The Overwater Losses:
|Catastrophic launch or landing on a carrier. There are cases in which one or more crewmembers were lost when an aircraft either failed to launch properly or missed a carrier landing and went into the ocean.|
|Catastrophic loss over water. In one case that I recall, the crew of an F-4 reported a hung bomb. That is, they tried to drop a bomb, it armed electrically, but would not release. In this case, they were to fly out over the South China Sea and try to shake the bomb loose, letting it drop into the ocean, rather than try to land with an armed bomb under the wing. They were tracked by radar out to the bomb disposal area, then they disappeared from the screen. Oil slick and some floating wreckage was later sighted. More than likely, the bomb detonated while still attached to the aircraft. There are other instances of aircraft reporting encountering sudden thunderstorms and being lost.|
|Lost before rescue. There are a few tragic cases in which an individual ejected, landed in the water, but was dragged under by his parachute, before he could get free of the chute or shroud lines.|
With that background information in mind, let's proceed to examine the impact of the overwater losses on the statistics of MIAs in Vietnam and Laos. In this article, the following conventions are in force:
|VN: North Vietnam|
|VS: South Vietnam|
|KIA/BNR: Killed In Action/Body Not Recovered|
|MIA: Missing In Action|
|DPMO: Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office|
When I returned from an assignment in Japan, I was assigned as Deputy of the DPMO from July 1993 until my retirement in March 1995. One of the DPMO analysts was USAF LTC Jeannie Schiff. LTC Schiff is the author of the study cited above, Laos: No Mystery. LTC Schiff also prepared another study dealing with the impact of the OW losses on the perception that proportionally more men are missing in LA than in VN and VS. I will reproduce that study below then will comment on the findings. The following is a direct reproduction of LTC Schiff's study; I claim no authorship for the material below, set off in different type style.
"WHY ARE THERE SO MANY MIAS IN LAOS?"
One of the questions that has added to the mystique of MIAs in Laos involves the perception that a larger percentage of losses were declared Missing in Action (MIA) in Laos than in Vietnam. Figure 1 below shows DPMO statistics listing the total numbers of unaccounted-for individuals by county of loss and status:
|CTRY OF LOSS||PW/MIA||KIA/BNR||TOTAL||% MIA|
Despite the fact that the figures show there were more individuals declared missing in both North Vietnam and South Vietnam than in Laos, some who follow the POW/MIA issue have suggested there might be some significance in what appears to be a higher proportion of MIAs in Laos. Nonetheless, the explanation for the apparently higher proportion of MIAs in Laos is actually a simple statistical anomaly caused by including figures for overwater losses. When the POW/MIA database was first created, overwater cases were not listed as a separate category, but were instead assigned a county of loss for accounting purposes. Figure 2 breaks out the data to show the number of overwater losses listed in each country:
|CTRY OF LOSS||OVERLAND||OVERWATER||TOTAL (BY CTRY)|
As this data shows, the inclusion of overwater cases is most significant in North Vietnam, where they comprise 42% of cases, while Laos has no overwater cases. The reason these cases are important is apparent in Figure 3, which shows overwater losses were much more likely to be listed as KIA:
|CTRY OF LOSS||PW/MIA||KIA/BNR||TOTAL||%MIA|
Figure 3 also makes it apparent that the large number of overwater cases included in the statistics for Vietnam skew the proportion of MIA to KIA in both North and South Vietnam: because overwater cases were more likely to be declared KIA, the inclusion of this data artificially inflates the number of KIAs in both North and South Vietnam KIA/MIA statistics. This anomaly in turn makes the proportion of MIAs in Laos appear larger. The figures also show that, of the total of 1581 overland cases in all three countries, 60% were declared MIA. Thus, rather than an artificially inflated MIA mystery, the proportion of MIAs in Laos is consistent with what could reasonably be expected in overland cases.
Let's look at the impact of some of this data.
Note these figures for VN, VS, and LA:
|Country of loss||Total;
MIA & KIA/BNR
|Over land; MIA & KIA/BNR||Over water; MIA & KIA/BNR||% lost overwater|
Now, review the numbers in Figure 3 in LTC Schiff's study. Note that, of the 444 men lost over water, only 16 percent were declared MIA; 84 percent were declared KIA/BNR. Because there were no OW losses in Laos, the ratio of men declared MIA to those declared KIA/BNR in Laos, versus the same ratio in VN and VS is skewed by the percentage of men lost over water: 43 percent of all losses in VN were OW, 20 percent in VS.
There is another impact of these figures and that has to do with the individual accounting that we can expect.
|Of the 576 men missing in VN (as of 2 Oct 97), 247 are OW losses. Thus, 43 percent of the men lost in VN were lost over water where there is essentially no hope of recovering their remains.|
|Of the 995 men missing in VS (as of 2 Oct 97), 197 are OW losses. Thus, 20 percent of the men lost in VS were lost over water where there is essentially no hope of recovering their remains.|
|Anyone attempting to estimate how many men can be accounted for by recovering their remains must take these facts into account. Essentially, then, almost one-half of the men lost in North Vietnam and one-fifth of those lost in South Vietnam will likely never be recovered.|
Yes, I know that there is the case of a B-52 that went down over water off the coast of South Vietnam and, in the early 1990s, remains were recovered from that crash. I would not be surprised to see one or more similar recoveries, but these are the exceptions.
One of the myths that is pushed by the MIA activists is that few US prisoners returned from Laos and this fact means that men lost there were secretly spirited away to be held forever by their captors. This myth is dealt with in the article Laos: No Mystery. Essentially, the reason that so few prisoners returned from Laos is that most of the men who went down over Laos were rescued by US forces. Read the article.
Another common myth is that the high percentage of MIAs in Laos -- versus KIA/BNRs -- means that more men were missing alive there than in North Vietnam and South Vietnam, thereby "proving" the argument that many of these men survived their loss incidents, only to be captured and held forever, etc., etc. Figure 1 in LTC Schiff's study shows the difference in ratios. Note that 63 percent of the men lost in Laos were declared MIA, compared to 56 percent in VN and 42 percent in VS. This "discrepancy" is supposed to prove that men lost in Laos were captured and held forever.
To bring these ratios into reality, we need to strip from the VN and VS figures the number of men who were lost OW. We can do that statistically. Here is how to do that and here is what happens.
|Sixteen percent of OW losses were declared MIA and 84 percent declared KIA/BNR. (Figure 3, LTC Schiff's study)|
|Do this math:|
Total, not adjusted for OW
|Over Water Losses (OW)||247||197||0|
( KIA/BNR - (84% of OW))
Total, adjusted for OW losses
|% of men missing who are MIA if OW losses are included||56%||42%||63%|
|% of men missing who are MIA if OW losses are removed||85%||48%||63%|
Now, consider these figures. Note that these figures are with the over water losses removed.
|Country||MIA||KIA/BNR||Total||% MIA||% KIA/BNR|
So, what does all this exercise mean? I think there are two conclusions we can draw from these numbers.
|Loss statistics from Laos cannot be compared with the North or South Vietnam loss statistics because the over water losses, none of which occurred in Laos, skew the statistics to the point that comparisons are meaningless.|
|When we compare the ratio of MIA to KIA/BNR for over ground losses, we find that the overall ratio is 60% MIA to 40% KIA/BNR -- a figure that is almost exactly the ratio in Laos, 63% to 37%.|
The conclusion, then, is the same that is reached in the other article dealing with the question of US personnel missing in Laos: There is no mystery here.
This article added to the MIA Facts Site on 21 June 1999.