Four U.S. servicemen carry a flag-draped coffin which contains possible remains of a U.S. serviceman to a C-17 cargo plane during a repatriation ceremony Wednesday at Phnom Penh International Airport, Cambodia. (Heng Sinith / AP)
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PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — A ceremony was held in Cambodia on Wednesday to repatriate what are believed to be the remains of three American servicemen who went missing in action more than 40 years ago during the Vietnam War.
The remains, in three white coffins draped with U.S. flags, were hoisted Wednesday into a C-17 military cargo plane for transport to Hawaii, where they will undergo DNA testing to try to confirm their identities. An honor guard of four currently serving U.S. servicemen carried the coffins.
"As the son of a combat helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam twice, I am truly privileged to be a part of this important ceremony," U.S. Ambassador William Todd said in a speech at Phnom Penh International Airport in which he also thanked the Cambodian government for its assistance in searching for the missing.
"To my fellow Americans assembled here today, I am humbled and honored to join with you to pay respect to our fellow countrymen who put our nation's needs above their very lives," Todd said. "Today, we honor colleagues who died far from home and whom we never knew."
Some 90 Americans were listed as missing in action in Cambodia from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, but the remains of only 37 have been recovered and identified.
The latest sets of remains were found in eastern Kampong Cham province. U.S. forces staged a brief ground incursion into eastern Cambodia in 1970 and bombed the country heavily from 1969 to 1973.
A year ago, the Pentagon announced the burial at Arlington National Cemetery of the fragmentary remains of a Marine who perished in a failed helicopter rescue from Cambodia of the crew of the merchant ship Mayaguez in May 1975, an incident that is considered the last U.S. military engagement in the long Vietnam War.
Their helicopter crashed after coming under heavy fire; 13 aboard were rescued at sea and 13 others were declared missing. Remains of 12 other U.S. servicemen who also were aboard the helicopter had been accounted for previously, following a series of searches off the coast of Cambodia.
The latest remains were repatriated just two days after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he is establishing a new Pentagon agency with more focused authority and innovative approaches to account for missing U.S. war dead.
The Pentagon has been under congressional pressure for months to take decisive action to improve the POW-MIA accounting effort. Its failings were highlighted last summer when The Associated Press disclosed an internal Pentagon report that said the search for remains of missing soldiers on foreign battlefields was mismanaged, wasteful and acutely dysfunctional.
After lengthy study, Hagel decided to combine the functions of the two leading agencies in this field — the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii, and the Defense POW-MIA Office, based in the Pentagon. Those two organizations will disappear; the new agency will be directed by a civilian official not yet named.