MIA Facts Site

Amputees and Back Seaters

    Summary.   Let us now dispel another myth generated by the MIA cult:  US POWs were not returned at the end of the war because they:

bullethad amputated limbs, severe burns, or other disfiguring injuries;
bullethad been driven insane by their treatment;
bulletwere special prizes because of their technical knowledge.

This myth claims that the Vietnamese did not release the US POWs in the first two bullets because they did not want to have the deficiencies of their medical system exposed.  For the third bullet, the claim is that these prized Americans, with advanced degrees or special technical knowledge about weapons and weapons systems, were sent to the Soviet Union, China, or some other place as re-payment for support given to Vietnam in the way. None of these myths is true but that has not prevented them from becoming part of the MIA cult canon.

Amputees, burn cases, disfiguring injuries

A constant refrain that one hears from the MIA cult is that, among the US POWs who returned from Vietnam, there were none with amputated limbs, severe injuries, disfiguring burns, or other disfiguring injuries.  They then go on to reason that, in the number of Americans lost during the war, there had to be men with such injuries who survived.  The activists also argue that US POWs had to have been severely injured while being tortured by the Vietnamese.  POWs with such injures did not return because the Vietnamese stashed them away in some secret prison and refused to release them for fear of exposing the serious deficiencies in their medical system.

It makes a great barroom tale but it is nonsense.

Of course there were Americans who were severely injured in their loss incidents.  And, of course there were men who were injured by torture.  This "no-amputees-returned" myth, however, fails all tests of logic and fact.

In the first place, there were men who returned with serious injuries.  Am I the only person who saw US POWs being carried on stretchers from C-141s at Clark Air Base?  Among the returnees were men who were hospitalized immediately upon return and who underwent lengthy treatment after coming home.  Many of these men had suffered broken bones in ejection, during capture, or under torture; the bones had not been set correctly -- if at all -- and had not healed properly.  I know of one Naval officer whose feet were severely injured during his ejection.  Most of the bones in both feet were broken and, during his imprisonment, the feet healed so that they were twisted.  Walking was torture.  When he returned, the Navy wanted to amputate his feet but he would not allow it.  The pain of standing or walking was, at times, so great that he would crawl around his Pentagon office.  Many other returnees had similar injuries, some of which responded to treatment, others did not.

In the second place, why would we expect men who suffered traumatic amputations, serious burns, and other serious injuries to survive?  When an aircraft, for example, is shot down, and the crew ejects, just where does anyone think the crew lands?  Certainly not on the doorstep of a fully staffed emergency room.  Consider what would happen to an American who is injured by the missile that blasts into his aircraft, manages to eject, suffers a flail injury because he is too badly hurt to get into a good ejection position, then slams into the ground because he cannot make a correct parachute landing fall.  Of course, the Vietnamese villagers who rush to the scene gently soothe him while they call 911.  Right.

Folks, the fact is that, if you suffered traumatic amputation, burns, or other serious injuries at the time of loss, you did not stand much of a chance. If angry villagers got their hands on you, they beat you with whatever was handy -- hoes, shovels, bricks -- one returnee described how an old woman flailed at him with a rice knife and the only reason she did not slash him was that a PAVN soldier got on the scene and rescued him.  Americans captured during the Vietnam War were fortunate if they were hauled off to Hanoi within a few days.  Medical treatment just was not there at the point of loss.  Thus, injuries that would have been serious had they occurred where medevac was available, were fatal.  The same holds true for US POWs injured by torture.

 US POWs were treated at Ministry of Defense Hospital number 108.  This was the best the Vietnamese had to offer; their own senior government and military officials were treated here and foreign diplomats were treated at 108.  Returnees told of having broken bones set without anesthetic and of surgery without anesthesia or proper antiseptic procedures.  This happened, not because the Vietnamese were barbaric, but because that was all they had.

I encourage readers to find books written by returnees and read their descriptions of their medical treatment, treatment when they became ill, and the like.  That treatment -- or, more accurately, the lack of treatment -- is why amputees, burn cases, and men with serious injuries did not return: They died.

Another element of this myth says that there were Americans driven insane by their treatment and the Vietnamese are keeping them locked away from public view.  Read Admiral Jim Stockdale's book, In Love and War, page 342, about the only known incident of a US POW driven insane.  He died and his remains were returned.  But, you say, what if there were others.  Okay, let's follow that reasoning.  Assume that a man, after torture, isolation, etc., does become insane.  Then what?  His fellow prisoners know him, they communicated with him before he went insane, and they will tell about him when they return.  Thus, we would have known about those cases.  We knew of one, the one described by Stockdale.

The Technical Specialists -- the "Back-seaters"

This piece of mythology says that Americans with great technical or specialized skills are in disproportionate numbers among those who did not return.  Let me explain.

Many US aircraft had sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities -- radar jamming, radar bombing guidance, and the like.  Some aircraft were intelligence collectors, crewed by guys who were skilled in operating intercept equipment or jamming equipment.  The myth goes that these individuals with technical skills were prized catches, that the Vietnamese put bounties on their heads.  And, when they captured one of these "back-seaters" ( the name comes from the fact that the electronic warfare guys, or the electronic weapons specialists, usually sat in the back of the aircraft ), they either forced him to tell his secrets so they could counter US electronic warfare, or they traded him to the Soviet Union in exchange for more war material.

Proponents of this myth go on to claim that "back-seaters," people who had served in nuclear weapons assignments before Vietnam, and others with specialized training or education, are a disproportionate share of the missing; far more of them are missing than are, say, your average fighter pilot.  I have heard certain of the MIA cultists proclaim that this is a fact.  I once read a claim in one activist newsletter that NO ELECTRONIC WARFARE OFFICERS returned.

Not true. In the late 1970s, the USAF did a study of the backgrounds, training, occupational specialty, and crew assignment of returnees and missing men.  They found no correlation to anything.  Back-seaters returned at the same rate as everyone else, back-seaters are missing at the same rate as everyone else. Guys who had been in nuclear assignments before Vietnam, who had been in high-level assignments, who spoke foreign languages, who had advanced scientific degrees -- all returned at the same rate as everyone else.  If you went down, survival and return were a toss of the dice.

A sidelight to this whole discussion is that  returnees reported that the Vietnamese had little interest in interrogating them about specialized weapons, weapons systems, and other technical matters.  The Vietnamese made little effort to figure out who was a back seater and who was not.  They were not interested.

That's all, folks

Well, sports fans, I wish that I had had something a lot more exciting to say on this topic.  But, there is just nothing there.  The lack of amputees, burn cases, and other seriously injured men among the returnees is because men who were that badly injured died, either at the point of loss, or later.  The claim that no "back seaters" returned is nonsense.