U.S. – Russia Joint Commission Continues to Search in Russia for Information on Missing American Military Personnel
Story by Henry Eastman, DPAA Historian
DPAA through its Joint Commission Support Division (JCSD), and in support of the U.S-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs (USRJC), conducts research, analysis and investigation in Russia on U.S. personnel missing from past wars. Much of this work deals with material collected from Russian archives, interviews with Soviet/Russian veterans, and field investigations.
The USRJC was established in 1992 by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin as a forum through which both nations seek to determine the fates of their missing service personnel.
Beginning in 1992, U.S. analysts have had access to many important Russian governmental archives for research on past conflicts including the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense (TsAMO) in Podolsk, Russia—the largest military archive in Europe. However, a period of decreased cooperation started in 2006 when access to TsAMO was curtailed. Access was restored after U.S. President Obama and Russian President Medvedev officially reestablished the presidential status of the USRJC in July 2009 through an exchange of diplomatic notes. The Presidents also reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening bilateral cooperation on POW/MIA issues. Air Force General Robert H. “Doc” Foglesong (retired) has served as Chairman of the U.S. Side since April 2006. On the Russian Side, General-Colonel (retired) Valery A. Vostrotin was appointed the Chairman by President Putin in July 2014.
The USRJC had met in plenary session 19 times between 1992 and 2005. This was followed by a period of 11 years where there were no plenary sessions. Therefore, despite the tensions in US-Russian relations, both sides recognized the need to hold a plenary meeting of the USRJC. Planning began in earnest after the initial meeting of Generals Foglesong and Vostrotin in Moscow in November 2015. The DPAA Director at that time, Mr. Michael Linnington, followed up with a visit to Moscow in February 2016 to discuss the forthcoming plenum. JCSD then hosted a Russian delegation for further planning in April, and, at long last, the 20th Plenum of the USRJC was held at the Pentagon Conference Center in May of this year.
Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., a soldier’s soldier who lied about his age to enlist in the service, won his commission on a battlefield in World War II and became a four-star general and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Reagan administration, died Thursday night at his home in North Oaks, Minn. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Sarah Vessey Krawczyk.
When his military career was finally over in 1985 — after the wars and killing, the medals and promotions, the White House meetings on defense and nuclear strategies, and the 46 years that had made him the nation’s longest-serving active soldier — General Vessey did not quietly fade away.
Instead, in retirement, he went back to Vietnam repeatedly, as a special envoy of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, to find out what had happened to the hundreds of Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action since 1975, when North Vietnam defeated United States-backed South Vietnam.
The fate of the P.O.W./M.I.A.s has been one of the most divisive and troubling legacies of the war.
General Vessey’s breakthrough talks with Hanoi in 1988 led to on-the-ground searches by Pentagon teams that uncovered the remains of about 900 American military personnel over the next two decades, and to official conclusions that no American prisoners were still being held in Vietnam, though hundreds of cases remain unresolved, a source of continuing political controversy and grief for families.
Far from a West Point or Annapolis man, the future general was a Minneapolis high school boy, not quite 17, when he slipped past recruiters (minimum age was 18) and joined the Minnesota National Guard in 1939. His Army infantry unit was activated in 1941, months before America’s entry into World War II.
By 1943, he was a first sergeant fighting in North Africa. His unit took a strategic hill in the American drive to seize the Tunisian port of Bizerte. Allied victories there and at Tunis proved critical to the defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa.
A year later, as American troops clung to the Italian beachhead at Anzio in some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, the sergeant and two other noncoms in his unit won battlefield commissions as second lieutenants. They were dispatched as forward observers; within days one was dead and the other seriously wounded.
After the war, he served in Germany, a Cold War hot spot, and in Korea, though not during the Korean War.
He next saw action in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. He was wounded and won a Distinguished Service Cross for defending a firebase that was partly overrun by Vietcong, the Communist insurgents in the south. The invaders were so close that he and his men had to depress their howitzer barrels and fire point blank into the onrushing enemy ranks.
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