POWs abandoned after the Vietnam War: A look at the Evidence.
Caption: Downed F-105 pilot being rescued in 1972. (National Museum of the USAF)
A resurgence of interest in the Vietnam War appears to be underway in the US. This is best exemplified by the mass publicity Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s forthcoming PBS mega-documentary ‘The Vietnam War’ has rightly received.
This new 10-part, 18-hour documentary film promises to tell the story of the Vietnam War as it has never been told before, interviewing American and Vietnamese combatants and civilians, as well as Vietnam War protesters in an epic re-telling of a conflict that still causes deep bitterness in the country.
Ironically, the New York Post also recently proclaimed: ”The Vietnam War is Finally Uniting America”, before taking pot shots at the New York Times for running articles featuring North Vietnamese soldiers, US peace protesters and other little-heard voices from the Vietnam War.
A new Vietnam War Hollywood blockbuster is also in production, the combat sequences of which were shot in Thailand.
Called The Last Full Measure, the film boats a star-studded cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt and John Savage. The film tells the story of Pararescue Airman William H. Pitsenbarger, who gave his life defending injured comrades before he was killed by a Viet Cong sniper.
And then there’s our own Vietnam War film: M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Although a small Independent production, it powerfully confronts head-on one of the greatest mysteries and unanswered questions of the Vietnam War: namely, what happened to those men left behind as POWs in Laos and elsewhere, after the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1973?
POW Issue is still bitterly controversial.
The bitter controversy about POWs has never gone away, fueled over the decades by mistakes, incompetence, double-dealing and cover-ups by successive US Administrations, when presented with evidence that at least some servicemen may have been left behind.
What compounded the original POW problem for US authorities was they were illegally fighting secret wars in Laos and Cambodia – as were the North Vietnamese, of course. So the families of US servicemen killed in Laos and Cambodia were initially lied to about where their loved ones had died, in order to protect the secret conflicts raging in these countries.
Years later, when these families discovered the truth, they naturally turned against their government for lying to them.
Also, many circumstances surrounding the shooting-down and possible capture of their loved ones were not given to families at the time either – communications from pilots who landed alive on the ground, for example. They were discovered much later, and these sins of omission came back to haunt successive administrations when they tried to claim nobody had been left behind as POWs in Asia.
For every serviceman still listed as missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War, still-grieving families demand answers about their loved ones.
How Many MIAs are there?
According to official US statistics published in August 2017, there are still 1,604 MIAs from the Vietnam War.
Of course, not all the still-missing 1,604 Americans were held as POWs after the war ended. Debate still rages in the US about exactly how many (if any) POWs were deliberately held onto by the North Vietnamese and their allies after American POWs were returned in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming.
Back then, President Nixon claimed “All of our American POWs” had been returned from Vietnam, but there are doubts whether Nixon believed that to be true. Certainly there were significant doubts amongst the US Intelligence community whether those released during Operation Homecoming represented the full total of POWs held in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia at that time.
Particularly troubling were the POWs being held in Laos. Only nine POWs captured in Laos were lucky enough to be sent to the Hanoi Hilton, from where they were released during Operation Homecoming.
But men such as David Hrdlicka, who was shot down, captured and photographed alive in 1965 in northern Laos, have never been accounted for. Charles Shelton, also shot down in northern Laos in 1965 landed safely and sent a message on the ground. He too disappeared without a trace, as did many others who were believed to have been captured alive in Laos.
Dieter Dengler, whose exploits Hollywood turned into the film Rescue Dawn, is the only American POW to have escaped from a camp in Laos. Had he not done so, would his family also have been told there was no record of him ever having been captured and held alive in Laos?
For their part, the North Vietnamese (now Vietnamese), Laotian and Cambodian governments have always consistently publicly denied that any POWs were left behind after Operation Homecoming. Over the years Vietnamese officials were allegedly mystified by the POW debate raging in the US, seeing a conspiracy at work against them, as they tried to normalize trade and political relations with the US long after the war had ended.
Why would Vietnam have held on to any POWs?
The best argument (and there is evidence to support it) suggests that a number of POWs were held as leverage ahead of negotiations over the ‘aid package’ to North Vietnam which had been promised as part of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.
When these payments were not made – an indignant Congress would never have approved them, especially as North Vietnam continued to breach the Paris Peace Accords with impunity – the North Vietnamese were left holding bargaining chips for an increasingly unlikely bargain.
Many believe POWs were then held in work camps and prisons in Vietnam and Laos (the Khmer Rouge would have swiftly dealt with any in Cambodia, in my opinion), where they became an increasingly awkward presence as the US and Vietnam started re-establishing relations during the 1980s. They would have been especially inconvenient to Vietnam, who had always denied they held any POWs.
According to this widely-held view, by the time the US lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994, any POWs who had not died of disease and fatigue, would have been quietly executed.
Problems with the evidence.
Great care has to be taken when examining evidence and allegations put forward by groups alleging POWs were left behind.
I generally discount most of the eyewitness accounts supplied throughout the 1980s and 1990s by Laotian sympathisers in the US, passing on information from ‘intermediaries’ in Laos. Usually they contained time-wasting and mischievous information supplied by over-zealous Royalist Laotians seeking to prolong American interest in their country, after it had fallen to the Communists in 1975.
Many of these reports turned out to be incapable of corroboration. For example a report that 23 American POWs were spotted in a camp in Saravane, Laos, in 1984. This was discounted because of insufficient geographical detail supplied by the local informant.
Some eyewitness reports were clearly scams and led to cash demands from grieving families. Other sightings went cold when US authorities tried to speak to people in Laos who had allegedly seen POWs, and not to their representatives in the US.
The Donald Carr hoax.
POW allegations over the decades have also been littered with bizarre incidents now believed to be hoaxes. For example, the above Donald G Carr photograph which caused a sensation in the US when it surfaced in the early 1990s, after Carr had been shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1971.
Later it was revealed the photo actually showed an East German animal trafficker called Gunter Dittrich. (The remains of Donald Carr were finally located at his crash site and identified in 2015).
The Three Amigos Hoax.
The infamous ‘Three Amigos’ photograph which surfaced in 1990 purported to show Albro Lynn Lundy Jr., who’d been missing since being shot down over Laos in 1970, John Leighton Robertson, missing over North Vietnam since 1966, and the man on the right resembled Larry James Stevens, missing over Laos since 1969.
By 1992, Defense Department officials said they were convinced that the Three Amigos photo was in fact a reproduction of a 1923 photo of three Soviet farmers. However, families of the men still disputed the official account.
The Dan Borah Mystery
The Daniel Borah crash site ‘discovery’ in 1996 produced a suspiciously clean flight suit, given it had allegedly been buried in highly acidic soil for 24 years. This and many other discrepancies led his family to hotly dispute the discovery of his crash site. But even more oddly, back in 1990 there had been an alleged ‘live sighting’ of Borah, who was believed to have landed alive when he parachuted out of his plane over Laos.
This sighting was backed up by photographs, later debunked by US Intelligence officials, but Borah’s desperate family members, who’d already been lied to about the circumstances of his loss, thought he could still be alive at that time.
William P Milliner.
Another unusual POW sighting occurred in 2007 when a doctor (who subsequently went into hiding) claimed he’d met William P Milliner, who’d been shot down in Laos in 1971. In an unsigned letter to Milliner’s father, the doctor said after he’d treated his son: “he grabbed me by my shirt and asked if I was an American. I said, “yes.” [I asked him,] “are you Australian?” He said, “No. I’m from Kentucky .” He said, “Please call my mother. Please call my father. Please call my commander,” before adding “just kill me, I can’t take this.”
Milliner had also been the subject of a 1989 live sighting negotiation fronted by a Thai businessman, who said his captors demanded a ransom, which is when the negotiations went cold.
A Troubling Note
The above message was delivered to Mrs. Carol Hrdlicka, a longtime and highly credible POW campaigner (and wife of still-missing airman David Hrdlicka discussed above). It came from someone who’d said he’d encountered American POWs while traveling in Laos.
He was asked by one POW to give him some note paper so he could quickly scribble a note to deliver to the USA (“red white blue country”). The note was written hastily in oddly broken English and could easily be dismissed as a forgery, but for some troublingly accurate personal details and comments in it, which David Hrdlicka’s family believed only David could have knowledge of, especially about personal family matters.
After some back and forth with the intermediary, Carol Hrdlicka became suspicious about the person she was dealing with and backed off.
So, what credible evidence is there?
To my mind, even discounting all the eyewitness reports (and many Laotian eyewitnesses actually passed lie detector tests and convinced senior US Intelligence personnel they were telling the truth), there is still a considerable amount of credible evidence that some men were indeed left behind after the US pulled out of Vietnam. I only deal with some of it below.
‘Operation Pocket Change’: An Aborted US Raid To Rescue POWs in Laos.
Operation Pocket Change was planned to rescue 30 US servicemen who’d been spotted working on a road gang near Nhommarath, Laos in 1980.
