MIA Facts Site

Vietnam's Collection and Repatriation of American Remains


Summary.  For years, U. S. analysts and policy makers knew that the Vietnamese had in place a process of burying Americans who died in captivity or whose remains they recovered.  We also knew that the Vietnamese recorded the condition of recovered remains and the location of burial sites.  There was unmistakable evidence that the Vietnamese recovered American remains, processed the remains (cleaned and in some cases treated with preservatives), stored them, and eventually returned the remains to us.    One individual who has become known as "The Mortician" -- provided a detailed report on his involvement in this process.  ( Click here to read "The Mortician's" story.  Readers will note a difference in tone between The Mortician's story and this article.  This article is based on much more recent data and more detailed analysis.)

The major question regarding Vietnam's collection and repatriation of American remains was how many remains had they collected and had they returned all of those to the U. S.   In June 1999  The Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office published the results of a three-year study done by analysts in DPMO, the Central Identification Laboratory, and the Joint Task Force - Full Accounting.  The study is available by writing to : DPMO, 2400 Defense, Pentagon, Washington, DC 20301 - 2400.

The study is long -- 47 pages, single spaced and double sided.  I have a copy of the study and this article is the summary from the study.  To produce this article, I sat at my computer keyboard and typed in the summary.  I make no claim to be the author of this study.  What appears below is a direct quote of the entire summary of the DPMO study Vietnam's Collection and Repatriation of American Remains, June 1999.  I have inserted my own notes in a few places; those are indicated by small, bold, green text in parentheses.

Update (August 6, 2000). 

The full text of the study is available online at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/special/vietnam_collection_study.htm .  The study is 3.8MB and is in PDF format.

Vietnam's Collection and Repatriation of American Remains


This study is an analysis of Vietnam's collection and repatriation process, and as such, has been reviewed by knowledgeable senior analysts in the intelligence community for clarity, logic, and overall consistency with intelligence holdings.  The Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), however, is solely responsible for its contents.

When American military personnel first arrived in Southeast Asia in 1961, North Vietnamese policy, already in place, required local civil and military authorities to document the deaths of foreign military personnel.  Where possible, bodies were to be buried and graves maintained.  Beginning in the early 1970s and continuing until at least 1983, Hanoi government officials endeavored to recover the remains for eventual repatriation.  The Vietnamese have turned over internal documents that recorded these efforts, and they have facilitated interviews with personnel involved.  Vietnamese technical experts have also met with U. S. specialists to discuss how the program to recover American remains worked in practice.

Vietnamese documents and witnesses bear out what other sources have reported in the past :  more remains were collected and brought to Hanoi in the 1970s than were repatriated during that period.  Most of these remains were stored and returned later, most recently in September 1990.  Since then, Vietnam has repatriated only remains that were recovered by joint excavation teams or by Vietnamese citizens acting on their own.  In other words, no remains recovered by Vietnamese authorities and then stored have been repatriated since September 1990.


bulletVietnamese authorities unilaterally located, collected, and stored approximately 300 American remains.
bulletAvailable evidence indicates that 270 to 280 have been repatriated.
bulletWe cannot determine if the estimated 20 to 30 discrepancy is real or attributable to incomplete data, but Vietnam probably has records that will answer some of our questions.
bulletVietnam had the most success in recovering U. S. remains in the North.  Results were dramatically lower in the South and Cambodia.
bulletThere is no credible evidence that Vietnam recovered American remains from Laos.
bulletVietnam probably completed recoveries in the North by the late 1970s.  We believe the last centrally recovered remains from the South and Cambodia reached Hanoi in 1983.

The overwhelming majority of remains collected by the central government belonged to American aviators lost in northern Vietnam.  The ability of the Vietnamese to recover a given set of remains was almost always contingent on finding Vietnamese citizens who could point out grave sites several years after burial.  This was most feasible in northern Vietnam, where the civilian population and government infrastructure were relatively stable throughout the war.  In southern Vietnam and in the border areas of Cambodia, efforts to locate and recover remains generally commenced later, most occurring after 1975.  They focused chiefly on persons who died in captivity, and results were uneven.  Although some have speculated that Vietnamese forces in Laos were also tasked to collect American remains from areas under their control, we have not been able to discover any concrete evidence to confirm that such collection took place.  Our only information relates to Vietnamese efforts to recover their own war dead from Laos.

