MIA Facts Site

CODE-NAME: 
BRIGHT LIGHT
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A Review

Summary:  Former Army Captain George J. Veith has written a book titled Codename:  BRIGHT LIGHT that details the efforts to find and rescue Americans who were held as prisoners of war (POW) during the Vietnam War.  There are other reviews of Bright Light out there and this is one more.  My review reaches these conclusons:

bulletAs a history of the JPRC, Bright Light is fine.  The author has done a detailed study of available documents, has used interviews with the people who were there to fill in the gaps, and he does a good job of telling this story that needs to be told.
bulletThe book is misleading when it attempts to be a commentary on the question of what the Vietnamese or the Lao know about our missing men, as a commentary on whether or not men were abandoned alive after Homecoming, and as a commentary on the meaning of intelligence reports from during and after the war.  The author's unquestioning reliance on raw reporting and his use of questionable "experts" make this element of the book extremely weak, even useless.

Background

I will not go into a lot of detail trying to re-tell the plot of Bright Light.   Briefly, as the Vietnam War expanded, several levels of command recognized that while Search and Rescue (SAR) units and efforts went into loss sites immediately after men were lost, there was no real effort to develop intelligence on lost men and, if they were discovered to be alive, to mount a rescue attempt.  This "post-SAR"   did not exist and the US command structure felt that something had to be put into place.

The result was the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC).  A joint command -- staffed by people from all services -- JPRC was charged with developing intelligence on where US POWs were then trying where possible to rescue them.

Veith worked from files at various places, including previously unexploited records at the Army's Center for Military History.  He went a step further in his research in that he located several of the people mentioned in the written record and interviewed them.  His inclusion of these interviews adds depth, realism, and a touch of humanity to the book.

If anyone is interested, I recommend you read the book for yourself.  It is available at most large booksellers (Books A Million, Barnes & Noble, Borders all should have it).  If all else fails, here is a link to Amazon.com where you can purchase the book.

It's a Good Tale That Needs to Be Told

So, what did I think of the book?  (If anyone is interested.)  I think the book is a story that needs to be told and that Veith told it well.  There are three threads that run through this book as the author traces the history of the JPRC:

  1. No matter how badly it was needed, JPRC seemed always to be a poor stepchild.
  2. JPRC encountered enormous political, inter-service, and command relationship problems with even the simplest of tasks.
  3. JPRC was plagued with the reality of intelligence:  Accurate, timely, reliable intell is tough to get.

A Poor Stepchild

While JPRC had its own personnel and organization, it never really had the full staff,   troops, aircraft, and command clout that it needed to react quickly.  In most cases, when JPRC developed information that seemed sufficient to launch a rescue operation, they had to go begging for assets -- troops, helicopters, air support, and the like.  What amazed me was that they were able to put together as many operations as they did.

Politics and Rivalries

At practically every stage, JPRC had to fight for permission and authority to do their job.  This fact is most clearly illustrated in the numerous incidents, recounted by the author, when JPRC wanted to mount rescue operations in Laos.  Because there were no US forces in Laos (officially), anything that went on there had to be cleared through the ambassador and his clearance was, in every case, slow in coming, if it came at all.   Time and again, as I was reading Bright Light, I found myself feeling the same frustrations that the JPRC folks must have felt as they sat in Vietnam with intell in hand, troops ready to go, and no approval for the US ambassador in Laos.  The story of the attempt to rescue a US escapee in Laos (Butcher) is the ultimate in frustration.

Good Intell is Tough to Find

Time and again, JPRC received reports telling of US POWs being held here, there, and elsewhere.  Often, JPRC would show the source -- usually a Vietnamese farmer, woodcutter, or prisoner -- maps and recent aerial photographs, trying to pin down exactly where the source saw the American(s) he claimed to have seen.  In so many cases, while it appeared that the source was being truthful, he simply could not read a map or aerial photo and JPRC was left frustrated.

The author relates many other cases in which sufficient intell was developed to conduct a rescue operation and the operation freed ARVN POWs, found warm cooking fires, found where Americans had been minutes or hours before, but never found any Americans.  In fact, many POWs were rescued by JPRC operations; it's just that none of them were Americans.  Thus, their operations could by no means be classified as failures.

