MIA Facts Site

The "Dong Vai Evader Symbols": The Facts

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Summary. One of the most persistent myths spread by the MIA cult is that a name and secret codes associated with missing Americans were seen, stamped out in a rice field,  in satellite imagery taken in 1992 of the "Dong Vai" prison in northern Vietnam. These claims are false. The facts of the case are:

bulletNo man-made symbols are present on the satellite imagery in question.
bulletThe individual who made the initial claim was using technically incompetent techniques to "analyze" satellite photography.
bulletThe retired imagery analyst who initially supported these claims later could not find the symbols that he was so certain were present.
bulletClaims that photographs were switched or doctored are nonsense.

The following article is long. It starts with a description of satellite photography and the analysis thereof. It describe the events surrounding the so-called 'SEREX" and "GX2527" supposedly verified as being on satellite photography of "Dong Vai" prison in northern Vietnam.

This article is written by one who was there. I have an extensive background in intelligence operations and analysis, including all intelligence disciplines: HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, and MASINT.

(NOTE:  Elsewhere on the WWW is a site authored by a brother of one of the missing men who is supposed to have put symbols on the ground.  On that page is a representation of the imagery.  That is, there is a sketch that purports to be the satellite imagery.  It is not.  Instead, it is a sketch prepared by former Congressman Billy Hendon. That sketch in no way represents what the imagery looks like.)

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Some facts about imagery

Suppose your daughter has just had her third birthday party and you took some photos. In looking at the photos after having them developed and printed, Aunt Susie spots one that she just has to have a copy of. You take the photo to the one-hour photo shop and ask for a copy. What is the first, the very first, thing they ask you at the photofinishers? "Do you have the negative?"

Why do they do this? Simple. Because the negative is the true and best image. The print is a second generation reproduction of the first generation image on the negative. Ever wonder why Ansel Adams took such great pains with his negatives? Because that is the true image.

If you do not have the negative, the photo shop takes your print, puts it into a special camera called a copy camera, shoots a negative of your print, then makes a print from that negative. You give Aunt Susie the new print but, if you examine it closely, you will find that it is not as clear -- it does not have the "definition" -- of the print you have. Why not? The original negative is the first generation image. Your print is the second generation image. The negative made on the copy camera is the third generation and Aunt Susie's new print is the fourth generation. No matter how fine the equipment or the technique, by the time we get to a fourth generation image, we are losing definition.

We see the same thing in photocopying, which is a photographic process. Make a photocopy of a nice, crisply printed letter. Then make a copy of the copy. Then make a copy of the copy of the copy. You do not have to do this process many times until the clear, crisp image is now blurry and peppered with "vestiges" of the copying process.

If you want to analyze the content of an image, you go to the primary image.

Satellite imagery

It is no secret that the United States has satellites in space capable of taking very clear photographs of very tiny objects on the ground. Open sources claim that current satellite cameras, if shooting from New York, can read a license plate in Philadelphia.   ( Read the book Deep Black for a good, unclassified history and explanation. )

Way back in the beginning, we used "bucket retrieval" systems. A satellite was loaded with huge film magazines, much as you load a roll of film in your camera. The bird was launched and it flew around the world, clicking away, advancing the film one frame each time it clicked. Every few days, a film canister was used up and a new one rotated into place.

When all the film was shot, the satellite kicked out the film canisters over the Pacific Ocean. The film parachuted back to earth where it was caught in mid-air by a C-130 with a special hook apparatus on the nose. Really, gang, that's the way it worked. We lost a few canisters. The film was then hauled back to the D.C. area where it was developed.

After the film was developed, we then had big rolls of negatives -- primary, first generation images. These negatives are rolled out onto light tables. A light table is about the size of a regular dining table with a flat, heavy glass surface, a heavy steel and aluminum frame, and a mount on which are mounted various optics. The optics have a binocular eyepiece that peers through lenses of various magnification.

