Are there any Vietnam War-era POWs still alive in Laos? – A trip to Sam Neua and Vieng Xai Caves.
Above Photo: Satellite photo of a ‘Walking K’ sign in a rice field in northern Laos by a US Satellite in 1988. (US Govt. Photo)
I’m writing this in a tiny town in Northern Laos called Sam Neua, where I’ve come to do some research on the Vietnam War for a novel I’m writing about a Special Forces mission to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Southern Laos. This is interwoven with a modern-day backpacker jungle story, which I feel eminently qualified to write, given the experiences I usually have on these trips.
As part of my research I’ve been reading with great interest the online debates about whether there were any American prisoners of war left behind in Laos after the US pulled out in 1973, and if so, whether any of them are still alive today.
It remains a fact that not one American POW captured by the Pathet Lao was ever released by the Laotian government. Only one (Dieter Dengler – whose escape was made famous in the film ‘Rescue Dawn’) successfully escaped from captivity. Some, who’d been sent to North Vietnam, were released in Operation Homecoming in 1973, but what happened to the rest, and how many were there?
That is what much of the online fighting is about.
Were any left behind alive?
Signs and signals such as the one at the top of this article (which I discuss below), have been spotted over the years in Laos, communications have been intercepted, and while there are many claims, sightings and rumours of men who were left behind and living in captivity in the Laotian jungle after the war, the official US position, for example the findings of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, seems to be that there has been no concrete evidence produced to back up these claims.
To which, opponents inevitably cry, “Cover Up!”
Whilst there may be no irrefutable, concrete proof, to my mind there is plenty of circumstantial evidence indicating that some people were left behind, and that they were alive into the late 1980s, but when you start trying to sift through the evidence and reading the claims and counter-claims, you usually end up bamboozled on swivel-eyed conspiracy-theory websites, not really sure who or what to believe.
So I thought I’d do it myself, cut through the crap and see what we’re really talking about here.
As of 19 September 2012, the Defense Prisoner of War – Missing Personnel Office of the Department of Defense gave a figure of 314 Americans still ‘unaccounted for’ in Laos.
I’m going to go with that figure. It is made up of 108 Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel, and 200 members of the Air Force, reflecting the extensive use of air power over Laos during the war, mostly concentrated on cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This figure slowly reduces each year as the remains of dead servicemen are found and repatriated.
Just because there are 314 ‘unaccounted for’ servicemen in Laos doesn’t mean they were alive after becoming unaccounted for, or that they were ever alive in the hands of Laotian forces, either before or after the war ended.
Some will have fallen into North Vietnamese hands, as they controlled much of Laos. Others will have died in plane crashes, firefights, ambushes, or while evading capture in the jungle, but their bodies have not yet been recovered. Others will have been quickly killed by their captors, a common fate for some Special Forces units like SOG.
I think some people mistakenly assume this ‘unaccounted for’ total is the number of servicemen somehow left behind alive in Laos.
Personally I believe some men were left behind, partly from my own hearsay conversations with people in Laos, and for me at least, simply on the balance of probabilities.
I cannot believe every living POW was handed over to the North Vietnamese by the badly organized Communist fighters, called the Pathet Lao, in 1973. The US were in a rush to disentangle from Vietnam, it was trying to deal with the North Vietnamese, and through them, the Pathet Lao, who themselves can’t possibly have known what was going on in every corner of the far-flung jungle, and where every POW was at that time.
Crucially, the Pathet Lao hadn’t even taken control of the whole country themselves by then, so they can’t possibly have know what was going on across the country in terms of who was held where.
In such circumstances it cannot be unreasonable to believe that some men were left behind in Laos at the end of the war.
How many were left behind?
Who knows, but probably not the hundreds I sometimes see quoted, which may simply be the result of a mistaken reading of the ‘unaccounted for’ figures I mention above. The real figure is anybody’s guess.
Even one man left behind is a terrible statistic, considering the fate of anyone abandoned in Laos after the war, and I’m pretty sure there were a lot more than one left behind in that jungle. And don’t forget, I’m not talking about the POWs left behind in Cambodia or Vietnam either; just Laos.
Some commentators such as Joe Schlatter, a retired US Army colonel, in this entertaining, robustly-written, highly abrasive but well-researched and well-argued site, http://www.miafacts.org/ have comprehensively rubbished the view that ANY servicemen were ‘left behind’ alive in Laos or anywhere else for that matter.
His is the best site to go to for debunking some of the more bizarre conspiracy theories about POWs in Laos, although he admits he writes in a controversial style, which some may not appreciate, and which may sometimes prevent his message getting across to a wider audience.
Other sites exist where all kinds of claims are made and documents produced by people who genuinely and sincerely believe that many men – perhaps hundreds – were indeed abandoned by the US in Laos, and that official cover-ups have gone on ever since.
I provide links to three of these sites below, two of which coincidentally contain claims about two of the POWs I feature later in this article, when I talk about my Vieng Xai Caves visit.
I don’t endorse these sites; I just offer them as examples of sites where strong claims are made by committed people that POWs were left behind in Laos after the war, and that many sightings occurred, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, and that some may still be alive today.
These sites are:
Are they still alive?
As convinced as I am that some men were left behind in Laos after the Vietnam War ended, regrettably I believe there are now absolutely NO POWs remaining alive in Laos, or none that the Laotian government knows of, which is a very important qualification, as I witnessed something here on my present trip which strongly supports this view, and which I will write about once I have done more investigating and research into it.