So What Does This Mean?

I believe that the author missed a real opportunity to make a contribution to future POW rescue operations.  While telling a story completely and in detail is laudable, Bright Light fell down in several areas, the first being the lack of a lessons learned chapter.  Go back to the three points that I raised above as having plagued JPRC.   Does any of this sound familiar?  Under-resourced?  Inter-service, inter-command, inter-agency rivalry?  Insufficient intelligence?  Reliance on other agencies for people, transportation, fire support, and intelligence?  Think that these problems were all solved with the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the wake of Grenada?   Think again.

If you think JPRC had a constant uphill climb, just exactly how do you think we will put together POW rescue operations in, say, Serbia or Kosovo?  Operations there will be plagued, not just buy internal US rivalries, but also by multi-national coordination problems of unspeakable proportions.  How do we operate secret POW rescue operations in a multi-national environment where we may be dependent on air cover from one nation, ground support from another, and fire support from a third -- all the while operating across several national boundaries? 

The problem of obtaining reliable, timely intelligence in such an environment will be extremely difficult.  The counter-intelligence and leak problems will doom many operations before they get started.

I believe that the author of Bright Light could have spent his concluding chapters much more wisely had he translated the JPRC lessons learned into some suggestions for future operations.  After all, is that not the purpose of history?

Some Problems with Bright Light

Mr. Veith has done a good job of recounting the history of the JPRC and of POW rescue attempts in SEAsia.  Had he stuck with that topic, his book would have been strong.   However, he ventures into intelligence analysis without fully exploring what he is analyzing and, in those instances, he injects problems into his work.

In several places, he cites a report then later uses that report to "confirm" another report.  The problem is that, in a few instances, one or more of the reports that he uses as corroboration is/are not corroborative because his version of the report is not complete or accurate.  Let me describe a few such incidents.

The "Volleyball Game" Photo

The photo and initial readouts

Early in his book, Veith refers to the "volleyball photo."  In late 1969 (I am not certain of the date, this is what I recall), an RF-101 on a photo recce mission over southern Laos returned with photographs of a group of people engaged in what appeared to be a volleyball game, in a large cleared area in front of the mouths of some caves.   There were 20 - 30 people, about half of them facing the other half over what appeared to be a net, with some bystanders.  The photo was shot at a place named Ban Nakay Theu (probably not the correct spelling), a site along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Readouts done at the time speculated that there may be Americans among the people photographed.  Readouts also "identified" an armed guard and a man who appeared to be waving at the aircraft.

What the photo really showed

The initial readouts of this photography stood for several years and were the source of much misinformation and speculation.  Bright Light continues to spread this misinformation and speculation.  In Bright Light, the "volleyball photo" becomes a touchstone by which all sort of other reports are "confirmed."  At several points in the book, the author recites reports of 10, 20, 30 Americans being held in Laos, refers to the photo, and concludes that, well, there must have been 10, 20, or 30 Americans there because here are two corroborative reports.

The author either missed or chose to ignore the work done on the photo in the late 1980's.  While I was in the DIA POW-MIA shop, I asked imagery analysts at the National Photo Interpretation Center to see if they could analyze the "volleyball photo" using state of the art techniques not available when the photo was shot.   They retrieved the original film taken by the RF-101 and found that there was not one but two "volleyball" photos.

The RF-101 has several cameras mounted in different points on the aircraft; nose and belly cameras are most common with belly cameras looking both down and to the side.   As the aircraft zips along, the camera(s) fire, automatically advance the film and fire again until the pilot turns them off or they run out of film.

Imagery analysts use, when they can get them, stereoscopic views.  A stereo camera has two lenses set a few inches apart, focusing two images on two separate parts of the same piece of film.  Because of the separation of the lenses, the image becomes stereoscopic -- three dimensional -- and when viewed through stereo viewfinders, images stand out from the background.  The effect is striking, being able to see in three dimensions rather than in flat two dimensions.