That was then. Now, we do not use film. Current satellite imagery is digital. The satellite has an on-board camera but the image, instead of being focused on a sheet of film, is focused on a charge-coupled device that translates the image from the camera lens into digital data that is transmitted back to a ground station where the digital data goes to two places. First, it is stored as digital data -- an electronic negative which is the true primary image. Second, the digital data drives a device that exposes film, thereby producing a hard copy negative.

Thus, images can be viewed one of two ways. The easiest, and most common, is to use the hard copy negative and view it on a light table. It is quick and inexpensive. The detailed, expensive way to look at the image is to sit at a huge computer-driven device called an IDEX (Imagery Digital Exploitation System) and view the image on a high-resolution monitor. The difference between viewing a hard copy sheet of film on a light table and using the IDEX is the difference between a VW Beetle and the Beetle's grandson, a Porsche Carrera. Either way is a perfectly fine way of exploiting -- analyzing -- imagery. It's just that IDEX allows us to enhance the image in more ways and IDEX is the place to turn when there are questions about what really is on an image.

JSSA, SSC, and other background information

I assume that anyone who has read this far is aware of the activities of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIAs ( SSC ), which was in session from November 1991 until January 1993. Let me pause here and introduce another organization, the JSSA.

JSSA stands for Joint Services SERE Agency. SERE stands for Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion. These are the four stages of action on the part of a person lost in enemy territory: survive; escape if you can; resist if captured; evade whenever you are free. JSSA is located in some old WWII barracks at Fort Belvoir, VA. Their mission is to study the experiences of people who have been lost in enemy territory, captured, escaped, evaded, or what have you. These experiences then form the basis for training programs and methods that are used to train U.S. personnel who may be lost behind enemy lines (aircrews, special ops folks, etc.) in survival, escape, resistance, and evasion.

Over the years, we have developed the use of "evader symbols" or "distress symbols." The concept is simple. A person who is lost can use natural materials -- felled trees, brush, rocks, etc. -- to spell out words or to make recognizable signs on the ground that can be seen from the air. If possible, a lost soul could stamp out his name or a symbol in sand, dirt, rice stubble, tall grass, low shrubs, etc. Personnel who are likely to become lost are trained to do this and, in some cases, when they go operational, they are assigned certain code numbers or letters. Another practice is that aircrews are issued distress letters that are valid for a certain period after which they are changed.

Why use codes, why not use names? Think about this: Your name is Schwartzengruber and you are evading capture. Just exactly how long will it take you to gather enough tree limbs, and just how much acreage will you need, to spell out your name? Why not use an agreed-upon symbol for this month, then change it for next month, and so on? Why change it? Well, what if the bad guys get hold of the symbol? They could use it to lure rescue crews into a trap. See, gang, it all makes sense.

Now, a word about the Senate Select Committee, the SSC. Anyone who followed their hearings knows that there was tension on the Committee between and among Senators McCain, Kerry, and Smith. Smith was the champion and darling of the MIA cult, McCain was the opposite of Smith, and Kerry tried to keep them civil.

JSSA looks at the imagery

Somewhere along in the proceedings, the SSC asked if anyone familiar with pilot distress symbols had ever looked at imagery or photography to see if downed people were putting distress symbols on the ground to be picked up by passing aircraft. Because the JSSA was the experts in SERE, they were called in. One of the old-timers at JSSA was a former USAF guy whom I will not name here; I will call him D.

The Defense Intelligence Agency was told to give D some satellite imagery of North Vietnam and let him see if he could find some distress symbols. D was offered the opportunity to look at rolls of film on a light table. He deferred. D had some initial entry training as a photo analyst but he was totally unfamiliar with anything other than old black-and-white shots taken from air breathers. So, he requested some prints made from satellite imagery.

