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
Mark asked, “Mr. Lai, do you think there are still POWs alive out there in the jungle?”
Mr. Lai laughed. “There are rumors, and some people see them every year. But my friend, they are just stories,” he replied. “Like your Bigfoot.”
BACK Chapter 43, Attapeu
I thought about this exchange in BACK yesterday when I read a link on the UK Telegraph Online website announcing (I presume in jest) that proof had been found that Bigfoot does indeed exist, plus a link to a site where I was relieved to see that it was only yet more claims, rather than a captured beast being paraded before an astounded world.
But it did get me thinking again about the probable fate of the POWs who were left behind in Laos and North Vietnam after the Vietnam war had ended for the US, which is one of the themes of my novel.
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:
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.
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.
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, before being 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.
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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