Finding a U.S. MIA Camp in the Jungles of Laos.

Finding a U.S. MIA Camp in the Jungles of Laos.

Above Photo: A securely guarded and fenced camp in the Laotian Jungle.

I originally wrote this article a couple of years ago, when this MIA camp anonymously located in the middle of nowhere in Laos, was completely off the grid. There was nothing about it on the internet, no photos, no articles. Mine was the first. Now things have changed: the MIA recovery organisation (then called JPAC) that ran the camp has changed its name to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Command, Ta-Oy is far less off the beaten track with its new road, and more photos of shot-down planes in Laos have emerged, some of which I have exclusively featured in this updated article.

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An Air America C-123 plane, shot down on the Plane of Jars in Laos. (Lee Gossett)

On a BACK-related research trip to Laos I travelled to remote Ta-Oy, a small hill village inhabited by Ta Oi hilltribe people in the middle of Salavan Province, in Southern Laos. When I say remote, I mean it’s the kind of place a market vendor keeps a rare jungle Marbled Cat kitten as a pet:

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A wild marbled cat kitten, owned as a pet in Ta-Oy, Laos.

A wild animal being kept as a pet was a considerably better fate than many endangered jungle animals I saw in markets in Laos, which were dead and ready to be eaten.

Ta-Oy is surrounded by mountains and jungle, and tigers are still regularly spotted nearby, according to the village headman, Mr Phong.

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The writer with Ta-Oy Village Headman, Mr Phong.

To get to Ta-Oy I had to travel packed in the back of a truck with forty other people, along with chickens, ducks, sacks of rice and farming implements, which were heading to Ta-Oy from Salavan town, the provincial capital.

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This was the truck before we picked up people and cargo along the way.

Ta-Oy is located midway between two other important Vietnam War hotspots, Xepon (or Sepon) in the north, which was close to vital routes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Salavan (Saravane) in the south, both of which towns were virtually obliterated during the war.

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The ‘New” road to Ta-Oy.

A journey of a mere eighty-five kilometers from Salavan to Ta-Oy took three and a half hours because of the terrain, the steep gradient of much of the new road, the appalling state of the truck’s gears, and its poor acceleration. Before the new road was built, the same journey sometimes took twenty-four hours, if it was possible at all, with passengers having to overnight in a hill village en-route.

Ho chi minh trail mysteries and secrets of the vietnam war in laos haunt adventure backpackers int he jungle

The old and the new way out of Ta-Oy

On arrival in Ta-Oy, I checked into a very basic government guest house, where I shared the use of a hole-in-the-ground toilet and what passed as a shower – a bucket of freezing cold water in a mosquito-infested bathroom; but at US$6 a room, and with no chance of upgrades in the village, it was the best accommodation available, so I wasn’t complaining.

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Mountains near Ta-Oy.

I had come to Ta-Oy because I wanted to visit the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of foot trails, bicycle tracks and roads that ran for thousands of miles through dense, sparsely-populated jungle from North Vietnam, through Laos, Cambodia, and into South Vietnam, down which the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong trafficked  men, weapons and supplies during the Vietnam War.

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The river running through Ta-Oy.

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North Vietnamese Army sappers construct a bridge over a river on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, during the Vietnam War.

Many trails ran through and around Ta-Oy, and it was heavily interdicted by US planes and top secret reconnaissance missions, including SOG operations, that were launched from bases in nearby Vietnam throughout the war.

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Surrounding jungle and mountains covered in cloud in Ta-Oy, Salavan, Laos

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Elephants move supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1975. Photo (Le Mihn Dien)

Although I came to Ta-Oy for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I came away having made another very surprising discovery about the continuing legacy of the ‘Secret War’ in Laos.

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An old river crossing point on the Ho Chi Minh Trail near Ta-Oy, Salavan, Laos.

One morning, I walked out of the village, smiling at the curious villagers who appeared from out of the jungle, ambling to market with goods slung in bundles on their backs. I followed a red dirt track at random, planning to head into the jungle, walking towards a river, across which one of the branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had run.

The path I took heading out of Ta-Oy and into the jungle.

The path I took heading out of Ta-Oy and into the jungle.

It was on this walk that I made an astonishing discovery.

I came upon a compound, securely protected by a chain link fence, topped with barbed wire, which enclosed a large area of cleared ground, jammed up against the jungle and overshadowed by mountains. When I looked through the fence and I could see administrative buildings and A-frame accommodation, and what were very clearly Americans: US servicemen, inside the camp.

