Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cambodia and the S.S. Mayaguez lrgacy

Left behind but not forgotten

Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove spent his 24th birthday on the island of Koh Tang in Cambodia. He also spent his final day there.

Hargrove was one of three Marines left behind and later executed following an assault launched by the U.S. to rescue sailors of the merchant ship the S.S. Mayaguez who were taken hostage by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

Thirty-four years later, military officials say Hargrove's remains have not been discovered.

A local politician believes otherwise.

Duplin County Commissioner Cary Turner decided to take up the cause in 2007 of having Hargrove's remains found, identified and returned.

Turner is Hargrove's cousin. He said after seeing the faraway look in the eyes of his aunt - Hargrove's mother - he knew he had to do something.

"Even if it turns out that we never get him, I want to be able to say I've done everything I can," Turner said. "And if we do bring him home, then I can say I did one good thing in my life."

After it was discovered that American hostages had been released, Hargrove, along with two other Marines, Pfc. Gary Hall and Pfc. Danny Marshall, was assigned to protect the retreating force's right flank. Due to miscommunication on the battlefield, the three were left behind and troops did not return to retrieve them as there was no evidence they had survived and the mission was considered too dangerous, according to documents from Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

Em Son, commander of the Khmer Rouge forces, ordered Hargrove's execution. In 2000, Son returned to Koh Tang with members of JPAC and identified the site where Hargrove was executed. JPAC, however, did not return to the site to recover remains, according to the book "The Last Battle," by Ralph Wetterhahn and published news reports.

In April 2007, Turner started the journey to "bring Joseph home." He presented a resolution to his fellow commissioners seeking support in recovering Hargrove's remains. After hearing Turner's story, Rep. Russell Tucker, D-Duplin, jumped on board and drafted a similar resolution that eventually went before the N.C. General Assembly. It passed unanimously.

"In the first place, we want to bring our folks back home. We feel sure that he was killed and we'd like to bring his remains back home so that his family can have some final closure," Tucker said. "Anytime a bill comes before the General Assembly, the House in particular, about the military and those that are defending us ... we try to do everything we can to support the military, who defend us daily."

In February 2008, Turner headed to Koh Tang as JPAC returned to the island to search for the remains of Hargrove and others. JPAC excavated the site identified by Son, but found no remains. Turner along with several others conducted excavations of their own to no avail.

Turner returned to Koh Tang in February of this year to continue his search for Hargrove's remains. While he did not unearth anything, the trip was not in vain.

In October, JPAC reportedly discovered four sets of remains on Koh Tang, about 30 yards from where Son initially indicated that Hargrove was executed, Turner said.

Turner believes some of the remains are Hargrove's.

"When they dug up those remains last year, there were four sets of remains - three were identified as Asian, one was identified as American," Turner said.

Turner said the remains reportedly indicate the American was injured above the knee with damage to the bone, the wrists showed evidence of being bound and there was a bullet wound to the head, all of which are consistent with accounts Turner has heard surrounding Hargrove's capture and execution.

"Based on what Em Son said, this matches. The similarities are there," he said.

Turner has two Cambodian sources, whom he wishes to keep anonymous, who confirmed on Turner's most recent trip to Cambodia that JPAC had not only discovered four sets of remains, but that one was American. One of the sources, a member of the Cambodian military, said he heard the remains were that of the "executed American."

Another source, a "high-ranking Cambodian officer," who accompanies JPAC when they conduct excavations, also confirmed Turner's suspicions.

"He confirmed it, and they have no reason to lie," Turner said.

At the end of March, Turner met with representatives from JPAC and expressed his concerns. A high-ranking official within JPAC, who Turner also wishes to keep anonymous, promised Turner he would do what he could for him, Turner said.

"I hope he's a man of his word," he said.

Turner believes JPAC may not want to admit to finding Hargrove's remains because he was one of three "left behind."

"All I'm saying is, ‘Do the right thing, let him come home,'" he said. "We're not looking to point fingers."

U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., got involved in Turner's quest, offering support early on. Most recently, he sent a letter to JPAC requesting notification about whether the remains of an American service member recovered in Koh Tang in 2008 had been identified.

"To me, when there's a service person, in this case a Marine, whose family never, ever, had been able to recover the remains to bring the final chapter to the family, I'm going to always extend the help of the office and also my help," Jones said.

Jones received a response on March 20 from JPAC confirming that in October, four samples from recovered remains were sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory for analysis, but those results are pending.

"We've worked with them before regarding Mr. Turner's interest ... and I've found them to be very forthright and up front and I anticipate that they will respond in the next few weeks," Jones said. "I have no question about the integrity of JPAC. They certainly want to return remains. I know that it is important to the families and I think it is important to the country, quite frankly."

Jones also said he has heard that JPAC is understaffed and under funded, which may contribute to the amount of time it takes to process and identify remains.

Turner said he's giving the organization a month before he takes any further action.

"It's in JPAC's lap, I'm waiting for them to make the move. Hopefully they'll do the right thing and fess up and say it's Joseph and send him home," he said. "I'm not going to give up, I'm about 99.9 percent sure they've got him."

Contact Jacksonville/Onslow government reporter Molly DeWitt at 910-219-8455 or mdewitt@freedomenc.com.

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