The RF-101 did not have stereo cameras but, as the aircraft flew forward, and as the camera fired in succession, the same scene was photographed from two different angles.   The imagery analysts used the two images, taken a few yards apart, to produce a stereoscopic view that cleared up lots of questions about the photo.  Here is what they found and reported to us at DIA:

bulletThe item that had been identified as a guard with a weapon was actually a bush.
bulletThe man who was "waving" at the aircraft -- possibly a US POW signaling -- was actually urinating onto a low shrub.
bulletEvery single person in the photo had black hair.
bulletThe average height of people in the photo was under 5' 7".
bulletThe item that had been identified as an individual running toward the aircraft was a bush with a piece of white cloth, possible a shirt, thrown over it.
bulletThere was no evidence of weapons visible.

Also, in the late 1980's, I tasked the native Lao interviewer in the office to search out people in Laotian communities worldwide who may have had any knowledge of Ban Nakay Theu around that time.  He found a few Laotians who had been impressed into labor service or who had friends who had been used for labor in the area, mostly by the PAVN.   They all reported that volleyball was about the only recreation they had and none of them had any knowledge of American POWs in the Ban Nakay Theu area.

These reports were in writing, all in the DIA (now DPMO) files and were available through the Freedom of Information Act.  Had the author simply used this common research tool, he could have learned that the "volleyball" photo had nothing to do with US POWs.  Of course, if he had done that, then all the reports that he corroborated with the volleyball photo would have come to naught.

Unquestioning Acceptance of "Reports"

The MIA issue is plagued by amateur analysts and junior G-men who, upon reading a report, declare that they have found the Rosetta Stone.  Some dig even deeper, corroborating one report with another until they have built a huge case of what appears to the uncritical reader to be mutually-supporting reports. 

The problem with such an approach is that reports are just that:  reports.   Some are accurate and true.  Some are a bit of truth and a bit of garbage.   Some are bogus.  All bear investigating but the investigator must maintain healthy skepticism.  It is that skepticism that is missing in Bright Light.   The author simply repeats reports, with no effort made to examine their validity.

Beating the PAVN with chains

On page 279 of the paperback edition, the author recounts the story of the US POW in Laos who beat to death three PAVN with chains when they attempted to chain him to a table.   According to the report, he was deemed incorrigible and moved to Hanoi.  Now, this is a rollicking tale that the author accepts at face value.  I cannot accept this report as being even vaguely true.  In the first place, I am to believe that a US POW overpowered and killed three PAVN interrogators and lived to be moved to Hanoi?    How long does it take to beat to death three men with a chain?  Where were the PAVN or PL guards while all this ruckus was going on?  Why did no returnee report such an incident?  This story -- which is often associated with USAF Captain Charles Shelton -- simply does not pass the basic test of being reasonable.

On the same page, the author quotes a "CIA" report of 27 American POWs in Laos being moved to Hanoi. 

It appears to me that, in both these cases, the author is simply reporting something that he read in a file with no attempt to ascertain what it is that he is reporting.   In every case of reports coming from the field, there is, at the end of the report, a comment by the agent collecting the report and, often, by a headquarters analyst, commenting on the reliability of the source and the general accuracy of the report.   I cannot tell you how many times I have had a "POW researcher" wave a report in my face claiming that he has found proof, only to have me point out to him the agency comment that the source had reported unreliably in the past and that the information in the report was contradicted by other, more reliable reports.

Thus, while the author cites, time and again, report after report, I am left with the sense that he is doing just that:  quoting from reports, not attempting to ascertain the validity of what he is citing.

Sompongs

On pages 343 - 345, the author again falls into the trap of repeating reports by relating the Sompongs story.  It seems that an individual named Sompongs showed up in Thailand claiming that, for a price, he could liberate up to 30 US POWs held in the Sam Nuea area of Laos.  Veith goes on to relate this story that finally falls apart when Sompongs cannot deliver and fails to show up again.  However, Veith closes with references to the previous CIA reports of prisons in the area and to the volleyball photo -- because there were CIA reports of prisons in the area, because of the volleyball photo, and because of the similarities among the CIA report, the volleyball photo, and the Sompongs report, there must be 10, 20, or 30 US POWs out there.  This is a classic example of using nonsense to prove other nonsense.

