An ‘Insidious and Unpatriotic Myth’? 10 Pieces of Evidence that POWs were Left Behind After The Vietnam War.

An ‘Insidious and Unpatriotic Myth’? 10 Pieces of Evidence that POWs were Left Behind After The Vietnam War.

Above Photo: A large barracks cave in the POW cave complex of Vieng Xai, northern Laos, where many eyewitnesses claim American POWs were held.

I recently read a fascinating article by Sidney Schanberg, a highly-acclaimed and widely-respected journalist (for example, the film The Killing Fields is based on Schanberg’s experiences when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia).
Published a couple of years ago, in The American Conservative, and called “John McCain and the POW Cover-Up”, it claims McCain, a former POW himself, who was imprisoned and tortured in the Hanoi Hilton, actively fought to conceal information about POWs who had been left behind in Vietnam after the war had ended.

Hidden Depths: A cave in Laos, full of Vietnam War detritus, morphine ampoules, human bones, medical supplies, rations, but these were left behind by the North Vietnamese Army, not American POWs.

Schanberg alleges – with good evidence – that McCain has serially fought behind the scenes (and sometimes in front of them) for decades to block release of relevant POW/MIA information, which he describes as:

“A telling mass of official documents, radio intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to airmen, a rescue mission by a special forces unit that was aborted twice by Washington—and even sworn testimony by two Defense secretaries that “men were left behind.” This imposing body of evidence suggests that a large number—the documents indicate probably hundreds—of the U.S. prisoners held by Vietnam were not returned when the peace treaty was signed in January 1973 and Hanoi released 591 men, among them Navy combat pilot John S. McCain”

POWs paraded on the streets of Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

The whole debate is obviously relevant to our new film M.I.A. A Greater Evil (see trailer below) and Schanberg’s detailed article, which I had linked to at the end, is well worth reading in full.

But for this piece, I’m going to focus on Schanberg’s list of ten key pieces of evidence that point to POWs having indeed been left behind in the jungles, caves and prisons of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War had ended.

Schanberg listed the following evidence (I headed the paragraphs and added illustrative photos throughout, but the words are his):

A downed US flier captured over North Vietnam

A downed US flier captured over North Vietnam.

1.     Paris Peace Accord: Official US Shock At Low POW Numbers.

In Paris, where the Vietnam peace treaty was negotiated, the United States asked Hanoi for the list of American prisoners to be returned, fearing that Hanoi would hold some prisoners back. The North Vietnamese refused, saying they would produce the list only after the treaty was signed. Nixon agreed with Kissinger that they had no leverage left, and Kissinger signed the accord on Jan. 27, 1973 without the prisoner list.

When Hanoi produced its list of 591 prisoners the next day, U.S. intelligence agencies expressed shock at the low number. Their number was hundreds higher.

The New York Times published a long, page-one story on Feb. 2, 1973 about the discrepancy, especially raising questions about the number of prisoners held in Laos, only nine of whom were being returned. The headline read, in part, “Laos POW List Shows 9 from U.S.—Document Disappointing to Washington as 311 Were Believed Missing.” And the story, by John Finney, said that other Washington officials “believe the number of prisoners [in Laos] is probably substantially higher.” The paper never followed up with any serious investigative reporting—nor did any other mainstream news organization.

An impossible task: Limestone mountains in Laos, honeycombed with caves.

An impossible search task: Limestone mountains near Tha Khaek, Laos. Mountains across the whole country are honeycombed with caves.

2. “Strong Intelligence Data.” Evidence of Two Defense Secretaries.

Two Defense secretaries who served during the Vietnam War testified to the Senate POW committee in September 1992 that prisoners were not returned.James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, both speaking at a public session and under oath, said they based their conclusions on strong intelligence data—letters, eyewitness reports, even direct radio contacts. Under questioning, Schlesinger chose his words carefully, understanding clearly the volatility of the issue: “I think that as of now that I can come to no other conclusion … some were left behind.”
Another American POW cshot down over North Vietnam. These were the lucky ones. The ones shot down over Laos were less fortunate.

Another American POW shot down over North Vietnam. These were the lucky ones. The ones shot down over Laos were less fortunate.

This ran counter to what President Nixon told the public in a nationally televised speech on March 29, 1973, when the repatriation of the 591 was in motion: “Tonight,” Nixon said, “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come. For the first time in 12 years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All our American POWs are on their way home.” Documents unearthed since then show that aides had already briefed Nixon about the contrary evidence.

