The Vietnam War: Still Missing In Action in the Jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Above Photo: In the tri-border Jungle of Cambodia, where Charles White was lost.
I was doing some research recently, in connection with my BACK screenplay, when I came across a sorry but interesting story of just one US serviceman who disappeared without trace in the tri-border jungle during the Vietnam War. He seems to have been captured alive, but he was never heard from again.
I was struck by some of the similarities in the way SFC Charles White was lost and the plot of my own novel and screenplay for BACK, and his case remains just one of hundreds of unresolved US MIA cases from the Vietnam War.
I also recently read a report that Cambodia is stepping up its efforts to help the US locate the estimated 90 missing US servicemen in Cambodia from the Vietnam War. Many of these missing servicemen also disappeared in mysterious circumstances and some were believed to have still been alive long after the Vietnam War had ended.
During the Vietnam War, powerfully built Charles White was a medic for the highly classified Studies and Observations Group, or ‘SOG’. SOG teams were usually tasked with reconnaissance on, or interdiction of, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, especially inside Laos and Cambodia, and this is also relevant to the 1968 plot of my novel, as that is the exact place (the tri-border jungle) and time that my Vietnam War story is also set in. The modern-day backpacker story, which unfolds side-by-side, also plays out in the same jungle.
On 29 January 1968, Charles White was the reconnaissance patrol medic for a SOG team operating out of Kontum, Vietnam.
The reconnaissance team was inserted into the extreme northeastern corner of Cambodia (the tri-border jungle) with orders to locate and report on North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces also operating clandestinely in the same area.
The team got into a firefight with the NVA on the mission but were able to fight their way out, eventually arriving in a small opening in the dense jungle, where a Huey helicopter was able to drop a rope sling, called a rig, down through the tree canopy to pull them to safety.
The helicopter hovered approximately 100 feet off the ground as White and two team members climbed into the rigs. Then the pilot increased the Huey’s altitude to about 200 feet to clear the jungle canopy. As the Huey began to pull the team up through the trees, Charlie White radioed, “I’m having a problem with the rig.”
A passenger on board the helicopter looked out and saw White turn upside down and fall out of the rig and into the jungle below from an altitude of about 25 feet.
Because of the large number of NVA in the area, no immediate search and rescue (SAR) operation was possible.
The location of this incident was in the densely forested mountains of extreme north-eastern Cambodia approximately 2 miles south of the Cambodian/Lao border, in Ratanakiri Province. This is a region I’ve extensively and frequently travelled through, and it is right in the heart of the tri-border area (See map below.)
Two days after White was lost, a SOG rescue team was inserted into the same landing zone (LZ) the missing medic was being extracted from when he was lost.
As they searched the area, they found tracks which had been made when the NVA got in line and swept up the hillside, then discovered a place where all the tracks came together at one spot. They found where White had fallen through the jungle canopy into a clump of thick bamboo that had been crushed by his fall.
Because there was no blood on the ground or any of the stalks of bamboo, they believed there was enough foliage to have safely broken his fall. By the appearance of the tracks, all the NVA left in the same direction as a single party. Because all the boot prints were so intermixed, there was no way to tell if Charles White’s larger boot prints were among them.
During their inspection of the stand of bamboo and surrounding area, the search team found no sign of a freshly dug grave.
Because of the lack of blood found and no grave, the team believed that Charles White had not been injured or killed either by the fall or by enemy troops at the scene. They also found no personal equipment of White’s in the trees or on the ground. These facts also contributed to the team’s belief that Charlie White not only survived the fall, but also was captured and led away by the NVA.
By the time the rescue team was inserted, it was a full day behind the NVA soldiers who’d searched the site and taken White away. Because of the large number of NVA troops known to be in the vicinity, the search team was unable to follow the trail any further.
Charlie White was declared Missing in Action and the country of loss was officially listed as South Vietnam (for reasons of secrecy – no US troops should have been operating inside Laos or Cambodia at the time).
Shortly afterwards, in a letter to Charlie White’s mother from his commanding officer, Mrs. White was told that her son “became missing while under heavy hostile fire near Khe Sanh in South Vietnam.”
The true facts and circumstances surrounding his loss remained classified until 1973.
No direct action was taken on this case with either the Vietnamese or Cambodian governments until his case file, along with those of other men missing in Cambodia, were passed to the Khmer representatives at the United Nations in December 1975.
The Khmer representatives stated there were no American prisoners in Cambodia and the Cambodian government had no information about any missing Americans. Although missing in an area where large numbers of North Vietnamese were known to be operating, there is no record that the Vietnamese were ever queried about White’s fate.
Since the end of the Vietnam War there have been around 30,000 reports of sightings of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for. Many of these reports claimed that live America Prisoners of War remained captive throughout Southeast Asia.
Very few are reported now, as it’s believed they’re all dead, but my novel BACK and my screenplay deal, in part, with this troubling issue of US servicemen who were left behind in the jungles of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, long after the war had ended, all of whom disappeared without trace.
Tragically, Charlie White had 3 days remaining on his tour of duty in Vietnam when he became the first member of a SOG team to become POW/MIA in Cambodia.
Meanwhile Vietnam, continues to search for the estimated 300,000 former NVA soldiers listed as Missing In Action from the war.
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:
For many more POW MIA stories, photos and articles, use the search function on the top right hand side of this site.
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2
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