In Vietnam, Undersea Robots Aid the Pentagon’s Search for War Dead


Allowing Americans to bring advanced underwater robots into Vietnamese-controlled areas of the South China Sea — equipment that could have military applications for both governments — is also diplomatically sensitive. Mr. Pietruszka said obtaining the permissions for the recent expedition was “a heavy lift for all parties.”

But U.S.-Vietnamese ties have steadily warmed since the two countries normalized relations in 1995. And for Vietnam, allowing such projects is one way of building further trust with its former enemy, said Le Van Cuong, a retired Vietnamese major general.

“The outstanding characteristic of Vietnamese people is the desire to help others,” he added.

Paul Andrew Avolese, whose family declined to be interviewed, was born on June 12, 1932, archival military documents show. He was from New York and served in the Air Force’s 4133d Bomb Wing in Vietnam.

On July 7, 1967, he and his crew were flying from a U.S. base in Guam alongside other B-52s to bomb a target in South Vietnam, documents show. As two of the bombers maneuvered into place about 65 miles southeast of what was then Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, they collided, igniting a “fireball.” One person on Major Avolese’s plane, Maj. Gen. William J. Crumm, was the first of several American generals killed in the war.

Credit…U.S. Air Force

Eight days after the crash, Col. Mitchell A. Cobeaga of the Air Force told Major Avolese’s parents in a letter that the exact cause of the collision was unknown. “Every man here in the 4133d Bomb Wing shares your anxiety over your son,” he added.

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Major Avolese, who was 35 at the time of the crash, was declared dead a few days after the letter was written. The U.S. military later classified his remains, as well as those of the five others missing, as “nonrecoverable.” Still, investigators pursued potential leads about the wreckage of the two B-52s for decades.


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