It is true to say that the US still regularly receives reports of sightings of foreigners, alleged to be POWs, in the jungles and prisons of Laos and throughout south-east Asia. Upon investigation they often turn out to be real people, only not real POWs. They are found to be convicts, missionaries, aid workers or recluses living in the jungle.
Unfortunately there have been no recently reported credible sightings of alleged POWs still alive in Laos; you have to go back to the 1980s or early 1990s for the ‘latest’ ones I am aware of, and, as I say, I’m now convinced none remain alive.
Sam Neua and the Walking K Sign
Where I am now, in Sam Neau, Laos, is where some of the last credible evidence of POWs still alive long after the war was seen. Having journeyed here, I can see how that might have been possible, because Sam Neua is a remote, mountainous, inaccessible province, much of it covered in dense jungle.
To get here took a nine hour bus ride across mountains from the nearest main town, Phonsavan.
It was in Sam Neua that the above photograph was taken by a US spy satellite in 1988, fifteen years after the US had ended its involvement in the war. Etched into a rice paddy, this enormous sign contained the words ‘USA’ as well as a highly classified code, a ‘Walking K’ which would have only been known to US servicemen. It was built to be seen from the air, the ‘USA’ figures measuring 37.5 feet wide and 12.5 feet long.
It was only identified a year after the photograph was taken, and in the Report of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, issued in 1993, it was suggested it might have been the result of a child fooling around in a rice paddy and copying lettering he had seen on a stamp sent from his relatives in the USA, which is what a farmer and his son allegedly said when a team allegedly visited the site in 1992 and allegedly talked to locals.
One thing I can say with some certainty following extensive trips around northern Laos is that this ‘explanation’ is utter rubbish. Farming kids in this dirt-poor province wouldn’t be able to write English that well, and they certainly wouldn’t be messing around in a rice paddy; they’d be working in it and getting their arses kicked by their parents if they tried to execute such pointless artistry when they should be doing something more economically productive to keep the family alive.
Such foolish desecration of a rice paddy by a child, as suggested in the Report as an explanation for this sign, is ludicrous and absolutely impossible for me to believe, having been here.
I have no doubt at all, that sign was a genuine cry for help from a POW who was alive long after the war and who was incarcerated in remote Sam Neua Province.
Can I prove it? No. But I have no doubt about it at all.
POWs in Vieng Xai Caves
On this trip I wanted to get a feel for both Sam Neua and also the Pathet Lao cave complex at Vieng Xai, in Houaphan Province, where downed US pilots were actually held during the war.
The impressive cave complex in Vieng Xai lies about 30km away from Sam Neua. Set in karst mountains, at the head of a beautiful rice-growing valley, the caves housed the headquarters of the Pathet Lao forces in the war, as well as the Pathet Lao government.
There are hundreds of caves in these mountains, but only a few have been opened for tourism, including a barracks cave, a vast complex which sometimes housed 2,000 North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops. The caves were bombed by US planes every day for nine years.
Vieng Xai interested me after reading well-documented reports of POWs being held in these caves during the war.
The commentary said Pathet Lao forces had captured an “English-speaking bomber pilot” who told them his mission was to look for ducks and chickens and to bomb wherever he saw them. As a result of this, the Pathet Lao ordered all ducks and white and red chickens to be killed around Vieng Xai, believing they could be seen from high above and bring down bombs on them (the fact the caves were well-known and bombed every day in any event seems to have escaped them).
The commentary continued: “He answered our questions truthfully,” so, given no POWs were ever returned from Laos, you have to wonder what they did to him and what happened to him.
And, of course, who this anonymous pilot was.
Well-Known POWs in Vieng Xai’s Caves
It is well-documented that some downed US fliers were held in the Vieng Xai caves. Captain (as he then was) Charles Ervin Shelton for one, about whom you can read more details here (http://taskforceomegainc.org/s134.html) and (as he then was) Captain David Louis Hrdlicka (http://taskforceomegainc.org/h102.html). I can’t vouch for all the information and claims on these sites, but they give a good account of how these pilots were shot down and captured, then held in the caves.
I asked the guide what they did with captured pilots during the war and he said they were held in a prison cave in the Vieng Xai complex, close to the Vietnamese border.
Again, none were ever returned, and I wonder whether US forensic teams have ever identified the prison cave and been into it to do whatever they can, if anything, after all this time, to ascertain if any DNA traces or other evidence remains of POWs who were incarcerated there.
I went into a concrete emergency room in one cave, protected by two thick steel blast doors, and asked to be closed in. Standing alone in total silence in the clammy, damp darkness of that confined space inevitably made me think of those who had spent much longer locked up in the caves of Vieng Xai, and I was much relieved to be let out.
Others weren’t so lucky.
So, what do I think?
I believe men were left behind in Laos. Former CIA contacts have suggested ‘No more than six”; other reports in the 1980s and 1990s have put the number in the forties, sometimes 43. I think, for reasons I’ll write about in greater detail in future articles, that I’d also go with these numbers (40-60) for men captured alive and still-MIA in Laos, abandoned to their fate at the end of the Vietnam War.
Final Reflection on Sam Neua
Tonight is my last night. Earlier I walked through the centre of town. It was 9pm and everything was closed, most people were in bed, and nobody else was walking around.
Out of nowhere I was surprised to see a small flower boat with a candle flickering on it, sailing down the river which runs through the centre of town. The small candle flame stood out incongruously against the massive blackness of the fast-flowing river.
I stopped to watch it sail by, then float out of sight, the weak light still flickering in the darkness as it disappeared.
It felt like a very poignant end to our trip.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War and Adventure Backpacking into the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/
I have also posted a video of my visit to the Vieng Xai caves here:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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