The MIA Issue

The American Experience

During the course of the Vietnamese conflict, hundreds of Americans were incarcerated in Vietnamese prisons in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and China. Many lived in barbaric conditions. Of these, 591 were released during Operation Homecoming, the prisoner repatriation program that was instituted at the war's end, in the spring of 1973. More than 2,000 Americans remained unaccounted for at that time.

Decades-Long Concerns
Over thirty years later, many groups and individuals remain convinced that despite the efforts of the U.S. and Vietnam, a complete accounting of missing Americans has yet to be delivered. As the United States forges an expanded postwar relationship with Vietnam, the prisoner of war/missing in action (P.O.W./M.I.A.) issue remains a morass of incomplete data, shadowy reports of Americans still alive in Indochina, insistence by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments that no American M.I.A.s remain alive, and allegations by M.I.A. advocates of cover-ups and foot-dragging on the part of those same governments.

Horrifying "Hotels"
From 1964 to 1973, the North Vietnamese had captured Americans, mostly pilots and crews of downed aircraft, and delivered them to prisons. Among the most notorious of these facilities was Hoa Lo, known by Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. Conditions at "the Hilton," along with the other large urban prisons and jungle camps throughout Vietnam, were horrifying.

Brutal Treatment
Although the Geneva Convention of 1949 called for the decent and humane treatment of prisoners of war, these terms did not apply in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were accused of brutally torturing their captives -- beating them with fists, clubs, and rifle butts, flaying them with rubber whips, and stretching their joints with rope in an effort to uncover information about American military operations. The Americans were forced to record taped "confessions" to war crimes against the Vietnamese people and to write letters urging Americans at home to end the war. Poor food and medical care was standard. Prisoners were often isolated to prevent communication among each other, in addition to being denied communication with family members. American prisoners sometimes died in captivity, from wounds sustained in combat, or at the hands of their captors.

Resistance
Despite these oppressive conditions, American P.O.W.s worked to confound their jailers, resisting torture, delivering spurious or nonsensical "confessions" and developing clandestine communication networks in prison. P.O.W.s compiled mental lists of imprisoned personnel, along with information about their physical conditions, in hope of delivering this information to the outside world at the first opportunity.

Failed Rescue
Because the Vietnamese held many of their prisoners at facilities in well-defended urban areas, a military solution to the P.O.W. problem eluded U.S. forces. On November 21, 1970, a unit of U.S. Army Special Forces troops raided the Vietnamese prison camp at Son Tay, twenty miles from Hanoi. The raiders killed more than thirty Vietnamese troops, but no prisoners were freed -- the Americans had been moved some time earlier.

The P.O.W. Cause
At home, Americans lobbied for the decent treatment and rapid return of U.S. prisoners of war. Among the most active P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates was Sybil Stockdale, wife of Navy officer James Stockdale, who had been shot down in September 1965, and was being held at Hoa Lo. Mrs. Stockdale organized the National League of Families of P.O.W.s and M.I.A.s. She and millions of other Americans used their pens, voices, and money in support of the P.O.W. cause.

Peace
In Paris on January 27, 1973, American and Vietnamese representatives signed agreements for the cessation of hostilities and the repatriation of war prisoners. Operation Homecoming began the next month and ended in April. During that period, 591 American P.O.W.s returned home. Representatives of the U.S. military debriefed returnees for information regarding the more than 2,000 Americans still listed as missing. According to the government, none of the P.O.W.s were able to provide definite information about any remaining captives. Both the Nixon administration and the Vietnamese government concluded that all living P.O.W./M.I.A.s had been returned.

Hopes for Survivors
Some veterans and families of missing soldiers insisted otherwise. Thus began a long period of conflict between the U.S. government and its citizens over the M.I.A. issue. While a series of presidential administrations maintained that no living American soldiers remained in Indochina, contradictory reports from the intelligence community and from private citizens kept the hopes of M.I.A. families alive.

Death Records Unearthed
In 1989, former United Nations worker Ted Schweitzer, who had risked his life to aid boat people fleeing Vietnam after the war, gained access to the Central Military Museum in Hanoi. During subsequent trips to Vietnam, Schweitzer photographed or scanned thousands of photographs and documents compiled by the Vietnamese during the war. Schweitzer's search revealed that the Vietnamese had information confirming the deaths of eleven American servicemen -- information that Vietnam had previously denied holding.

