Summary. One of the many favorite refrains of the MIA "activists" is that only nine Americans captured in Laos returned, while 471 returned from North Vietnam and over 100 returned from South Vietnam. With almost 500 still missing in Laos, the discrepancy between the number of returnees and number of missing "proves" that vast numbers of Americans were left to rot in jungle prisons in Laos. The facts tell a very different story. There is no mystery in Laos.
NOTE: For several years in the early 1990s, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jeannie Schiff, an analyst in the Defense POW-MIA Office, worked on an exhaustive study of the issue of Americans missing in Laos. She did this study because: ( 1) such a study was needed to determine just exactly what we could expect as we gained access to Laos and started detailed work to account for missing Americans; ( 2 ) there were and still are persistent claims that Laos was a "black hole" into which Americans disappeared and, frankly, a serious study was needed to analyze the reality of Americans missing in Laos.
LTC Schiff had almost completed her study when I retired in April 1995. I assumed that DPMO would eventually publish the study, but, for some reason, the study has never been published. I have a copy of LTC Schiff's 1995 draft of the study and this article is drawn from that draft. A copy of the draft is available in the POW-MIA archives in the Library of Congress. I claim no originality for what follows; this is LTC Schiff's work.
Note. Effective 21 June 1999, I have added another article to the MIA Facts Site that addresses the question of the number of men missing in Laos compared to the number missing in North and South Vietnam. Among the approximately 1,560 men missing in North and South Vietnam, there are 444 men who were lost over water. The presence of the numbers of the over water losses in Vietnam, and the absence of overwater losses in Laos, gives a skewed view when one attempts to compare numbers and ratios of MIA, KIA/BNR, and returnees. After you have read this article, click on this link to read the article on the over water losses.
A common claim from the MIA "activist" community is that hundreds of US POWs were abandoned in Laos at the end of the Vietnam War. This claim cites four pieces of "evidence" as "proof:"
This article will examine each of these elements of "evidence" and will show why there is no mystery in Laos. All US POWs captured in Laos, whether by Laotian or Vietnamese troops, either died in captivity or were released. There is no mystery in Laos.
As of early 1993, approximately 500 Americans remain missing in Laos as a result of the Vietnam War. During Operation Homecoming, Spring 1973, 591 US POWs were released by their captors: 471 were released in North Vietnam, 107 in South Vietnam, and 13 who were captured in Laos were released in North Vietnam. The discrepancy in numbers between Americans captured and released from Laos versus North Vietnam has led many to proclaim that hundreds of US POWs were kept in Laos and may still be there.
In fact, the more accurate and meaningful comparison is
The Real Numbers
To accurately assess what happened to Americans lost in Laos, one needs to look at the total number of men lost and total number of men returned. Remember, some men were rescued after their loss, thus, these men were captured -- it's just that we captured them, not the enemy. Consider this table:
Percentage of men lost who
Thus, the actual return rate for men lost in Laos is almost the same as that for men lost in South Vietnam -- 61 percent in Laos, 69 percent in South Vietnam. Very few men returned from Laos and South Vietnam as POWs because very few were captured there; most of them were rescued.
( NOTE: For the entire course of the war, 27 Americans were captured in Laos. Click here for a chart listing them and their fate. )
The Effectiveness of Search and Rescue
How is it that we obtained such return rates in Laos? Sixty-one percent -- nearly two out of every three -- of the men lost in Laos were rescued. The answer lies in the nature of the war in Laos. Very few US losses in Laos were ground troops. Over 90 percent of the losses were air crews shot down over Laos; fewer than 10 percent were ground troops and about 70 percent of those were Special Forces lost on reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We owned the sky over Laos and, for the most part, US aircraft did not operate
alone. Generally, whenever US aircraft were on missions of any sort over Laos,
search and rescue aircraft and forces were either in the air accompanying the strike
birds, or, were orbiting not too far away, or were on immediate call, ready to launch from
bases in Thailand or South Vietnam. Thus, when an aircraft was downed, there
normally were US eyewitnesses in the air on the spot, and there were forces on the spot
within minutes who either rescued the downed crew, surveyed the site and determined that
no one survived, or recovered remains from the site. In effect, then, if you were
lost over Laos, you were in as good shape as if you had been lost in South Vietnam.
