The Untold Story of Baron 52

Still More on Baron 52


"The Untold Story of Baron 52"

Their flight was supposed to be a secret. Their fate was not. By Alfred Lubrano Alfred Lubrano is an inquirer staff writer. The Vietnam War had been over for a week. But top-secret U.S. spy planes continued to fly covert missions over countries President Richard Nixon never talked about. So, at 11:05 p.m. on Feb. 4, 1973, "Baron 52" lumbered down the runway and lifted off from a U.S. Air Force base in Ubon, Thailand, with eight men aboard. Over Laos. specialists from the (6994th Security Squadron eavesdropped on a convoy of North Vietnamese tanks snaking along the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Cambodia. Baron 52 blipped onto North Vietnamese radar at 1.25 a.m., Feb. 5. Suddenly, 37mm antiaircraft artillery blistered the sky around the converted cargo plane, an EC-47Q. The slow-trying plane was being chewed up by an asteroid storm of flak. The crew's last contact with Ubon was at 1:40 a.m. A search team reached the aircraft four days later and found it lying upside down on the side of a jungle mountain, its fuselage burned down to an 18-inch tube. Searchers reported seeing three or four bodies in the forward section of the plane, the so-called front-enders: pilot. copilots. navigator. What happened to the back-enders, the other four men aboard the last American military plane to be shot down over Southeast Asia, has been the focus of 25 years of rage and discontent, a slow-motion nightmare. Families of the four men in the back of the plane insist they parachuted out and were captured. But the government decreed all on board crashed and burned. Its proof: an excavation of the site in 1993; that yielded half a tooth, identified as belonging to one of the back-enders, Sgt. Peter Cressman. So powerful is the family obsession to learn the truth about "Baron 52", that Cressman's brothers have spent their lives trekking from the mountain military camps of Afghanistan, to the Mekong River, to the paper wilderness of the Library of Congress. to the living room of a man in Texas who said his conscience forced him to end two decades of silence on secrets that had burned him from within. The families' fixations on "Baron 52" ended a marriage and deepened a father's withdrawal into alcohol. It triggered a mother's heart attack, bankrupted a brother - twice - and derailed joy and stunted growth among people whose lives hardened and cracked. Two of the families are convinced the government lied to them to protect what they say was the war's most unpalatable legacy: that the United States abandoned its own in the rice paddies and jungles after April 12, 1973 - the date by which Nixon said all American POWs were returned. The families of Cressman, then a 21-year-old from Bergen County, N.J., and Sgt. Joseph Matejov, a 20-year-old from Long Island, have joined a restless and bitter community of a few hundred Americans who make up the so-called "Bamboo Pipeline". True disbelievers, they are a corps of ragged, nearly broken people who maintain that the U.S. government has buried men in the wrong graves and declared men dead, while hiding evidence that they may have been alive. The war is long over, and polls show that most Americans care little about POW issues or the 2,109 men still listed as missing in action. But "Bamboo Pipeline" activity continues. Near Fort Wayne, Ind., the Marine Corps is in a bizarre standoff with a 76-year-old widow over bones that may or may not be those of her son. And as U.S.-Vietnamese relations warm, the Cressman brothers and Mary Matejov, Joseph's mother, curse the diplomats and President Clinton for, in their eyes, entombing the truth by removing the former enemy's incentive to provide vital information. "You know," says Matejov, "my late husband used to say,`They don't do this in America.' But you learn the hard way: They sure do. There isn't anything my country wouldn't do. "We're just as dirty as any other nation. It breaks your heart." Within hours of the "Baron 52" downing, analysts in Room 7A119 of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., were on alert. Four NSA listening posts near Laos - "flying antenna" spy planes, as well as on-ground spooks with big electronic ears - had intercepted North Vietnamese communications about the crash. According to declassified NSA reports. North Vietnamese officers were saying, in code, that their soldiers were "holding four pilots captive" soon after the downing, in the vicinity of the crash. Then, there were references to "four pirates" being moved north, and another message that read, "The people involved in the south Laotian campaign have shot down one aircraft and captured the pilots." Intelligence officers say the North Vietnamese interchangeably used the terms pilots and pirates to characterize fliers of any rank. "The first message was heard immediately after the incident," according to Jerry Mooney, a former National Security Agency analyst who was in Room 7A119 when "Baron 52" went