The U.S. military says that the excavation of a site in Vietnam where Air Force pilot John F. O'Grady is supposedly buried was stopped before it could be determined if his remains are there.
Elizabeth Feeney, a spokeswoman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, said the excavation in Quang Binh province was shut down "due to increased concern about the safety and well-being" of one of O'Grady's family members. She was referring to Patricia O'Grady, a University of Tampa professor and O'Grady's eldest daughter, whose efforts to recover her father's remains were the subject of a story in the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday.
"The recovery team closed and preserved the site for a future mission and is now working at an alternate site," Feeney wrote in an email.
Maj. O'Grady was 37 years old when he parachuted from his F-105 Thunderchief on April 10, 1967, and disappeared into the dense jungle near a hamlet called Y Leng. He left behind a wife and seven children.
In 1992, Patricia O'Grady visited Vietnam on a fact-finding mission, hoping to figure out what happened to her father. She located some of the local tribesmen who found him when his parachute caught in a tree. He'd fallen to the ground, breaking his leg at the thigh. They said they turned him over to the North Vietnamese Army.
More recently, two former soldiers who said they took custody of Maj. O'Grady in 1967 came forward and revealed that he died of his injuries. They said they buried him on the side of a mountain near a star fruit tree. They informed the agencies that search for missing service members that they knew where he was. They also contacted O'Grady, and about 10 days ago took her to the site where the excavation was about to begin.
Patricia O'Grady, 59, said she was threatened with arrest by Vietnamese authorities because she refused to leave. She also said she believed that Vietnamese authorities removed the remains of her father from the mountain after the Americans stopped the excavation and departed.
But U.S. authorities say they returned to the site on Wednesday and it had not been disturbed. They were emphatic that no remains had been recovered.
"We have no indication that there have been further excavations at the site since operations were suspended," said Air Force Maj. Phillip Ulmer, also of JPAC in Hawaii.
Contacted in Vietnam, O'Grady stood by her story Thursday. She said the villagers who participated in the dig said her father's remains and dog tags had been located. She did not see this, but she said she saw a truck with a wood box pull away from the site. She did not look inside the box, but the driver told her it contained her father's remains.
O'Grady's brothers are frustrated that her presence disrupted the excavation. They said they have been assured by JPAC, the State Department and the Vietnamese Embassy in the United States that their father's remains have not been recovered.
"JPAC told the family she was belligerent and disruptive and broke Vietnam law," said Terry O'Grady, who lives in Valrico. "My father's remains could have been discovered by this time for my mother and her family if not for her behavior."
He said he has the utmost respect for the work of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
"While Patty has made some positive contributions, JPAC deserves all of the credit for their efforts in bringing this case this far," he said.
There are 1,200 service members unaccounted for in Vietnam, according to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
There are five recovery teams and two investigative teams operating in the country. The agency could not say when they would return to search for O'Grady's remains.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or [email protected]