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May 30, 2012

Accounting for Memorial Day

Norman M. Covert

You’ve heard the U. S. Marine Corps mantra that it will leave no comrade behind. It isn’t, however, exclusive to the Corps this traditional Memorial Day. The Army, Navy, Air Force and, yes, the U. S. Coast Guard, continue striving to account for those missing in action. We also want our children home.


That common creed was underscored here in April 2008, when it was announced that remains of Air Force Sr. M. Sgt. James Kenneth Caniford had been identified. His remains are among some 957 recovered from Southeast Asia and identified since 1973.


The Middletown High School graduate’s AC-130A Hercules Spectre gunship had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile in Laos March 29, 1972. Fortunately, despite heavy enemy presence, the crash site was able to be secured immediately allowing future searches for crew members’ remains.


It has taken several attempts by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to be satisfied that all possible remains have been recovered from the crash site.


SMSgt. Caniford has been listed as missing in action since that date, giving him the distinction as the only known MIA from Frederick County. As a result, his inscription read “MIA” on the Frederick County Vietnam Veterans Memorial when dedicated April 30, 1995. The inscription below his image was corrected last year to read “KIA.”


His name was engraved on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington after his burial May 28, 2008, in Arlington National Cemetery. “The Wall” now includes more than 58,195 names.


Twenty-three Frederick Countians are included on the black South African granite obelisk in Memorial Grounds Park at West 2nd and Bentz streets in downtown Frederick.


The mission of recovering and identifying remains of U. S. service members is an on-going effort by the Department of Defense, which reported 1,689 “unaccounted for” last November.


Following his retirement, Col. Joseph Schlatter (USA, Ret.) began a website ( to provide accurate information on the question of prisoners of war and missing in action in Southeast Asia.


He breaks down official MIA numbers by country: Vietnam 1,296; North Vietnam 476; South Vietnam 820; Laos 328; Cambodia 58; China (territorial waters) 7; including 468 at sea or over water losses.


Colonel Schlatter emphasized that all U.S. personnel captured during the Vietnam War were released either before “Operation Homecoming” in the spring of 1973 or earlier.


“Operation Homecoming” began in February 1973 following “peace talks” in Paris with the North Vietnamese. Released prisoners of war from the “Hanoi Hilton” and other POW camps in North Vietnam were flown to Clark Field in the Philippines where family members were brought to welcome them home.


He says the only men captured and not released included: 133 known POW who died in captivity; those whose identities and the circumstances of their deaths have been verified; or some whose remains have been recovered/returned.


It is certain none were taken to the Soviet Union, China or other third country, he says.


A concerted effort has been made to recover or account for missing men. It began during the Vietnam War itself. Colonel Schlatter assures the effort “continues today and is unprecedented in the history of warfare.”


Identification of SMSgt. Caniford’s remains is typical of the intensity of the JPAC teams, which continue to search for remains in Southeast Asia.


In its report detailing recovery and identification of SMSgt. Caniford’s remains, the Air Force reported JPAC led a joint contingent of U.S./Laotian forensic experts to survey and excavate the crash site in Savannakhet Province, Laos. Human remains and other evidence, including two identification tags, life support items and aircraft wreckage were initially recovered. Nine crew members were identified.


When it abandoned the crash site, the team had recovered more human remains, personal effects and crew-related equipment in two subsequent excavations up to 1988. As a result, SMSgt. Caniford and the other crewmen were identified after years of intense investigation.


JPAC used forensic identification tools, circumstantial evidence, mitochondrial DNA and dental comparisons, the Air Force said.


Memorial Day is a good day to account for our children’s whereabouts. Jim Caniford was absent, now he is home.


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