NO MAN LEFT BEHIND
By ANDREW MCGINN
Just the thought of it sends a chill down your spine: An American fighter pilot falls from the sky, thousands of miles from home, and is seemingly swallowed whole by the earth.
Cacophony and chaos eventually give way to silence, even serenity.
Flesh falls from bone. Rust forms on metal.
And then, 64 years later, a resident stumbles upon pieces of an airplane determined to be consistent with a P-47 Thunderbolt.
Eight years after that, investigators recommend the site be excavated.
Possible human remains are found.
A laboratory confirms the improbable — that 2nd Lt. Charles E. Carlson is, at long last, home from the Second World War.
There are only 82,605 more Charles Carlsons out there, just waiting to be found and brought home from the nation’s wars, both declared and undeclared, over the past 76 years.
A.J. Tiffany, a Jefferson native and career soldier, has found himself assigned to a mission that may never be accomplished in this lifetime, but he already credits his work with the nation’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency with reinvigorating an Army career marked by three combat deployments and a stint as a drill sergeant.
Tiffany, a 2000 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School and a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army, reported to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on the island of Oahu in November 2015.
It’s his job to go back and literally unearth those service members whose bodies couldn’t be recovered under the fog of war.
“It’s the credo of the military to leave no man behind,” Tiffany, 34, explained during a phone interview from Hawaii. “It may take a year, it may take 75 years, but we will bring you home and bury you on American soil.”
Every day on his way to work, he passes by the USS Arizona Memorial, where more than 900 sailors remain entombed after their ship was sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
To this day, leaking oil still grimly bubbles up from the ship.
A year into his three-year assignment with the agency, Tiffany’s only surprise is how little the public seems to know about the work.
“Now that I’m in it,” he said, “I’m shocked by how many people don’t know about our unit.”
It’s not that he thinks his unit should be on par with SEAL Team Six for name recognition — rather, increased awareness of the mission will ultimately lead to more family members who step forward with their DNA, which can be culled with something as quick as a cheek swab.
Those DNA samples can then be used to positively identify the remains that Tiffany and his team uncovered in December on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
For Tiffany, who joined the Army Reserve in 1999 at 17 but found himself called to active duty after the horrors of 9/11, this is admittedly a whole new line of work.
“I’ve never been to a country where they’ve not asked me to kill people,” he explained matter-of-factly. “Here I am, part of a humanitarian mission. We just go around and dig in the dirt.
“It’s exactly what I needed in my career. After doing this, I feel like I can take on the world.”
The agency known as DPAA has set for itself a goal of identifying 200 sets of remains a year, according to Tiffany.
“I had no idea how many people were still missing in action,” he said.
Between October and December alone, he said, 35 service members were positively identified and therefore accounted for.
On Jan. 11, DPAA announced it had accounted for Army Sgt. James W. Sharp from the Korean War, deemed missing in action for 66 years after his unit was overwhelmed by Chinese forces at the Chosin Reservoir.
Sharp’s remains had been excavated in 2001 on the reservoir’s eastern bank and were finally identified using DNA analysis.
Last week also brought the news about Charles Carlson, whose P-47 was shot down two days before Christmas, 1944, in a dogfight south of Bonn, Germany.
His remains were recovered between February and May, 2016.
Before that it was 1st Lt. William J. Gray, positively identified Jan. 6 after his own P-47 crashed in Germany on a dive-bombing mission on April 16, 1945.
A DPAA recovery team excavated the crash site and found possible human remains in April 2016.
The dog tags and possible remains Tiffany brought back at the end of 2016 from the South Pacific could very well be the agency’s next success story.
If nothing else, he’s gaining a better appreciation of what the generations of fighting men before him endured, in places with names forever scorched into history.
On the island of Guadalcanal — site of America’s first offensive campaign in the Pacific during World War II, where Marines in August ’42 had their first date with an enemy who insisted on fighting to the death — the jungle is so thick, “You can’t see the person next to you,” Tiffany said.
In Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province, “the bugs were horrible.”
“The place itself is just so hostile,” he said, adding that where they were in Vietnam, two hours north of Da Nang, boasts a heavy concentration of tigers.
Tiger tracks were found less than a mile from their dig site.
