ARLINGTON, VA –
“Six hundred more meters,” shouted Army Major Klairoong Pattumma, mission commander from Detachment One-Thailand, as the team trudged onward, the stifling heat and challenging terrain, making even the most experienced team members feel that this was one of the hardest hikes they had ever undertaken to get to a crash site.
An eight-person team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recently completed an investigation mission in the Kingdom of Thailand; the first of its kind in the area in 15 years.
The 26-day mission, including an initial quarantine period in Bangkok, centered on DPAA’s efforts to locate the crash sites for two aircraft that crashed near Lampang, Thailand in November 1944 during World War II. The site work began in late April and lasted until May 2.
Showcasing the importance of the agency’s partners, the two cases were brought to the attention of DPAA analysts by researchers Richard “Hak” Hakanson, Wiyada “Noi” Kantarod, retired Air Chief Marshal Sakpinit Promthep from the Royal Thai Air Force Museum, and active duty U.S. Air Force Major Dan Jackson.
The mission, which was the first one conducted in Thailand since 2006, was led by Air Force Captain Jenavee Viernes, and Major Pattumma, from Detachment One-Thailand.
The first crash site was situated among several rice paddies just south of Lampang and was easily surveyed by the team. The second crash site, however, proved to be more of a challenge.
Led by a local guide and forest rangers from the Kheland Banphot National Park, the team began their ascent to the site. The initial hike to the site, which the team members later jokingly nicknamed, “The Thunderdome,” was conducted on one of the hottest days of the mission, with a temperature of 104°F and 80 percent humidity. The trail, which ascended uphill immediately from the trailhead, followed narrow mountain footpaths with 70-80 degree drop-offs on one side, down 40-50 degree slopes into rock-filled gullies, and back up the opposite slopes, the team climbing by hand from tree trunk to bamboo cluster to tree trunk.
By the time they reached the site, the team hiked approximately five kilometers from the trailhead to the crash site area, but the heat, humidity and the terrain made it feel more like 50 kilometers. The crash site itself was spread out over multiple spurs and draws emanating from the top of the ridge with slopes of 40-45 degrees. Footing was loose and as team members traversed the area, tennis ball to volleyball sized rocks crashed down the slopes.
Over the next few days at the site, the team Forensic Anthropologist, Dr. Kyle McCormick, conducted his archaeological survey. The team observed aircraft wreckage and recovered possible life support equipment, which will hopefully lead to the recovery and identification of the missing pilot. The successes on this mission could not have been accomplished without the assistance of the third-party researchers, their interpreter, the forest rangers of the Kheland Banphot National Park, and the Detachment One support personnel.
No matter the obstacles - COVID quarantine, a treacherous hike, oppressive heat and humidity or the ghost in Room 604 of the teams’ hotel - the team successfully completed their mission and pushed two more cases forward towards the ultimate goal of bringing two missing Americans home.
What about the ghost, you ask? Well, that’s another story…