down. In a recent telephone interview, Mooney explained that he was one of several analysts who read the messages. While none of the North Vietnamese reports made reference specifically to "Baron 52", Mooney said, "There was no other plane shot d own that day, and the code systems they were using pertained only to that area." Mooney's report of the messages was signed off by other analysts, and sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the White House, Mooney said. In the days following the crash, congressional documents show, 6994th Security Squadron communique read: "Believe ... crew members could have bailed out and possibly been carried north by the winds...." A message to Washington from Air Force headquarters in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, read, "There is a chance that ... crew members ... bailed out and landed safely on the ground. . There is not conclusive evidence of death." On May 24, 1973, Roger Shields, assistant to the assistant secretary of defense, and Henry Kissinger's point man on the POW-MIA issue for the recently signed Paris peace accords, wrote an internal memo that reads, "DIA ... feels there is some reason to believe that the four may actually have been captured." Finally, according to Robert Wilhelm, a former security analyst with the 6994th, members of the squadron received a message from a "usually reliable" Laotian "friendly," who had reported seeing "four, clean-shaven Americans in flight suits" being led through the Laotian jungle by North Vietnamese soldiers one day after the crash. The families of the crewmen were not told any of this. At 5:40 p.m. on Feb. 22, 1973, a priest and an Air Force officer in a van pulled up to the St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Cressmans, who had moved south from Oakland, N.J. "We have conclusively established that your son Peter could not have survived," the Air Force officer told them. "There is no reasonable doubt." Cressman's father, George, a World War II veteran, punched an oak beam in the living room and screamed to his other sons, "That's it. I'm gonna kill the[North Vietnamese] bastards. Who's with me?" The Matejovs received similar word. Joseph's father, Stephen, was a West Point graduate and former lieutenant colonel who won the Silver Star, third-highest honor for bravery in action, for saving the lives of his men in a battle during the Korean War. He had worked for military intelligence during the Cold War, rescuing people from behind the Iron Curtain. Matejov quietly told his wife and nine remaining children that such things happen in war. You must be brave, he told them. He would cry at midnight, when he thought his wife couldn't hear him. For five years, there was not doubt, just grief. "From 1973 to 1978, we believed the men were dead," says Pat Cressman, one of Peter's four brothers. "Then, one day, a light comes on," says brother Steve. A whistleblower - unknown to the families to this day - had contacted a New York attorney, who in turn called the families in July 1978 and told them about the security intercepts. Just as the Cressmans were absorbing this, an Air Force officer called to say, "There's a possibility they were captured." "It all opened up after that," Steve says. Pat nods his head, remembering: "The entire family became obsessed from that day on." Pat Cressman is sweating. He lowers the air-conditioner temperature in a meeting room in his suburban Tampa apartment complex. On the table in front of him is a huge black binder that holds hundreds of pages of documents about the Vietnam War. In his apartment are stacks of boxes bulging with thousands more slices of the story. His brother Steve, a deputy sheriff, joins him in the cooling room. "Baron 52" has been Pat's life work, his quest, his downfall. "This thing has consumed and whittled away the family," his wife, Robin, confides. "My wife married into a mess," Pat concedes. "I've been wrapped around this pretty tight," he continues. "For me, the day it occurred is like right now. It's a snapshot in time. The music I listen to, the movies I watch, the people I'm most comfortable with - are all in that era. Everything relates back to this. This one picture: The U.S. government flat out killed my brother. "On paper," Steve joins in."Administrative homicide." Pat concludes. Thirty-seven years old, heavyset with graying hair, Pat also works for the sheriffs department, manning the radio. He was 12 when Baron 52 went down in1973. For the next five years, he planned on attending the Air Force Academy, took flying lessons, dreamed of becoming an aviator. Then the phone rang in 1978. "That's when the bottom dropped out, man," Fat says. Sickened by the military, he became a POW-MIA researcher, haunting libraries. "I could've made a lot more money if not for this. I would have stayed in school. I'm a dumpy old dude now. You look in the mirror and wonder, Where did the time go? It sucks, but this needs to be done. This is my blood." Maybe he's just making excuses for not