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Love Among the Ruins
By Marc Levy
"I was wounded during the morning sweep of the 8 arch'69 LZ Grant battle—had my lower jaw blown off—and spent the next five years in and out of Fitzsimons Hospital. It was not all downtime, as I was able to finish college, get my fixed-wing licenses, and eventually returned to flying full-time."
So begins a May 2023 email from Richard Magner, CW2, US Army Retired (Medical), call sign Tiger 38, assigned to D/229th, the Smiling Tigers, 1st Cav 68/69. Since his retirement from fifty years of flying helicopters (the last 40 as an air-medical pilot) and a subsequent month-long return to Vietnam, he has assisted the Vietnamese government in locating American-dug mass graves of NVA and VC at over one hundred battle sites. He is researching LZ Ranch in Cambodia, overrun in June 1970 when my grunt unit had perimeter guard.
Richard has partnered with two Americans and two Vietnamese civilians in his unique countrywide scope. Nguyen Xuan Thang is an architect in Ho Chi Minh City. He is well respected in the grave search community and an expert in Google Earth layovers. Lam Hong Tien is a civil engineer and friend of Thang's. Thang, Tien, and Richard collaborate online.
Bob Connor served in the Air Force security police. On the night of Tet '68, he spotted, detected, and located incoming fire at the water tower in the center of Bien Hoa. His mass grave work began with a granddaughter's school project in 2016 when he noticed a mass grave comment on the Bien Hoa air base location on Google Earth. He contacted retired NVA Colonel Trung Hieu Che, who had written the post. The interview led to Bob's February 2017 return to Bien Hoa, as featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the eventual discovery of the grave site. In addition to many other battle sites, Bob concentrates on Bien Hoa Tet '68 and is a mass grave identification advocate.
Bien Hoa burials encompass several locations from the Tet '68 assaults: Initial east inner perimeter 150 remains (discovered in 2017 by Bob Connor); outside east perimeter 424; Gate 2, 75-100; outside NW corner near the bomb dump 400 remains estimated to have been brought in from the City by truckloads; 101st south berm 673, south side of Rte 1 not far from Long Binh's Base NW corner 900; Hoi Nai west edge of the village and north of Rt 1 200. A grave of 900 NVA near the southern border of the base is rumored to be located in a private cemetery. Information provided by the 1st Division, 16th Infantry's 1st and 2nd battalions 5-year VN Tour document gave detailed locations for 125-130 grave sites and approximately 1,600 NVA/VC KIA. As a result of this and the team's other successes, DOD contacted Bob, asking if he, Richard Magner, Lam Hong Tien, Nguyen Xuan Thang, and Bob March would assist in searching for US MIAs. Bob immediately accepted the invitation, and the team reported five probable US MIA locations.
Bob March manages his Delta 1/12 First Cavalry Division website, cattrack6india.com. His broad research contributed to the 2022 excavation of LZ Bird, where a December 1966 battle resulted in US 27 KIA/ 67 WIA, and 267 NVA officially estimated KIA.
Using Google Earth and other sources, the team constructs overlaying drawings, grid maps, and aerial photos to locate potential mass graves. Finding and corresponding with Vietnam vets who know of mass burials is equally important. Over the years, Richard has developed an extensive library of United States Geological Survey (USGS) satellite images.
Before LZ Ranch, he investigated LZ David and LZ Brown, each the site of a major battle in Cambodia. Though the number of NVA buried on LZ Ranch is relatively small, they and all NVA/VC MIA are essential to their families and loved ones. In Vietnamese culture, the spirit of the dead cannot rest until the body is made whole and properly buried.
Richard noted several discrepancies in the recollections of survivors regarding LZ Ranch, which he found on my website, Medic in the Green Time. Were there one or two mass graves? Were they in bomb craters or trenches dug by a bulldozer flown in by Chinook? Were the bodies doused in diesel fuel and burned or covered by dirt and lime? In either case, the Vietnamese desire to locate remains is undiminished.