As I started reading the Sompongs story, I had a real sense of deja vu.   I had heard this before.  It is a common story: " I have a friend/relative/colleague who has access to US POWs and for a price, we can get them out. "  Sompongs, in 1971, was merely ahead of his time; in the 1980's and 90's, scam artists were showing up with far more elaborate stories than his.  The Sompongs story is such an obvious fake that I really have to wonder what the author hoped to prove by using it.  Then, he compounded the problem by using other irrelevant reports as corroboration. (Does the author really believe that, as Sompongs reported, US POWs were "teaching English to their PL captors"?)

Reliance on Jerry Mooney

Mr. Veith does not help his case by his reliance on one of the real sources of mis-information in the MIA issue, retired USAF Master Sergeant Jerry Mooney.   Briefly, Mooney was an AF signals intelligence analyst who served one tour of duty, not in Vietnam, but at a WESTPAC base where he analyzed PAVN logistic traffic. He is not a Vietnamese linguist.   Mooney is the source of bad analysis concerning the crew of Baron 52, an EC-47Q electronic reconnaissance aircraft lost over Laos.  Mooney is represented as being the expert on PAVN air defenses.  He is not; he did not work PAVN air defenses.  Mooney's big chance came when he presented his "evidence" to the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs.   After working with Mooney for some days, the SSC concluded in their report:

"In any event, Mooney's material has allowed Committee investigators to bring together a great deal of material as an additional check on the information that NSA has on hand. His efforts on behalf of the POW-MIA issue are greatly appreciated."

Now, this not-exactly-ringing-endorsement of Mooney came at the end of the section of the SSC report that repeated all of Mooney's claims and, in each case, found that he could not substantiate any of his claims. Veith uses Mooney to substantiate signal intelligence reports that Mooney simply is in no position to substantiate.

I had an opportunity in early 1993 to view the "working documents" that Mooney presented to the SSC.  He had taken approximately 150 sheets of typing paper and a handful of felt-tipped markers.  On the paper he had drawn pictures, cartoon-like pictures, stick-figure aircraft, stick-figure AAA guns firing streams of bullets, stick-figure Americans in parachutes, all adorned with the words of the song "Where have all the young men gone, long time passing . . . "  Page after page of hand-drawn cartoons.  That, my friends, is Jerry Mooney's documentation.   Mr. Veith could have obtained this through FOIA.

"Salted" sites

Mr. Veith also does his case no good in his one reference to "salted" remains sites.  The background on this is that there is an unfounded claim by many POW-MIA activists that the Vietnamese have teeth, bones, and artifacts collected from missing Americans and that they chase around the countryside putting these items into contrived gravesites which they allow US investigators to discover. 

On page 35, Veith partially describes the recovery of the remains of two missing Americans, USMC Privates Fred Schreckengost and Robert Greer, about whom a vast mythology was constructed.  Information available at the time or their disappearance was that they had been shot to death within a day or two of capture and buried where they fell.  In November 1990, after narrowing down the area of the grave, a US team recovered their remains from the hole in which they had lain since their deaths.  Veith cites a claim by retired MSG Bill Bell that the remains may have been "salted."  Nonsense.  Veith could have, through FOIA, obtained the complete report of the recovery and analysis of the remains from which he would have learned that no one "salted" anything.  In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever of "salting" of remains or gravesites.  One wonders why the author did not track down this story through a simple FOIA request.

So, What's The Verdict

At the beginning of this article, I stated that "My review is as schizophrenic as the book."  That's it.  My view of this book goes two ways: 

bulletAs a history of the JPRC, it is fine.  The author has done a detailed study of available documents, has used interviews with the people who were there to fill in the gaps, and he does a good job of telling this story that needs to be told.
bulletThe book is misleading when it attempts to be a commentary on the question of what the Vietnamese or the Lao know about our missing men, as a commentary on whether or not men were abandoned alive after Homecoming, and as a commentary on the meaning of intelligence reports from during and after the war.  The author's unquestioning reliance on raw reporting and his use of questionable "experts" make this element of the book extremely weak, even useless.

Want to Buy It?

Click here to go to Amazon.com if you wish to purchase Code-Name Bright Light : The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War

This article added to MIA Facts Site on March 21, 1999.