Casey eyes recovery of remains of Penn Hills pilot, other military lost overseas
Nearly scraping the trees in his A1H Skyraider plane, Navy Lt. j.g. Charles Clydesdale neared the enemy ammo dump in Phu Qui, North Vietnam.
When most men would flinch, the pilot from Penn Hills flew straight through enemy anti-aircraft fire to blow up the munitions and head for the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.
He never made it. His bullet-riddled engine sputtering, Clydesdale decided to ditch over the Gulf of Tonkin instead of North Vietnamese jungle. He apparently could not bail out, however, and his body was never recovered from the crash on March 15, 1965.
Clydesdale was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“One of his buddies flew over the crash, and he didn't come up,” said Catherine Clydesdale, 74, his sister-in-law in Penn Hills. “My kids never knew him. They only know the stories people tell about him. It would be nice to have him back so that they could understand why he was so important to us, and we could have some closure.”
If Sen. Bob Casey Jr. has his way, the Clydesdales — as well as relatives of more than 83,000 service members missing from conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, the Cold War, the Persian Gulf and World War II — will get the remains of their loved ones for burial with military honors in the United States.
In a written request sent Friday to Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Charles Hagel, both combat veterans of the Vietnam War, the Scranton Democrat urged them to intensify diplomatic efforts to recover those missing in action from wars in Asia.
Casey wrote the request as America's defense posture looks toward the Pacific and a rising China.
“These issues have been hanging over families for a long, long time,” Casey told the Tribune-Review. “They suffer initially from the terrible news they get during a war about the loss of their loved one. Then they have the additional tragedy of not having their questions answered, not having closure. That must be horrific to live with. This is a renewed effort to bring focus onto these issues.
“As our strategic focus goes to the Pacific region, we need to take advantage of that. There must be engagement with the leaders in that region, and this and every other administration going forward must address it.”
More than two out of every three MIA troops are believed to have died in the military's vast Pacific Command stretching from the Antarctic to Mongolia. Their remains are sought by more than 600 employees of the Pentagon's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or “JPAC” for short.
Casey wants greater cooperation between JPAC and State Department diplomats, including “technical or policy-level discussions with foreign governments,” according to his letter. He would like U.S. dignitaries to prominently raise the issue of missing service members during official overseas visits.
Casey asked the Pentagon to revamp JPAC, a request that follows a stinging report on July 17 from the Government Accountability Office that found “longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure” that stymied the command's ability to account for 200 missing troops a year — the quota set by Congress. The command globally averaged 72 annual identifications between 2002 and 2012.
The Department of Defense is reviewing the findings on JPAC but “will consider immediate, additional steps to improve our activities in this area, to include making any determinations as to whether or not additional resources, manpower and the like will be required,” Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Pentagon spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach said in an email that Kerry worked with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, to establish a “process that has delivered answers to many families who went decades without them.” He said Kerry made 14 trips to the Pacific region as secretary of State and a senator and helped spur the declassification of more than 1 million pages of documents to try to pinpoint where missing service members might be.
“Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel will have a close working relationship on these issues. For families who have never gotten answers about missing service members from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other Cold War conflicts, there's no substitute for closure, and through persistent diplomatic efforts, we have secured cooperation in numerous nations to help bring them the answers they deserve, and we'll continue those efforts,” Gerlach wrote.
Casey said constituents routinely ask for help finding their relatives' remains. The missing include World War II GIs who disappeared in Burma, India, China and the South Pacific and at least 576 Pennsylvanians unaccounted for in the Korean War. Pennsylvania ranks third in the number of troops in the Vietnam War.
Tom Engkilterra, 60, of Toms River, N.J., welcomes Casey's emphasis on missing service members but thinks Congress can do more to help the State Department and Pentagon.
An organizer for the Virginia-based National League of POW/MIA Families, he said lawmakers need to resolve budget problems that idle JPAC crews overseas. He wants Congress to permanently fund JPAC so that it's not dogged by sequestration cuts and possible furloughs of civilian employees.
Engkilterra frets about the congressional fixation on numbers that's pushing JPAC to find 200 remains annually. He said many relatives of the more than 2,100 service members lost across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War worry that JPAC will abandon searches in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam because there are so few unidentified personnel there compared to an estimated 73,000 missing World War II personnel the Pentagon says served between 1941 and 1945 across the globe.
“You have rapid industrialization in Vietnam. They're starting to excavate or encroach upon the potential burial sites of missing Americans,” Engkilterra said. “The acidic soil in Vietnam threatens to destroy the DNA so that even if we recover remains, they cannot be properly identified. And the most pressing problem is that an entire generation of Vietnamese people who witnessed the war and might know where our missing Americans are buried are dying off.
“... I understand that Congress is interested in numbers, and every missing military member from every war is equally important to us, but we have to remain focused on where we're most likely to recover our missing,” he said. “And many families say that's Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.”
Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org.