Schlesinger was asked by the Senate committee for his explanation of why President Nixon would have made such a statement when he knew Hanoi was still holding prisoners. He replied, “One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position of the United States … was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roil the waters…” This testimony struck me as a bombshell. The New York Times appropriately reported it on page one but again there was no sustained follow-up by the Times or any other major paper or national news outlet.

A sketch by an eyewitness of a POW camp near Tha Khaek, Laos, in 1980.

3.     The Sheer Volume of Eyewitness Reports

Over the years, the DIA received more than 1,600 first-hand sightings of live American prisoners and nearly 14,000 second-hand reports.

Many witnesses interrogated by CIA or Pentagon intelligence agents were deemed “credible” in the agents’ reports. Some of the witnesses were given lie-detector tests and passed. Sources provided me with copies of these witness reports, which are impressive in their detail. A lot of the sightings described a secondary tier of prison camps many miles from Hanoi. Yet the DIA, after reviewing all these reports, concluded that they “do not constitute evidence” that men were alive.

A tunnel through the limestone mountains of Vieng Xai, in Houaphan Province, Laos, where many POWs were held, according to eyewitness reports.

A tunnel through the limestone mountains of Vieng Xai, in Houaphan Province, Laos, where many POWs were held, according to eyewitness reports.

4.     Intercepted Radio Messages about POWs in Laos.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, listening stations picked up messages in which Laotian military personnel spoke about moving American prisoners from one labor camp to another. These listening posts were manned by Thai communications officers trained by the National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors signals worldwide. The NSA teams had moved out after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and passed the job to the Thai allies. But when the Thais turned these messages over to Washington, the intelligence community ruled that since the intercepts were made by a “third party”—namely Thailand—they could not be regarded as authentic. That’s some Catch-22: the U.S. trained a third party to take over its role in monitoring signals about POWs, but because that third party did the monitoring, the messages weren’t valid.

POWs in the Hanoi Hilton, shortly before their release as part of Operation Homecoming.

POWs in the Hanoi Hilton, shortly before their release as part of Operation Homecoming.

Here, from CIA files, is an example that clearly exposes the farce.

On Dec. 27, 1980, a Thai military signal team picked up a message saying that prisoners were being moved out of Attope [Attapeu] (in southern Laos) by aircraft “at 1230 hours.” Three days later a message was sent from the CIA station in Bangkok to the CIA director’s office in Langley. It read, in part: “The prisoners … are now in the valley in permanent location (a prison camp at Nhommarath in Central Laos). They were transferred from Attopeu to work in various places … POWs were formerly kept in caves and are very thin, dark and starving.” Apparently the prisoners were real. But the transmission was declared “invalid” by Washington because the information came from a “third party” and thus could not be deemed credible.

The infamous Walking K sign, and huge USA letters, discovered in 1988 in Houaphan Province, near Sam Neua, Vieng Xai caves and the Vietnamese border.

A POW Distress Sign? The infamous Walking K signal, and huge USA letters, discovered in 1988 in Houaphan Province, near Sam Neua, Vieng Xai caves and the Vietnamese border.

5. POW Distress Signals seen in Vietnam and Laos.

A series of what appeared to be distress signals from Vietnam and Laos were captured by the government’s satellite system in the late 1980s and early ’90s. (Before that period, no search for such signals had been put in place.) Not a single one of these markings was ever deemed credible.

To the layman’s eye, the satellite photos, some of which I’ve seen, show markings on the ground that are identical to the signals that American pilots had been specifically trained to use in their survival courses—such as certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special way. Other markings were the secret four-digit authenticator numbers given to individual pilots. But time and again, the Pentagon, backed by the CIA, insisted that humans had not made these markings.

Another dead end in the Laotian jungle.

Another dead end in the Laotian jungle.

What were they, then? “Shadows and vegetation,” the government said, insisting that the markings were merely normal topographical contours like saw-grass or rice-paddy divider walls. It was the automatic response—shadows and vegetation.

On one occasion, a Pentagon photo expert refused to go along. It was a missing man’s name gouged into a field, he said, not trampled grass or paddy berms. His bosses responded by bringing in an outside contractor who found instead, yes, shadows and vegetation. This refrain led Bob Taylor, a highly regarded investigator on the Senate committee staff who had examined the photographic evidence, to comment to me: “If grass can spell out people’s names and secret digit codes, then I have a newfound respect for grass.”