achieving more. But Steve says he isn't. "Something like this changes the natural progression of life," he says, adjusting the silver POW-MIA Peter Cressman bracelet he wears on his right wrist. Powerfully built with white hair and a white mustache, the 43-year-old looks every macho inch the lawman. "Things seem stifled. You don't move on and do things quickly, because you feel like you're leaving someone behind. You're not happy. You are obsessed." Another Cressman brother. Bob, who had stepped on a land mine in South Vietnam in 1969, but was not seriously wounded, worked hardest on the issue at first. His fixation may have cost him his marriage, his brothers say. Bob and Steve traveled to the Mekong River to meet with Laotian resistance fighters to learn about POWs. They brought back six sets of remains of men killed in action, but never saw any live prisoners. Steve sold his beloved Harley-Davidson to finance the trip. Pat, meantime, hooked up with some big-money types who'd hatched a bizarre scheme to travel to Afghanistan to enlist Muslim mujaheddin fighters in their cause. At the time, the Russians were fighting the Afghanis. Because it was believed, but never proved, that the North Vietnamese had sent POWs to the Soviet Union, Pat's friends thought they could convince the mujaheddin to swap Russian prisoners for American POWs. Nothing ever came of his quixotic trip.Still, Pat continued to travel around America, learning what he could about Baron 52. He wracked up $30,000 in bills, and declared bankruptcy in 1986 and again in 1993. "You could say,`Enough is enough, get on with your life,"' Steve says, as the air conditioning finally turns the room cold. "But you can't. It wouldn't be right. There's a chance he could be alive. Or that others are. If my family can't feel closure, maybe another could. "People say we can't handle death. Garbage. I've put my hand on 100 dead bodies. We're not a boo-hoo, candy-assed family unable to deal with reality. What you can't handle is knowing that the government left them behind." In 1991, the brothers got a tip about a former Air Force man who had examined the crash site days after the plane was shot down. Pat and Steve travelled to the Texas home of Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Schofield, aching for news. "I've been waiting for you guys for 18 years," Pat recalls Schofield saying. Schofield began to cry. The brothers misted up. Then Schofield said something that caused both Cressmans to clutch their chests and stare at each other: "The parachute door was missing. Those men got out of the plane alive. I knew it from that day." Schofield could not be reached for this story. The brothers said his silence had eaten at him, but Schofield believed he had a duty not to reveal secret information. Apparently, though, Schofield decided the right thing to do was to speak out. In a sworn deposition for the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs in November 1992, Schofield testified that the plane's parachute door was missing. "It was nagging in my mind," said Schofield in his deposition. Schofield didn't think the back-ender bodies burned up in the crash because he recognized the bodies of the front-enders. "They were wearing Nomex (fire-retardant flight) suits," he testified. That meant that if there were other bodies there, "they should have been recognizable" because "the Nomex did its job," preserving the bodies. Schofield testified that he believed that the men kicked out the door and bailed out before the plane crashed. "I think some of them got out," Schofield testified. "That parachute door should have been there, and it wasn't." A dashing figure with a shoulder holster and a penchant for leaving three weeks at a time on hush-hush, military-intelligence forays, Lt. Col. Stephen Matejov was proud when his son was accepted into the ranks of the eyes-only/need-to-know types of the Air Force security service. He and his wife, Mary, thrilled to see Joe between assignments, jetting into LaGuardia Airport, a briefcase of secrets handcuffed to his wrist. "The last time I saw him, at the airport in New York, I had a bad feeling," Mary Matejov says. "It was a strange premonition. He only had 56 days left. But my gut told me he wouldn't complete his tour." A former USO hostess with a restless woman's yen for adventure, Mary Matejov has camped in the California wilderness and shot Class 6 rapids. She was attracted to military types and married an officer. All three of Mary and Stephen's sons volunteered for duty in Vietnam. Their daughter, Theresa, is a West Point graduate, same as dad. During the Vietnam War, Matejov would picket Joan Baez antiwar concerts, little Joseph and her other kids in tow. "We believed in duty-honor-country,'' Matejov says. "But what they teach at West Point, they don't practice." Matejov's brick-and-frame house outside Norfolk, Va., is filled with photos of children in uniforms. After the family learned that the government had evidence Joseph Matejov might have survived