Evidence Suggests Up To 41 POWs Were Left Behind After The Vietnam War.
Above Photo: A cave in the Pathet Lao’s Vieng Xai (Sam Neua) Cave complex in Northern Laos, where some American POWs were held prisoner during the war. None were ever released.
I am featuring this excellent article, first printed in the Washington Post in 1994, to show even as late as that date there was good official intelligence that American POWs had survived in Laos and were being held there long after the war had ended, and into the 1980s. I have added the photos for illustration.
The whole POW/MIA issue is central to the plot of my Vietnam War/Backpacker crossover novel, BACK, and to our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
By Thomas W. Lippman
From a recently declassified archive of documents about the Vietnam War, new evidence is emerging that some U.S. pilots held prisoner in Laos were not released at the end of the war, and that U.S. intelligence officials might have known where some of them were.
The Defense Department lists 330 Americans, almost all pilots and crew, as missing in action in Laos. Most were certainly killed when their planes crashed.
Officially, only two U.S. fliers, Col. Charles Shelton and Lt. Col. David Hrdlicka, are known to have been alive in custody of pro-communist Pathet Lao rebels. Shelton and Hrdlicka died in captivity in the 1960s, Pentagon officials think. No other reports of Americans held prisoner by the Pathet Lao have ever been verified, according to the Defense Department.
But declassified documents from the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) provide some support for those who argue that the number of prisoners was considerably higher, perhaps as high as 41 Americans.
Some military intelligence specialists and prisoner of war activists have believed for years that U.S. prisoners may have been left behind in Laos. Senior officials of the Nixon administration, in anguished testimony before a Senate committee in September 1992, acknowledged that they feared it was true at the time but said they decided then there was little they could do.
The truth about Laos has eluded military specialists and diplomats for two decades, and Laos remains the black hole of the long, bitter story of the more than 2,200 U.S. service personnel still unaccounted for from the nation’s longest war.
Of the 591 Americans released by North Vietnam in “Operation Homecoming” in 1973, only nine had been captured in Laos, and those nine were in custody of the North Vietnamese, not the Laotians. None had been held by the Pathet Lao in areas of Northeast Laos where, according to some intelligence documents, groups of downed U.S. fliers were kept prisoner.
In the negotiations with North Vietnam that produced the Paris Peace Agreement and ended U.S. involvement in the war in January 1973, President Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, repeatedly sought assurances from the North Vietnamese that they would deliver all U.S. prisoners “throughout Indochina” in the postwar prisoner exchanges.
The United States never acknowledged officially participating in a war in Laos, and Laos was not a party to the Paris accord. U.S. negotiators believed, however, that the Pathet Lao communists were, in Kissinger’s term, “stooges” of the North Vietnamese, and would deliver prisoners if ordered to by Hanoi.
U.S. officials were shocked when only nine were delivered from Laos, according to declassified documents and testimony at the 1992 hearings.
Lawrence Eagleburger, then a senior Pentagon official and later secretary of state in the final months of the Bush administration, wrote in a memo to his then-boss, Defense Secretary Elliot Richardson, that after the last of the acknowledged prisoners had been released, the United States should stage a diplomatic initiative on the Laotians about the rest.
“This initiative should plainly and forcefully assert that the U.S. will no longer play games with the POW issue in Laos,” said the memo, written a week before the final prisoner release.
But the United States had little leverage over Laos or North Vietnam. Kissinger argued in the 1992 hearings that Congress would not have permitted a resumption of the air war in a campaign to force the release of prisoners whose location and identities were unknown, if indeed such prisoners existed.
Nixon, in an address to the nation at the conclusion of Operation Homecoming, said, “All of our American POWs are on their way home.” Later in the same speech, he said provisions of the Paris agreement regarding Laos “have not been complied with,” but he did not indicate there might still be U.S. prisoners there.
But the declassified documents show there was intelligence information that the Pathet Lao held some U.S. fliers in caves near Pathet Lao headquarters in Sam Neua, in Northeastern Laos, near the border with Vietnam.
Asked by a House committee in 1976 how it could be that none of the more than 300 Americans lost in Laos could be a prisoner, Vernon Walters, then deputy director of the CIA, replied, “We have information that some of these 300 individuals survived their shootdown incident. Admittedly, the number is small.”
Among the documents supporting this view:
— A January 1973 CIA listing of “confirmed enemy prisons” in Laos, with locations. Several of these carry descriptions of the likely inmates: “American prisoners,” “American pilots (possibly 20),” “approximately 15 American prisoners” and “American pilots (possibly in a cave.)”
— Minutes of a Washington interagency meeting, about the same time, in which the Defense Department representative is recorded as saying, “We don’t know what we will get from Laos (in postwar prisoner exchanges). We have only six known prisoners in Laos, although we hope there may be 40 or 41. We have known very little about the caves where they keep the prisoners in Laos. We just got the first photos of those caves recently and our impression is they are pretty big. We think they are holding a lot more than six prisoners there.”
Also in the files is a 1992 CIA memo saying that “photographs taken by a reconnaissance aircraft in October 1969 show what may be as many as 20 non-Asians accompanied by Pathet Lao guards near caves” at Ban Nakay Neua.
This was a reference to the “volleyball photos,” a subject of furious disagreement in the intelligence and MIA activist community since their existence became known almost a decade ago.
To the untrained eye, these aerial photographs of a jungle clearing appear to show 20 non-Asian men in identical clothing, surrounded by armed men in the black uniforms often worn by the Pathet Lao. In some of the prints, the non-Asian men appear to be playing volleyball.
Defense Department officials long have insisted that expert analysis of these photos shows they are not what they appear to be. But activists who believe the Pentagon has a “mindset to debunk” such information, including Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., are citing the CIA memo as validation of their belief that the photos show U.S. prisoners who never came home.
None of the evidence is conclusive. The DIA repeatedly has argued that no information has ever been verified that would show specific Americans at specific locations, aside from Shelton and Hrdlicka. But if that is true, the MIA activists and family groups ask, why did the CIA organize a clandestine rescue mission into Laos in 1981?
As with Vietnam, the nearly 500 reels of microfilmed documents made available at the Library of Congress in recent months contain many reports that U.S. prisoners were seen in Laos after the end of the war. According to the Pentagon, none of these “live sighting” reports has ever been verified, except for those dealing with Marine Pfc. Robert Garwood, who stayed in Vietnam after 1973 and returned in 1979.
But in preparation for a 1981 meeting with the Laotian ambassador to the United Nations, the State Department prepared “talking points” that said:
“In 1973, the Pathet Lao representative in Vientiane conveyed to U.S. a message from Sam Neua in reply to our request for information on the U.S. POWs captured in Laos. The message stated, `The POWs will be released by (the Lao communists) in Laos, and not by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi.’ The release of nine from Hanoi can hardly be considered an accounting by the Lao government. Request you query your government as to the number and identity of Americans that were held and how many are still held.”
Even today, revelation of a State Department request for information about “how many are still held” in 1981 is like waving a red flag before the activists who think prisoners still may be alive.
One of them is David Hrdlicka’s wife, Carol, who never accepted the Pentagon’s assertion that her husband died in captivity in the 1960s. “They want to know, where’s the proof he’s alive,” she said. “I say, you look at this stuff that’s coming out, and I want to know, where’s the proof he’s dead?”
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:
Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
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