STATUS OF THE POW/MIA ISSUE
1,589 Americans are now listed by DoD as missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War: Vietnam - 1,246 (VN-452, VS-794); Laos–288; Cambodia-48; Peoples Republic of China territorial waters–7. (These numbers fluctuate due to investigations resulting in changed locations of loss.) The League seeks the fullest possible accounting for those still missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains. Highest priority is accounting for Americans last known alive. US intelligence indicates some Americans known to be in captivity in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were not returned at the end of the war. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that these Americans could still be alive, and the US Government should not rule out that possibility.
Vietnam established comprehensive wartime and post-war processes to collect and retain information and remains; thus, unilateral efforts by them offered significant potential. Vietnam has since taken many unilateral actions that are welcome and appreciated, plus announced that there are no obstacles to full cooperation. Recently, Vietnam has increased implementation of commitments to provide long-sought archival records with relevant, case-related information, thanks in part to improvement of working-level efforts, but primarily due to increased bilateral relations across the board. The January 2018 League Delegation brought commitments that offered real promise for increased success. First undertaken in northern Vietnam in 1985, joint field operations have dramatically changed and are now much more effective. Vietnamese officials are participating with greater seriousness and professionalism, achieving increased results, including both US-led Joint Excavation Teams and Vietnamese Recovery Teams (VRTs), led by Vietnamese and supported by a few US personnel. This formula allows a greater number of teams to “increase the pace and scope of field operations,” as requested by Vietnam since 2009, unless budget reductions interfere. Due to increased military-to-military cooperation, US Navy assets are now allowed to participate in underwater survey and recovery operations, when requested. These steps, long advocated by the League, are now coming to fruition and reportedly are raised by US officials at all levels.
After a rough period, joint field operations in Laos are now increasingly productive, even though more difficult than elsewhere. Accounting efforts had slowed due to Lao Government inflexibility, attempting to over-price payment for helicopter support and denying permission for ground transport to accessible incident sites. Recently, Laos is showing much greater flexibility, having again authorized an increased number of US personnel in-country simul-taneously, allowing ground transportation to accessible sites, and reaching agreement for contracting a private company to provide reliable, smaller-scale helicopter support to access remote sites. When helpful, Vietnamese witnesses are also allowed to participate in joint US-Lao operations. DIA’s Stony Beach POW/MIA specialist is assigned full time in-country, and Lao officials are now approving field investigations outside the confines of scheduled DPAA field operations. A border dispute with Cambodia that was ongoing when the League Delegation visited in early 2018 continues to impede recovery operations in that area. The League urges officials in Laos and Cambodia to at least temporarily set aside their political disagreement and work trilaterally with the US to proceed on this humanitarian recovery, to end the uncertainty of the families.
DIA’s Stony Beach Team: One Cambodia specialist works full time at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, and research and field operations in Cambodia have received excellent support. Two Stony Beach personnel for years rotated on temporary duty in and out of Vietnam, collecting information via archival research and interviews of potential witnesses. DIA has now decided to permanently station one Stony Beach Vietnam specialist in Hawaii and one in Hanoi, to which Vietnam has partially agreed. Successive US Ambassadors have strongly supported this important move, and increases in bilateral military relations clearly contributed to overcoming past reluctance. US Ambassador to Laos Rena Bitter reportedly supports full use of DIA’s Lao specialist. It is hoped that ever-expanding bilateral relationships with Laos and Vietnam will mean positive decisions and greater flexibility to expand. Stony Beach specialists are sorely needed to augment the investigation process while witnesses are still living and able to facilitate locating incident sites for follow-up.
The greatest obstacles to increased Vietnam War accounting efforts are too few qualified scientists and unreliable funding that has caused US cancellation of scheduled operations, thus sending negative signals to foreign counterpart officials, especially in Vietnam. Since over 80% of US losses in Laos and 90% in Cambodia occurred in areas where Vietnamese forces operated during the war, Vietnam’s expanded provision of helpful records, improved and increased archival research, interviews and field operations are the core means to increase accounting results for Vietnam War missing personnel, America’s UNRETURNED VETERANS.
POW/MIA STATISTICS, as of February 22, 2019
Live Sighting statistics provided by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)
Live Sightings: 1,996 first-hand live sighting reports have been received since 1975, none recently. 1,941 (97.24%) are resolved: 1,340 (67.13%) equated to Americans previously accounted for (i.e. returned POWs, missionaries or civilians detained for violating SRV codes); 45 (2.25%) correlated to wartime sightings of military personnel or pre-1975 sightings of civilians still unaccounted-for; 556 (27.86%) were determined to be fabrications. The remaining 55 (2.76%) unresolved first-hand reports are the focus of continuing analytical and collection efforts: 48 (2.40%) concern Americans reported in a captive environment; 7 (0.35%) are non-captive sightings. The years in which these 55 first hand sightings occurred are listed below:
Accountability: At the end of the Vietnam War, there reportedly were 2,583 unaccounted-for American prisoners, missing or killed in action/body not recovered. As of February 22, 2019, the Department of Defense lists 1,589 Americans as missing and unaccounted-for, 90% of them in Vietnam or in areas of Cambodia and Laos where Vietnamese operated during the war. A breakdown by year of recovery for the 994 Americans accounted for from Vietnam War-related losses post April 30, 1975 follows:
1965-1974 War years: (recently identified) 2
1974-1975 Winding down USG effort 28
1976-1978 US/SRV normalization negotiations 47
1979-1980 US/SRV talks break down 1
1981-1985 1st Reagan Administration 23
1985-1989 2nd Reagan Administration 168
1989-1993 George H.W. Bush Administration 129
1993-1997 1st Clinton Administration 327
1997-2001 2nd Clinton Administration 57
2001-2004 1st George W. Bush Administration 64
2004-2008 2nd George W. Bush Administration 62
2008-2012 1st Obama Administration 51
2012-2016 2nd Obama Administration 27
2016-2020 Trump Administration 8
According to the DPAA Lab, unilateral SRV repatriations of remains with scientific evidence of storage have accounted for less than 200 of the 670 from Vietnam; two were mistakenly listed as KIA/BNR in Vietnam in 1968, but remains were actually recovered at that time. All but seven of the 274 Americans accounted for in Laos since the end of the war have been the result of joint recoveries. Six were recovered and turned over by indigenous personnel from Laos and one from Vietnam. In addition, three persons identified were recovered in Vietnam before the end of the war. There follows a breakdown by country of the 994 Americans accounted for since the April 30, 1975 end of the Vietnam War: Vietnam, 672; Laos, 277, Cambodia, 42 and the PRC, 3.
An additional 63 US personnel were accounted for between 1973 and 1975, for a grand total of 1,057. Of the 63, 9 were from Laos, 53 from Vietnam, and 1 from Cambodia. These Americans were accounted for by unilateral US effort in areas where access was possible, not due to cooperation with post-war governments of Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. Added to results from government-to-government humanitarian cooperation post-war, a total of 285 have been recovered and identified from Laos, 727 from Vietnam, 42 from Cambodia and 3 from the PRC.
VIETNAM'S ABILITY TO ACCOUNT FOR AMERICANS
MISSING FROM THE VIETNAM WAR
Family members, veteran organizations and other POW/MIA supporters throughout the country consistently opposed steps to improve economic and political relations with Vietnam until their leadership decided to cooperate fully to resolve the POW/MIA issue. The League supported a policy of reciprocity – steps by the US to respond to efforts by Vietnam to locate and return remains and provide issue-related archival documents. During the initial stages of the normalization process, important leverage was lost without commensurate results; however, there has since been much greater responsiveness.
One way of viewing what the US knows concerning Vietnam’s ability to respond more fully is to look at what US intelligence and other data confirmed at the end of the war. At that time, 196 missing Americans were last known alive in captivity or reported alive in close proximity to capture. Vietnam knows that these highest priority cases are directly related to the live prisoner issue and has improved responsiveness, but thus far has accounted for fewer than expected of these Americans by returning identifiable remains. Also, archival documentation is as yet incomplete. In all but 20 of these cases, joint field investigations have reportedly been sufficient to confirm death. Logically, if deceased, remains of these Americans should be recoverable, as they were in captivity or on the ground in proximity to Vietnamese forces (other than those who died in captivity in South Vietnam). Also, logically, Vietnam should possess and be able to provide helpful records; thus, recent initiatives by Vietnam to increase working level archival research and records access are encouraging and most welcome.
US wartime and post-war reporting on specific cases, captured Vietnamese documents concerning the handling of US prisoners and casualties, and wartime debriefs of communist Vietnamese captives, reinforced by US-monitored directives and other reporting, form a clear picture of a comprehensive Vietnamese system for collection of information and remains, dating back to the French-Indochina War. Specific sources, such as the mortician in 1979, substantiated by others in the 1980s, highlighted remains collection and storage as a key aspect of Vietnam’s policy leading to eventual discussions with the US. Indeed, through arduous and sustained negotiations, the US and Vietnam reached agreement to return remains of Americans that had been stored for years, though the number repatriated to date has not met well-publicized US Government expectations.
