WASHINGTON — A world away from the scene of a wartime tragedy, relatives of Vietnamese soldiers killed in a helicopter shootdown 39 years ago paid their emotion-choked respects Tuesday at a memorial containing tiny fragments of the men's remains.
Some flew from Vietnam to attend the ceremony — their first visit to the country that fought unsuccessfully to preserve South Vietnam, then left it to the victorious communists in 1975.
The helicopter, which also carried an Associated Press photographer and three other journalists, was knocked out of the sky over southern Laos on Feb. 10, 1971. All 11 aboard perished, but until now relatives of the Vietnamese never got the chance to say their final goodbyes.
"It's very hard," said Heather Pham, who was 14 when her father, Lt. Col. Pham Vi, a South Vietnamese army staff officer, was lost in the crash. "This closes the chapter for us."
She recalled that her father had told the family he was due a break to visit home in one week. They never heard from him again.
"Time went by. We accepted it," she said.
Tuesday's ceremony at Washington's Newseum also demonstrated how, decades after it ended, the Vietnam war is still exacting an emotional toll.
Ly Ho Thi, widow of the doomed chopper's pilot, 2nd Lt. Ta Hoa, traveled from her home in Ho Chi Minh City to pay homage. With her 6-year-old granddaughter, Mary, at her side, she broke into tears as her daughter, Vi Ta Ho Thong, spoke of what the moment meant to her.
"I was born one month after" the crash, the daughter said. "I dreamed of coming here a long time."
For Richard Pyle, a retired AP war correspondent whose 2003 book, "Lost Over Laos," revealed details of the shootdown that the Vietnamese soldiers' families had never known, the quiet gathering at the Newseum's Journalists Memorial evoked memories and raw emotions.
"This is one of the most important things that ever happened to me," Pyle said, ringed by more than two dozen soldiers' relatives — some somber, some smiling, many dabbing at tears.
Pyle was chief of the AP's Saigon bureau at the time. A 43-year-old member of his staff, Henri Huet, was one of four foreign photographers invited to fly to the Laos front on the third day of a major South Vietnamese-led offensive designed to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was North Vietnam's main supply and manpower conduit to the battlefields in South Vietnam.
On board with Huet were Larry Burrows, 44, of Life magazine; Kent Potter, 23, of United Press International; and Keisaburo Shimamoto, 34, a freelance photographer shooting for Newsweek.
With the journalists was a second South Vietnamese staff officer, Col. Cao Khac Nhat. In addition to the pilot, the helicopter's crew, as listed by U.S. officials, included 2nd Lt. Nguyen Dieu, co-pilot; Sgt. Nguyen Hoang Anh, crew chief; and Sgt. Tran Cong Minh, gunner.
Also on board was a Vietnamese military photographer, Sgt. Tu Vu.
Their Vietnamese Air Force UH-1 Huey was one of five choppers that left about noon from Khe Sanh, not far from the Laos border, and headed west. In his book, Pyle writes that the purpose of the mission was to give the South Vietnamese commander, Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, a firsthand look at the unfolding incursion into Laos, code-named Lam Son 719.
Somehow the helicopter ferrying the photographers got separated from Lam's, Pyle wrote, and got lost over a section of southern Laos that was heavily defended by North Vietnamese.
Unseen 37mm anti-aircraft guns opened fire, turning the doomed chopper into what Pyle and his co-author, former AP Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Horst Faas, described as a "sudden, tumbling torrent of fire." Unable to conduct a ground search in hostile territory, recovery teams didn't locate the crash site until 1996. A Pentagon search team excavated the site in 1998.
They could not scientifically confirm the identity of any of the victims, but personal and bone fragments uncovered by the search team enabled the Pentagon in 2002 to declare the case closed as a "circumstantial group identification," meaning there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to determine that the 11 men had perished on that spot.
In 2008 a box containing the artifacts and fragmentary remains was buried in the floor beside the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum, with the names of the four photojournalists engraved on its cover.
Pyle said the fact that seven Vietnamese soldiers who also perished "kind of got lost in the shuffle," so he was heartened that the soldiers' families finally got their chance to pay respects in person.
Vi Ta Ho Tuong, daughter of the chopper's pilot, wept as she recalled the father she never met. She was born one month after he died in a distant jungle.
"I never had a chance to call him papa," she said.