envisaged its war against the Vietnamese first and foremost as an air war, but command of the air was bitterly contested. During the air war over Vietnam more than 1,300 American pilots were reported as ‘missing in action.’

At the height of Operation Rolling Thunder, the most intense aerial campaign of the war, two pilots went missing after returning from a dangerous bombing mission over Hanoi in April 1967. Major Herman Knapp and his co-pilot, Lt. David Austin, were among a flight of four Phantom fighter jets when they were shot down over a tea plantation in Northern Vietnam, close to the border with Laos.

Nearly forty years on, a unique unit of the American military re-visits the site where Major Knapp and Lt. Austin were last seen alive. JPAC is the Joint Prisoner of War / Missing in Action Accounting Command. From their base in Hawaii, their mission is to search for, identify and bring home all missing American servicemen from all previous conflicts. In total, JPAC are searching for more than 90,000 men. There are still more than 1,800 missing from the Vietnam War.

This is the fifth time that JPAC has visited the site of Major Knapp and Lt. Austin’s crash. Overseen by a JPAC Forensic anthropologist and supported by 100 local Vietnamese, the JPAC team have thirty days to excavate the site and uncover as much evidence of the crash as possible. All archaeological evidence unearthed from the site is brought to JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for scientific analysis. The Vietnamese Government allows up to four recovery teams into the country four times a year, for an average of thirty days per excavation. All JPAC cases remain open until a positive identification has been made. A case cannot be closed until human remains have been found. But will JPAC find the remains of Major Knapp and Lt. Austin this time?

Under US law, the Government must account for all missing servicemen, and JPAC is the operational unit that fulfils this mandate. But the wife of Major Herman Knapp has different views. Helene Knapp, whose children were just two and three years old when her husband was shot down, became a leading campaigner for the full accounting of all missing servicemen and POWs in the years after the Vietnam War. But after 10 years of JPAC investigations into Herman Knapp and David Austin’s disappearance, she wants the search to stop.

This film follows JPAC in Vietnam as they search for Major Knapp and Lt. David Austin, as well as telling Helene’s story and exploring the wider MIA issue. An interview with Brigadier General Robin Olds, the USAF Commander who was leading the mission when Major Knapp and Austin went missing, reveals what life was like for pilots who flew daily missions in the most intense aerial conflict of the 20th century.

 

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