Story by Dawn Southard
Photos by Matt Mallams
During a routine bombing mission on February 8, 1969, US Air Force pilot Capt. Thomas E. Clark came under heavy enemy fire. His F-100D Super Sabre went down on a remote, densely forested mountainside in Savannakhet Province, southern Laos. The pilots of other American aircraft reported seeing no parachute or other indication that Capt. Clark survived, and his name was added to the long list of Vietnam War MIA—missing in action.
Twenty-three years later, in 1992, an expedition of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting reached the jungle crash site. They retrieved enough material to identify the aircraft as the one Clark flew but found no remains. Maj. Clark (he had been promoted while MIA) was declared KIA—killed in action. But for his family, there was still no closure.
Thirteen years passed before a second team, this one from the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, revisited the crash site in November 2005 to search for the missing pilot. A team of anthropologists, soldiers and Laotian laborers methodically removed soil and hauled it bucket by bucket to a screening station; they would eventually sift through more than eighty tons of soil. It was hard, sweaty work, and success was not assured: Jungle soil is highly acidic, and not even human bones last long. But on November 16, midway through the thirty-day mission, they found the crown of a human tooth.
After more than forty years of crash site experience, JPAC has developed sophisticated search models that justify returning to old crash sites like this one—which is why, nearly four decades after Capt. Clark’s crash, anthropologists were able to find a tooth. And JPAC has been developing new methods of analyzing biological clues that make it possible to close a case by examining something so small as a fragment of enamel.
To solve the mystery of whether the tooth belonged to Capt. Clark, the team had to bring it back to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, home to one of the world’s largest and most cutting-edge forensic laboratories. Even then, the mystery would take five more years to solve.