The Mystery of American Female POWs Spotted in Laos – Who Were They?

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.

BACK-novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women MPOWs spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets

This information relates to the Northern POW group, spotted in 1971 in Ban Tong, near Sam Neua.

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.

BACK-novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets

The Ban Tong Northern POWs.

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.

BACK-novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets

More descriptions of the Northern POWs.

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.

BACK-novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets southern laos ho chi minh trail

The Southern POWs.

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.

BACK-novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets southern laos ho chi minh trail

Location of both sightings of female POWs – at Ban Tong and Sam Neua in yellow circle, Lao Ngam in red, near Pakse and Salavan/Saravane. (Click to enlarge)

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?

BACK-novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 civilian women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets southern laos ho chi minh trail

More information on the American female POW in the Southern Group.

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?

BACK-vietnam war crossover novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 civilian women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets southern laos ho chi minh trail

‘The woman had a small hand gun”. The Southern Group, spotted near Pakse and Salavan at Lao Ngam in 1967-1968.

Next Steps

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).

BACK-vietnam war crossover novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 civilian women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets southern laos ho chi minh trail

Further information on the Southern Laos group.

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).

BACK-vietnam war crossover novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 civilian women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets southern laos ho chi minh trail

Doubt from the writer of the report that the female with the Southern Group could be An American, for practical reasons. So who could she (and they) be?

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.

BACK-vietnam war crossover novel-backpackers-in-danger-students abducted laos American women POWs female MIAs in laos since the Vietnam war women POWs ban tong village spotted in laos near sam neua vieng xai caves laos houaphan 1971 lao ngam bolavens pleateau salavan saravane sighting 1968 civilian women POWs vietnam war mysteries and secrets southern laos ho chi minh trail

Another theory, although again the account of the compasses and the pistol is hearsay.

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.

MIA button

See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. 

Jack Jolis’s Interview: http://peteralanlloyd.com/general-news/cia-operations-in-laos-a-case-officer-remembers-part-1-the-rascal-program/

Monica Schwinn rescue attempt: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-1/a-sog-mission-to-rescue-nurses-held-in-the-cambodian-jungle-special-jim-bolen-interview/

For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:

 

Like this? Share it.

Related Posts

5 Comments

  1. Matt

    Peter, if you have read Nigel Cawthorne’s The Bamboo Cage, beginning on p 197, there are several accounts of female POWs-including the report you mention above. Another report involved a Joy-riding girlfriend (this may be an AF urban legend) who was shot down over NVN in Pack I or II. One report on p. 201-2 should be of note: It is included in a set of documents of Uncorrelated Reports of Missing Americans in SEA, released in ’78 and available in many College libraries-including mine-CSU Fresno. The report mentions the visit of an NVA soldier to a POW Compound in Hanoi, and much of the information is withheld as it is “Correlated data”-meaning the intel can be correlated to a known POW. The soldier noticed a two-story building in the compound, and looking out from a balcony were two Caucasian women. The soldier asked a guard who they were, and the guard said, “They are captured Australian Pilots.” Only one known POW compound in Hanoi had a two-story building, other than Hoa Lo, and that was the compound designated as N-62 by DIA. POWs called it Plantation or Citadel.

    Reply
    • Peter Alan Lloyd

      Thanks Matt – sorry I didn’t see this when you posted it. That’s very interesting information. I also recently had someone give me a name for one of the female POWs spotted in Laos, which I am trying to verify. I had read the joy-riding girlfriend speculation, but I just didn’t buy it. Although back then many unusual things were happening in Laos, so why not…

      Reply
      • Matt

        Peter, Cawthorne uses the same collection of reports that I mentioned as being library accessible (they’re on microfilm). I have talked to several USAF vets who flew missions out of Da Nang, Cam Ranh, or Phu Cat, and asked them the story about the girlfriend on a joy ride being shot down. Opinion was split. Half thought the story just an AF urban legend, but the others felt differently-probably because they knew guys who did take their girlfriends on backseat rides in low-threat areas! Said GF would have been a USAF nurse, a WAF (Woman in the Air Force officer), or one of many civilian women who served in SEA.

        One of the documents was written by a USAF officer who clearly recalled such an incident of a joyriding GF being shot down. He didn’t say much in the document other than it caused “A big flap at MACV.”

        Reply
  2. Donald James (Jim) Davey

    Spent 37 consecutive months in Thailand & Laos from May 1967 to June 1970; the last 13 months in Detachment 1, 56th Special Operations Wing (Udorn & upcountry). Back in 1968 & 1969 I rode motorcycles into Laos & Cambodia from Ubon, Thailand. Once got buzzed by an F-4 in Cambodia and was so afraid, that I never tried that again. Did all that before being assigned to Special Ops. Went back to PDJ & Xam Nuea & Vieng Xai December 2016; then to the killing fields & Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Have lots of pictures. In the caves in Vieng Xai I just had the feeling that POWs were kept near-by. Maybe it is just feelings but the feelings were strong.

    Please keep looking. Please keep me updated. If you ever come through Las Vegas, NV, USA let me know … I’d like to meet you and listen to you talk for hours.

    Next time you are in Phonsavan, stop at Lao Falang Restaurant and say hello to Marcello … great Italian expat that speaks Lao and has ridden motorcycles around Laos too.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *