Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force
Unit: 16th Special Operations Squadron, Ubon AB, Thailand
Date of Birth: 25 March 1940
Home City of Record: Orlando FL
Date of Loss: 21 December 1972
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 152712N 1060048E (XC087086)
Status (in 1973): Missing In Action
Acft/Vehicle/Ground: AC130A gunship
Other Personnel In Incident: Rollie Reaid; George D. MacDonald; John Winningham; Francis Walsh; James R. Fuller; Robert T. Elliott; Robert L. Liles; Harry Lagerwall; Paul Meder; Delma Dickens; Stanley Kroboth; Charles Fenter (all missing/remains returned --see text); Joel R. Birch (remains returned); Richard Williams, Carl E. Stevens (rescued).
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 March 1990 with the assistance of one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews.
SYNOPSIS: An AC130A gunship, "Spectre 17", flown by Capt. Harry R. Lagerwall, departed Ubon Airbase, Thailand on an interdiction mission to interrupt enemy cargo movements along the Ho Chi Minh Trail on December 21, 1972. The crew onboard numbered 16. During the flight to the target, the aircraft was hit by ground fire and after 10 minutes of level flight, the fuel exploded. Two of the crew, Richard Williams and Carl E. Stevens, bailed out safely and were subsequently rescued hours later. The partial body of Joel Birch (an arm) was later recovered some distance away from the crash site.
Heat-sensitive equipment which would pinpoint the location of human beings in the jungles was used to search for the rest of the crew with no success. It was assumed that the missing crewmen were either dead or were no longer in the area.
According to intelligence reports, several piles of bloody bandages and 5 deployed parachutes were seen and photographed at the crash site. Also, later requests through the Freedom of Information Act revealed a photo of what appeared to be the initials "TH" stomped in the tall elephant grass near the crash site. A number of reports have been received which indicate Tom Hart, if not others, was still alive as late as 1988.
In the early 1980's a delegation comprised in part of several POW/MIA family members visited the site of the aircraft crash in Laos. Mrs. Anne Hart found material on the ground in the area which she believed to be bone fragment. She photographed the material and turned it over to the U.S. Government.
In February, 1985, a joint excavation of the crash site was done by the U.S. and Laos from which a large number of small bone fragments were found. Analysis by the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii reported the positive identification of all 13 missing crewmembers. Some critics dubbed this identificatin "Voodoo Forensics."
Mrs. Hart was immediately skeptical. She was concerned that the positive identification of all 13 missing men onboard the aircraft had seemed too convenient. She was further concerned that among the remains said to be those of her husband, she found the bone fragment which she had herself found at the crash site location several years before. She believed this was too much of a coincidence.
Anne Hart had an independent analysis of the seven tiny fragments of bone which the government said constituted the remains of her husband. Dr. Michael Charney of Colorado State University, an internationally respected Board Certified Forensic Anthropologist with nearly 50 years of experience in anthropology, conducted the study.
"It is impossible," Charney wrote in his report, "to determine whether these fragments are from LTC Hart or any other individual, whether they are from one individual or several, or whether they are even from any of the crew members of the aircraft in study."
Mrs. Hart refused to accept the remains and sued the government, challenging its identification procedures. Her challenge produced additional criticism of CIL and the techniques it uses in identifying remains. Some scientists, including Charney, charged that CIL deliberately misinterpreted evidence in order to identify remains. They said the Army consistently drew unwarranted conclusions about height, weight, sex and age from tiny bone fragments. Eleven of the "positive" identifications made on the AC130 crew were determined to be scientifically impossible.
"These are conclusions just totally beyond the means of normal identification, our normal limits and even our abnormal limits," said Dr. William Maples, curator of physical anthropology at Florida State Museum.
Among the egregious errors cited by Charney was a piece of pelvic bone that the laboratory mistakenly said was a part of a skull bone and was used to identify Chief Master Sgt. James R. Fuller. The Reaid ID had been made based on bits of upper arm and leg bones and a mangled POW bracelet said to be like one Reaid wore. The MacDonald ID had been made based on the dental records for a single tooth.
Mrs. Hart won her suit against the government. Her husband's identification, as well as that of George MacDonald, was rescinded. The Government no longer claimed that the identifications were positive. However, these two men were listed as "accounted for."
Mrs. Hart's suit on behalf of her husband made it U.S. Government policy for a family to be given the opportunity to seek outside confirmation of any identification of remains said to be their loved ones. Mrs. Hart also believed that the suit was successful in keeping her husband's file open. Reports were still being received related to him.
In 1988, the Air Force forwarded a live sighting report of Tom Hart to Mrs. Hart. The Air Force had concluded the report was false or irrelevant because Tom Hart was "accounted for." Mrs. Hart again went to court to try and ensure that her husband was not abandoned if, indeed, he is still alive. She wanted him put back on the "unaccounted for" list.
In early March, 1990, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court decision that had ruled the U.S. Government erred in identifying bone fragments as being the remains of Thomas Hart. The appellate court ruled that the government is free to use "its discretion" in handling the identification of victims of war and that courts should not second-guess government decisions on when to stop searching for soldiers believed to be killed in action.
The court also denied Mrs. Hart's request to have her husband returned to the "unaccounted for" list. "The government must make a practical decision at some point regarding when to discontinue the search for personnel," the court said in its ruling.
Most Americans would make the practical decision to serve their country in war, if asked to do so. Even though there is evidence that some of this crew did not die in the crash of the aircraft, the U.S. Government has made the "practical decision," and obtained the support of the Justice system, to quit looking for them.
How can we allow our government to close the books on men who have not been proven dead whose biggest crime is serving their country? If one or more of them are among the hundreds many believe are still alive in captivity, what must they be thinking of us?
Knowing one could be so callously abandoned, how many will serve when next asked to do so?
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