The MIA "'activists" have a veritable love affair with Communist Pathet Lao wartime spokesman Soth Petrasy. Petrasy made all sorts of claims about the numbers of US POWs that the Pathet Lao were holding and he even waved around lists with names of missing Americans. Soth's statements are accepted as gospel and used as "proof" that the Lao were holding hundreds of US POWs. The facts paint another picture.
What did Soth Petrasy say?
While Petrasy made a number of public statements on US losses in Laos, the one that is
most often quoted and misquoted is his 1972 claim: "Of the 2,311 aircraft
destroyed by the ( Lao Communist forces ), I would estimate that some tens of prisoners
are being held."
And what did he really mean?
Petrasy was interviewed in 1994 and questioned about his statement. He explained that: "The figure of tens of prisoners was a guess. We would hear radio broadcasts and numbers on the radio and that is what I would report." (American Embassy Vientiane message, 110954ZJAN94 )
Soth Petrasy was the Pathet Lao spokesman in Vientiane. Remember, in Laos, things are different. Even though Laos was ruled by the royal family, the communist Pathet Lao had representatives in the capital who led normal lives. Soth was one of these. What he was saying was that he had no contact with the Pathet Lao headquarters in the interior of Laos. His information came from what he monitored on the communist radio broadcasts, which broadcast monstrously inflated numbers of US aircraft downed and pilots captured and killed. The number "2,311 aircraft destroyed" is well over the actual number of US aircraft lost in Laos. Thus, his claim that the Pathet Lao were holding "some tens of prisoners" was nothing more than a guess based on Pathet Lao propaganda. He had no knowledge of what was really happening in the interior where the war was going on.
In the early years of the war, Petrasy was pressed to provide a list of US POWs in
Laos. On these occasions, he made it clear that he knew nothing.
In later war years, when pressed to provide a list of US POWs, as required by the Geneva Conventions, and as had been done by the North Vietnamese, Soth would give two stock answers. On some occasions he said that Pathet Lao lines of communication and transportation were so rudimentary and constantly disrupted by US bombing that it was impossible to put together a list of prisoners. On other occasions, he promised that a list of prisoners would be provided when the bombing was stopped.
The fact is that Soth Petrasy had no information on US POWs held by the Pathet Lao.
However, at several times during the war, Petrasy either displayed or referred to lists of US POWs. What is this all about?
In 1968, Petrasy is reported to have displayed a list showing the names of 69 US airmen captured by the Pathet Lao up to May 1968. He is reported to have said, at the same time, that the number of men captured since the list was prepared brought to over 70 the number of Americans in captivity with the Pathet Lao. About the same time, the US carried 95 personnel as MIA in Laos.
In 1969, Western press agencies reported that Petrasy told reporters on 11 November 1969 that more than 158 US airmen were being held prisoner in Laos.
In fact, what Petrasy was doing on both occasions was quoting from lists of missing men provided by the US government to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Here is what happened. The US would pass to the ICRC a list of names of every American missing in Laos, regardless of whether we believed the man to be dead or alive. The ICRC would pass these lists to the Pathet Lao, asking for their assistance in determining the fates of these men. When Soth was claiming that the Pathet Lao had captured over 70 Americans, the ICRC had recently passed to him a list of 95 names. When he claimed in November 1969 that there were 158 US POWs, one month earlier, the ICRC had passed to him a list containing 158 names, the number of missing Americans at that time. It impossible that every single lost American was a prisoner. Soth was merely using the ICRC lists obtained from the US as a propaganda tool.
Thus, the statements by Soth Petrasy, wartime Pathet Lao spokesman in Vientiane, have no relevance to the number of Americans captured in Laos. He did not have a clue.
There is a fair amount of weight given to the "live sightings" of possible US POWs in Laos as evidence of men remaining in captivity there. First, let us consider what a live sighting report is.
