POWs Left Behind in Laos and Vietnam – What happened to them?
US Surveillance Photograph purporting to show a POW volleyball game in a camp in Laos during the war.
The above surveillance photograph was taken by a US drone in 1969 over Ban Nakey Tua a tiny hamlet in remote northern Laos. The cave is very close to a town called Sam Neua, in Houaphan Province, which I visited last year.
The photo purports to show a cave complex, and white-T-shirt-wearing POWs playing volleyball on the cleared area of ground below the caves.
This is a close-up of the volleyball game:
And this is the intelligence analysis and report accompanying this photograph:
I don’t think many people doubt that POWs were held in Laos during the war, and some remained after the war ended, and it is an absolute fact that not one POW was ever released from captivity in Laos by the Pathet Lao.
A handful of POWs captured and held in Laos who’d been lucky enough to have been sent to Hanoi were released from the Hanoi Hilton during Operation Homecoming, but none were ever directly released by Laotian authorities either during or after the war.
The only POW to ever come out of Laos alive was Dieter Dengler (http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/tortured-with-razor-sharp-bamboo-and-fed-alive-to-ants-the-story-behind-one-pows-incredible-escape-from-laos/ ) and he had to escape, and nearly died in the attempt.
Yet he and many POWs shipped to North Vietnam, who were released from the Hanoi Hilton in 1975, all reliably report being held in remote POW camps in Laos and North Vietnam with other American servicemen in good health, who were never returned.
How many were left behind after the war ended, nobody knows, but I believe it was more than one and less than the 600 figure often quoted.
An anonymous and well informed US source puts it at “maybe six,” but I’d still go higher than that, having researched this issue and having travelled around the wilds of northern Laos, where many POWs were held during the war. I can well-believe the practical difficulties of any central authority (like the North Vietnamese government or the Pathet Lao) being able to find out who was being held, where, and by whom when the US POWs were released in Hanoi in 1975.
It is likely, without access to North Vietnamese or Laotian government records, if they even exist, nobody will ever know the numbers and the fates of those left behind in the jungles of Laos after the war.
I believe many were held, possibly at first by oversight, and then intentionally, as bargaining chips for war reparations negotiations.
When they failed to take place with a clearly disinterested US government, the remaining POWs were kept and put to work for a while, and some high-intelligence-value POWs may have been trafficked to Russia and elsewhere, before they were all quietly killed in the late 1980s or early 1990s, as the US made approaches to the Vietnamese government about normalising relations with them.
It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s one I explore further in my novel, BACK, which deals with the possibility that some POWs may have survived their captivity, deep in the Laotian jungle.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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