MIA Facts Site

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Identified in a Photograph:

Not Exactly

In the misinformation spread by the MIA activist community, one often finds a claim that a missing man was identified in a photograph either by one or more of his family members, by another returnee, or by someone else who knew him.   One such case is that of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald Hubbs.  In my article on the spurious claims that surround this loss, I state ". . . a member of Hubbs's family claims that he is depicted in a photograph taken during the war . . ."  Recently (Oct. 98), I received an e-mail from an individual who claims to be the head of a state POW-MIA association informing me that I need to check my facts, that Hubbs had been identified in a photograph by TWO family members.  I responded to him that the number of family members who claimed that Cdr. Hubbs was in a photograph is irrelevant as he does not appear in any photo.

Let me say this as plainly as I can: 

From the Vietnam War, every American who appears in a photograph as a POW or as a dead body has been identified and either (1) is a returnee; or,  (2) died in captivity or in his loss incident in which case his remains may or may not have been recovered or returned, nonetheless, he is dead.

When anyone tries to tell you otherwise -- "He is still alive, we know he is because his sister identified him in a  photo."  -- do not believe them.   Let's discuss photos for a while.

Origin of photos of POWs

Photographs of US POWs were obtained from several sources.

The Vietnamese press. 

In many cases, when an American was captured, he was photographed at the site.   The road system in Vietnam was such that a captured American often had to be held at the spot where he was captured until he could be transported eventually to Hanoi.   Many returnees, especially those shot down in the North, tell of being held in local police stations, rice storage sheds, and other places for a day or two until soldiers arrived to haul them to Hanoi.  Many of the same returnees tell of being photographed by photographers accompanying the soldiers.

Captured for the camera

Some returnees tell of having photos of their captured staged the next day.  One that I remember tells of how he was captured, stuffed in a rice shed overnight, then, the next morning a truckload of soldiers and a photographer arrived.  He was marched at gunpoint back to the side of his crashed aircraft where he was "captured" several times for the camera.  He was made to get on his knees beside the wreckage.   Then, a couple of local militia stuck rifles in his face, he lifted his hands above his head, and the camera clicked.  Then, a couple of women militia members did the same thing -- more photos.  Then, he was "captured" again for the camera by a group of civilians brandishing pitchforks.

There are many other photos of captured Americans.  Shumaker, Standvick, Stratton, Kula, Alvarez, and dozens of other Americans were photographed. These photos were printed in the Vietnamese press and many of them were reprinted in newspapers and magazines worldwide.  Every single photo of an American POW has been identified.  None of them are missing, all are accounted-for.

The Hanoi Parade

In July 1966, the Vietnamese lined up the US POWs in Hanoi and marched them through the street, complete with screaming crowds lining the streets, to a stadium in Hanoi.   Why? Not certain but it was a bleak time in Hanoi and maybe the Vietnamese thought they needed a little something to keep up the morale. Anyway, it almost backfired. The guys in the parade reported, after their return, that,  as they were paraded through the streets, they were very worried that the crowd was going to go wild and kill them. Most of the returnees also reported that the guards were as frightened as they were as the crowd got more and more out of hand.  Eventually, they made it to the safety of the stadium and the Vietnamese did not try that trick again. The parade was photographed, both still pictures and movies, and the photos and movies were shown around the world. (See a photo from this parade in McConnell's book, Inside Hanoi's Secret Archives.)  We were able to identify some guys from photos and movies of the parade. There were some men in the photos who could not be identified because of shadows, hidden faces, poor quality picture, whatever. But, when the returnees came home, they were shown piles of photos, including the parade photos and every man in the parade identified himself or was identified by others who were there and every man in the parade photos returned. So, when anyone says that a missing man is shown in the Hanoi parade photos, they are simply wrong.

The Christmas Parties

For several years, the Vietnamese gave Christmas parties that US POWs were forced to attend. The parties were complete with tree, presents, carols, religious services, etc. And, photos and movies were taken and shown around the world as proof of how humane the Vietnamese were. We identified men from the photos.  Some could not be identified but, after Operation Homecoming, the men in the photos identified everyone. None of the men pictured in the Christmas party photos is missing -- they all returned.

The Vietnamese Archives

I will not go into great detail here; instead, I recommend you get a copy of the book Inside Hanoi's Secret Archives by Malcolm McConnell.   The short version of the story is that the Vietnamese military took photographs of crash sites, of bodies, of live Americans, and saved these as part of their historical documents.  In the early 1990s, the US managed to gain access to these archives and now US researchers are working in the Vietnamese archives, digging up information on Americans who remain missing.  Some of these photos depict dead Americans, others are photos of captives, some are of wreckage.  A few show bodies that cannot be identified.  Except for those few where the body is not shown clearly enough to identify, every American pictured in the archive photos has been identified. Some of these men remain missing, but, in every case, the photo showing the man shows him dead.  Thus, while in these few cases the man may still be missing, he is known to be dead and the only question remaining is how to recover his remains.