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The camp.

There were no signs in English announcing what this camp was, or who ran it, which I thought odd because it looked professionally run and managed, and it was very secure. I approached the main entrance gate to ask, but I was turned away, politely but firmly, by the Laotian guards.

As I walked along the dirt road adjacent to the camp I saw two enormous, unarmed, Russian-made Hind Mil Mi-17 helicopters.

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Russian helicopters parked in the mysterious camp.

I furtively shot off more photographs, slightly worried about getting caught.

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Another shot of the camp.

This was a mystery I needed to unravel, and I spent the day trying to find out about the camp. It was such a substantial facility, whatever it was, that I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t listed on any maps or mentioned in any of the guide books I’d brought. Nor could I find anything about it on the internet.

Eventually, a local informed me what it was – a US MIA camp.

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A Vietnam War helicopter excavated on a hillside near to Ta-Oy by members of the camp.

But it wasn’t the kind of MIA camp many expect to find quietly tucked away in the Laotian jungle; I subsequently discovered after my visit that this one was (then) operated by JPAC, the Joint POW/MIA (Prisoner of War/Missing in Action) Accounting Command, and it is a base camp that serves as the home of recovery teams who comb the surrounding jungle in search of the remains of US servicemen lost in Laos during the Vietnam War. The Hinds, leased from Lao Air, are used to ferry teams around the countryside.

When I got back home, I fired off emails to various U.S. Army and government departments and eventually I was able to find out more about this facility, for example that it is the only such base in Laos, making it all the more remarkable for me to have accidentally stumbled upon it that day.

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These are the kind of sites the teams have to find and excavate. This photo shows a C-130 crash site in the Laotian jungle during the Vietnam War (Lee Gossett)

Captain Jamie Dobson of JPAC Public Affairs told me it has capacity for 96 individuals, both military personnel and civilian anthropologists, along with local helpers.

Teams operating out of the camp are currently investigating sixteen sites in the vicinity of Ta-Oy, although not all of them are plane crashes. They also investigate burial sites, where some MIAs are believed to have been buried by the NVA, Viet Cong or locals after ejecting from their aircraft or having been killed in firefights or who died from other causes in the jungle.

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A site probably not on the US’s list of digs – a Russian I-L2 shot down on the Plane of jars, Laos, during the Vietnam War (Lee Gossett).

Since the year 2000, JPAC teams have successfully recovered and identified more than 120 US service members lost in Laos, and Captain Dobson said there are currently eighty-eight locations on JPAC’s Master Excavation List, representing both crash sites and burial sites in Laos. JPAC is actively investigating roughly the same number of leads that could lead to more sites being excavated in Laos in the future.

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An Air America Caribou that crashed in Laos during the Vietnam War at a Secret CIA Lima landing site (113) (Lee Gossett)

All of which is encouraging news for families of yet-to-be-returned US servicemen still missing in Laos.

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A remote military outpost in Laos during the Secret War, with a shot-down helicopter lying on its side. (Lee Gossett)

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 left behind in Laos, see:

 

And: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/

Approximate location of Ta-Oy, marked in red circle

© Peter Alan Lloyd

BACK Parts 1 and 2:

Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews 

UK: Amazon.co.uk: BACK Parts 1 and 2 

US: Amazon: Back Parts 1 and 2

Smashwords: Back Parts 1 and 2

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/peter.lloyd.94064?fref=ts

Website: www.peteralanlloyd.com

Twitter: @PeterAlanLloyd

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Laurens

    I enjoy your articles and the amazing ability to ferret out some of these amazing places.. I sent this page to Veterans For Peace in the USA hoping they might be interested.. Keep up the great work

    Reply
  2. Jill Letitia Matthews

    I am trying to locate any more information about my 2nd Cousin, 1st Lt. Jimmy H Villeponteaux. (Little Jimmy) USMC. Some kind of closure would be wonderful. As I am reading articles of the searches, I have begun to wonder that his plane could have gone down somewhere else besides Saravane. He was flying a night mission over Laos and crashed. I am wondering if his remains are able to be recovered. My brother and I would like to find out as much as possible and return his remains to his sons (Jay & Clay)if possible. He has been gone for so long and for some reason, I have begun remembering him a lot more lately. I was 12 when he went to VietNam and dearly loved him!

    Reply

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