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What About the "Live Sightings?"

Summary.  Frequently one hears references to the "live sightings" of US POWs in Southeast Asia.  Often, the live sightings pop up in discussions among the MIA "activists" as "proof" that US POWs remain in SEAsia today or, at least, remained there for some time after the war.  The facts are quite different.  The live sightings prove:  (1) The capability of US intelligence to get behind the scenes in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; and, (2) That no Americans were left behind as POWs in SEAsia.  Let's examine the live sightings.

What are the Live Sightings?

Over the years, US intelligence has collected information from individuals who had access to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  For many years, these areas were closed to official Americans and we had to rely for information upon refugees, legal travelers, and others who could go into and out of these "denied areas." 

People coming out of the region reported many things -- social, economic, and political conditions; market conditions; and all the usual matters that people observe and have contact with.  Of special interest, however, were reports having to do with Americans lost during the Vietnam War.  Many reports were received from people who had observed a crashed aircraft or a grave site said to hold the remains of an American.  Of highest importance, though, is a report in which the person making the report (the source) claims to have seen a person or persons whom he/she believes to be an American and the person(s) believed to be the American(s) is(are) either in some form of confinement or is living freely.   This, then, is the definition of a "live sighting report" -- it is a report in which a person says that he/she saw one or more people whom the source believed to be an American.  The American was in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, and was either in some sort of prison situation or was living freely.

What is done About Live Sightings?

Live sightings are investigated as a top priority.  After all, if someone says that he/she saw an American in prison in SEAsia, we need to figure out who the American is and why he/she is there.  That is the objective of live sighting investigation and analysis:  To determine as rapidly as possible who the subject of the report is.   Let me describe the process that a live sighting report is subjected to. 

First, the report is received by someone somewhere.  An interviewer in a refugee camp in Thailand is approached by a refugee with a story.  A refugee walks into an American embassy in Europe and tells of having seen an "American" in prison in Vietnam.  Then, whoever receives the report notifies Washington of the report, normally by message containing all the details from the source.  Live sighting reports, then, come in in the format of normal intelligence reports, albeit at a higher precedence.

Then, the investigation starts. Analysts will do several things.

bulletThe analyst reviews the details of the report:  who, what, when, where, why, and how.  After a thorough read of the report the analyst does two things:
bulletRequests that the source be re-interviewed.  The analyst provides a list of questions to be asked during the follow-up interview.  Why re-interview?  Two reasons:  to fill in gaps in the story and to test the story.  If the source provides different versions of the story in the reinterview, then we need to interview a third time.  Reinterviews catch a lot of phony stories because the source cannot sustain a phony story.
bulletDoes a file search to see if there are other reports from the same location.  That is, if a source claimed to have seen three Americans in Chi Hoa Prison, Saigon, in May 1975, the analyst knows that the source is talking about three Americans who were held there at that time.
bulletThe analyst often will collect other information in an attempt to verify the source's report.  For example, if the source described in detail the location of the sighting, the analyst will search for photography of the location, both ground-level and overhead.   If need be, the analyst may order satellite photography of the location to compare the photographs with the source's description.
bulletThe analyst will review the known cases to determine if the source is reporting something that has been reported and analyzed before.
bulletThe analyst also works to find other sources who were at the place where the sighting occurred at the same time as the reported sighting.  That is, if a source reports having seen an American in prison in Rach Gia (southern tip of Vietnam) in the summer of 1975, the analyst will try to locate others who were in the same place at the same time.  When these other sources are located, they are interviewed as to their sightings.  Note that we do not ask additional sources if they saw an American at this place, this time.  Instead, we ask them to describe their experiences and we walk them through their whole story.

Since the early 1990s, US investigators have been working in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, conducting research into archives, interviewing former PAVN soldiers and officers, and doing all sorts of other research to locate information on missing Americans.   As part of this effort, we formed, in each location, a Live Sighting Investigation Team.  The LSIs (live sighting investigators) have the mission of getting to the site of recent live sightings to help determine if there really is an American present.

The combination of reinterviewing, searching existing data, comparing the story to what is known, finding other witnesses, and conducting on-the-spot investigations will, eventually, lead the analyst to determine exactly who it was that the source saw. 

The Results of the Live Sighting Investigations

Most are true reports

As of October 30, 1998, there had been 1,896 first hand live sightings collected by U.S. intelligence since 1975.  That is, since 1975, 1,896 people had reported that, somewhere, some time, they saw a person whom they believed to be an American.  In most cases, the "American" was in captivity of some sort.  As of 10/30/98,             97 percent of these reports were "resolved" -- that is, the analysis was complete and we knew who the report referred to.  Now, get this:  Most of the live sighting reports are absolutely accurate and the sources are reporting truthfully.  Remember this point, it will come back later.

