POWs - the pawns of the nation during four wars

By Harry V. Martin

Copyright FreeAmerica and Harry V. Martin, 1995

The window of opportunity for the potential release or rescue of American POWs and MIAs from Southeast Asia has shut tight. Any hope that the U.S. government might find the resolution to have a full public disclosure on the fate of Americans from three wars, died both with the November elections and with the final report of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on POWs/MIAs. The Senate Select Committee, however, states, "We want to make clear that this report is not intended to close the door on the issue." 1223-PAGE SENATE REPORT IS RELEASED

The 1223-page Senate report was issued this year after nearly two years of hearings. Although the report concludes that no American POWs are alive in Southeast Asia, it does provide an insight into the secret dealings and manipulations of the Executive Branch of government in in handling the public on this issue. "The Indochina war, itself, was partly a secret war and records were falsified at the time to maintain that secrecy," the report states. "Ever-changing Defense Department policies confused families and others about the official status of the missing and obscured even the number of men who might possibly have remained alive. The official penchant for secrecy left many families, activists and even Members of Congress unable to share fully in their own government's knowledge about the fate of fellow citizens and loved ones and this, more than anything, contributed to the atmosphere of suspicion and doubt."

Since the early 1970s, the United States government has indicated that all prisoners who were alive in Southeast Asian prison camps were repatriated. The government insisted, without any supportive evidence, that some 2500 Americans unaccounted for after a prisoner exchange, were dead. The Senate report now disputes that contention. "U.S. officials cannot produce evidence that all of the missing are dead," the report states. "Many of the factors that led to controversy surrounding the fates of Vietnam-era POW/MIAs are present, as well, with respect to the missing from World War II, Korea and the Cold War," the Senate report adds. "Here, too, there have been barriers to gaining information from foreign governments; excessive secrecy on the part of our own government; and provocative reports, official and unofficial, about what might have happened to those left behind."


According to its own words, the Senate Select Committee was created to examine the possibility that unaccounted for Americans might have survived in captivity after POW repatriations at Odessa in World War II, after Operation Big Switch in Korea in 1953, after Cold War incidents, and particularly after Operation Homecoming in Vietnam in 1973. "Whether the Committee has succeeded in its assigned tasks will be a matter for the public and for history to judge," the report states. "Clearly, we cannot claim, nor could we have hoped, to have learned everything. We had neither the authority nor the resources to make case by case determinations with respect to the status of the missing. The job of negotiating, conducting interviews, visiting prisons, excavating crash sites, investigating live-sighting reports and evaluating archival materials can only be completed by the Executive branch."

In summarizing its findings, the Senate Select Committee noted that President Richard Nixon had stated that all POWs are "on the way home", and the Defense Department, following standard procedures, began declaring missing men dead. In 1976, the Montgomery Committee concluded that because there was no evidence that missing Americans had survived, they must be dead. In 1977, a Defense Department official said that the distinction between Americans still listed as POWs and those listed as missing had become academic. "Nixon, Ford and Carter Administration officials all dismissed the possibility that American POWs had survived in Southeast Asia after Operation Homecoming," the report emphasized. Even while President Nixon declared all POWs were repatriated, the President had sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Laos stating, "U.S. records show there are 317 American military men unaccounted for in Laos and it is inconceivable that only 10 of these men would be held prisoner in Laos." Yet dispite this protest, only 10 U.S. military personnel were released from Laos.

The Senate Committee says that it cannot share that viewpoint. "This Committee has uncovered evidence that precludes it from taking the same view. We acknowledge that there is no proof that U.S. POWs survived, but neither is there proof that all of those who did not return had died. There is evidence, moreover, that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming." The Committee outlined its reasonings on this issue:


The Senate Select Committee did take a bold step in declaring that American POWs were probably left behind, despite official denials from four Presidents. "There remains the troubling question of whether the Americans who were expected to return but did not were, as a group, shunted aside and discounted by government and population alike. The answer to that question is essentially yes." The Committee recounts the history of the time, noting that the people wanted to believe President Nixon that all POWs were repatriated, they wanted to move on. At the same time, Watergate seized the attention of the media and the nation and the question of the fate of POWs and MIAs faded. "In a sense, it, too, became a casualty of war," the Committee claimed. "When the war shut down, so too, did much of the POW/MIA related intelligence operations. Bureaucratic priorities shifted rapidly and, before long, the POW/MIA accounting operation had become more of a bureaucratic backwater than an operations center for matters of life and death."

The Committee admitted that it has evidence suggesting the possibility that some POWs may still be alive, they, however, indicate the evidence is not compelling enough to prove any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia. "The Committee cannot prove a negative, nor have we entirely given up hope that one or more U.S. POWs may have survived," the report says. "Yes, it is possible even as these countries (Vietnam and Laos) become more and more open that a prisoner or prisoners could be held deep within a jungle or behind some locked door under conditions of the greatest security. The bottom line is that there remain only a few cases where we know an unreturned POW was alive in captivity and we do not have evidence that the individual also died while in captivity."

Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted last year that U.S. POWs from the Vietnam, Korean and World War II era had been held captive in the Soviet Union. Official U.S. records show that 2264 Americans are still unaccounted for after the Vietnamese war ended. "The decision by the U.S. Government to falsify location of loss data for American casualties in Cambodia and Laos during much of the war contributed significantly both to public distrust and to the difficulties experienced by the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) and others in trying to establish what happened to the individuals involved," the Senate report states.


The Committee was critical of the Defense Intelligence Agency's POW/MIA Office. It indicates that the DIA has been:

The criticism of the DIA is important. The DIA has had the responsibility for tracking down possible POWs in Southeast Asia and to investigate live-sighting reports. This is the one agency that has a full-time mandate to ascertain the fate of POWs and MIAs. Live-sightings have kept the POW issue alive. "The sheer number of first-hand live sighting reports, almost 1600 since the end of the war, has convinced many Americans that U.S. POWs must have been kept behind and may still be alive. Other Americans have concluded sadly that our failure, after repeated efforts, to locate any of these alleged POWs means that reports are probably not true. It is the Committee's view that every live-sighting report is important as a potential source of information about the fate of our POW/MIAs." The Committee discovered that "hundreds of thousands of hard copy documents, memoranda, raw reports, operational messages and possibly tapes from both the wartime and post-war periods remain unreviewed in various archives and storage facilities. Most troubling, NSA (National Security Agency) failed to locate for investigators any wartime analyst files related specifically to tracking POWs, despite the fact that tracking POWs was a known priority at the time. This failure made it impossible for the Committee to confirm some information on downed pilots that was provided by NSA employee Jerry Mooney."

A Secret Service agent had indicated that the Reagan Administration had received an offer from Vietnam in 1981, transmitted through a third country to exchange live POWs for $4.5 billion. The Committee voted 7-4 not to subpoena the agent. The Committee did question private organizations that have sent in rescue missions, including "Team Falcon in 1991-1992 and in 1988, Operation Skyhook II, an early 1980s effort to find prisoners in Laos. None of these operations have been successful in rescuing prisoners.


The Committee also found evidence to support the contention that U.S. POWs were held in the Soviet Union after World War II, the Korean War and Cold War incidents. "The Committee cannot, based on its investigation to date, rule out the possibility that one or more U.S. POWs from past wars or incidents are still being held somewhere within the borders of the former Soviet Union." The Committee states that several hundred U.S. POWs were held in the Soviet Union after World War II against their will. "There is strong evidence, both from archived U.S. intelligence reports and from recent interviews in Russia, that Soviet military and intelligence officials were involved in the interrogation of American POWs during the Korean Conflict, notwithstanding recent official statements from the Russian s who said that this did not happen," the Committee reported. "Additionally, the Committee has reviewed information and heard testimony that we believe constitutes strong evidence that some unaccounted for American POWs from the Korean Conflict were transferred to the former Soviet Union in the early 1950s." The Russians have concurred with this concept. A total of 8177 Americans still remain unaccounted for in the Korean conflict.

"The Committee is aware of several reports that U.S. POWs may have been transferred to the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War," the report states. The Committee also stated that in view of recent intelligence reports, it cannot exclude the possibility that some American POWs of the Korean conflict may still be alive in North Korea after 40 years, yet in contrast don't believe Americans could have survived 20 years in Southeast Asian captivity. "Given the fact that only 26 Army and 15 Air Force personnel returned from China following the war (Korean), the Committee can now firmly conclude that the People's Republic of China surely has information on the fate of other unaccounted for American POWs."

One of the most important ingredients missing in the long Senate investigation of the POW issue, was the fact the Senate refused to provide immunity to government witnesses. The importance of that fact is that without immunity, government witnesses could not testify about government secrets, whereabouts of documents, or key players. Under the National Security Act, any testimony supplied by a government witnesses without Congressional immunity could result in a 10-year prison term. Many of these witnesses could not come forward without violating the National Secrecy Act or the National Security Act. The Senate refused to compel the testimony of the Secret Service agent who overheard the White House conversation in 1981 about the Vietnamese offer to repatriate American POWs in exchange for billions of dollars in aid.

The window of opportunity on the POW issue is closing tightly. The United States government is preparing to reopen formal ties with Vietnam. Such ties are aimed at gaining excess to rich oil reserves in Vietnam and lucrative American contracts in Southeast Asia, as well as naval and air bases. If Vietnam was considered to still be holding American POWs, this opening of diplomatic ties would not be embraced by the American people. To send a message to the people that there is no one left and that the Vietnamese are fully cooperative, the U.S. government hopes that the American public will be pacified.

A major rebuttal to this Senate Report is being prepared by veteran organizations. When the rebuttal is available, it will be published here. Perhaps it can all be summed up by a statement made by former POW Eugene "Red" McDaniel: "I was prepared to fight, to be wounded, to be captured and even prepared to die, but I was not prepared to be abandoned."