Beginning at the end of the war, US organizations in Southeast Asia worked to develop information on missing Americans. A major source of information was the flood of refugees who came out of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia following the communist takeovers of those countries in 1975. Other sources of information were various legal travelers -- diplomat, business people, tourists -- who had access to these countries. In some cases, an individual reported to US interviewers that he or she had seen a person whom they believed to be an American, in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, sometimes living freely, sometimes incarcerated.
In contrast to the claims that the DIA did nothing but "debunk" sighting reports, the fact is that most of the live-sightings were true and accurate. Many of these sightings were made during the war and were sightings of Americans who were captured then released at Homecoming. Some post-war sightings were of various Caucasians in one of the countries of Indochina as a business person, technical advisor, aid worker, or missionary. Other post-war sightings were of Caucasians who had run afoul of the law and were imprisoned in Laos, Vietnam, or Cambodia. Almost 25 percent of the post-war sightings were of convicted collaborator, former USMC PFC Robert Garwood, who was a member of the North Vietnamese Army and who worked as a mechanic and truck driver in an area of prison camps where South Vietnamese officers were held after 1975.
Approximately 15 percent of the live sightings were proven to be fabrications. For some reason, a person would make up a story about having seen an American in prison.
Thus, of the over 2,000 live sighting reports obtained and investigated, not a one had anything to do with US POWs being held after 1973.
The Live Sightings in Laos
Only 10 percent of all live sightings come from Laos. There simply are not many live sighting reports from Laos. A very few of these are wartime sightings of men who were known to have been captured and later died in captivity. In these cases, the Lao are being pressed for information on these men. Most of the live sightings from Laos are post-war and, upon investigation, they are shown to be sightings of foreign aid workers, foreign technical advisors, missionaries, and other foreign aid and relief workers.
Because there is continuing anti-government activity by anti-communist resistance elements in Laos, foreign advisors, especially those who are in Laos at the request of the government, are provided with armed escorts to protect them from the resistance and from bandits. People who are not certain of what they are seeing, upon seeing one or more foreigners accompanied by Laotian troops with weapons often conclude that what they have seen is a US POW(s) with his guards. In other cases, foreign nationals have been incarcerated for violating local laws and they are reported as US POW(s).
The Lao Resistance -- Major Source of Fabrications
One of the more troublesome aspects of the live sighting reports from Laos is the introduction of fabricated reports by the anti-communist resistance and other opportunists. Much of the anti-communist resistance centers around the Hmong clans who, under the nominal leadership of General Vang Pao, served as a "secret army" for the US in Laos. Since 1975, there has been a strict prohibition against US government entities having contact with the Lao resistance. This has not stopped the Lao from trying to establish a relationship with some element of the US government.
For this reason, the "resistance" has been the source of many fabricated and fraudulent reports of live US POWs -- the "resistance" element producing these false reports believes that they can ingratiate themselves with the US if they have information about US POWs. It does not work but it does get a lot of attention. Many of these folks are masters at getting attention. With the number of Laotians who have resettled in the US, the resistance can spread fabricated stories very easily, thus making it appear that there is a groundswell of reports.
I had several conversations with editor-publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, Bob Brown. For about three years -- 1981 - 1984 -- SOF pursued POW tales in Laos. In 1981, after hearing stories of US POWs in prison camps in Laos, Brown and other SOF personnel set up an operational base on the Thai-Lao border from which they collected all sorts of information, mainly from the Lao resistance. SOF even funded some resistance activities. Brown told me that, after a few months, it became clear to him and the other SOF folks that the resistance was a collection of bullshit artists. This whole caper cost SOF over $250,000 and it gained nothing.
Spinning off from the SOF affair, however, was a collection of stories and fairy tales that plague the MIA issue to this day. Many of the fabricated stories that our interviewers are told by refugees, by resistance people, or by other sources are the very same stories that were fed to Brown and the SOF people in the early 1980s. And, these tales are no more true today than they were when they were told to SOF.
One of the most useful, and commonly used tools, in an intelligence analyst's bag of tricks is pattern analysis. If, for example, you know that the enemy does certain things in a certain order before attacking, and if you detect some of these things going on, and they are happening in that old familiar order, it's a safe bet that he is getting ready to attack. Analysts are trained in looking for patterns of behavior and patterns of reporting.
