Summary. At various times and places throughout the MIA "activist" pantheon of barnyard excrement, one finds references to "Operation Duck Soup." The specifics vary; one source tells one tale, another tells another. Occasionally, the listener may be honored to talk with someone who claims to have really been on Operation Duck Soup or to have known someone who was. A book by former Army Captain George Veith masterfully adds to the confusion by describing events in Laos in such a way to make it appear that he has discovered the truth about Duck Soup.
There are two common threads to the tales about Duck Soup.
First, there were two, possiblY three, US POWs captured in Laos in the mid-1960s and held in caves near the Pathet Lao headquarters near Sam Neua. These three were all USAF officers shot down while participating in the "secret war" in Laos: David Hrdlicka (downed 18 May 1965), Charles Shelton (downed 29 April 1965), and Don Wood (downed 16 January 1966). Shelton and Hrdlicka were known to have been captured and held in the Sam Neua caves. Reports from Commie POWs and ralliers make it clear that both Shelton and Hrdlicka died within months of capture from a combination of disease and malnutrition. There is no clear evidence that Wood was captured, though an excavation of his crash site yielded no remains and his identification card was found in a Lao military museum. According to legend, Duck Soup was intended to rescue one or all of these men.
The second common thread to Duck Soup stories is that one or more US POWs were rescued then -- get this -- they were turned back over to their captors. (Sorry folks, I don't make up this stuff. I just report it.)
Okay, so, what are the facts? As with the rest of this MIA issue, it is not simple. Stay with me while I lay out some facts.
What Was Operation Duck Soup, Really?
There were three operations named Duck Soup.
What is the Claimed Duck Soup?
The Duck Soup POW rescue mission, according to various MIA activists, was an attempt to rescue one or more of the Americans listed above. Their claims are based on several pieces of evidence.
As part of the "secret war" in Laos, the US supported the Hmong tribe as an indigenous force against the Pathet Lao. The correct name for these folks is their tribal name, Hmong. Often, though, they are called "Meo," a Laotian term meaning "barbarian." We provided training, equipment, and missions to this secret army. The Hmong, who could move fairly freely through some areas of Laos, occasionally even through areas under PL or PAVN control. The Hmong were used to search for downed US personnel, to investigate crashes, and, if a POW rescue were attempted, the Hmong would likely have been involved.
In the cable traffic from the embassy in Laos is a message dated June 20, 1965. Here is a partial quote from the cable, from Ambassador Sullivan:
Let's examine this message.
First, why does Sullivan use the phrase "mighty Meo"? Suggests to me that he may not have had full confidence in these folks.
Second, why does he not want this report publicized? Two reasons. First, the ambassador may well have had some doubts about the validity of the information and he wanted to check it out before any public announcement was made. Second, he probably wanted to keep the report secret to ensure security of one or more on-going operations. If we had publicized that the Hmong (Meo) had rescued a US POW, the PL and NVA could easily have tightened up security to make certain that no further rescues occurred. So, in spite of the best attempts of some activists and at least one author to make this appear as a sinister action on Sullivan's part, in fact, the ambassador was taking prudent actions.
Third, his comment that there were other operations in progress is important because it shows that US agencies in Laos were, in fact, attempting rescue operations.
Now, the Duck Soup mythmakers allege that one US POW was rescued as evidenced in this message. Why did he not emerge? Well, they say, he was returned to his captors. I have not a clue as to where this bit of nonsense originated but that is what they story says.
The answer to what happened to this "rescued US POW" really lies in another cable from the ambassador on August 13, 1965-- one that none of the activists will talk about.
That's it, folks. The first report was not true. No US POW had been rescued but those who spread the "Operation Duck Soup" tale don't want you to know that so they quote only the first message then they tell their tale about giving him back to explain why no one was rescued.
One explanation for the "gave them back" claim may be found in some dissembling done in Veith's book, Code Name Bright Light, cited above. In all his citations about Shelton, Hrdlicka, and Wood, and in all his quoting from official documents, nowhere does Veith cite the evidence from ralliers and captives that Shelton and Hrdlicka died in captivity. Guess that would have been too inconvenient.
On pages 81 - 82 of the paperback version of Veith's book, he quotes from two handwritten notes that allegedly were in Shelton's case file. I reviewed Shelton's file several times and do not recall these notes, though I certainly do not remember every document in the file.
If one were so inclined, the phrase "sent back into the area" in the first quote could be claimed to be an indicator that the a US POW was rescued then sent back. In fact, it is clear from reading the portion of the note reproduced in the book that it was an intell collection team who was sent back.
Well, Did It Happen Or Not?
There clearly were plans to rescue US POWs in Southeast Asia. Clearly, there was intelligence collection aimed at generating or supporting plans and, just as clearly, there were some rescue attempts. But, as for an Operation Duck Soup in which a US POW was freed from captivity in Laos then turned back over to his captors, it never happened.
Duck Soup in Laos was an attempt to bag North Vietnamese light aircraft used to resupply their forces in Laos. The fact that the operation occurred at the same time that US agencies in Laos were trying to locate and possible rescue US POWs is pure coincidence, in spite of the best efforts of the mythmakers to prove otherwise.
So, What's the Harm in a Big Lie?
Think that no one gets hurt by this stuff? Think again.
As many of you know, USAF Captain Charles Shelton was shot down in Laos and captured. Shelton died after a short time in captivity, from disease and malnutrition. US search efforts have located where he was held and buried but the passage of time, our wartime bombing, and agricultural use has changed the landscape so that it is probably impossible to recover his remains. After the war, the Secretary of the Air Force was reviewing cases that had been recommended to him for closure with a presumptive finding of death. Shelton's case was the last one he reviewed and he determined that Shelton would be continued in a POW status as a symbolic gesture. Shelton's family continued to receive his pay, he continued to be promoted.
Shelton's wife was the target of all sorts of scam artists. She provided financial support to a number of individuals, each claiming to be on some sort of rescue mission. As a result of her husband being listed as a POW, she became a lightning rod for all sorts of idiots. One particularly loathsome incident occurred when a group approached her with the story that, in a secret operation named Duck Soup, her husband had been rescued and then returned to his captors.
On October 4, 1990, Marian Shelton sat at her kitchen table, wrote a letter to her children, took off the POW bracelet she had never removed, and shot herself . She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The children asked the USAF to review their father's case and he was declared dead. And that, folks, is the legacy of MIA mythology.
Of course, the folks who promulgate this crap all claim that they are working in the best interests of the families.