Declassified Reports of US POWs and MIAs held in a Camp in Laos.
Above Photo: Sunset over Ta-Oy, in Saravane/Salavan Province, Laos.
My novel BACK deals, in part, with the fate of US POWs in Laos, long after the Vietnam War had ended, and hapless modern-day backpackers who go into the Laotian jungle on a trekking expedition.
With that in mind, I was recently interested to read a declassified copy of an exchange of communications which took place in 1984 between US officials in Asia and in the US, about reports of a camp in Saravane (or Salavan) Province, Laos, containing 23 US POWs. It also mentions another mass POW sighting in another part of Laos, which I’ll deal with below.
It should be remembered that the US involvement in the Vietnam War (officially) ended in 1973. So these sightings occurred nine years later.
I have typed out relevant extracts of the report in italics, commented where appropriate and added my opinion on the whole thing at the end.
Humint Report of American POWs in Laos on 28 August 
- The following information [is] from an unidentified source. Hard copy of the Thai report will be forwarded via Fast pouch. English text of the report follows:
Received an unconfirmed report that there is a camp for American prisoners of War in the area of the Heup Valley, Ban Kadon Village, Nam Hiang sub-district, Myang Lamam District, Saravan Province [Laos]. A summary of the important facts are as follows (brief map is attached).
- Numbers of persons in custody: 23 American Prisoners of War
- Location: The camp is in the area of a foot of a mountain surrounded by trench with water from the Nam Phuang. The camp is surrounded by three barbed-wire fences. The inner-most barbed-wire fence is connected to the two sleeping quarters of the POWs. The site is composed of:
- Two POW sleeping quarters (inside the fences)
- One kitchen building (outside the fences)
- Camp for ethnic Kha Lao soldiers (guards) comprising three buildings
- Guard Force: There are about 30 fully armed Ethnic Kha Lao soldiers as guards. From time to time 10-20 Vietnamese soldiers come and inspect the camp, about once a month.
- Communications [Unreadable]
- [Blanked out] after consideration, is of the opinion that this information should be provided to the Anti-Sabotage Unit and [blank] for their consent also.
The document then contains very detailed local geographical information about the site of the camp.
Then on another page, dated 2 December 1980, the communication addresses another mass sighting of 20 US POWs in Laos, in ‘Oudom Sai’ Province.
Oudom Sai (Oudomxay) Province is nowhere near Saravane Province, meaning two mass POW sightings were being dealt with in the early 1980s, one of 23 and one of 20 US POWs.
- [Blanked out] request you place [blanked out] on top priority immediately until 05 December…or until further notice.
- [Blanked out] have information that transfer of the 20 American and 16 Lao POW/MIAs from Oudom Sai Province to Vientiane to take place.
On another page, presumably after detailed due diligence had been carried out with a map and local experts in an office somewhere, another official comes back in a more measured tone on 4 December about the 1984 Saravane sightings.
Possible U.S. POWs in Laos
Without compromising the source of the info…obtain any additional info regarding the U.S. POWs from the [blanked out].
We are particularly interested in any info which would aid in identifying the ‘POW’ s I.E . physical descriptions, places/circumstances of capture, condition of health etc. As you can well imagine, interest in the U.S. POWs remains extremely high. Please advise.
On the final page of the communication, presumably the same fact-checker, who is now sounding much more critical about the Saravane sighting and location, says this:
- …Request you contact appropriate [blank] officials to attempt to obtain any further info available to them, E.G. reliability of source, identity of source, exact location (coordinates), date of info etc.
- From the info provided, we have been unable to find an area on our maps, south of Ban Kadon that could be at the base of a mountain with a moat fed by the Nam Phuang River…we have not been able to find a Heup valley…
The rest of the communication then demolishes in detail the ambiguous and seemingly unreliable geographical information supplied by the ‘informant’ about the alleged location of the camp.
I found it fascinating reading these communications, because it shows what kind of reports people in the US Military and US Administration, who were tasked with finding POWs and MIAs, had to deal with at the time. Usually they contained time-wasting and mischievous misinformation supplied by over-zealous Royalist Laotians seeking to prolong American interest in their country after its fall to the Communists and the US’s withdrawal in 1973.
Much official time must have been spent fact-checking and corroborating these knowingly-false reports. That time could have been better-spent searching for real POWs who were by then probably still held in Laos and elsewhere, in my opinion. But of course the people reading these reports based on seemingly ‘solid’ local intelligence had no way of knowing which were hoaxes and which were genuine at the time. They had to treat everything seriously.
And of course the US is still criticised for its slowness of response to these reports, some of which may indeed have been genuine. Who can say whether a more prompt response might have yielded results on the ground? Not one US serviceman held in Laos was ever rescued or handed over after the Vietnam War had ended.
Some pour cold water on all these POW reports. But the sheer number of reports alluded to in official US documents, and from people I have spoken to in Laos, handing down accepted local information (or having first-hand eyewitness knowledge themselves when they were younger), tell me for sure that POWs were left behind in Laos. What became of them is the big question.
I was also interested by the reference to an ‘Anti-Sabotage Unit’ seemingly operating under US control or guidance, in Laos, in this exchange.
If any readers have any further information about this, I’d be most interested to hear it.
See the trailer for 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.
For POWs/MIAs in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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