the crash, Stephen vowed: "I'm going to get answers." Using his Pentagon contacts, the retired lieutenant colonel eventually learned about the intercepts and other classified information the Air Force never told the family. He came to believe that the United States did not want to admit to the world that it was dispatching spy planes to Laos when the war was over. Also, he told his wife, Baron 52 was shot down right before the North Vietnamese were about to release 591 POWs. The American government, he believed, did not want to endanger the release by asking Vietnam for four more. Matejov arranged a meeting in New York City with Roger Shields, Kissinger's POW-MIA man. Mary remembers. "He told us there was no doubt these four men were captured. He said he had always meant to go back to get our men, but that he dropped the ball." I'I1 never forget that. He said, 'I'm sorry, I dropped the ball.' " Shields, now a managing director of Chase Manhattan Bank, says that he doesn't remember the meeting quite that way. "I never said I dropped the ball," he explains. "I did say it was striking to hear the intercepts that `pirates had been captured' on the heels of the downing of our aircraft. There were sufficient questions in my mind that if had been making the determinations, I would not have [labelled] the men KIA [killed in action]. I'm sorry we didn't get back in to investigate." Shields says the government would never knowingly leave men behind. Angry that the government for which he'd risked his life had apparently withheld vital facts about his lost son, Matejov grew withdrawn and began to drink more heavily, Mary says. He died tragically in 1984, falling off the roof while doing routine repairs. Soon after, Mary began a life of speaking about MIAs around the country. Recently, she suffered a heart attack at an appearance while telling the story of Baron 52, and has since slowed her activities. Now feeling old, she says the government is "trying to wait me out," until she dies. But she says, with a wan smile, "I hope I irritate the government for the rest of my life." On Nov. 2, 1992, a team of Americans and Laotians reached the Baron 52 crash site near Ban Tang Pong in Xekong Province, Laos. During a preliminary two-hour search, the men found dogtags stamped with Joseph Matejov's name lying uncovered on the ground, according to a congressional report. Later excavations at the site in 1993 produced 20 unidentifiable bone fragments, 22 rings associated with parachutes and one half of a premolar tooth said to belong to Peter Cressman. According to the government. the rings proved the men did not use their parachutes to jump out of Baron 52 before it crashed: The rings would have been needed to hold together the straps on a parachute harness; if only rings were found, that meant they were the remnants of parachutes that had burned up in the crash. The tags and the tooth fragment show that Matejov and Cressman were aboard when the plane hit, and proved that the other backenders, Todd Melton and Dale Brandenburg, were dead, the government said. "The team ... collected a wealth of forensic evidence from the site," wrote James Weld, deputy assistant secretary of defense with the department's POW-Missing Personnel Office, in a March 1996 letter to Sen. Robert Smith (R.-N.H.), vice chairman of the Senate committee looking into POW-MIA affairs. The evidence, Weld wrote, "confirms that all eight members of the crew were onboard the aircraft when it crashed." He added that "early speculation and uncorroborated theories have unfortunately given false hope to the family members." One such theory relates to the intercepts about captured "pirates." In a Senate hearing, Robert DeStatte, senior analyst for the DIA, decried the intelligence as "long-standing misinterpretations" having nothing to do with Baron 52. Unfortunately, he testified, "an erroneous impression of survivors was preserved. Yet, the reports do not relate to the loss of the EC-47Q." DeStatte did not handle the intercepts at the time NSA personnel received them in February and May of 1973. Nevertheless, in 1986, he wrote an analysis saying the intercepts originated in a city 240 miles from the crash. DeStatte blamed Jerry Mooney, the NSA analyst at the time of the incident, for putting his own spin on things through "unwarranted and arbitrary personal speculation." DeStatte added, "There is no intelligence whatsoever to indicate any of the crew survived." The North Vietnamese were probably referring to four other prisoners when they talked about "captured pirates," DeStatte said. It is DeStatte's memo and subsequent testimony - along with the excavation evidence - that form the basis for the government's position on Baron 52. DeStatte, who still works for the government, declined numerous requests for interviews, as did several other government and military personnel involved in POW-MIA affairs. DeStatte has never publicly explained why he believes the intercepts don't refer to the Baron crew. Mooney - who calls DeStatte "a bald-faced liar" - says that it would have been a physical impossibility for the radio spies who eavesdropped on North Vietnamese conversations after the plane was shot down to have heard a message originating from 240 miles away. It was simply too far, he says. In a phone interview, Sen. Smith says DeStatte was being dishonest when he testified and that he had asked Attorney General Janet Reno to "go after DeStatte for perjury." Nothing came of it. But, Smith adds, he thought it "bizarre that DeStatte was so aggressive talking about the intercepts when he wasn't even there. Who was he to deny them? No one has ever disproven this intelligence." Regarding the Cressman tooth and Matejov dogtags, Smith is equally skeptical. "They very conveniently found these right on the ground," he says. Bill Bell, President Bush's chief of the U.S. Office of POW-MIA Affairs in Hanoi, says finding a dogtag just lying around after supposedly being intriple-canopy jungle for 20 years is "bizarre. and a slap in the face from the Vietnamese. I found that insulting that they would stoop that low." Vietnamese traders have been known to create phony dogtags of GIs who served in Vietnam in the hopes of selling them. In Matejov's case, Bell claims the Vietnamese salted the crash site with fake dogtags to end speculation on the case to remove potential impediments to ongoing trade talks with the United States. Mary Matejov believed the tags were phony and had them tested, but the results were inconclusive. To this day, Smith remains incredulous about the premolar: "They buried half the crew on the basis of finding half a tooth." The Cressmans say preliminary DNA testing they've had done is inconclusive. Regardless, Steve adds, a tooth is not proof of death. As for the parachute rings, Robert Wilhelm - the former security man from the back-ender's squad - says every plane carried extra parachutes and parachute rings. Thus, the discovery of rings at the crash site doesn't prove the men were unable to jump to safety. "A lot of guys wore their chutes during night missions," he says in a phone interview. "It took a minute to get out." In November 1972, Col. Thomas Hart was in a helicopter gunship shot down over Pak Se, Laos. The Air Force sent Hart's wife, Ann, 12 pieces of bone in July 1985, saying they belonged to him. If she didn't accept them, they would be buried in a mass grave in Arlington National Cemetery, they told her. Wanting to be sure, Hart had two private, forensic anthropologists examine the fragments. All that anyone could know from these remains, they reported, was that the bits were human, and not necessarily from the same person. Hart sued the government, then learned something startling during the discovery process: At the crash site, military intelligence had found five open parachutes, a pile of bloody bandages and the initials "TH" stamped out in nearby elephant grass. She won her suit, and the government had to retract its identification. "The military was lying over what they saw, trying to clear up the books on the war," charges Michael Charney. a Colorado forensic anthropologist who examined the remains identified as Hart's and others. Sam Dunlap, a physical anthropologist who worked at the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu during the 1980s, says the lab made impossible extrapolations about a man's identity from dime-sized fragments ofmatter. "There probably should be exhumations of remains" now buried, he says. Since the mid-1980s, though, the lab has improved. "What comes out of there now is impeccable," says Lowell Levine, a dentist who works for the government. "The lab has made quantum leaps." The people of the Bamboo Pipeline recite the Thomas Hart story the way televangelists invoke the Bible. "Talk to one family, and they sound crazed," says Kathryn Fanning, an Oklahoma woman who exhumed her husband's remains in 1985, only to learn they weren't his. "But when you listen to what five families have to say, it gets scary." Adell Thompson of Pale Alto, Calif., was presented with the tooth of her brother, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Robert Simmons, in the mid-1980s. She says the military pressured her to accept the tooth, and when she balked, Air Force representatives pushed, c ommunicating with her and her family on Mother's Day, Christmas and Thanksgiving, one day before the anniversary of Simmons' death. "They hope to get the family so emotional, they don't ask questions," Thompson says. Today in Indiana, Mary Jellison is fighting an odd skirmish with the Marines. A Marine major told her the remains that have lain in her son Mark Judge's grave for 30 years are not his. But she's not sure what to believe, and wants to conduct a DNA test of her own before handing over the remains. The Marines say the bones in the Indiana grave are actually those of California soldier named William Berry. In Berry's California grave, the Marine Corps says, is really Kenneth Plumadore, a man the Marines initially said was vaporized