The imagery in question dated from 1992 and was of a few rice fields near an old North Vietnamese prison called Dong Vai Prison. The place had not been used as a prison for years. In fact, the walls were tumbled down, roofs caved in, and the whole place was in general disrepair. In reviewing historical imagery of the place, it was obvious that the facility was used by local farmers to store rice and equipment during the harvest season. The rest of the year, there was no activity around it. ( A valid question is this: If Dong Vai is not an active military installation, then why take satellite photos of it? The answer is: We were not photographing Dong Vai Prison. In fact, we were shooting Vietnamese military installations along the coast but, because of the look angle of the bird and the sweep of the lens, we got a shot that included the old prison. There was, and still is, no U.S. intelligence interest in the old place.  )

What he got was exactly what you get when you ask for a print: a fourth-generation photograph. (First generation is the digital data; second is the hard copy reverse negative; third is a dupe-positive negative; fourth is the print.) Now, stop right here. What D got was exactly what you get when you ask for a print; no one doctored anything, obscured anything, or tried to hide anything. It's just the nature of the science. Now, real imagery analysts use prints for briefings and for general orientation. No one, absolutely no one, uses prints to analyze imagery. Imagery analysis is done using IDEX or hard copy negatives on a light table. D used a handheld magnifying glass and a fourth-generation print.

What did he see? Well, that depends on what day of the week you ask him. D drew several red circles on the print. When asked what those were, he said they appeared to him to be man-made symbols. He said that one circle was where he saw something that looked to him like and S, and E, and possibly and R. Another JSSA guy looked at the same print using the same magnifying glass. He claimed that he saw some things that could be symbols but he was not certain.

A couple of days later, D came back and claimed that what he saw was actually the name SEREX. USAF Major Henry Serex is missing in North Vietnam. Upon further questioning, D revealed that he had no idea that Serex was missing until he went back to his office, consulted a MIA list for combinations of S, E, and R, and, behold, there was SEREX.

Real imagery analysts and LTC Larry Burroughs

As you may imagine, D's revelations caused quite a stir. A group of experienced imagery analysts were assembled from CIA, DIA, NPIC, and the services. Many of them were Vietnam vets, and together they had 116 years of imagery analysis experience. Sen. Smith, meanwhile, had the SSC call in Larry Burroughs, LTC, USAF (Ret), who had one time been the Deputy Director of the National Photo Interpretation Center and was now a consultant to folks who used satellite imagery for commercial purposes (LANDSAT, RORSAT, etc.)  (( NOTE:  This article is being written in February 1998.  I have heard -- but I have no way to verify -- that Larry died of cancer in 1997.  I know that, at the time I met with him in 1994, he was in pain that ranged from discomfort to real hurt. ))

Burroughs looked at the SEREX imagery and proclaimed two things. First, he said that he did not see any SEREX but that there could be some symbols where D claimed to have seen the S, E, and R. Larry also announced that he had found what he believed to be the symbol GX followed by four numbers, 2527. Later, he stated that he was 100 percent certain of the GX2527.

Burroughs was basing his interpretation on viewing imagery on a light table and through IDEX. I should point out three facts: (1) Larry had no experience on IDEX. He had been in NPIC back when IDEX was a dream; he had worked on some of the concept documents. An Army imagery analyst from NPIC sat at his elbow and talked him through how to use the machine. (2) Larry's experience on light tables was old. He and I looked at some film together and, in each case, I had to step in and focus the light table for him -- he was not able to do that simple operation. (3)  Larry is a good guy who deserves better treatment than he is getting. He was victimized by Smith and Billy Hendon.

The SEREX, as pointed out previously, refers to USAF Maj. Henry M. Serex. The GX2527 is supposed to be a secret number assigned to another USAF MIA, Major Peter Matthes.

Bob Smith immediately proclaimed that Larry Burroughs, who was now being touted as the "U.S. government's greatest expert on evader symbols" had verified beyond a doubt that SEREX and GX2527 were visible on satellite imagery taken of a rice field near Dong Vai prison, thereby proving that Americans were being held right there right now. If you missed Smith and Billy Hendon on the Larry King Live show, you missed a real feeding frenzy.