PAVE SPIKE electronic listening ddevices on the ho chi minh trail

These are what the authenticator codes were tapped into. These listening devices were dropped over the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war and were still in the ground in Attapeu Province, southern Laos, when the jungle was cleared for agriculture.

6.  20 POWs Lost In Laos Tapped Their Unique Identifier Codes into Electronic Equipment.

On Nov. 11, 1992, Dolores Alfond, the sister of missing airman Capt. Victor Apodaca and chair of the National Alliance of Families, an organization of relatives of POW/MIAs, testified at one of the Senate committee’s public hearings.

She asked for information about data the government had gathered from electronic devices used in a classified program known as PAVE SPIKE.

The devices were motion sensors, dropped by air, designed to pick up enemy troop movements. Shaped on one end like a spike with an electronic pod and antenna on top, they were designed to stick in the ground as they fell. Air Force planes would drop them along the Ho Chi Minh trail and other supply routes. The devices, though primarily sensors, also had rescue capabilities. Someone on the ground—a downed airman or a prisoner on a labor gang —could manually enter data into the sensor. All data were regularly collected electronically by U.S. planes flying overhead.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry M Serex's name and authenticator code mysteriously appeared in the ground twenty years after he was shot down over North Vietnam.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry M Serex’s name and authenticator code mysteriously appeared in the ground twenty years after he was shot down over North Vietnam.(Click to enlarge)

Alfond stated, without any challenge or contradiction by the committee, that in 1974, a year after the supposedly complete return of prisoners, the gathered data showed that a person or people had manually entered into the sensors—as U.S. pilots had been trained to do—no less than 20 authenticator numbers that corresponded exactly to the classified authenticator numbers of 20 U.S. POWs who were lost in Laos. Alfond added, according to the transcript, “This PAVE SPIKE intelligence is seamless, but the committee has not discussed it or released what it knows about PAVE SPIKE.”

McCain attended that committee hearing specifically to confront Alfond because of her criticism of the panel’s work. He bellowed and berated her for quite a while. His face turning anger-pink, he accused her of “denigrating” his “patriotism.” The bullying had its effect—she began to cry.

After a pause Alfond recovered and tried to respond to his scorching tirade, but McCain simply turned away and stormed out of the room. The PAVE SPIKE file has never been declassified. We still don’t know anything about those 20 POWs.

The Laotian jungle – good at keeping secrets.

7. “This is a big number” – Evidence Emerges in Moscow that 1,205 POWs were being held in 1973.

In April 1993 in a Moscow archive, a researcher from Harvard, Stephen Morris, unearthed and made public the transcript of a briefing that General Tran Van Quang gave to the Hanoi politburo four months before the signing of the Paris peace accords in 1973.

In the transcript, General Quang told the Hanoi politburo that 1,205 U.S. prisoners were being held. Quang said that many of the prisoners would be held back from Washington after the accords as bargaining chips for war reparations. General Quang’s report added: “This is a big number. Officially, until now, we published a list of only 368 prisoners of war. The rest we have not revealed. The government of the USA knows this well, but it does not know the exact number … and can only make guesses based on its losses. That is why we are keeping the number of prisoners of war secret, in accordance with the politburo’s instructions.” The report then went on to explain in clear and specific language that a large number would be kept back to ensure reparations.

The reaction to the document was immediate. After two decades of denying it had kept any prisoners, Hanoi responded to the revelation by calling the transcript a fabrication.

Similarly, Washington—which had over the same two decades refused to recant Nixon’s declaration that all the prisoners had been returned—also shifted into denial mode. The Pentagon issued a statement saying the document “is replete with errors, omissions and propaganda that seriously damage its credibility,” and that the numbers were “inconsistent with our own accounting.”

Neither American nor Vietnamese officials offered any rationale for who would plant a forged document in the Soviet archives and why they would do so. Certainly neither Washington nor Moscow—closely allied with Hanoi—would have any motive, since the contents were embarrassing to all parties, and since both the United States and Vietnam had consistently denied the existence of unreturned prisoners. The Russian archivists simply said the document was “authentic.”

An unsuccessful raid on a POW camp in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (Bob Bennett)

An unsuccessful raid on a POW camp in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (Bob Bennett)

8. “Leave No Men Behind” – Aborted Special Forces Raids in 1981 and 1982.

In his 2002 book, Inside Delta Force, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Haney described how in 1981 his special forces unit, after rigorous training for a POW rescue mission, had the mission suddenly aborted, revived a year later, and again abruptly aborted. Haney writes that this abandonment of captured soldiers ate at him for years and left him disillusioned about his government’s vows to leave no men behind. “Years later, I spoke at length with a former highly placed member of the North Vietnamese diplomatic corps, and this person asked me point-blank: ‘Why did the Americans never attempt to recover their remaining POWs after the conclusion of the war?’” Haney writes. He continued, saying that he came to believe senior government officials had called off those missions in 1981 and 1982.

POWs in a photograph taken in a Laoian prison camp including Air America employees

POWs in a photograph taken in a Laotian prison camp including Air America employee Eugene DeBruin, far left. He is still MIA.

9. A $4 Billion Ransom Proposal in 1981, Discussed In Reagan’s White House.

There is also evidence that in the first months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981, the White House received a ransom proposal for a number of POWs being held by Hanoi in Indochina.

The offer, which was passed to Washington from an official of a third country, was apparently discussed at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room attended by Reagan, Vice President Bush, CIA director William Casey, and National Security Adviser Richard Allen. Allen confirmed the offer in sworn testimony to the Senate POW committee on June 23, 1992.

Allen was allowed to testify behind closed doors and no information was released. But a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, Robert Caldwell, obtained the portion relating to the ransom offer and reported on it. The ransom request was for $4 billion, Allen testified. He said he told Reagan that “it would be worth the president’s going along and let’s have the negotiation.”

When his testimony appeared in the Union-Tribune, Allen quickly wrote a letter to the panel, this time not under oath, recanting the ransom story and claiming his memory had played tricks on him. His new version was that some POW activists had asked him about such an offer in a meeting that took place in 1986, when he was no longer in government. “It appears,” he said in the letter, “that there never was a 1981 meeting about the return of POW/MIAs for $4 billion.”

Mountainis near Tha Khaek, Laos; the source of many post-War POW rumours.

Mountains near Tha Khaek, Laos; the source of many post-War POW rumours.

But the episode didn’t end there. A Treasury agent on Secret Service duty in the White House, John Syphrit, came forward to say he had overheard part of the ransom conversation in the Roosevelt Room in 1981, when the offer was discussed by Reagan, Bush, Casey, Allen, and other cabinet officials.

Syphrit, a veteran of the Vietnam War, told the committee he was willing to testify, but they would have to subpoena him. Treasury opposed his appearance, arguing that voluntary testimony would violate the trust between the Secret Service and those it protects. It was clear that coming in on his own could cost Syphrit his career.

The committee voted 7 to 4 not to subpoena him.

In the committee’s final report, dated Jan. 13, 1993 (on page 284), the panel not only chastised Syphrit for his failure to testify without a subpoena (“The committee regrets that the Secret Service agent was unwilling …”), but noted that since Allen had recanted his testimony about the Roosevelt Room briefing, Syphrit’s testimony would have been “at best, uncorroborated by the testimony of any other witness.” The committee omitted any mention that it had made a decision not to ask the other two surviving witnesses, Bush and Reagan, to give testimony under oath. (Casey had died.)”

US POWs in the Hanoi Hilton, shortly before their release.

US POWs in the Hanoi Hilton, shortly before their release.

10. A Resignation and a Scathing Allegation of a Cover-Up.

In 1990, Col. Millard Peck, a decorated infantry veteran of Vietnam then working at the DIA as chief of the Asia Division for Current Intelligence, asked for the job of chief of the DIA’s Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. His reason for seeking the transfer, which was not a promotion, was that he had heard from officials throughout the Pentagon that the POW/MIA office had been turned into a waste-disposal unit for getting rid of unwanted evidence about live prisoners—a “black hole,” these officials called it.

Peck explained all this in his telling resignation letter of Feb. 12, 1991, eight months after he had taken the job. He said he viewed it as “sort of a holy crusade” to restore the integrity of the office but was defeated by the Pentagon machine.

The Vietnamese jungle near the tri-border area with Laos and Cambodia, where many pilots were shot down and where many POWs went missing.

The Vietnamese jungle near the tri-border area with Laos and Cambodia, where many pilots were shot down and where many POWs went missing.

The four-page, single-spaced letter was scathing, describing the putative search for missing men as “a cover-up.”

Peck charged that, at its top echelons, the Pentagon had embraced a “mind-set to debunk” all evidence of prisoners left behind. “That national leaders continue to address the prisoner of war and missing in action issue as the ‘highest national priority,’ is a travesty,” he wrote. “The entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort, and may never have been. … Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow through on any of the sightings, nor is there a responsive ‘action arm’ to routinely and aggressively pursue leads.”

“I became painfully aware,” his letter continued, “that I was not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of players outside of DIA … I feel strongly that this issue is being manipulated and controlled at a higher level, not with the goal of resolving it, but more to obfuscate the question of live prisoners and give the illusion of progress through hyperactivity.”

Exploring another limestone cave in Laos.

Exploring another mysterious limestone cave in Laos.

He named no names but said these players are “unscrupulous people in the Government or associated with the Government” who “have maintained their distance and remained hidden in the shadows, while using the [POW] Office as a ‘toxic waste dump’ to bury the whole ‘mess’ out of sight.” Peck added that “military officers … who in some manner have ‘rocked the boat’ [have] quickly come to grief.”

Peck concluded, “From what I have witnessed, it appears that any soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was, in fact, abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is no more than political legerdemain done with ‘smoke and mirrors’ to stall the issue until it dies a natural death.”

The disillusioned colonel not only resigned but asked to be retired immediately from active military service. The press never followed up.

Me, exploring items discovered in another possible POW cave in northern Laos.

Me, exploring items discovered in another possible POW cave in northern Laos.

What Do I think?

The above points simply reinforce my long-held conclusion. I firmly believe that many POWs were left behind in the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War ended. Even just on the balance of probabilities and the weight of circumstantial evidence.

But more importantly, I believe it based on by my own investigations, interviews and visits to many regions and sites of reported POW prisons in Vietnam and, especially, in Laos.

I hope our new film M.I.A. A Greater Evil adds to demands for a full accounting of those still missing from the Vietnam War, however they were killed and wherever they lie.

Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

MIA button

See the trailer for our film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. 

And for POWs left behind in Laos:

This is a link to the full Sidney Schanberg article, and it is well worth reading:



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  1. Matt

    Peter, there’s enough proof that would stand up in a court of law that POWs were left behind in both Vietnam and Laos. Read the book An Enormous Crime, by former Congressman Bill Hendon (R-NC); he spent years investigating the matter, and the book shows that many of the reports were deemed very credible by both the CIA and DIA, even when they were trying to debunk reports-there were those who still felt that their brothers in arms had been left behind and were convinced of it.

    As for motive? The NVN’s motive is pretty simple; they wanted the reconstruction aid that Nixon and Kissinger had promised after the Paris Cease-Fire was signed. Problem was: it would have to have been approved by Congress, and in 1973, it would’ve been political death for any member of Congress, even the anti-war ones, to vote aid for NVN after the prisoners who did return told their stories. The Pathet Lao wanted American diplomatic recognition and postwar aid a la what had been promised to NVN, which would explain their motive in keeping POWs after the cease-fire.

    The Delta Raids planned in ’81 and ’82? Both had the same problem: rumors of such raids being planned had made the Washington Post….

  2. Devils Guard

    I see you are keeping up the good fight, thanks. Your efforts to keep the information alive that the U.S. Govt. did in fact simply write off members of its armed forces in order to hasten the official end of the war. We got our people back, signed the papers, we are all good, lets all go home and now lets close the book on the war, what a crock. Hard to imagine what it would be like to finally resign yourself to the fact that no one is coming to get you. That had to bend a few minds.

    But then the same thing happened after the Korean War. We wrote off many MIA’s from that war too. There were reports from German prisoners released in the 60’s of them seeing American men in the hands of the Russians working in Gulags. Imagine that, after all the help provided to them during WWII, they knife us in the back just that quick. Them and the Chinese both aced us, even after all we did for them during WWII.

    Unfortunately your story will remain unheralded as you know why. The powers that be are counting on peoples habit of having short memories. And as long as everyone is fat and sassy and living the good life horror stories such as you put forth will be largely ignored.

    I’m a Vietnam Era Vet, used to help organize a short lived (6 years) annual Vietnam veterans base camp in Arizona. The key theme was not to forget the MIA’s, and they never forgave Sen. John McCain for not doing more to bring the boys back home. They actually held a mock trial in absentia for him presided over by ex-officers and found him guilty of treason. No one in the position to send in the Cavalry had the balls to do it. Even Eisenhower knowing US servicemen were imprisoned in the USSR wrote them off as he said “Nothing short of a full scale war could be done to get them back”. What an ugly world military force creates.

    Take care, what a shame and all for what?

    Regards, thank you again for your exemplary efforts keeping their memory alive.


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