Using data supplied by the Americans, Vietnamese teams excavate a grid of trenches six feet deep. A change in substrata indicates possible disturbance from the natural soil, leading to more precise trowelling. Richard and his online team hope to overcome the Vietnamese reluctance to use ground penetrating radar (GPR). He asked his Vietnamese counterparts their opinions about this unwillingness to use modern technology.
Thang felt there were many reasons. "The first is that senior management is not fully aware of the effectiveness of GPR equipment," he said. "And subordinates do not have enough expertise to use them effectively. They are using it to directly detect anomalies at the scene locally. They don't work systematically to survey the entire area, then analyze the results and draw 3D maps. Then, only exploration and excavation. In short, they don't have a process to work with GPR."
Tien responded, "I don't really understand why. I don't understand the thinking of military agencies. It is kind of like a taboo topic to discuss. I asked the commander of the search team in Binh Phuoc. His answer is very difficult to describe to you. I have discussed with a doctor of radar, very close to GPR, but he has not found the reason. The story of the use of GPR is long. We will definitely need your help in the near future!"
From Richard's lengthy list of bases, more than a dozen have no significant overgrowth or development, making them good candidates for GPR. There are rumors USAID may fund GPRs and tech training, but progress is slow. LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), an even more advanced method used to examine the Earth's surface, may also apply to mass grave detection. Richard is presently exploring the use of cadaver dogs to assist in locating NVA/VC remains.
Of the 125 sites Richard and his colleagues have worked on, only a few excavations succeeded in finding remains. Many require additional details from American vets. Successes include Bien Hoa AFB (approximately 100 remains), the Special Forces base at Kam Duc (approximately 30 remains), and secondary finds at bases in Ba Long and Duc Lap.
Tien relates that from March 23 to May 21, 2021, after a 17-year search, the Martyrs' Grave Gathering Team of Division 968 excavated 40 sets of remains in Tan Xa village, Ba Long commune, Dakrong district, Quang Tri province. At present, all 40 remains cannot be identified. In addition, due to various American and Vietnamese records of multiple large and small battles in the area, it's uncertain if the bodies are those of the 6th Regiment of the Tri Thien Military Region. The excavators also uncovered a photo of a young girl and an open vase with the word "Trung" on it. These items may be helpful in the identification process, informing next-of-kin that a loved one has been identified.
There is a feeling among the team that the Vietnamese are less concerned about VC graves. Even with NVA burials, without sufficient data, there may be reluctance to initiate a search, as in the case of FSB Crook, where the 3rd/22nd Infantry and 7th Bn 11th Field Artillery battled the NVA on June 5-8, 1969. The Vietnamese showed little interest in the base until word reached NVA survivors that Richard's team had located a probable burial site. In June 2020, the northern rim of a 500lb bomb crater near the possible grave site was discovered on private property. The area is supposedly awaiting government reimbursement before excavation.
In May and June 2023, Richard contacted several LZ Ranch survivors via Medic in the Green Time, hoping to pin down where NVA sappers were buried on the base. He conveyed their information to Nguyen Xuan Thang, who, in June 2023, told Richard that Binh Phouc province army Lieutenant Colonel Dinh would very soon conduct a field survey of LZ Ranch. Colonel Dinh expressed his gratitude to the Vietnam vets who provided valuable information. He asked all Vietnam vets to help locate mass war graves throughout Vietnam.
If you know of the LZ Ranch graves, have aerial photos of the base, or know of other NVA/VC graves sites on American bases, you can contact Richard Magner at email@example.com.
Richard said, "Time has long passed for these soldiers, our former enemy, to be recovered, their spirits laid to rest, and solace given to their families and loved ones."
Marc Levy was an infantry medic with Delta 1-7 First Cav in Vietnam/Cambodia in 1970. His website is Medic in the Green Time.
In 2020, two relatives pray for the dead at Patrol Base Frontier City, 25 clicks southeast of Tay Ninh.