List of 1,205 P.O.W.s
In April 1993, Harvard scholar Stephen Morris discovered a document in a Soviet archive indicating that Vietnam may have misled Americans about the numbers of P.O.W.s it held at the war's end. The document, a translation of writings allegedly prepared by North Vietnamese general Tran Van Quang, stated that North Vietnam held 1,205 American P.O.W.s as of September 1972, just a few months before the release of the 591 P.O.W.s in Operation Homecoming. U.S. government officials suggested that the discrepancy in numbers might have been an exaggeration on the part of Tran Van Quang, or that a confusion of statistics between American soldiers and South Vietnamese commandos caused by an error in translation. Several independent analysts, however, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, said that the document appeared authentic.

More Evidence?
Veterans and families of M.I.A.s cite additional evidence that they believe shows American soldiers may still be alive in Vietnam. Thousands of live sightings of American soldiers in Vietnam have been reported since the war ended. Satellite photos have revealed images that P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates insist are coded distress signals burned or trampled into fields by American prisoners. In 1980, a reliable CIA contact reported seeing about 30 Americans working on a prison road crew in Laos. The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command prepared a rescue force, but press leaks and a badly bungled CIA reconnaissance mission stopped the rescue before it started.

Little Hope
Since the war's end, official U.S. government investigations have consistently concluded that no military personnel remain alive in Vietnam. In 1988, after hearing testimony from more than 20 witnesses, including former P.O.W.s, intelligence officials, and members of the families of M.I.A.s, a panel from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs found "no evidence to support the belief that some Americans were still held captive in Indochina," adding that there was "only a small hope that a small number of Americans might be alive." In January 1993, a Senate committee released similar findings, but added that Americans could have been left alive after the war and since died.

Statistics and Discrepancies
In addition, official statistics, and the way in which they are kept, have caused controversy. Of the more than 2,000 American soldiers still missing in Vietnam, most are listed as dead -- despite a lack of supporting physical evidence. The U.S. government prefers to concentrate search efforts on what it calls "discrepancy" cases -- those soldiers believed to be alive when they lost contact with American forces. Such discrepancy cases now number well below 100.

Advocates for More Evidence
While some families of American M.I.A.s agree with the government's accounting of the war's lost soldiers, many P.O.W. advocates insist that until an M.I.A. is determined to be dead by tangible physical evidence, he should not be considered so. Some members of Congress share this opinion. In 1996, at the urging of California Republican Bob Dornan, Congress attached a provision to the U.S. defense budget requiring that the Pentagon review the status of a missing soldier every three years if the soldier was last known to be alive. M.I.A. families who wish to do so can be present at the review. The law also prohibits the government from declaring an M.I.A. dead without proof.

Searches for Remains
Years of hostile American/Vietnamese diplomatic relations also hindered the resolution of the P.O.W./M.I.A. issue. Slowly, however, relations have improved, spurring more operations to locate missing Americans. In a speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explaining President Clinton's 1994 lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Vietnam, Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, cited hundreds of searches for the remains of American soldiers conducted by Vietnam. Yet few recoveries have resulted; the remains of only 67 Americans were returned home in 1993.

Complete Accounting Unlikely
While some P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates insist on nothing short of a complete accounting of all American M.I.A.s, even the optimists consider this unlikely. The heavy foliage in Vietnam's jungles quickly covered many aircraft crash sites, and Vietnam's hot, rainy weather caused rapid decay of clothing and human remains. Many soldiers were buried hastily in unmarked graves.

Missing Vietnamese Soldiers
Scores of Vietnamese families also endure the pain of not having a full accounting of the fate of their missing loved ones who fought in the war. The bodies of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers have yet to be recovered and given proper burial.

More Recent Efforts
The Clinton administration made a public commitment to a full accounting of American M.I.A.s. Yet over the objections of Republican congressmen and some M.I.A. advocates, who accused Vietnam of foot-dragging, Clinton resumed official diplomatic relations with Hanoi. By naming Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a former Vietnam P.O.W., as the first postwar U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Clinton claimed he had sent a strong message -- that a complete accounting of M.I.A.s was the United States' first and foremost concern. Meanwhile, P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates showed no sign of letting the issue rest. According to one of their slogans, "Only the United States Government has Forgotten."