Third Party Photos

There were also photographs and films of US POWs made by third parties.  The most famous of these is a long film made by an East German crew entitled Pilots in Pajamas.   The title refers to the pajama-like prison garb that US POWs wore while in captivity in Hanoi.  Every man pictured in Pilots in Pajamas has been identified.

Other foreign photographers were in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia from time to time and photographed US POWs for publication back home.  We were able to collect a good number of photographs from the press in Russia, Eastern Europe, Japan, and other third countries.  Every US POW shown in these third-party sources has been identified.

Identifying the Photos

During and after the war, the US government wanted to collect as much information as possible about missing men.  For that reason, US agencies world wide were on the look out for photos of Americans in captivity.  It was through this type of world-wide information collection that such items as Pilots in Pajamas and other photos, films, and the like were collected.

If a man shown in a photo  could not be identified by the Defense Intelligence Agency, we would send the photo(s) to the services who would show them to family members. Virtually every photo had many positive identifications attached to it. I recall one photo that 21 different families claimed, positively, without a doubt, was their son/brother/father/husband. When the POWs came home and the guys in the photos identified themselves, this guy was not one of the 21, in spite of the fact that 21 wives/mothers/children, all said this was their man.

The fact is -- and I expect the MIA activists will jump on this comment -- families are not good sources of identification.  The family of a missing man looks at a photo with their hearts, not with their heads. They want to see him and they do, even if the photo they are viewing is not he.  What would I do under the same circumstances?   Probably identify lots of photos as my missing son.  Thus, there are cases in which families, to this day,  claim that their missing man has been identified in a photo.  It simply is not so. 

One Final, Sad Story

There is one story about a family identifying a photo that illustrates my point.  

During the December 1972 bombing of Hanoi, a lot of US aircraft were lost in and around Hanoi.  Men were being captured in numbers far greater than before and the Vietnamese, who were struggling to keep Hanoi together, had little time to deal with captured US aircrews.  Captured men were processed and moved, generally, into large cells with other men.  One aspect of this period was that a lot of men were photographed,simply by being brought into a room with several other captives -- some of whom they did not know -- photographed, then taken back to their cells.  When the returnees came back to Clark Air Base, Philippines, in Spring, 1973, they were shown all the unidentified photos; this process resulted in identifying a lot of photographs.

Among the photos taken during December 1972 is one depicting eight captured Americans.   They are standing in a room, formed into two rows.  The front row is seated and the back row is standing up.  Every man in this photo is identified and they are all returnees.

At the time this photo was taken, Americans were raining out of the sky over Hanoi.   Americans were being hustled here and there by the North Vietnamese, who were trying to survive the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong Harbor, trying to survive the war, and trying to do something about negotiations in Paris.  Groups of American captives would be photographed then taken back to their cells.  Because air crews from many different bases were involved in the bombing, it was not unusual for a group of men to be photographed together and not everyone in the group would know everyone else.   In the photo in question, every man identified himself and two or three others but no one man identified everyone.  And, in their statements, the men in the photo clearly state "I do not know who this guy or this guy is."

There is a family -- wife and husband -- who have this photo and who claim that one of the men, the one who is third from left in the back row, is their son.  He is not; he is another person entirely.  They do not let this fact stop them.  Two or three times a year, when I was in the POW-MIA Office, we would be contacted by a member of Congress or by a reporter.  The parents had contacted them and shown them the photograph, claiming that the man in the back row was their son.  The parents would then show the Congressman or the reporter statements by a couple of men in the photo stating that they did not know who the man in question is.  Then, they would show a letter from the Pentagon claiming that the man in question had been identified by other men in the photo.

Now, if you saw this, what would you believe?  Here is a letter from the Pentagon saying that other men in the photo had identified the man claimed to be the son.   But, here are letters from men in the [hoto saying that they do not know the guy.   Of course you would be convinced that this family was being lied to.  What the family would not show to the reporter or to the Congressman was:

bulletStatements by the guys in the photo who did know the man in question, in which they identified him;
bulletAn explanation that the men in the photo were from different bases and did not all know each other when the photo was taken;
bulletThe statement by the man himself, identifying himself; and
bulletThey would not show the letters that the man in question -- the one they claimed to be their son -- had written to the parent, identifying himself.

This couple's story is one of the legends cited by the MIA crowd as proof of government lies.   The activists do not bother to tell the rest of the story and the story never dies.  In fact, I read it on the WWW in late September (98) and I received an e-mail from an individual who had seen the MIA Facts Site, citing this story as proof of lies and cover-up. 

In case anyone missed it earlier,

From the Vietnam War, every American who appears in a photograph as a POW or as a dead body has been identified and either (1) is a returnee; or,  (2) died in captivity or in his loss incident in which case his remains may or may not have been recovered or returned, nonetheless, he is dead.