VIDEO: My Visit to the Infamous POW Caves of Vieng Xai, northern Laos.
Above Photo: Listening to headset commentary inside Vieng Xai Caves, Laos.
I recently put together a video of a visit to the remote POW caves of Vieng Xai in Houaphanh Province, northern Laos, by way of explaining how my novel BACK links together the Vietnam War and a modern-day backpacker jungle trek. The fate of US POWs left behind after the war in jungles and caves of Laos is central to the plot of the book.
Only a few of the many caves in the vast Vieng Xai cave complex are open to the public. Unfortunately, during my visit, I was told ‘the POW cave,’ which lies close to the Vietnamese border, where ‘many’ American POWs were held during the Vietnam War, was currently off-limits.
Unbelievably, nobody really knows how many American POWs were held in these caves – or in the whole of Laos – during the Vietnam War, although it’s certain that none were ever returned at the end of US involvement in the conflict.
The mystery of how many POWs were held in Vieng Xai – and in other caves and jungle prisons in Laos – and what happened to them afterwards, will almost certainly never be fully unravelled. With only a couple of famous exceptions, their names are already lost to history.
POWs Charles Shelton and David Hrdlicka were definitely held in the caves, and rumours persist that many others were too, including Air America pilots and crew. But I suspect nobody will ever find out the truth, as the people in Laos who might have had this knowledge after the war ended have now mostly died off.
Getting to Vieng Xai took 48 hours of hard travel from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, on death-trap buses, but I wanted to visit the caves and nearby Sam Neua town as they are frequently mentioned in POW and MIA accounts and controversies, which feed into my novel, BACK.
Going into the caves was a slightly unnerving experience, especially thinking about being held captive there, and the further we walked into the caves, the more impressive the amount of work that had gone into their expansion and reinforcement seemed.
The caves were headquarters of the Pathet Lao, the North Vietnamese Communist allies in Laos. They were also used as a staging post for North Vietnamese troops heading south, when sometimes thousands of them would be holed up in the caves. This explains why they’d been bombed by US planes every day for nine years during the Secret War in Laos.
I saw a lot of napalm damage and scorch marks on bare rock at cave entrances and former anti-aircraft gun locations, and I was shown scars and landslides caused by US bombs in the surrounding limestone mountains. The ground was pock-marked with bomb craters too.
I came away with the strong impression – yet again, from my many visits around remote locations in Laos – that there is a lot more to be discovered about the fate of US servicemen shot down and held prisoner in the cave systems of northern Laos.
I have loaded a video on You Tube (below). I didn’t shoot the footage intending to use it for this, but I think it’s good enough to convey an impression of the caves, with explanatory captions throughout about the relevance of the Vietnam War, MIAs/POWs and modern-day backpackers trekking through the remote jungles of Laos, which all combine in the plot of my crossover novel BACK.
The music accompanying the video is ‘Ghost’ By Goodfinger, used with kind permission of Mike Williams, Composium Sounds and Goodfinger Music.
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.
And about POWs left behind in Laos generally: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/are-there-any-vietnam-war-era-pows-still-alive-in-laos-a-trip-to-sam-neua-and-vieng-xai-caves/
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
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