“Visiting these old battle sites,” he added, “is awe-inspiring.”
Tiffany ended up in Vietnam last year from May 26 to June 28 after potential missions to China and Burma fell through.
Another mission this past summer stuck closer to home, on the rugged, windward side of Oahu.
The mud was so thick, they airlifted 125 tons of it to a spot where it could dry out to be screened.
There, working six days a week for 12 weeks, they recovered the remains of a Navy Hellcat pilot who, for reasons now unknown, was never removed from the side of the mountain he crashed into on a night training mission in June 1945.
His gold aviator wings were a little bent, but markedly shiny.
“The thing about this organization,” Tiffany said, “they have a ton of really, really smart people doing what they can to put me on the ground.”
Indeed, digs are typically preceded by months and even years of research by DPAA analysts and linguists, who sift through archives in host countries and gather oral history abroad.
The agency’s 23 recovery teams — which includes an underwater and mountaineering team — are made up of forensic anthropologists, forensic photographers, mortuary affairs specialists, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, linguists and others.
Tiffany is a team sergeant, acting as the site foreman.
“Me and my guys, we’re basically hired muscle to dig the dirt,” he said.
As a combat engineer, his second deployment to Iraq in the fall of 2005 had consisted of clearing routes in Mosul of improvised explosive devices — a job that inspired the motto, “Discovery by detonation is still a discovery.”
Some discoveries just take longer than others.
On Guadalcanal in November and December, in a search for Marines whose bodies had been hastily buried during combat, they unearthed a Japanese mortar that hadn’t seen the light of day since World War II.
Another time, a local villager walked up to them with a grocery bag — inside was another mortar round.
“I don’t think I’ve been more satisfied than what I’m doing now,” Tiffany said.
In Vietnam, they were looking for Marines whose helicopter went down in the summer of 1968.
One of the Marines died on his 21st birthday.
By happenstance, Tiffany and his team were digging for him on what would have been his 69th birthday — they took time out to observe his birthday.
He’s one of the 1,617 Americans presumed dead but ultimately still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
Tiffany’s grandfather, lifelong Jefferson resident Bill Kendall, knows his share of the missing, having served in Vietnam with the Army’s Green Berets.
He’s never forgotten their faces.
“Being a retired soldier,” Kendall said, “it gives me a good feeling that the country has not given up on the ones who are MIA.”
His grandson hasn’t yet visited a part of Vietnam where he operated during the war, but it’s nevertheless important work.
“For the families,” Kendall said, “it’s probably the most important thing in their life for closure.”
In Vietnam last year, Tiffany’s team excavated an area the size of half a football field.
“Vietnam is a very hard place to find anything,” Tiffany said. “The ground is very acidic. It eats away at everything. It’s considered slim pickings. When you do find something, it’s like finding a gold coin on the street.”
Even aircraft parts can be hard to come by anymore, according to Tiffany, as many crash sites were pillaged by locals in the 1980s for aluminum.
Other sites in Vietnam and elsewhere are now endangered by urbanization and agriculture.
“We could be running out of time,” he confessed.
This particular site in Vietnam, Tiffany said, is about to be developed with trees for paper production.
The team did, however, find parts of a helicopter matching the one that crashed 48 years before.
“Just because we haven’t found any remains doesn’t mean we’ve given up,” Tiffany said.
What’s clear is that the war to find America’s missing service members is, much like the real thing, a series of battles.
“Even when you don’t find anything,” Tiffany explained, “you still know you’ve reduced the possibilities of where this person might be.”
More than 82,600 U.S. service members remain unaccounted for from the nation’s conflicts since World War II, including Jefferson native Darrell R. Lindsey.
His body was never recovered when he went down with his B-26 Marauder over the Seine in France on Aug. 9, 1944, during a mission for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Other Americans were lost in times of supposed peace, like the 126 men whose secretive reconnaissance flights never returned from over Eastern Europe, North Korea, China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
One Air Force F-111 pilot remains lost from airstrikes on Libya in 1986 known as Operation El Dorado Canyon.
The total breakdown of missing service members:
World War II: 73,093
Korean War: 7,763
Vietnam War: 1,617
Cold War: 126
Iraq and others: 6