MIA Facts Site

The Overwater Losses:
Skewing the Statistics

Summary:  One of the continuing myths that plagues the MIA issue is the refrain that, because so high a proportion of the men lost in Laos were declared Missing In Action (MIA) versus Killed In Action/Body Not Recovered (KIA/BNR), this must mean that men survived and were captured in large numbers, never to be returned.  One element of this myth is dealt with in another article on this site and I encourage readers to read that article, Laos: No Mystery.   There is another factor that presents a false picture of the losses in Laos as compared to those in North Vietnam and South Vietnam:  The overwater losses.  A number of men lost in both North and South Vietnam were lost overwater; no one in Laos was lost overwater.  Most of the overwater losses were declared KIA/BNR, thereby skewing the statistics to make it appear that proportionally more men were MIA in Laos than in Vietnam.  This article illustrates the effect of the overwater losses.



Look at a map of Indochina -- Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Note that Vietnam -- both wartime North Vietnam and South Vietnam -- has a long coastline and borders the South China Sea.  Note that Laos is landlocked -- there is no coastline in Laos.

A number of air losses occurred in which the aircraft was hit over North Vietnam or South Vietnam.  Aircrews knew that if they made it over water and ejected, they could possibly stay afloat long enough to be picked up by US rescue forces.  There was a heavy North Vietnamese anti-aircraft threat to rescue forces over North Vietnam; limited anti-aircraft threat over South Vietnam and Laos; but there was no anti-aircraft threat to rescue forces over the South China Sea ( except for close-in coastal waters of North Vietnam where armed fishing vessels or North Vietnamese naval vessels might pick up a downed crewmember before US rescue forces could get to him ) .  Getting "feet wet" -- jargon for getting over the water -- and then ejecting was a safer bet than ejecting over the enemy's territory.

Why overwater losses?

Not everyone who ejected over water was rescued.  In fact, there are many overwater losses of men who were never recovered.  These came about for several reasons:

bulletCatastrophic 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.
bulletCatastrophic 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.
bulletLost 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.

Conventions used in this article

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:

  1. Numbers cited are as of 2 October 1997.  There will be a slight difference in numbers between these and current (21 June 1999) figures.  The difference is because, between 10/97 and 6/99, the remains of 46 men have been recovered and identified; this number is not significant for purposes of this article.
  2. Abbreviations:
    bulletVN:  North Vietnam
    bulletVS:   South Vietnam
    bulletLA:  Laos
    bulletOW: Overwater
    bulletKIA/BNR:  Killed In Action/Body Not Recovered
    bulletMIA:  Missing In Action
    bulletDPMO:  Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office

A Study of the Impact of the Overwater Losses

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.



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: 

VN 321 255 576 56%
VS 417 578 995 42%
LA 286 168 454 63%

Figure 1

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:

VN 329 247 576
VS 798 197 995
LAOS 454 0 454
TOTALS 1581 444  

Figure 2

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:

VN 264 65 329 80%
VS 406 392 798 51%
LA 279 175 454 63%
OW 78 399 477 16%

Figure 3

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.


Comments and Further Analysis

Let's look at the impact of some of this data.

The percentage of overwater losses

Note these figures for VN, VS, and LA:

Country of loss Total;
Over land; MIA & KIA/BNR Over water; MIA & KIA/BNR % lost overwater
VN 576 329 247 43%
VS 995 798 197 20%
LA 454 454 0 0%
  2025 1581 444 22%

Percent of men lost over water

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

Impact on recovery

There is another impact of these figures and that has to do with the individual accounting that we can expect. 

bulletOf 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. 
bulletOf 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. 
bulletAnyone 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.

Impact on statistical arguments

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.

bulletSixteen percent of OW losses were declared MIA and 84 percent declared KIA/BNR.   (Figure 3, LTC Schiff's study)
bulletDo this math:
bulletTake the number of OW losses in VN and VS, respectively.
bulletCompute 16 percent of the VN OW losses and subtract that number from the VN MIA.   Do the same for VS.
bulletCompute 84 percent of the VN OW losses and subtract that number from the VN KIA/BNR.   Do the same for VS.
bulletThe results are shown in this table:



MIA 321 417 286
KIA/BNR 255 578 168

Total, not adjusted for OW

576 995 454
Over Water Losses (OW) 247 197 0

Adjusted MIA:
(MIA  - (16% of OW))

281 385 no change
Adjusted KIA/BNR:
( KIA/BNR - (84% of OW))
48 413 no change

Total, adjusted for OW losses
( = over ground losses)

329 798 454
% 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%


Impact of removing the OW losses

Now, consider these figures.  Note that these figures are with the over water losses removed.

Country MIA KIA/BNR Total % MIA % KIA/BNR
VN 281 48 329 85% 15%
VS 385 413 7998 48% 52%
LA 286 168 454 63% 37%


952 629 1581 60% 40%


So, what does all this exercise mean?  I think there are two conclusions we can draw from these numbers.

bulletLoss 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.
bulletWhen 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.