This information was given by one of the CIA’s most senior and well-protected sources in Vientiane, and a spy plane had picked up the characters “B52” written on the ground in the prison. President Regan was keen to launch the rescue mission, and a top secret plan was quickly hatched.
The intelligence that Americans were being held at the Nhommarath camp was “the best we ever got,” said retired Vice Admiral Jerry Tuttle, the man in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s search for POWS in 1980. Unfortunately, the reconnaissance mission failed to identify any Americans in the camp, although subsequently the conduct and professionalism of this Laotian mission, which used local CIA assets, was heavily criticized.
National Security Adviser Richard Allen said about the aborted raid: “We missed the best chance we ever had to find POWS still alive.”
The Volleyball cave
Photographs purport to show wartime POWs held in Laos.
In 1992 a CIA memo stated 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 Nakey in northern Laos (the “Volleyball Cave photo”).
If they were POWs, what happened to them? Only nine were ever sent to the Hanoi Hilton by the Laotians and released in 1973. The rest remain unaccounted for. If they weren’t POWs, who or what was shown in the photograph? Enough to trouble US intelligence authorities, it seems, even many years later.
Photos of a Cave Complex possibly holding up to 41 Prisoners.
Minutes of a Washington interagency meeting, made before Operation Homecoming in 1973, record a Defense Department official 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…we think they are holding a lot more than six prisoners there.”
On what basis did the intelligence services believe 40 or 41 POWs were held in Laos? Only nine that had been held in Laos were sent to the Hanoi Hilton and released as part of Operation Homecoming. This discrepancy has never been explained.
Operation Homecoming – Official Disappointment
A January 1973 CIA listing of “confirmed enemy prisons” in Laos identified specific locations where they believed American POWs were being held. Several of these carry descriptions of the likely inmates: “American pilots (possibly 20),” “approximately 15 American prisoners” and “American pilots (possibly in a cave.)”
This partly explains why the CIA were astonished after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, when the North Vietnamese produced a list of only 591 prisoners, and only nine of them had been sent from Laos.
The New York Times published a story on Feb. 2, 1973 about this serious discrepancy. The headline read: “Laos POW List Shows 9 from U.S.—Document Disappointing to Washington as 311 Were Believed Missing.” The article stated that “American officials were privately disappointed by the list,” because they’d hoped “that it would contain a substantial number of the 311 servicemen whom the Defense Department had reported missing and the 6 men carried as prisoners in Laos.” That’s some discrepancy – 311 servicemen believed to be held in Laos, compared to the nine actually released as part of Operation Homecoming.
Again, this discrepancy has never been publicly resolved. Even just explaining the Intelligence basis for the higher figure would have been useful.
Signs, Signals, Names of MIAs etched on the ground in Vietnam and Laos.
For me, some of the most compelling evidence that POWs were left behind and survived into the 1980s and 1990s, involve highly classified authenticator codes (secret, individual distress codes to be used by US pilots in the event of shooting-down or capture) which were spotted marked on the ground in Laos and Vietnam.
In June 1992, US spy satellites picked up the characters ‘72TA88’ and above this, the letters ‘SEREX’ marked on the ground outside Dong Vai prison in North Vietnam. This code belonged to pilot Henry Serex who’d been shot down on April 2, 1972. Many believe these signals were made by the still-incarcerated pilot. Why would the Vietnamese do this themselves? There could be no political or economic capital for them hoaxing this in 1992, as they actively sought to improve ties with the US.
Also in June 1992, and very close to Serex’s markings, another code was spotted: ‘GX2527’. This code corresponded to that of Lt. Peter Matthes, who’d been shot down over Laos in 1969. (If you look again at the above Serex photo, you’ll also see Matthes’s code bottom left of it).
These authenticator codes were analysed by the National Photo Intelligence Center (NPIC) and Serex’s 72TA88 was assessed as authentic with “70% level of confidence”, while Matthes’ GX2527 was assessed as authentic with “100% level of confidence” in evaluations carried out by NPIC Colonel Lorenzo W. Burroughs.
David Allinson was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. His authenticator code, ‘8888’, was stamped out six times in different locations near Dong Vai prison, starting in 1973. It was last observed in a satellite photo in October 1992. Evidence of this was handed into President Clinton’s White House by Barry Toll, witnessed by Carol Hrdlicka, the wife of still-MIA in Laos, David Hrdlicka in November 1993, but nothing ever came of it.
Even stranger is the case of Blair Charlton Wrye, shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. Barry Toll also obtained six satellite images of Wrye’s name stamped out in Laos, the final message reading “WRYE-SICK” marked above a trail in northern Laos in the spring of 1988.