One fact Smith, Hendon, and no one else ever pointed out is that the SSC hired, not one, but TWO imagery consultants.  In addition to Burroughs, the SSC brought in Mr. Carroll Lucas, a retired CIA imagery analyst with as much experience as Burroughs; Lucas's experience was more recent than Burroughs'.  Lucas looked at the same imagery where Burroughs claimed to have seen the GX2527 and where D. claimed to have seen SEREX, or some parts of SEREX.  Lucas stated that what was being reported as man-made symbols were no more than natural shadings.

But, what about the conclusions of the real imagery analysts?

The imagery was analyzed using every possible technical means. The IDEX was used for various enhancements. I will not go into the technical details here, but the original, first generation, straight from the bird, digital imagery, was enhanced every way possible using pseudo stereo, histogram interpretation, false color, shadow removal, and a few other techniques I do not recall. In every case, the conclusion was the same: There are no symbols on the imagery. There is no S, E, or R, and there is no GX2527. There is an occasional shadow that, if you want to do so, you could read it as a letter of some kind but these are merely random colorings, with no man-made characteristics.

Before moving on, we do need to tell one more little story. When D came in with his S, E, R story, members of the SSC asked that he be given some other imagery to see what he could find on it. He was provided with two more  prints. He took them to his office, searched them with his magnifying glass, and returned with both prints covered with red circles. These circles, he said, identified symbols on the ground that resembled the same symbols that are taught to U.S. personnel in SERE training. Then, it was revealed that the imagery he was viewing was satellite photography of Zion Tree National Park in Utah and a surface-to-air missile site in Libya. D had found U.S. MIA distress symbols right here at home. When these facts were revealed, with the C-SPAN cameras rolling, the gallery laughed, certain journalists threw up their pencils in dismay, and D was pissed.

Back-pedaling and mendacity

Now, what to do. Everyone was called together: the real imagery analysts, Burroughs, Lucas, D, and the senators. When the real analysts presented their findings, the other JSSA guy said that he was not an imagery analyst and it all sounded good to him. D waffled around and said he really believed that he saw what he thought he saw.

Meanwhile, the Serex family -- his former wife and two daughters -- were alerted to the Larry King show and they wanted to see the imagery. They were brought in and shown the imagery. Larry Burroughs and I were standing behind one of the daughters at the IDEX monitor while she twiddled the knobs. At one point she stopped and said, "See! There it is!" I looked at the screen. Larry looked at the screen. He looked at me, I looked at him, and we shook our heads. There was nothing on the imagery but gray rice fields. Larry, later, in an aside to me, expressed real dismay that he had ever been pulled into this affair.

At this point, we need to add that Sidney Shanberg (remember him from "The Killing Fields") had gotten onto the story and was publishing articles, almost daily, that were filled with half-truths about the whole matter. Of course, because of his stature, no one dared call him on it. Oh, well. And, Bob Smith was setting up interviews between D, the Serex family, and Shanberg.

Later on, D would claim that the film that he looked at with the family was not the same film he had seen earlier. This is absolute donkey dung. The print, complete with D's hand-drawn red circles, is kept at NPIC in an archival folder, where it has not and will never be erased, lost, or destroyed. And, the original digital data is still on the mag tapes, just where they came off the bird. So why did D claim that someone switched the film? Simple. D was hanging out there without any visible means of support. To anyone with half a brain, he had made a bad call. And, he had been embarrassed big time by the Zion Tree/Libya caper. But, for him to admit to making a mistake would mean that he would drop out of the spotlight. No more personal sessions with Senator Smith, no more interviews with Sidney, etc., etc. He would just go back to paying golf at Belvoir and counting the days until retirement.

Serious analysis

Now, let's go to another angle of this whole affair. Consider this: If you want to look for a missing man, the natural place to start is at the time and place of loss. So, let's look at how Serex and Matthes were lost and what we know of those losses.

First, Major Serex.

Did you ever see the movie or read one of the books about Bat 21? While the movie is not 100 percent accurate, it does have the fundamental story.  A USAF EB-66 electronic recce aircraft was snooping around the skies over North Vietnam, trailed by a second EB-66. A North Vietnamese SAM struck the lead aircraft, call sign Bat 21, blasting the aircraft into a zillion pieces. One man -- the navigator, Lt Col Iceal Hambleton --  was blown out of the aircraft. His chute deployed, he hit the ground, his beeper went off, and he immediately came up on his survival radio communicating with Bat 22, the trail bird. He stayed on the ground for 12 days, guided through the jungle by a FAC who gradually talked him to a pick-up point. Several rescue crews were killed trying to get him out. It is a story of real heroism, valor, and courage.  (Note:  There are two books about the Bat-21 loss -- I recommend you read both of them.  The first one, on which the movie is based, focuses almost entirely on Hambleton's evasion and rescue.  The second one, by Whitcomb, is thoroughly-researched and describes the decision-making and the technology -- and includes discussion of the dilemma involved in rescuing one man at the cost of several lives. )

But, heroism, etc., aside, consider a few hard facts. When Bat 21 was hit by the SAM, it was struck amidships. There was one chute sighted by Bat 22, only one. Only one beeper and only one guy on the survival radio. Everything else was blasted across the sky. Does this maybe give anyone any clues as to what really happened to Major Serex and the rest of the crew?

Now, Major Matthes

It has been years since I read the details but Matthes was a crew member in an AC-130 SPECTRE bird, a gunship that was bringing smoke on North Vietnamese logistic traffic. They were hit either by a SAM or by heavy ground fire, I forget which, and it exploded in mid-air, in full view of accompanying air cover. There were no beepers heard, no survival radios activated, nothing. (  In the initial debriefs of other aircrews that were in the area, one guy stated that he heard a faint beeper.  Follow-up debriefs determined that there were no beepers heard. )

Aerial searches turned up no evidence of survivors. In 1993 the crash site was completely excavated. Forensic evidence -- bits and pieces of remains, pieces of equipment, etc. -- made it clear that no one got out of the aircraft. I honestly do not remember the details of the results of the excavation but there may have been one or two crewmembers individually identified from the remains; I just do not recall.

The symbol GX2527 that Mr. Burroughs claimed to have seen on imagery is supposed to be the "authenticator code" associated with Matthes.  There are two facts to consider here:

  1. There is no symbol on the imagery.  Burroughs could never find the "symbols" on the imagery with anyone else looking at it.  He merely claimed that he saw it.  I asked him time and again, sitting at the light table and at the IDEX, to show me the symobl.  Nothing.
  2. The prefix G was the primary authentication letter and the letter X was the backup authenticator used during September 1971.  MAJ Matthes was lost in November 1969.   The letters G and X were not in use as authenticators when Matthes was lost.   He would have used the authenticators in effect at the time he was lost.  G and X have no relation to the Matthes loss.

Rich Daly

The mythology about the "GX2527  symbol" is kept alive largely through the efforts of one Rich Daly, an MIA true believer from Minnesota.  Daly is a master at collecting documents, selecting material out of context, then hammering away at it.  He has found his calling in the imagery myth.

Daly pops up from time to time on the internet newsgroups alt.war.vietnam or alt.war.pow-mia where he posts articles that misrepresent fact.  Here is a sample of Mr. Daly's claims, snipped from an article that he posted on the newsgroup alt.war.vietnam in February 2000:


While the satellite imagery in U.S hands shows that many specific POWs
were alive through 1992, the U.S. intelligence community has resisted
all attempts since that time to review further imagery for more
distress symbols.  The POWs alive in 1992 may have been executed by the
Vietnamese or kept prisoners.  Dead or alive, it seems to me that we
should be demanding answers from the U.S and Vietnamese governments.

The spy satellite imagery belongs to the public, not a few individuals
with their own agendas.  However, that information along with much
POW/MIA information is being improperly withheld from the families and
the public.  I think that whatever anyone's guess as to where POW/MIAs
are today that they can join in the fight to see our servants in
Washington start obeying the law.  For those interested in the pilot
distress symbols, see website www.geocities.com/Pentagon/2527.

Rich Daly

In 1995 and 1996, Daly wrote several letters to the Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office.  He also was the source of an article in a Minnesota newspaper -- I believe it was in August 1994 -- spreading the imagery symbols myth.  Daly wrote to DPMO and we responded.  He then took out of context statements in our response and sent them to Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, asking that the Senator get the answers.  Wellstone's office sent Daly's letter to DPMO who answered the same questions again.  This charade continued for a while and may be going on still.

In response to a FOIA request that I submitted on imagery, I received a copy of Daly's letters and the DPMO responses.  I have reproduced here an 8-page letter from DPMO to Senator Wellstone addressing Daly's claims.  I scanned the original and converted it to text.  Read this letter and you will see how Mr. Daly continues to distort, quote out of context, and generally ignore facts.

And now the tale is ended

The facts are simple. USAF Majors Serex and Matthes paid the full price of their service. They are not hiding out in some rice field, stamping secret symbols in the rice stubble.

Their sacrifice and their memories deserve better than the shabby treatment they are getting from a gang of clowns who can barely spell POW-MIA.

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PS:  The imagery tests

As with many stories in the MIA issue, this one never ends.  Now, the world is being treated to claims that tests of "evader symbols" showed that the DIA and NPIC imagery analysts are incompetent.  It will never end.

After the SSC adjourned and published their report, serious folks in the Department of Defense who are responsible for training and rescuing lost personnel did some thinking.  It was clear that we needed closer coordination between the imagery community and the rescue community.  In a blinding flash of the obvious, everyone recognized a real problem:  What if we are training people to put symbols on the ground using methods that result in a symbol that cannot be observed on imagery?

How can that be, you ask?  Simple.  What if the symbol is made of brush, piled up, that is the same color and consistency as surrounding brush?  What if the lost person stamps out a symbol in the dirt, the dirt is hard, and the symbol is just not deep enough to cast a shadow visible on imagery?

So, to check things out, a test was devised.  The cadre at a USAF survival school in the U. S. went out into the training areas and put out all sorts of symbols -- letters, numbers -- using methods that were currently being taught.  They recorded what they put out and where the symbols were.  Then, we had one of the imagery satellites take several days of imagery over the training areas so that we got a variety of light and atmospheric conditions.  The imagery analysts were told to search the imagery to see what they found.

I do not recall the exact results but the imagery analysts found over half the symbols, they missed fewer than half, and they found some things that were not symbols that had been part of the test.  Let's consider each of these results.

Found the symbols.  This is easy.  The cadre put out a symbol on the ground -- stamped it out in the grass, dug letters into the sand, whatever, and the imagery analysts observed the symbol on imagery.

Did not find the symbols.  This one is easy, too.  The cadre put out symbols and the imagery analysts did not find them.  Later, when it was determined which symbols were missed, the analysts went back and looked again.  In some cases, they found what they had missed and in some cases, even knowing what they were looking for and where it was, they could not find it.

Why would they miss some symbols?  Because:

  1. symbols were constructed so that they simply were not visible on imagery  OR
  2. symbol blew away or was disturbed by wind, rain, etc., before it could be detected; OR
  3. imagery analyst missed it.

In each  case of a symbol that was not detected, the problem varied.  Some were constructed so that they just did not stand out from the surrounding vegetation, some were not distinguishable from surrounding objects, some looked like natural formations.

None of this surprised anyone and, following this test, the imagery and rescue communities have worked closely to ensure that the best possible methods are used.

Wait a minute.  The story does not end there.  It seems that "Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Sidney Shanberg" wrote an article that exposed this test and that revealed what he claimed was the complete incompetence of the imagery analysts. The article was one-sided horse shit.  I do not know but I strongly suspect that the source(s) Shanberg used was either or both an individual in Senator Smith's office and the guy I refer to as D.  I do know that Shanberg wrote his story without interviewing a single person in the Dept. of Defense or anyone in the imagery community.  Why would someone in Smith's office or D. not tell Shanberg the full story?  You know the answer to that one.

It will never end.

  Modified on 12/24/07