Never Forgotten Logo

The Vietnam-Era Prisoner-of-War/Missing-in-Action Database
United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs

On August 2, 1991, the United States Senate approved a resolution introduced by Sen. Robert Smith providing for the creation of a Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs to serve during the remainder of the 102nd Congress. In October, 1991, a Chairman (Sen. John Kerry), Vice-chairman (Sen. Robert Smith), and ten additional Members were appointed to the Committee. A resolution providing funding was approved. The hearings began on November 5, 1991. The Committee’s Final Report was issued on January 13, 1993.

The Committee's task was to investigate the events, policies, and knowledge that guided U.S. Government POW/MIA-related actions over the previous 20 years and to do so in order to advance the following goals:

  • to determine whether there was evidence that American POWs survived Operation Homecoming and, if so, whether there was evidence that some may have been alive in captivity;

  • to ensure the adequacy of government procedures for following up on live-sighting reports and other POW/MIA related information;

  • to de-mystify the POW/MIA accounting process so that the families and the public can better understand the meaning behind the numbers and statistics used in discussions of the issue;

  • to establish an open, comprehensive record, and to provide for the broad declassification of POW/MIA materials in order to enable both the Committee and the public to make informed judgments about questions of policy, process, and fact;

  • to lend added weight to Executive branch efforts to obtain cooperation from foreign governments in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in accounting for missing Americans;

  • to review the activities of private organizations who participate in fundraising and educational efforts related to the POW/MIA issue; and

  • to examine, to the extent time and resources permit, unresolved issues pertaining to missing Americans from World War II, Korea, and the Cold War.

U.S. Senate

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POW/MIA Databases & Documents

In December 1991, Congress enacted Public Law 102-190, commonly referred to as the McCain Bill. The statute requires the Secretary of Defense to make available to the public--in a "library like setting"--all information relating to the treatment, location, and/or condition (T-L-C) of United States personnel who are unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. The facility chosen to receive this information was the Library of Congress (LoC). The Federal Research Division (FRD) created the PWMIA Database, the online index to those documents. The microfilmed documents themselves are available at the Library of Congress or borrowed through local libraries.

The mission of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) is to exercise policy, control, and oversight within DoD for the entire process for investigation and recovery related to missing persons; coordinate for DoD with other departments and agencies of the United States on all matters concerning missing persons; and establish procedures to be followed by DoD boards of inquiry. DPMO sends redacted documents to FRD for indexing and microfilming.

In March 1992, the U.S. – Russia Joint Commission on POWs and MIAs (USRJC) was established by direction of the Presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation to serve as a forum through which both nations seek to determine the fate of their missing servicemen. DPMO provides direct analytical, investigative, and administrative support to the USJRC through the Joint Commission Support Directorate. The Commission’s objectives are to determine whether American servicemen are being held against their will on the territory of the former Soviet Union and, if so, to secure their immediate release and repatriation; to locate and return to the United States the remains of any deceased American servicemen interred in the former Soviet Union; and to ascertain the facts regarding American servicemen who were not repatriated and whose fate remains unresolved.

Update January 11, 2010

AMERICANS RECOVERED: 1,721 Americans are now listed by Defense POW/MIA Office (DPMO) as missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

DPMO recently posted the names of Major Russell C. Goodman, USAF, of Utah, KIA/BNR in North Vietnam on February 20, 1967, his remains were recovered December 15, 1993 and identified September 14, 2009.

Also announced were Staff Sergeant Melvin C. Dye, USA, of Michigan, and Sergeant First Class Douglas J. Glover, USA, of New York, both MIA in Laos February 19, 1968. Their remains were recovered November 21, 2007 and identified February 4, 2009.

The number of Americans accounted for since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 is now 862, though another 63 US personnel were recovered post-incident and identified before the end of the war, bringing the total to 925.

To the family and friends of these three men, the League offers understanding and the hope that these concrete answers bring long-awaited peace of mind. Of the 1,721 unreturned veterans still missing and unaccounted for, 90% were lost in Vietnam or in areas of Laos and Cambodia under Vietnam's wartime control.

Because of our war on terrorism and our involvement in Iraq,
we now have a whole new set of POWs and MIAs.
I hope that through reading my story, people will get a better
understanding of the ramifications of being classified as
POW or MIA.

Is Anybody's Listening ~ Barbara Birchim

Learn more about this book on the Recommended Reading page

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