That's right, folks, most of the live sighting reports are true stories.

The published statistics

The following information was copied from another web site; the information came from the Defense POW-Missing Persons Office (DPMO).

LIVE SIGHTINGS: As of October 30, 1998, 1,896 first-hand live sighting reports in Indochina have been received since 1975; 1,832 (97%) have been resolved. 1,283 (68%) were equated to Americans now accounted for (i.e. returned POWs, missionaries or civilians detained for violating Vietnamese codes); 45 (3%) correlated to wartime sightings of military personnel or pre-1975 sightings of civilians still unaccounted for; 504 (26%) were determined to be fabrications. The 64 (3%) unresolved first-hand reports are the focus of current analytical and collection efforts: 56 (2.5%) are reports of Americans sighted in a prisoner situation; 8 (.5%) are non-POW sightings. The years in which these 64 first hand sightings occurred is listed below:

The years in which these 64 first hand sightings occurred is listed below:

Year Pre-76 76-80 81-85 86-90 91-92 93-94 95-96 97-98 Total
  41 9 1 4 1 1 1 6 64

What do the statistics mean?

Let's examine these statistics and see what they mean.

bulletAs of October 30, 1998, 1,896 first-hand live sighting reports in Indochina have been received since 1975; 1,832 (97%) have been resolved.
bulletThis means that, in 97 percent of the reports collected to date, we know the identity of the person who was seen.
bullet1,283 (68%) were equated to Americans now accounted for (i.e. returned POWs, missionaries or civilians detained for violating Vietnamese codes)
bulletThis means that, of the resolved live sightings, 63 percent were sightings of people who have returned.
bulletSome of these are returnees.  Remember, Americans -- especially in North Vietnam -- were captured in full view of the public.  In many cases, refugees report having seen an American during the war.  When we analyze the location, date, time, and circumstances, it is clear that the American who was seen is a returnee.
bulletOthers are not U.S. military personnel.  Over the years, there have been civilians of different nationalities, not just Americans, who have been imprisoned in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia because they violated laws in the country and were imprisoned for their actions.
bulletIncluded in this category is a body of sightings of former USMC PFC Robert Garwood.  For a period from early 1976 until around 1978, Garwood was a member of the PAVN, working as a mechanic and truck driver in the system of "re-education camps" established by the North Vietnamese where tens of thousands of South Vietnamese military officers were imprisoned after the takeover of South Vietnam.   Many of these former South Vietnamese saw and talked with Garwood.  When they came out of Vietnam years later, they told of the American -- "Mr. Bobby," or one of the Vietnamese names that Garwood used.  I do not remember exactly but, when I retired in 1995, we had well over 300 sightings of Garwood.
bullet45 (3%) correlated to wartime sightings of military personnel or pre-1975 sightings of civilians still unaccounted for
bulletThis means that a small percentage --- three percent -- of the live sightings are of men who are still missing.  In every one of these cases, the source reported that the man was dead when sighted, or that the source heard later that the man died.
bullet504 (26%) were determined to be fabrications
bulletThis means that there are some reports that are not true -- the source made up the story.  In many cases, these fabrications are very convincing, but, they are phony stories.

The "unresolved" live sightings

The final category is the "unresolved" live sightings.  Here are the statistics as of 10/30/98:

The 64 (3%) unresolved first-hand reports are the focus of current analytical and collection efforts: 56 (2.5%) are reports of Americans sighted in a prisoner situation; 8 (.5%) are non-POW sightings. The years in which these 64 first hand sightings occurred is listed below:

The years in which these 64 first hand sightings occurred is listed below:

Year Pre-76 76-80 81-85 86-90 91-92 93-94 95-96 97-98 Total
  41 9 1 4 1 1 1 6 64

This means that, as of 10/30/98, there are 64 reports in which a source claims to have seen an American -- 56 of them locked up, 8 of them moving around freely -- and the analysts are still working on the reports.

Now, look at the table.  This table shows the DATE OF THE INFORMATION.  This means, for example, that of the 64 sightings that are now being investigated, 41 of them took place prior to 1975.  You see, if a refugee walks in in 1998 and says "I saw an American in prison in Hanoi in 1975," that is a 1975 report, it is 23 years old, not current.  And that, my friends, is the case in most of these reports:   They are years old by the time we receive them.

This number of unresolved cases will change.  That is, the analysts will determine who several of these are but new reports will come in.  By looking at this table, I am willing to bet that the 1976-1980 reports are all sightings of Garwood prior to his departure from Vietnam in 1979, the pre-76 reports are returnees and a few folks picked up in the fall of Saigon and later released.  The six reports dated 1998 ?  Probably Americans or other foreigners who were arrested for violating Vietnamese/Laotian/Cambodian law.  After all, look at the rapidly increasing numbers of Americans and other foreigners who are now all over Vietnam; no wonder that some of them are showing up in prison.

Some Live Sightings

Here are some real live sightings to describe more clearly what I am talking about.

The American in the hospital

Over the years, we received over a dozen reports from a town in North Vietnam, telling of an American aircraft being shot down.  The "pilot" parachuted from the aircraft, landed in the town, and was badly injured.  He was taken to the local hospital where, according to news around town, he died.  While there were minor variations, this same story was told by several witnesses.  Two of the sources worked at the hospital and they told of the American being brought in, being treated, but dying after a few hours.  He reportedly was buried in the hospital cemetery.

When we analyze the date and location, it is clear that these reports pertain to a man who was missing until the late 1980s at which time the Vietnamese returned his remains.

Miscellaneous reports

Arlo Gay and John LeCornec

Mr. Arlo Gay was an American commercial fisherman living in Vietnam.  As the PAVN was closing in in 1975, he was approached by a CIA case officer who gave him some fuel and asked that he go to a spot on the southern coast, pick up some South Vietnamese who worked with the CIA, and get them out.  Mr. Gay complied.  As he was running his human cargo off the coast, he decided to stop at a naval base where the South Vietnamese flag was still flying.  Also, he saw a South Vietnamese helicopter land there.

Surprise.  The base had been taken over by PAVN; they left the flag up in hopes that escaping South Vietnamese would drop in and be arrested.  Gay was taken by small boat to the coast then by sampan up a series of canals and streams to the town of Rach Gia where he was held in the local lockup for several months.

John LeCornec was French who had a wife and family in Vietnam.  When South Vietnam was falling, LeCornec entered Vietnam overland through Cambodia from Thailand, trying to locate his family and get them out.  He was arrested and put in the same prison as Gay. 

After a couple of weeks, LeCornec died of dysentery and was buried in the prison cemetery.

Gay was eventually taken to Hanoi.  He escaped from prison and wandered around the countryside for thirty days.  When he realized that he was moving in a circle and was about to starve, he turned himself in.  He was released and returned to the US in 1976.

We have well over 100 reports that pertain to Gay and LeCornec, such as:

bulletReports of the American, "Mr. Gay," and the "Frenchman" in Rach Gia prison just after the Communist takeover.  The Frenchman reportedly had a wife who visited him in prison, then he died and was buried in the prison cemetery.  The American was taken away, reportedly to North Vietnam.  We have over 100 such reports.
bulletClearly, these reports are of Gay and LeCornec.
bulletWe have a dozen or so reports of an American in a certain prison in Hanoi over a period of a few months.  Some of the sources making these reports report that the American escaped but was re-captured.
bulletWhen we look at the time and place of these reports, they are clearly Gay while he was in the slammer near Hanoi.

Two guys in Tic-Tac-Toe

In the outskirts of Hanoi is a prison where Americans were held during the war.   Its buildings are laid out in a fashion resembling a tic-tac-toe board, hence the name given the place by Americans held there.  After the war, it was used to hold North Vietnamese civilian prisoners, especially people who were arrested trying to leave Vietnam illegally. 

Over the years, we collected a body of reports on this prison that described how Americans were held there during the war, they went home in 1973, and no Americans or foreigners were there.  However, there were six or even reports claiming that two Americans were there for almost a year in 1980.  Then, reports after late 1980 or early 1981 said that there were no Americans there.  Also, we had a small number of reports that stated:

bulletTwo Americans were arrested off the coast of South Vietnam in 1978 or 1979 and they were seen in the Rach Gia prison for a while, then they were taken away.
bulletThere were two or three reports of two Americans having been in a prison in Saigon for a few months in 1979.
bulletThere were three or four reports of an American having been brought to the cholera ward in a Hanoi hospital in 1980 from a prison near Hanoi, treated, then returned to prison.

In looking at these reports, and comparing them to the way we knew that the Vietnamese moved prisoners after 1975, we felt that we had a strong case that the two Americans in Rach Gia, the two in Saigon, and the two in Tic-Tac-Toe were the same guys.  We were puzzled over their disappearance after 1980.  Then, from sources in Vietnam, we learned their passport numbers.  With that information, it took us only a few days to locate these two guys -- one in Hawaii, one in California.

We interviewed them about their experience.  First, they thought we were DEA or FBI and were trying to entrap them.  As we later learned, they had been smuggling (we never learned what) in and out of southern Vietnam when they were arrested.  They were held in Rach Gia for a while, moved to Saigon, interrogated and tried, then moved to Tic-Tac-Toe to serve out their sentence.  While there, one of them contracted cholera and was taken to a hospital in Hanoi for treatment, after which he was returned to prison.

Case solved.  By determining who these two were and getting the details of their stories, we were able to resolve several live sighting reports.

Stories such as those two above could go on and on.  I recommend you read Wick Tourison's article on False Reporting for a more detailed layout.

The role of phony reports:  The cluster theory

In the late 1980s, interviewers in Thailand were approached by a Laotian refugee who told a tale of having encountered several US POWs in a prison camp in Laos in the early 1980s.  He told a convincing story.  When we reinterviewed him, some of the major elements of the story changed -- number of Americans, circumstances under which he saw them.  So, we interviewed him again.  Story changed again.  Another interview.  Another version.  When we confronted him with the differences in the story, he confessed that he had made up the story, hoping that POW information would get him a visa to the U.S.

Meanwhile, we had started to hear similar stories from other refugees.  Several others -- 13 in all --told an almost identical story.  When we reinterviewed these people, the same thing happened -- story changed.  When we asked them if they had really seen what they claimed to have seen or if they had heard the story, every one of the admitted that they had simply heard the story:  From the guy who surfaced it to begin with.

During the  course of the Senate Select Committee, Senator Smith determined that he was going to prove how incompetent DIA analysts were.  He enlisted the help of Billy Hendon.  Hendon produced a map with the live sighting reports clustered.  His contention was that , if there were so many reports of live Americans right here, then, there must be a live American right here.  The "cluster" that he focused on was the one described above, reported by 14 sources.  Hendon was beside himself.  Fourteen sources, all telling the same story.  Must be live US POWs there.  Got the SSC all excited.  Then, the real analysts revealed that the original source had recanted his story, that the other 13 were simply feeding off him, and other refugees we had found who were natives of the same area reported no prisons and no Americans.   The 14 stories on which Hendon hung his case were fabrications.

What's the point?  The point is that the live sightings are, more often than not, misrepresented.  The MIA "activists" use the live sightings as proof that US POWs are still alive in SEAsia.  After all, here are nearly 2,000 reports of sightings of US POWs.  The facts, however, are as stated here:  Most of the live sightings reports are true, none of them is a sighting of a US POW not returned after the war.

In conclusion


Remember earlier when I stated: "Most of the live sighting reports are absolutely accurate and the sources are reporting truthfully." One of the favorite charges leveled against me, Bob Destatte, Wick, and all the other honest folks in DIA or DPMO is hat we "debunk" sources.  We simply do not believe the live sighting reports and we do what we can to make the story out to be false.

Let's consider some logic here.  I am telling you that "Most of the live sighting reports are absolutely accurate and the sources are reporting truthfully."  If you look at the numbers, you see that 68 percent of the reports pertain to returnees, to civilians such as Gay and LeCornec and the two guys in Tic-Tac-Toe and 3 percent pertain to missing Americans who were reported to have died.  With over 70 percent of the reports demonstrably true, how in the world can I be accused of "debunking?"  For the years that I was on active duty and one the public speaking circuit, speaking about the MIA issue, I always made this point, always told folks that the live sightings were accurate, they just were not of remaining US POWs.   With about 25 percent of the reports being phony, that's a good percentage and is to be expected.  But, what Hendon and Smith and the rest of the activists choose to focus on is the few reports that they love and that we have proven to be false.  For this reason, we are accused of debunking everything.  Nonsense.

What to do

We have collected enough live sighting reports.  It's time to stop.  We know that there are not US POWs still being held in SEAsian prisons, being worked as animals in fields, repairing airplanes, or working as a houseboy for a Communist official (yes, that's what they claim).  I believe it is irresponsible for the US government to continue to collect these reports and give them such publicity.  There is nothing there.  We know what the live sightings are and they are not US POWs.  To continue this shadow play only serves to give false hope to families,  to give ammunition to the professional MIA cultists, and to divert analytic and investigative attention away for serious research.  Get real, say so publicly, take 24 hours of flak, and get on with the real work.

Will it happen?  Don't count on it.  No one I know of in any policy position has the guts to do it.  Want to read more things that make sense but that will never happen?  Check out my proposal.