Past studies by the National Intelligence Council and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) have attempted to assess how many sets of U. S. remains Vietnam might have recovered.  Those studies were based chiefly on estimates provided by refugees and other Vietnamese sources.  They also relied on scientific analysis of repatriated remains, some of which showed evidence of having been collected and held above ground for an undetermined period before their return.  These studies concluded that there was a large discrepancy between the number of remains that sources estimated Vietnam had recovered by the late 1970s (approximately 400 +) and the number of repatriated remains that appeared to have been held in storage for long periods (approximately 165 +).   Past studies assumed this discrepancy (approximately 235 +), plus an additional increment to account for potential collection during the 1980s, represented the number of remains still held in storage by Vietnam.

The current study takes into account all of the above information as well as new data gleaned from more than 10 years of on-the-ground investigations in Southeast Asia and from many new witnesses and Vietnamese documents.  We still cannot be sure precisely how many remains central authorities ultimately collected or how many they held at any specific time.  Nor can we confirm whether the central government still holds remains or whether, as the Vietnamese government asserts, it has repatriated all the remains it recovered.  Evidence indicates, however, that the possible disparity between the number of remains collected by central Vietnamese authorities and those later repatriated is far smaller than earlier studies estimated.


The most dependable determination of whether specific remains were among those stored rests on a combination of physical analysis of the repatriated remains and data from Vietnamese witnesses and documents.  Analysis based solely on physical indicators is problematic for two reasons.  First, physical indicators of storage (charring or soot damage, odors of musty storage conditions, disinfectant stains) can be caused by factors other than long-term, above ground storage.  Second, and perhaps more significant, the absence of these physical indicators does not mean storage did not take place.  Data from Vietnamese witnesses and documents show that some remains for which American scientists could find no physical indicators of storage were in fact, recovered and stored before repatriation.


A case-by-case analysis of all remains repatriated by Vietnam reveals that between the early 1970s and about 1983, central authorities collected and stored 270 to 280 sets of remains.  Between 13 and 15 were non-American Southeast Asian Mongoloids, although Vietnamese authorities probably failed to realize this.


Over the years, several sources have estimated how many remains Vietnam had collected at any one time, but none could provide hard and fast totals based on concrete data.  The four sources having the best access to reliable information, however, provided similar estimates, suggesting that Vietnam ultimately collected approximately 300 American remains.  Other sources, who provided higher estimates, had markedly less reliable bases for their reporting.


There is a disparity of 20 to 30 between the number of remains that our most reliable sources estimate were collected (around 300) and the number that have already been repatriated and were stored (270 to 280).  Although much smaller than previously believed, this disparity is still a concern because it could represent remains that were stored but not repatriated.


Alternatively, the discrepancy could be a function of the limits of our information. Available data are not sufficiently reliable or comprehensive to judge whether this disparity is within the limits of estimative error or represents actual remains yet to be repatriated.  Some evidence suggests the latter may be the case.


In a small number of cases, involving fewer than 10 individuals, direct evidence suggests that central authorities received remains that have not yet been repatriated.  In two of these cases, involving five remains, local and district authorities insist that they recovered remains and forwarded them to central authorities.   Our discussion with the Vietnamese government about these cases continues. They have investigated unilaterally without turning up information to answer the questions.   The U. S. has conducted a complete re-survey of CILHI accessions (Note:  Central Identification Laboratory - Hawaii)Armed with the CILHI findings, we have asked Vietnam to provide additional information and assistance on the cases.  The accounting issues on these two cases are complex.   Nevertheless, we believe that more will be learned through this dialogue.


Non-case-specific evidence also suggests possible continued storage of a small number of remains.  In 1991, for instance, a Vietnamese official with long experience in this issue told an American counterpart that Vietnam still had a number of Caucasoid remains.  He estimated that they belonged to between 56 and 83 persons and characterized them as "odds and ends, such as arm bones and leg bones. . . "  He said Vietnam could not identify these remains without access to the medical records of U. S. casualties, implying that this was why they had not been repatriated.  When questioned about this assertion, other Vietnamese officials have denied that the assertion was ever made.  Similarly, in the late 1990s, another well-placed Vietnamese official indicated that sometime after December 1990, he was told that Vietnam still retained American remains.  The last date on which Vietnam repatriated stored remains was September 13, 1990.

