Finding a U.S.-Run M.I.A. Camp in the Jungles of Laos (But Not What You Think)…
Above Photo: A securely guarded and fenced camp in the Laotian Jungle.
I originally wrote this article a couple of years ago, when the 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 some things have changed: the MIA recovery organisation (then called JPAC) which 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I furtively shot off more photographs, slightly worried about getting caught.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All of which is encouraging news for families of yet-to-be-returned US servicemen still missing in Laos.
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.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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