The Mystery of American Female POWs Spotted in Laos – Who Were They?
Above Photo: Summary of the information contained in the document.
I was recently sent a very interesting, formerly classified but now heavily redacted US document which contained some startling information about American women allegedly held as POWs in Laos.
Dated 26 May 1971, the report referred to two separate sightings of American female POWs during the Vietnam War, one seemingly a servicewoman ‘shot down’ in a plane in Northern Laos.
I had to doubt this, as I hadn’t heard of any American servicewomen missing in Laos. And certainly no US servicewoman having been shot down in a plane; although rumours suggest that pilots might have taken female photographers, journalists, even girlfriends with them on flights in the early days of the war.
I decided to do some research into these reports, to see if I could identify the female POWs, when it quickly became obvious that very little has been written about female POWs in Laos during the Vietnam War.
How many women were held as POWs during the Vietnam War?
I’ve seen reference (in The Wars We Took To Vietnam, Milton J Bates) to a Defense Intelligence Agency statistic that the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong only took nineteen women captive between 1962 and 1975, of whom only eleven were Americans. Of these eleven US citizens, apparently two died in captivity, two escaped and the other seven were released. None were US military personnel; they were US civilians.
But I highly doubt these statistics because I know of at least ONE US civilian female who is still MIA in Laos, and she doesn’t feature in the above DIA tally, as discussed below.
Two Female POWs Spotted
The bottom line in the 1971 POW Report is that an American woman POW was see in Lao Ngam, near the Bolavens Plateau in southern Laos in 1967-1968 in the company of two American men (let’s call them the Southern POWs) and one American woman was seen in Ban Tong, Sam Neua northern Laos in 1971 with two American men (let’s call them the Northern POWs).
So who could the women be in the 1971 Report live sightings?
They are certainly from a small pool of known-about female POWs.
Going with the above DIA statistic for the moment, that there were only nineteen known female POWs, minus eleven known-about and accounted-for Americans. None were combatants. And all female American POWs are accounted for (apparently). So, if these POWs WERE Americans, it’s entirely possible that these sightings could relate to some of these eleven known-about Americans before death, escape or repatriation.
Alternatively, they might be from the remaining eight other non-American known female POWs. Discount German Monica Schwinn (released) and two of her female nursing colleagues who died in captivity, and that only leaves five other non-US female POWs, none of whom I currently have names for. And don’t forget, this number – nineteen female POWs – includes those taken and kept in Vietnam, not just Laos, so the possible number of female POWs in Laos must be very small indeed.
Knowing all that, I decided to look into the information contained in this 1971 POW Report.
The Document Itself – Is it credible?
The first thing I had to do was decide whether this document was genuine or not. I have seen many similar redacted documents from the Vietnam War, and there was nothing about this one that gave rise to suspicions. Also, the person who sent it to me is unimpeachable, reliability-wise.
But I also checked its veracity with other people with relevant knowledge and they also confirmed they believed it authentic.
Were the reports credible?
The information here was given during wartime, directly to US Intelligence/military people by defectors with no reason to make up lies about US POWs. So the information in this document has more credibility than the post-war POW bullshit often peddled by disaffected Royalist Laotians.
Some POW reports back then were unreliable because they were based on hearsay (“I was told…” etc), but the informant/informants in the 1971 Report positively identified two American women they’d actually seen as POWs in Laos.
I don’t believe the woman POW in the Northern POWs was captured after a plane was shot down, but again, this is what the informant was told, and not what he himself witnessed. I still believe he saw her.
The woman in the Southern POWs sounded like she might have been from the CIA. She was in her 30’s, she was carrying a small hand gun (which she tried to hide) and was travelling with two men who carried compasses, maps and a radio. They alleged they were a “geographic survey” team. Maybe US Aid or other agency at the time? Who knows; but I doubt she blundered into a war zone accidentally.
How do I start to following this up?
As a starting point, I ran this past a higher authority – a former CIA Case Officer, Jack Jolis, who’d been based in Long Tieng in Laos in 1970, running covert operations along the Ho Chi Minh trail to disrupt the supply lines of the North Vietnamese Army. He had also served in US Military Intelligence in Vietnam. (see link at the end of this article). So he’d actually been in Vietnam and Laos around the time of the first of these sightings.
I asked whether he was aware of any US Servicewomen, CIA operatives or female US Aid workers from the Vietnam War who’d been held in Laos.
He confirmed there were none and, had there been, the CIA and military authorities would have known about them and they would have been a much-discussed topic at the time and subsequently, amongst these groups, even if it was secret to the outside world.
Also, from my own research, 50-odd years wouldn’t have elapsed without these cases coming to light, had there been still-MIA American female servicewomen, CIA or Aid workers in Laos; they would be very well-known about by now.
So who were they?
Satisfied that the reports of female sightings were credible, and that they were almost certainly NOT servicewomen, CIA or Aid workers, I then considered the next two likely candidates for females being held as POWs in Laos: civilian medics and missionaries. (I knew no female photographers or journalists captured during the Vietnam War fitted the bill).
The European Angle
My first step was to search for missing medics and aid workers from European countries who might have been caught up in the conflict, perhaps naively believing their neutral and non-combatant status might have shielded them from capture by the Pathet Lao, Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army.
Surprisingly I could find no evidence of any captured, unaccounted-for or still-missing female Europeans from the Vietnam War, who’d been held in Laos. I refuse to believe there were none, as many people were abducted on the borders of Vietnam and taken into Laos when hospitals and schools in Vietnam were raided by the Viet Cong. I feel sure some European missionaries or medics were abducted. But if they were, I can find no record of them (with the obvious exception of Monica Schwinn and her colleagues).
If there are still uncounted-for female European civilians who went missing or who were held as POW in Laos, records for them and mentions of them are not to be found on the Internet. (If anyone subsequently reading this article knows of any, please let me know and I will follow up all leads).
The US Angle
I then tried to find US missionaries or civilian medics still missing from the War, or captured and killed during the conflict.
I didn’t think American civilians could have been so blind to the mortal danger they’d be under in a combat zone as US citizens, but Faith – or naivety – indeed put some of them directly in the firing line, and it was when I came to research these people that I made a breakthrough in possibly identifying at least one (male) person in these reports, which I will write about in a later article.
But as to the female American POWs, I currently have no clues.
I’m following up on some leads as to the possible identities of the women, and in the coming weeks I’ll write a separate article about who they might have been.
But if anyone has further information about any female POWs or MIAs in Laos, please get in touch.
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 also: