POWs Left Behind in Laos and Vietnam – What happened to these People?

POWs Left Behind in Laos and Vietnam – What happened to these People?

US Surveillance Photograph purporting to show a POW volleyball game in a POW camp in Laos during the war

The above surveillance photograph was taken by a US aircraft in 1969 over Ban Nakey Tua, a tiny hamlet in remote northern Laos, very close to where I visited last year, a town called Sam Neua, in Houaphan Province (http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/are-there-any-vietnam-war-era-pows-still-alive-in-laos-a-trip-to-sam-neua-and-vieng-xai-caves/).

It purports to show a cave complex, and white-T-shirt-wearing POWs playing volleyball on the cleared area of ground below the caves.

This is a close-up of the volleyball game:

Volleyball game close-up

Volleyball game close-up

And this is the intelligence analysis and report accompanying this photograph:

I don’t think many people doubt that POWs were held in Laos during the war, and some remained after the war ended, and it is an absolute fact that not one POW was ever released from captivity in Laos by the Pathet Lao (a handful had been previously sent to Hanoi and were released during Operation Homecoming).

Inside the Vieng Xai cave complex where US POWs were held in Laos during, and possibly after, the Vietnam War

Inside the Vieng Xai cave complex where US POWs were held in Laos during, and possibly after, the Vietnam War

The only POW to ever come out of Laos alive was Dieter Dengler (http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/tortured-with-razor-sharp-bamboo-and-fed-alive-to-ants-the-story-behind-one-pows-incredible-escape-from-laos/ ) and he had to escape, and nearly died in the attempt.

Yet he and many other POWs shipped to North Vietnam, who were released from the Hanoi Hilton in 1975, all reliably report being held in remote POW camps in Laos and North Vietnam with other American servicemen in good health, who were never returned.

The landscape around Vieng Xai is littered with caves.

The landscape around Vieng Xai is littered with caves.

How many were left behind after the war ended, nobody knows, but I believe it was more than one and less than the 600 figure often quoted erroneously (see my POW/MIA article above.)

An anonymous and well informed US source puts it at “maybe six,” but I’d still go higher than that on gut feeling alone, and having travelled around the wilds of northern Laos, where many were held during the war, I can well-believe the practical difficulties of any central authority (like the North Vietnamese government or the Pathet Lao) being able to find out who was being held, where, and by whom when the US POWs were released in Hanoi.

It is likely, without access to North Vietnamese or Laos government records, if they even exist, nobody will ever know the fate of those left behind in the jungles of Laos after the war.

For what it’s worth, I believe many were held, possibly at first by oversight, and then intentionally, as bargaining chips for war reparations negotiations.

When they failed to take place with a clearly disinterested US government, the remaining POWs were kept and put to work for a while, and some high-intelligence-value POWs may have been trafficked to Russia, before they were all quietly killed in the late 1980s or early 1990s, as the US made approaches to the Vietnamese government about normalising relations with them.

It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s one I explore further in my novel, BACK, which deals with the possibility that some POWs may have survived their captivity, deep within the Laotian jungle.

Bats - now the only occupants of Vieng Xai's caves.

Bats – now the only occupants of Vieng Xai’s caves.

© Peter Alan Lloyd

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Approximate location of Sam Neua and Ban Nakay Teu

Approximate location of Sam Neua and Ban Nakay Teu

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5 Comments

  1. Matt Wiser

    Actually, nine American POWs captured in Laos did come back in 1973: they were captured by the NVA in Laos, and taken to Hanoi. However, none were allowed to write home or receive any kind of mail, and were released separately from the POWs on the North Vietnamese or VC lists. The final fate of several who were known captured, such as USAF Capts. Charles Shelton and David Hrdillcka,, Lts. Morgan Donahue and Scott Albright, and USN LT Barton Creed, will likely never be known.

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  2. NKP

    Some of the POWs are still currently alive in Laos. Congressmen Bill Hendon, John Leboutillier, and Senator Bob Smith have all attempted to talk about this. Peter, you may want to interview the above men about current status of the issue. Congressman Bill Hendon even wrote a book about it. It’s called An Enormous Crime.

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