During the tenure of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, former Congressman
Billy Hendon, who was working as a staff member of the committee until he was fired,
developed a form of pattern analysis that he called the "cluster theory."
Simply stated, Hendon plotted on a map the locations where sources claimed that they had
seen US POWs. Then, wherever there was a cluster of reports, there must be US
POWs. Hendon was abetted in this by Mr. John McCreary, a senior DIA analyst.
( I worked with McCreary on a few matters in DIA. His
finest hour came a few days before Christmas, 1979. We had been watching a rapidly
growing level of troubling Soviet military activity and there was some opinion that
the Soviets were preparing to invade Afghanistan to stabilize the situation on their
southern border. A few days before Christmas 1979, as we were monitoring all sorts
of Soviet military activity, McCreary published, worldwide, an analytic assessment that the
Russians would not invade Afghanistan. I was on watch in the DIA Alert Center at
0200 on Christmas day, 1979, when we detected Soviet IL-76 heavy transports lifting an
airborne division into Afghanistan, and Soviet mechanized divisions crossing the border
into Afghanistan, McCreary was the first guy I waked up with the news. )
They had made the simple error of assigning equal value to every report; you can't do
that; you must assess each report and discard the phony stories. When we confronted
Hendon and McCreary with the fact that their cluster map was useless, they sang the sad
old refrain about how we were only interested in "debunking" reports and, so
what if some sources lied? Even a lie can contain important information, contended
Hendon. Go figure.
Much is made of the fact the the war in Laos was a "secret war." The argument here is that, because the US did not admit that we were in Laos, we did not want to make an issue of POWs there, for fear of blowing the lid on the whole "secret war." This makes a neat theory but it does not square with reality.
In the Beginning
The Kingdom of Laos was granted independence from France in 1953. The new government was immediately threatened with civil war. The leftist Pathet Lao were supported by the Vietnamese communists who immediately crossed into Laos to help their communist brothers in their struggle against the royal Laotian government -- and to serve their own national interests. In 1955, after the French withdrew most of their forces, the US established an advisory presence in Laos. By the early 1960s, the Pathet Lao and their sponsors in Vietnam and the USSR, had pushed the nation to the brink of civil war. A 1962 Geneva conference on Laos led to a declaration of neutrality for Laos and the requirement that all foreign forces leave. The US pulled out its training and advisory teams and five Americans captured in 1961 were released.
The "Secret War" begins
Despite the 1962 accords, the war in Laos continued. The Pathet Lao, aided by the Vietnamese Communists, continued their attacks on the Royal Lao government and, in 1964, after the PL refused to allow UN inspection of areas under their control, the US started recce flights over PL-held areas at the request of the Royal Lao government. When unarmed recce flights drew hostile fire, armed escorts joined the recce flights and the show was on. At the same time, the US was becoming more involved in Vietnam, and Vietnamese use of Laotian territory to move supplies and men into South Vietnam was posing a threat to the US-backed government of South Vietnam. In 1965, a joint US - Royal Laotian Air Force bombing campaign started, attacking PL positions in northern Laos and attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
US operations in Laos were not publicly acknowledged. In fact, the families of some men lost in Laos were told that they were lost in South Vietnam. Because the US did not publicly acknowledge operations in Laos, some have claimed that the US government abandoned men lost there to preserve secrecy. This "Mission Impossible" routine simply is not correct. US "secret" operations in Laos, were accompanied by search and rescue efforts that recovered over 60 percent of the men lost. The SAR efforts and organizations that operated in Laos in the 1970s, after Nixon admitted to the US involvement, were the same activities that were in place from the time the first US aircraft flew a mission there.
A Historical Note
Why would the US want to keep our involvement in Laos secret? I believe there are three reasons, two of them deeply-seated in the Cold War imperative.