on the battlefield. And Mark Judge's remains are actually in a lab somewhere. Who's to say what's true anymore? Marine Gen. C.A. Mutter has threatened to sue Jellison for the bones she buried in Indiana. She'd welcome a public airing, although the stress is wearing her down. "If you let it," she says, "it will absolutely kill you." While no officer directly involved in any case will speak, Larry Greer, spokesman for the Department of Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office, says, "Each family is provided total access to all information," despite what the Cressmans, Matejovs and others say. The government does what it can to help families, Greer says, though he adds, "None of us is about to criticize family members who've gone through pain for many years." Privately, though, a Pentagon official expressed another view: " Some of these families will never be satisfied," despite whatever proof they're shown that their loved ones are dead. That may be, says Al Santoli, former congressional investigator of POW-MIA issues. But Bamboo Pipeline families "are dealing with a U.S. bureaucracy whose behaviour is similar to those of communist governments. It's the same kind of contempt for the American public, and it becomes heartbreaking and aggravating. People eventually bum out, and that's the bureaucracy's best defense - obfuscate, lie, give false information, and people will throw up their hands and go." The government has been declaring people dead without ample evidence. No police department would conduct missing-persons investigations the way they do. Lately, MIA families have criticized the Clinton administration for opening diplomatic relations with Vietnam. It means, they say, the Vietnamese have no incentive to help clear up questions about missing Americans. And Sen. Smith charges that no one has ever properly asked the Vietnamese to account for Baron 52. Bill Bell, who resigned his post as head of the U.S. Office of POW-MIA Affairs with the Bush administration because he believed that the government was more interested in commerce with the Vietnamese than learning the whereabouts of MIAs, says it's "irresponsible of the business community to push us into this situation." He adds, "I'm not convinced men are alive. But they were after Nixon said all prisoners were out in April 1973. And we never mounted a serious effort to find out because we couldn't live with the truth. The Cressman case is a good example." The White House would not comment. A State Department official said it was "untrue to say we're moving ahead with trade without concern" for missing men. The United States spends about $10 million a year in excavating remains, and Vietnamese cooperation has "only increased". At Arlington National Cemetery, on March 27, 1996, a cool sunny morning, four white draft horses pulled a caisson on which a single flag-wrapped coffin rested. Inside were 20 pieces of bone. They were probably human bones; that's the most anyone could say for certain. A bugler played Taps. Seven white-gloved men in blue uniforms fired rifles three times. Three C-130 turboprop planes - similar to Baron 52 - flew overhead. The Cressmans and the Matejovs had tried to forestall this day. They didn't want their men's names on the headstone, but the names of the back-enders were chiselled in anyway. The family of Second Lt. Severe Primm, a front-ender, was angry with the Cressmans and the Matejovs for delaying the ceremony. "But," Primm's father, Jim, says today, "you can understand the families' feelings." The Bamboo Pipeline families ultimately decided to attend not to say goodbye to their own men, but out of respect for the others. The Cressmans wore yellow armbands for their missing airmen. When Evelyn began to cry, Pat leaned over and whispered. "It's not him, Mom. There's nothing in the box. They're just trimming the ends off their package." A woman handed Pat a red rose. It would be a nice gesture, she told him: a member of one of the outspoken families tossing a flower on the coffin. Pat shook his head and gave back the rose. "It was a beautiful funeral," Pat recalls. "The only thing missing was the corpse."

DISCLAIMER: The content of this message is the sole responsibility of the originator. Posting of this message to the POW/MIA INTERNETWORK list does not show AIIPOWMIAI endorsement. It is provided so you may make an informed decision. AIIPOWMIAI is not associated in any way with any United States Government agency or entity. Advocacy And Intelligence Index For Prisoners Of WariMissing In Action, Inc. 1220 Locust Avenue, Bohemia, Long Island, New York 11716-2169 USA Voice: (1-516) 567-9057 Fax: (1-516)244-7097 E-mail: [email protected] (Bob Necci) [email protected] (Andi Wolos) Website: http://www.aiipowmia.com Also read the Baron-52 incident summary located here. Canadian POW/MIA Information Center Norman A. Todd Chapter 41 Laurier Avenue, Milton, Ontario Canada L9T 4T1 Phone: (905)875-0658 Copyright 1996 - 1998

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