POWs Left Behind in Laos? Another POW Mystery From the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: The cave-honeycombed limestone mountains of Laos may still hold clues to the fate of Vietnam War POWs.
The plot of my novel BACK revolves around modern-day Adventure Backpackers and the fate of US servicemen left behind in the jungles of Asia after the Vietnam War. So I’m always interested to read about former controversial POW/MIA cases, and the following, about Daniel Borah, is most certainly one of these.
On September 24, 1972, Daniel Borah took off from the USS Oriskany to launch air strikes against North Vietnamese troops entrenched in bunkers near the city of Quang Tri, South Vietnam. He was directed to the target area by a Forward Air Controller aircraft (FAC).
During his second bombing run, Borah’s aircraft was hit by 37mm anti-aircraft fire and burst into flames. The FAC saw Borah eject safely from the aircraft and later established emergency radio contact with him for 10-15 seconds while he was on the ground. No other contact was received during the following two days of search and rescue efforts.
The FAC said he had received the following communication, referencing Borah’s call sign Saddleback 500: “Nail 30, Saddleback One in the chute”, followed by several short burst manual bleeper transmissions which put Dan alive on the ground.
His last voice contact said: “Gomer all around,” which meant he was surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers.
Intelligence reports indicated that NVA troops removed Borah’s parachute from a tree within half hour of his landing on the ground, and he is believed to have been captured alive.
Nothing more was ever heard from him.
Fast forward twenty-four years and in early 1996 rumors began to circulate that remains had been discovered in Quang Tri Province, of a pilot and a full flight suit. The Borah family was eventually notified that US authorities had recovered remains they believed to be Dan Borah.
According to a Vietnamese eyewitness, Mr. Toan, who led US investigators to the burial site, the pilot was found dead, in his parachute. He was buried nearby and all identification was removed. According to Mr. Toan, Daniel Borah was buried in his flight suit on September 24th, 1972.
When the grave site was excavated 24 years after Borah had allegedly died, just as Mr. Toan stated, investigators found the remains in a full flight suit.
Because of the length of time they’d been in the ground, the remains only consisted of three long bones, and various chips, shards and nineteen teeth. Due to their poor condition, none of the bones could be used for anthropological analysis.
The US authorities determined that the nineteen teeth matched the records of Daniel Borah. Based on this dental match it was determined that the remains found were indeed those of Daniel Borah. The resolution of this case was pointed to with pride, as evidence of new Vietnamese cooperation to resolve the fate of US POWs and MIAs in the Vietnamese theatre of war.
So far, so good, you might think.
However, not only was the dental match disputed, but Borah’s family doubted that the full flight suit purporting to hold the remains of Dan Borah had been in the acidic Vietnamese soil for 24 years, because it was in in near perfect condition, and it was clearly not Dan’s size.
The family further though that because all unit designations, patches, and the American flag had been carefully cut from the flight suit, just as there was no evidence to prove the bone shards were Dan Borah’s, there was also no compelling evidence to prove the flight suit was Dan’s either.
In addition, the government apparently refused to do DNA testing that would confirm the identity of the remains.
Later, the family complained to a Senate Hearing in 1995 that they had repeatedly been told there’d been no voice communication with Dan. Yet, years later, they’d discovered a contemporary intelligence report had mentioned the (above) voice communication with Dan on the ground, so they were furious at having been needlessly lied to for many years about this.
The Conspiracy Theory
After Borah was shot down, initially the US government declared him MIA but within a month he was mysteriously reclassified as a POW without anybody explaining to his family why.
(This, incidentally, contradicts the Vietnamese eyewitness who, 24 years later, led the US searchers to Borah’s ‘remains’, saying Borah had been found dead in his parachute the day he was shot down, a fact also contradicted by the FAC pilot’s conversations with Borah when he was on the ground.)
At the end of US involvement in the war, Borah’s family fully expected him to be released with the other prisoners in 1973, but he was not among them.
Then, in 1990, a judge from Tennessee gained possession of photographs from Laotian freedom fighters that he believed showed Dan Borah was still alive. When the Borah family saw the photographs, they saw a man in his late forties (corresponding to Dan’s age had he still been alive) that exactly resembled their grandfather.
They presented the photographs to a forensic expert in Colorado who told them that the pictures were indeed of Dan Borah, and he was prepared to make a statement to that effect in July 1991.
With the story gaining national attention, unusual things began to happen. An hour before he was to hold a press conference in Washington, the Colorado forensic expert departed, saying he’d ‘changed his mind’. The family thought the US government was behind this and other moves.
Following publication of the Borah photo in July 1991, the US Government requested the Lao Government’s assistance in searching a region of southern Laos in which the ‘Borah’ photo had been taken.
The government then produced pictures of a Laotian villager who they said was the individual in the judge’s photographs. The man appeared to have facial similarities similar to those in the first photographs, but he looked to be in his seventies, not late forties. He turned out to be a seventy-year-old man from a Laotian hill tribe; his name was Ahroe and he was French-Laotian.
Very skeptical of this new development, two of Dan’s brothers traveled to Laos in 1991 to meet this man. A Department of Defense official accompanied them, and they were under heavy Laotian military guard the entire time they were there.
Borah’s family left Laos believing that the man was not the one pictured. However, the United States government released a statement saying the brothers were satisfied with the government’s conclusion.
From the time they saw the first photographs the Borah family continued to believe the man pictured was Dan Borah, and over the years following the photo controversy they continued to receive occasional unconfirmed reports from the same Laotians about a man they referred to as “Barrr.”
What do I think?
First of all, the Laotian who passed the Borah photos to the US judge had previous for wasting peoples’ time with POW/MIA hoaxes. This wasn’t his first rodeo. Then the American judge spent months researching the likeness until he found one MIA who bore a resemblance to the man pictured. The photo wasn’t said to be of Borah when it was handed over by the Laotians.
Laotian ‘freedom fighters’ were responsible for perpetrating many outrageous POW hoaxes in the 1980s and 1990s in order to keep the US’s interest firmly focussed on now-communist Laos. Unfortunately, in the process, they wasted goodwill, human resources and millions of dollars that could have properly been channeled into searching for POWs and MIAs who were, by the early 1990s perhaps, still alive in the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
It’s hard to say a family are wrong in believing a photo is of their loved one, but by that stage in the sorry POW/MIA debacle, I’m sure many families clung to slender hopes that their loved ones could still be alive and it’s easy in those circumstances to put faith in something that can’t stand up to the cold light of scrutiny.
And of course, their strong belief would have been supported by the discrepancies in how Borah died and how his remains were found – the virtually intact flight suit for example, the Vietnamese man saying he’d died in his parachute, and the US reclassifying him as a POW not as MIA during the war.
All these things allowed seeds of doubt to grown in controversial POW/MIA cases, and grow they did in the case of Daniel Borah and of other POWs who may have been left behind in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, long after the Vietnam War had ended.
See the trailer for 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.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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