First, US involvement in Laos came on the heels of the Korean War and US policy makers were concerned about Chinese intervention in Laos as had happened in China when US combat forces got too close to the Chinese border. ( George F. Lemmer, The Laos Crisis of 1959, pp. 40 - 59 )
Second, the primary US goal was to establish Lao neutrality in the Vietnam conflict and worldwide. Laos and the USSR had diplomatic relations. If the US acknowledged its operations in Laos, the Soviets would be forced to react. The USSR recognized this problem and, as early as 1965, the Soviet ambassador to Laos advised the US ambassador that the Soviets would not protest US operations in Laos if the US would be quiet about the operations. (American Embassy Vientiane message, Ambassador Sullivan to SECSTATE, # 687, 27 Dec 65, retransmitted, CJCS to CINCPAC (ADM Sharp), 271729ZDEC65)
Third, as long as both US and Vietnamese operations in Laos were not officially
No Secret Any More
In 1969, the premier of Laos publicly announced that the US was operating in Laos with the full approval of the Royal Lao government. In March 1970, President Nixon issued a white paper on Laos, officially acknowledging US operations there.
By early 1972, US pilots were flying an average of 340 sorties per day ( !!! ), with most of the strikes aimed at the Ho Chi Minh trail through the southeastern panhandle of Laos. When the Paris Accords ended the Vietnam War on 28 January 1973, the civil war in Laos continued, despite a Laotian cease-fire signed on 21 February 1973. The US announced that we would withdraw all air power effective noon, 22 February. Despite this cease fire, sporadic fighting continued and the last US combat mission was flown over Laos from 15 - 17 April 1973, in response to North Vietnamese attacks in northern Laos.
While all the foregoing is nice to know, the fact is that the "secret war" did not include writing off Americans lost in Laos as a way of keeping the war secret. The effort to recover lost Americans in Laos was just as complete and as successful as similar efforts in South Vietnam.
Let's now look at one more aspect of operations in Laos. This set of facts also has bearing on the survivability of Americans ( or anyone else, for that matter ) lost in Laos.
The chances of survival for men lost in Laos were not good. The fact that 61
percent of those downed were rescued attests to the rapid response and effectiveness of
the search and rescue forces. Chances of survival were poor because of nature of the
targets and the terrain.
Targets were logistic depots, roads, and trails, hidden under jungle canopy and situated in narrow valleys. Often, attack runs by US aircraft were made using steep approaches and equally steep egress, diving into a narrow, steep valley, dumping ordnance, then rapidly climbing out to avoid slamming into the end of the valley. Anti-aircraft weapons were often placed on ridgetops and hilltops so they could fire down on US aircraft as they dived below the ridgelines to attack into the adjoining valley. Many an eyewitness reported that he watched his wingman dive into a narrow valley to attack a target, he saw a few puffs of smoke or muzzle flashes on a ridgeline, and his buddy flew into the ground. In fact, this is what happened in many loss incidents in Laos.
The horribly steep, sharp, and rocky karst terrain is virtually impassable. Even today, US forces going in to search for crash sites must be heli-lifted in and at that they have only tiny landing areas and often must move on foot over almost incredibly difficult terrain. Any American, shot down over Laos and not rescued or captured, would have had to survive in this extremely inhospitable terrain, where even natives do not venture. If anyone did survive his loss incident and try to live in the jungle, the jungle got him quickly. Lack of water and food, insects, snakes, wild animals -- all combined to make life expectancy in the jungle very short. Today, life expectancy among the Laotian population is under 50 years. A lost American, probably injured from his shot-down, did not have a chance.
Something else needs to be considered here. Some
Americans who survived their loss incidents were killed -- murdered if you will -- by
their captors and captured Americans could have been
killed by friendly fire. US intelligence has interrogated PL and PAVN
prisoners who told of killing American prisoners who were wounded, who could not travel or
move quickly, or who were giving them a hard time. Some US returnees tell of the lax
discipline among Pathet Lao troops, with guards taking great sport in pointing their
weapons at captives and clicking the triggers. While there was no Pathet Lao or
North Vietnamese policy to kill prisoners, war has its own logic and oftentimes things are
not clean and neat. These incidents, which come from both Laos and Vietnam, are
instructive for the entire MIA issue.
Two final factors need to be considered: Where were Americans lost and what were the enemy policies and practices regarding handling US POWs.
Where were American lost?