There is strong evidence that Vietnamese officials maintained an inventory of the remains collected, and this inventory was still in use at least until the early 1990s.  We have no reason to believe that Vietnamese authorities lost or destroyed the documents that contain this inventory. A comparison between the entries on this inventory and the remains Vietnam has repatriated could resolve the question of whether remains are sill being held.  Our experience in dealing with the Vietnamese bureaucracy's attempts to locate such documents,however, makes it difficult to infer anything from their non-provision to date.  During the course of the remains study, they have located several documents of value, but of lesser significance, for the purposes of the study.  All of our efforts to pursue inventory documents continue.

Since wartime, we have collected a persuasive body of data, some from current or former Vietnamese officials, explaining why Vietnam collected and stored remains.  The officials have also provided insights into their government's calculations regarding the protracted timing of repatriations up through September 1990.   However, we do not have similar access to sources in decision-making circles.   We do not know whether the Vietnamese leadership decided to exhaust its supply of stored remains when it repatriated 20 in September 1990.  Vietnamese officials state that their government no longer holds remains and has no reason to do so, but without a copy of Vietnam's inventory, we see little possibility of resolving our questions.


Analysts at DPMO reviewed all available data on Vietnam's effort to record information about U. S. casualties and to bury and later recover remains.   This very large body of data addresses the history, design, and operations of this effort, as well as its successes and failures.  Assisting in portions of this review were the Joint Task Force -- Full Accounting (JTF - FA) and the U. S. Army Central Identification Laboratory -- Hawaii (CILHI).  Information in this study is current as of 27 May 1999.

As part of this study, representatives from the Department of Defense (DoD) engaged in a two-year dialogue with Vietnamese counterparts, in which specialists from both sides met to share information and exchange views about Vietnam's handling of U. S.  remains.  During the course of these constructive and increasingly candid discussions, Vietnam conducted investigations to help identify remains already at CILHI, turned over documents, and explained many aspects of how remains collection worked.  Vietnamese officials also facilitated interviews with personnel who took part in remains recovery efforts and could relate firsthand what transpired.   We have been assured that we can expect continued assistance in the future.

Explicitly noted in this paper are areas in which incomplete information prevents final determinations.  In each of these areas, the U. S. continues to employ all possible means to collect additional data.  Throughout the course of our review and our dialogue with the Vietnamese, we have aggressively pursued all information, and publication of this paper in no way lessens our interest or efforts.   Follow-up continues on two cases that have not been satisfactorily resolved.   Also,we have requested additional documents from the Vietnamese government, including the enabling directive that set most remains recovery activity in action, various remains inventories, and additional provincial records.  Collection efforts also remain focused on acquiring additional data on the organizations involved in remains collection and the locations where remains were held before repatriation.

In the meantime, however, we can provide more detailed answers than ever to questions that have troubled American policy makers and families for years.

bulletHow, when, where, and why did Vietnamese collect American remains?
bulletHow many did they collect?
bulletHow many have they repatriated?
bulletAre any still stored?

Our conclusions necessitate reconsideration of how Vietnam handled American remains.  They also affect our expectations of what will constitute fullest possible accounting since it is clear that Vietnam doesn't have additional large numbers of remains it could repatriate, as previously believed.  Instead, accounting for Americans killed in the Vietnam War will depend on our own ability to recover remains at loss sites across Southeast Asia.  In turn, our success will depend on the continued cooperation of the Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian governments.  under these circumstances, factors such as the passage of time and the effects of the environment will play a bigger role than ever in determining whether remains can be recovered. (Note:  This concluding paragraph is, in my opinion, the most useful statement that has been made regarding the MIA issue and our ability to achieve the "fullest possible accounting" of our missing men.)

The preceding text was quoted directly from the study Vietnam's Collection and Repatriation of American Remains, June 1999, published by the Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office.  Below is a scanned image of the front cover of the study.

remstudy.jpg (1040160 bytes)


Update (August 6, 2000). 

The full text of the study is available online at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/special/vietnam_collection_study.htm .  The study is 3.8MB and is in PDF format.