Community-wide intelligence assessments served as the basis for long-standing US estimates that Vietnam could account for hundreds of Americans by unilaterally locating and returning remains. In 1986-87, the entire intelligence community maintained much higher predictions, but the numbers were subsequently further screened to establish the most realistic targets for Vietnam’s government to meet.
During the war and since, the Vietnamese government placed great value on the recovery and/or recording of burial locations of US remains. In wartime, if jeopardized by imminent discovery or recovery by US forces, burial was immediate in order to hide remains. Subsequently, the remains were disinterred, photographed when possible, then reburied or, when feasible, transferred to Hanoi. Evidence of this relatively complex process was confirmed by US intelligence.
Forensic evidence serves as another basis for establishing expectations. Scientific evidence of above or below ground storage, or both, exists on less than 200 of the 670 identified remains returned from Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975. The count, confirmed by DPAA forensic scientists, is far below US expectations, based on reliable intelligence indicating that many more were recovered and stored by the Vietnamese government and could be repatriated, if Vietnam’s leadership approved.
After two years of no results from the Vietnamese in 1979-80, during a September 1982 ABC “Nightline” program, the late Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach denied that Vietnam was holding any US remains, as did other senior officials throughout the Carter Administration.
Vietnam later admitted storage of remains. In 1985, following up an initiative through a regional government, a US National Security Council (NSC) official met privately with a Vietnamese Politburo member during an NSC-led US delegation to Hanoi, in which the League Executive Director participated. The carefully drawn plan was for negotiations on live prisoners and remains, but the minister indicated live prisoners were not on the table for discussion. Rather, as discussed through a third party, the subject was large numbers of remains.
In 1983, Vietnam returned eight remains with clear evidence of storage. Negotiations for a two-year plan in 1985 brought the largest number of remains obtained to that point; nearly all showed evidence of storage. In order to confirm the scope of Vietnam’s knowledge, two specific cases were officially presented to officials in Hanoi in 1985-86 with a request for their unilateral assistance. Both losses were judged by the US Government to have occurred inside Laos, in areas under Vietnamese control during the war. One was returned unilaterally in 1988, 98% complete and stored above ground since his 1972 incident along the border between Vietnam and Laos; the other is still missing. From 1985 – 1989, 168 remains were repatriated, the vast majority showing clear evidence of long-term storage. Vietnam has unilaterally repatriated stored remains from Cambodia and very remote locations, not just highly populated areas, relating to incidents spanning the entire war.
There is continuity. In 1991 and 1993, the Vietnamese provided grave registration lists with names of unaccounted-for Americans. Inclusion of these names appears to have been an intentional signal, as was filtering through private channels photographs of dead, unaccounted-for Americans, some of whose remains have yet to be returned. The Government of Vietnam directed combat photography; their soldiers did not own personal cameras, much less carry them. Regardless of mixed or conflicting assessments, these and other actions by Vietnamese officials were apparently intended to signal the US Government of remains availability for diplomatic and/or economic purposes. At the time, remains fragments in Vietnam’s possession were not repatriated, believed not to be identifiable, but significant improvements in DPAA’s ability to identify very fragmentary remains has dramatically increased.
Information obtained from post-war US field operations reveals that central Vietnamese authorities systematically recovered American remains. Eyewitnesses reported central-level supervision of remains recoveries of US personnel not yet repatriated. Vietnam’s leaders have repeatedly pledged to renew and increase their own efforts to locate and return remains and provide relevant documents and have moved incrementally. In recent years, responsiveness has continued to increase, but more needs to be done.
Establishment of comprehensive bilateral relations, including strategic dialogue and increased military-to-military cooperation bodes well for Vietnam to accelerate unilateral efforts to close these historic gaps.
President George W. Bush formalized criteria for steps Vietnam should take unilaterally to be fully responsive on the accounting effort. His March 20, 2002, Certification to Congress was followed and further defined by Secretaries of State Powell and Rice three additional times and, on March 7, 2008, the Bush Administration issued its Determination to Congress stating in part, “….we urge Vietnam to work aggressively to improve tangibly its unilateral provision of POW/MIA-related documents and records, focused initially on archival data pertaining to Americans captured, missing or killed in areas of Laos and Cambodia under wartime Vietnamese control. Vietnam should also focus greater attention on locating and providing information on discrepancy cases with priority on those last known alive in captivity or in immediate proximity to capture, and to locating and repatriating the remains of those who died while in Vietnamese control that have not yet been returned. The United States also calls upon Vietnam to continue permitting our recovery teams to have access to restricted areas for the sole purpose of conducting our humanitarian accounting operations.” Vietnam’s cooperation has continued to improve, including provision of archival documents. Reportedly, all sensitive areas previously closed to US officials are no longer off-limits and Vietnamese investigators are now locating and making available witnesses on a regular basis.