Most of the Americans lost of Laos -- 85 percent -- were lost in territory controlled by the North Vietnamese. If anyone captured these men, it was North Vietnamese, not Pathet Lao. Only 15 percent of Americans lost in Laos went down in areas controlled by the Pathet Lao; this means that fewer than 90 men were lost in Pathet Lao territory. Half of these were declared KIA at the time of loss, meaning that US eyewitnesses or search crews verified their deaths; their bodies could not be recovered. Thus, there are fewer than 45 men lost in Pathet Lao territory. There simply is no way that the PL could have held hundreds of Americans.
Policies for handling US POWs
By the late 1960s, it was clear that the Pathet Lao had no capability to care for US
prisoners that they captured. For this reason, a new policy adopted in 1968 required
the PL to turn over captured Americans to the North Vietnamese, who agreed to hold these
prisoners in Vietnam. The effect of this policy was that, by late 1968 - early 1969,
all US POWs captured in Laos were to have been turned over to the Vietnamese for transport
to North Vietnam. In fact, the experience of the only two men known to have been
captured by the PL after 1969 supports analysis. Both men, captured by PL, were
immediately turned over to the North Vietnamese, transported to Hanoi, and released in
Finally, there is an argument that the Americans captured in Laos were held in a separate prison system in North Vietnam. By being held in a separate system, these men would not have been known to other US POWs and, thus, could have been held in captivity long after Homecoming.
This argument stems from one incident: A group of Americans captured in Laos were
kept separate from other POWs in a Hanoi prison. While these men were separated from
other US POWs, they were not isolated. In fact, they were able to communicate with
the other US POWs and all were released at Homecoming. As an administrative policy,
the North Vietnamese kept prisoners separated -- not isolated -- based on country of
capture. By separating the Americans captured in Laos, the Vietnamese were simply
following their long-standing practice.
Six Americans and one Australian were apprehended by Pathet Lao forces after Operation Homecoming and before the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975. All were civilians, five were released, two died or were killed in captivity. All six were held by the Pathet Lao.
The best-known of these is the case of Mr. Emmet Kay, a civilian pilot whose aircraft was forced down after having been hit by ground fire on 7 May 1973. Kay was held by the PL until his release in May 1974. He was held in the Xiengkhoang, Sam Neua, and Nong Het areas. No attempt was made by the PL to keep his captivity secret. He was held with 189 Lao prisoners and was later interviewed by foreign correspondents. (NOTE: For an interesting sidelight to the Emmet Kay story, read the article on the TH 1?73 symbol. ) After the formation of the coalition government in Laos, Kay was allowed considerable freedom of movement. He moved around with PL officers, visited Lao families in the area where he was living. As a result of these movements, he was seen by a lot of people and we continue to receive live sighting reports that are sightings of Emmet Kay in 1973 - 74.
The second post-war incident involved the capture of an American journalist, Mr. Charles Dean, and his Australian companion, Mr. Neil Sharman. There were apprehended in southern Laos in September 1974. Immediately after their capture, the US began receiving reports of their capture and location. Efforts to obtain their release were unsuccessful and a large body of reports indicate that they died in captivity.
The other four individuals were all civilians apprehended in 1975 for alleged violation of various laws or regulations. All were released within a few months. None of these people, except for Emmet Kay, was considered a prisoner of war. However, the fact that the PL held Americans would have given them hostages had they wanted to use hostages to pressure the US for any sort of concessions. The release of these prisoners indicates that the PL had no desire to engage in hostage-holding. ( One voyeuristic story about those picked up in 1975: One of them was a US female who was picked up, according to most reports, in the act, in a hotel with a Royal Laotian Air Force pilot. This lady has been the source of several phony stories. )
Since the PL takeover in 1975, there have been various incidents of foreigners,
including Americans, being arrested in Laos. All were held for a period of time then
released. In no case was any attempt made to keep their arrest secret. Many
live sighting reports that tell of an "American" in prison are sightings of
these people. Here are two examples:
That's all. There is no mystery surrounding Americans missing in Laos.
NOTES: (1) Pathet Lao; the Laotian communists
* Death witnessed by other American(s)
Updated 21 June 1999.