Also handed into the White House in 1993, nothing ever came of this. Wrye’s remains were eventually located and given to his family in 1989…
The mysterious 1973 markings spotted in Laos.
In 1992, a senior American intelligence official said that two other famous sets of large symbols spotted on the ground in northern Laos in 1973 and 1988 were almost certainly human-made signs intended to send a message. But the official said experts had not been able to prove or disprove that they were distress signals from stranded American prisoners of war.
The figures “1973” or “1573” with a “TH” or “TA” were spotted by satellite, marked in a field on the Plain of Jars in May and June 1973, after all American prisoners were apparently returned to the US.
The infamous Walking K and USA signs in Sam Neua northern Laos in 1988.
Then in January 1988, the CIA picked up the letters “USA” dug into a rice field near Sam Neua, along with an unusually-shaped letter “K” which they believed was made of rice stalks. The “Walking K” symbol was a highly classified distress code issued to Vietnam War pilots, and these sightings created a major stir in POW circles.
A Newfound respect for grass.
The Final Report of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1993 conveniently cast doubt on all alleged authenticator codes and distress signals made on the ground in Vietnam and Laos, including those shown above. Their ‘analysis team’ concluding that most if not all symbols “were probably a result of a combination of shadows and vegetation and not intentionally prepared man-made markings.”
Their dismissal of the Walking K and USA signals was even more bizarre and absurd.
Not everyone was satisfied with their conclusions, given the evidence to the contrary. Bob Taylor, a highly regarded investigator on the Senate committee staff who had examined the photographic evidence, commented to journalist Sydney Schanberg: “If grass can spell out people’s names and secret digit codes, then I have a newfound respect for grass.”
In 1993, Stephen Morris, a Harvard University researcher, made a discovery amongst the state archives in Moscow. He came across a potentially incendiary Russian translation of a briefing given to the North Vietnamese Politburo on Sept. 15, 1972, by Lt. Gen. Tran Van Quang, described as the deputy chief of the Vietnamese General Staff.
It said North Vietnam was holding 1,205 American prisoners on that date while admitting to holding only 368, and that some would be held back as leverage for military, economic and political concessions in post-war negotiations with the US.
After the Paris Peace Accords were signed a few months later, Vietnam returned only 591 American POWs.
If the Quang document was accurate, it would prove Vietnam held hundreds more US prisoners than it had released as part of Operation Homecoming, raising the question of what happened to those who were left behind, and whether any POWs could still have been alive in 1993.
Morris subsequently paid a heavy professional price for revealing this memo, as vested interests on both sides of the POW debate, as well as the governments of Russia, Vietnam and the US went to war over its authenticity and over Morris’s own credibility.
Some mistakes aside, there appear to be no doubts about the memo’s authenticity. The New York Times, in an article dated 5 September 1993 reported that: “Both Malcolm S. Toon, who heads the American side of the joint committee, and his Russian counterpart, Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov, said on Thursday that they were certain of the authenticity of the disputed 1973 document, which was a Russian translation of a report to the ruling Politburo in Hanoi contending that North Vietnam was holding 1,205 American prisoners of war in September 1973.”
In subsequent testimony to the Foreign Relations subcommittee for Asian and Pacific Affairs on July 14, 1993, Stephen Morris criticized the “intellectual pettiness” of the State Department’s subsequent evaluation of this document.
“The most distinctive feature of the State Department report is its one sided determination to seek flaws in the Soviet document. There is no sign of any attempt to confirm major claims of the document.”
“None of [the State Department’s] claims of error, even if true, are serious enough for anyone to question the reliability of the document as a whole. In particular, none of them give grounds for doubting that General Quang was reporting the actual policy of the Vietnamese communists – to conceal from the outside world, and hold back at the time of the signing of a peace agreement, hundreds of American prisoners of war.”
Our Film: M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
All the evidence above, and considerably more that exists, inspired me to write the screenplay for M.I.A. A Greater Evil, which explores the likely fate of POWs left behind in the jungles of Laos after the Vietnam War had ended.
Having spent years travelling through the jungles, caves and mountains of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia looking for clues about American POWs and where they were held after the war, I feel a close personal connection to the POW issue and I believe our Independent Film will challenge some preconceptions still out there about the likely fate of American POWs, and why they were left behind.
We hope the film reignites debate about the POW issue and raises awareness of events surrounding the end of the Vietnam War for a new generation, born long after the war ended.
We also hope our film fuels calls for a full accounting of people still missing from the Vietnam War, from all sides of the conflict.
The grieving families of the missing deserve nothing less.
See the trailer for M.I.A. A Greater Evil here:
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also: