Report of the
Senate Select Committee
ACCOUNTING FOR MISSING SERVICEMEN
The responsibility for accounting for American military personnel
and civilians missing or held captive as a result of the war in
Southeast Asia resides with the Departments of Defense and State,
respectively. Over the years their efforts have been supplemented
by Congressional inquiries and Presidentially appointed emissaries.
Nevertheless, the fullest possible accounting has yet to be
obtained. The inability of the U.S. Government to achieve this
goal over the last 20 years has spawned criticisms of the process
and suspicions about the integrity of the effort.
The magnitude of work required to achieve the fullest possible
accounting further underscores the need for cooperation from
Southeast Asia governments. For instance, as of 1992, there were
nearly 500 crash sites associated with unaccounted for U.S.
personnel, according to the Department of Defense. Less than 100 of
these sites have been visited by U.S. investigators. In Laos, there
are approximately 250 crash sites associated with unaccounted for
U.S. personnel, of which less than 40 have been visited by U.S.
investigators. As of the publication date of this report, U.S.
investigators have not had the opportunity to visit any detention
sites or prison camps in Laos for the purpose of fully evaluating
various live-sighting reports.
In view of this situation, the Committee deemed it essential to
undertake a comprehensive review of the policies and procedures
used by the U.S. government to account for American prisoners and
missing from the beginning of the war until the present. The
purposes of this investigation were:
. to determine accurately the number of Americans who
served in Southeast Asia during the war who did not
return, either alive or dead;
. to evaluate the accuracy of the U.S. Government's own
past and current process for determining the likely
status and fate of missing Americans;
. to learn what the casualty data and intelligence
information have to tell us about the number of Americans
whose fates are truly "unaccounted for" from the war in
. to consider whether efforts to obtain the fullest
possible accounting of our POW/MIAs was treated, as
claimed, as a matter of "highest national priority" by
the Executive branch;
. to assess the extent to which Defense Department and DIA
accounting policies and practices contributed to the
confusion, suspicion and distrust that has characterized
the POW/MIA issue for the past 20 years; and
. to determine what changes need to be made to policies and
procedures in order to instill public confidence in the
government's POW/MIA accounting process with respect to
the war in Southeast Asia and in the event of future
In analyzing the accounting process, the Committee did not simply
accept "the official view." Instead, Committee members asked
Executive branch officials to break the process down, step by step,
going back more than 25 years. The Committee asked them literally
to reconstruct their database, and to reply to questions, under
oath, about how and why individuals were categorized as prisoners
of war (POW), as missing in action (MIA), and as killed in action,
body not recovered (KIA/BNR). They were asked to explain who made
these decisions, who kept the lists, and on what basis individuals
were moved from one category to another.
The Committee's goal was to build a factual foundation upon which
the remainder of its investigation could rely, so that it could
proceed with an accurate understanding about what is possible and
what is probable with respect to the three bottom-line questions:
Were Americans left behind in captivity following Operation
Homecoming? If so, how many? And, what is the likelihood that
some of those prisoners might still be alive today?
The need for a solid grounding in fact is essential in any
investigation, but it is particularly crucial in understanding the
universe of what is possible with respect to the question of
whether there are surviving POWs from the war in Indochina. Ever
since the war ended, there has been a swirl of claims and
counter-claims, suspicions and theories, about this question. By
focusing on the details of the accounting process, the Committee
sought to gain a realistic understanding of the spectrum of of
possibilities within which the truth must certainly fall.
The Committee began its investigation by seeking all data relevant
to the accounting process including the lists of all prisoners and
missing from each Defense Department (DoD) agency that maintained
casualty and intelligence lists prior to, during, or after
Operation Homecoming; casualty files from the individual services;
analyses of individual cases; and policy documents. The
Committee's search of the archival records held by the Defense
Intelligence Agency (DIA)'s POW/MIA Office also yielded lists of
American POW/MIAs that had been provided to private Americans by
the North Vietnamese.
Early in its investigation, the Committee received the "Post
Ceasefire Casualty Book", from the former office of the Comptroller
at the Defense Department. This book chronicles the Comptroller's
number of unaccounted for servicemen from the signing of the Paris
Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, through September 30, 1977.
This document reflected the casualty status of servicemen who had
not returned based on information which had been provided by the
three main military services since the end of the war.
As such, the Comptroller's records provided an important baseline
from which to examine the actual status of POW/MIAs. For instance,
the records showed that there were 1,929 servicemen captured or
missing before the start of Operation Homecoming and more than 1300
captured or missing by the end of Operation Homecoming. The records
also showed that there were an additional 1100 servicemen who had
been declared dead during the war, but whose remains had not been
recovered. The Committee's task was to examine the accuracy of
these numbers and to compare them with lists maintained by the
services and the DIA.
Accordingly, the Committee requested and received from each service
either microfiche or paper copies of all casualty files. The
Committee was also provided access to both the casualty and
intelligence files of the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC)
and DIA's POW/MIA Office, respectively.
In January 1992, the Committee located the files of a U.S. Army
unit responsible for maintaining files on American and foreign POWs
from 1968 until 1971. The records of this unit describe the broad
history of the DoD's POW/MIA accounting effort from the earliest
days of the Vietnam conflict. At the request of the
Committee, all key documents in this collection were declassified
by the National Archives.
DIA's records document an important part of the national
intelligence picture before, during, and after Operation
Homecoming. They indicate that DIA had not always recorded the
same casualty status for an individual as had the individual's
military service, but the Committee found no evidence describing
DIA's methodology. Analysis was also complicated by the near total
unavailability of service intelligence staff documents.
The Defense Department, with layers of command and a certain
overlap in responsibilities, produced volumes of material at each
level in the military hierarchy. For example, each separate
military service had separate casualty and intelligence files and
separate staffs who developed them. The Committee sought to bring
this material together and to locate material from the key military
commands in Washington, from the Pacific Command in Hawaii, and
from unified and specified commands in the Pacific theater.
Little, if any, of these records had been sought in prior
investigations of the POW/MIA issue.
Today, after more than a year of diligent searching, certain key
groups or documents cannot yet be located. The Committee also
learned that many of the individual service files have either been
lost or destroyed.
For example, the U.S. Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence
(DCSINT) has been unable to locate any of his agency's archival
POW/MIA intelligence staff records from the Vietnam war era. This
includes internal intelligence reports, memoranda, planning
documents and similar records documenting what the Army knew or
suspected about personnel captured or missing in Southeast Asia.
It remains unknown whether the records were destroyed or simply
In another example, the U.S. Marine Corps initially reported to the
Committee that it had transferred all of its documents to the
Defense Intelligence Agency 11 years ago. When this turned out to
be incorrect, the Corps reported that it had shipped the documents
to the National Archives in 1990 for secure storage. The documents
were turned over to DIA's Central Documentation Office in October
1992 for declassification.
The U.S. Navy provided a small collection of assorted documents in
response to the Committee's request, but advised that nothing
further could be located. After repeated prodding from the
Committee, the Navy reported that all remaining POW/MIA records had
been destroyed in about 1975. Committee investigators then
uncovered extensive Navy records at the Naval Historical Center
which had been transferred there in 1973, including most of the
major files of the Chief of Naval Operations' Special Assistant for
POW/MIA Affairs. There are indications that certain sensitive
Naval intelligence files were shipped to DIA in 1981, while others
appear to have been destroyed in 1975 or 1981.
The U.S. Air Force provided no response to the Committee's original
request for records. Finally, in September 1992, the Committee was
provided a printout of a small portion of the archives at the Joint
Services SERE (Search, Evasion, Rescue, Escape) Agency (JSSA) in
Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. A Committee staff survey of a small portion
of the JSSA files uncovered wartime Air Force Intelligence staff
files. It appears that the wartime air intelligence files were
transferred to JSSA in 1974, put on microfiche (where they have
become largely illegible when printed out) and the original
documents destroyed. Documents recovered from partially readable
JSSA archives have filled in important gaps in understanding joint
service activities, particularly after Operation Homecoming.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) located in permanent storage its
collection of POW/MIA related memoranda. These documents have been
made available to the Committee through the Central Documentation
Office (CDO). The Committee also located a monumental study on the
history of covert operations in Southeast Asia, the MACVSOG
Document Study, together with other appropriate special operations
annual histories. At publication time, these documents had been
declassified, or soon were to be.
Sources indicate that there were some intelligence reports on
POW/MIAs collected through MACVSOG during the war, especially in
Laos. Unfortunately, the Committee was not able to locate these
The Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTF-FA) has yet to provide
the wartime permanent records of the principal organization
responsible for monitoring the POW/MIA problem on the ground in
Southeast Asia, the special operations related Joint Personnel
Recovery Center (JPRC). JPRC was transformed into the Joint
Casualty Resolution Center in January 1973; the Committee has
requested, but at publication time had yet to receive, an index of
its archival files. The Pacific Command has reported it has no
documents, even though it was one of the most major command players
throughout the Vietnam war.
Finally, the Committee was hindered in judging the accuracy of
servicemen accounted for and not accounted for during the war by
the fact that Search and Rescue (SAR) reports had been destroyed
following the war. We note that Gen. Vessey confirmed to the
Committee that these records had been destroyed by 1979.
In May 1992, the Committee located and began an exhaustive review
of DIA's 1966-1981 archival POW/MIA files. The review was later
expanded to include files at JSSA in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. The
archival files of both agencies brought to light a broad range of
wartime and post-wartime policy and accounting documents, automated
data base printouts, and weekly data input sheets covering the war
and post-war period.
The Committee's investigation disclosed the possible existence of
other collections of POW/MIA related files which have been
requested for review and declassification, but which at publication
time had not been received. These include, but are not limited to,
the POW/MIA staff and operational files of the Military Assistance
Command, Vietnam (MACV), J-2 staff element responsible for
management of POW intelligence in Vietnam, and the Pacific
Command's (CINCPAC) POW/MIA staff.
The archival POW/MIA intelligence files from the Department of
State are also undergoing declassification. However, the Committee
has been advised informally by the Department that these files are
poorly organized and never have been indexed.
The Committee located and examined many POW/MIA lists compiled by
official agencies involved in the accounting process over the last
20 years. Together these lists document the evolution of the U.S.
Government's knowledge about the fate of American prisoners and
missing. On its own, each list is an imperfect snapshot of
knowledge at one point in time during the past 31 years. Many of
the lists were provided to the Committee by family members and
concerned individuals who had obtained the lists from the U.S.
Government over the years. Because of automation procedures, the
Committee found that many of these lists had not been archived by
the government at the time they were printed, but rather were
continuously updated in an automated database. Nonetheless, the
Committee was able to make determinations on the comprehensiveness
of the lists, especially those produced by the DIA.
Many of the lists enabled the Committee to understand better
intelligence and casualty information pertaining to missing
servicemen. For instance, one important list, generated by DIA in
1979, included analytical comments indicating the possible survival
or death of many unaccounted for U.S. personnel. Taken together,
the DIA and State Department lists also showed that unacounted for
USAF personnel covered by the CIA at LIMA SITE 85 in Laos during
the war did not show up on official lists until at least 1982, nine
years after the war ended.
In another instance, a JTF-FA list of priority cases in Laos
provided in March, 1992 indicated that several missing individuals
in Laos were believed to have ejected from their aircraft before it
crashed and to have reached the ground alive.
Civilian Accounting: State Department
Although DIA included civilians in its accounting process, the
official responsibility for collecting information and determining
the fate of American civilians missing in Southeast Asia was held
by the Department of State. This was a natural outgrowth of the
Department's general responsibility to aid American citizens
Information was maintained on missing civilians, including private
citizens, journalists, missionaries, employees of U.S. government
agencies including DoD and the services, and employees of firms
under contract to the U.S. Government. Sources used to obtain
information included U.S. intelligence agencies, private citizens,
press reports, and foreign governments.
During the war, the Special Assistant for POW/MIA Affairs (attached
to the office of the Deputy Secretary of State), the East Asia
Bureau, and the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs had
responsiblity for POW/MIA accounting within State. The Special
Assistant's office and the Consular Affairs bureau maintained files
on missing civilians. This organizational structure for POW/MIA
accounting remained essentially the same in the years after the
war. However, in 1976 the Special Assistant's responsibility for
POW/MIA affairs was transferred to the newly created Bureau for
Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and the position of Deputy
Assistant Secretary for POW/MIA Affairs was created within that
bureau. The Office of Workers Compensation in the Department of
Labor, which was responsible for financial support to the families
of persons covered by the workers' compensation program, also
maintained records on many of the missing.
Unlike DoD, State did not categorize individuals as "prisoner",
"missing" or "killed." While there was firm information in some
cases as to the fate of the individual, the Department avoided
categorization in the absence of official documentation. In
testimony before the Committee in June, Frank Sieverts, who served
as both the Special Assistant and Deputy Assistant Secretary of
State for POW/MIA Affairs from 1966 to 1978, explained the
rationale behind this policy:
...in the absence of official documentation, we did not
label these individuals in this way. We simply kept
files that were as complete as we could make them.
In view of this policy, State did not compile or disseminate the
types of POW/MIA lists created by DIA or DoD. Rather, State
officials communicated regularly with families in an effort to
provide as much information as possible.
Civilian Accounting: Central Intelligence Agency
During its investigation, the Committee also found that the Central
Intelligence Agency maintained information on missing civilians who
had been employed by the Agency in Laos. During the "secret war" in
Laos, the CIA had operated three proprietary organizations known as
Air America, Continental Air Services, and Byrd and Sons. The
Committee received information from CIA that 40 personnel were lost
by CIA during the war in Laos; as of publication time, the CIA has
informed the Committee that the fate of these individuals is known,
except for six who are carried on lists maintained by DIA.
None of the lists obtained by the Committee includes deserters
because as a matter of policy, DoD did not consider deserters to be
military casualties. Although the Committee's principal concern
was POW/MIAs, there was interest in determining whether any
deserters in Southeast Asia might have been the subject of reports
of alleged POWs surviving after 1973. A preliminary inquiry by the
Committee found that the issue of deserters and its relation to
POW/MIA accountability had never been studied thoroughly by the
Committee investigators identified a master list of 1,284 possible
deserters from nine separate lists provided by various services and
agencies. On March 19, 1992, the Committee provided this
information to the Administrator of the Social Security
Administration (SSA) and the Director of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI). The Committee asked each agency to review all
appropriate files and identify all known deserters locatable
outside Southeast Asia.
In June 1992, the two agencies responded. The SSA Administration
was able to confirm more than 300 of the deserters located in the
United States after the end of the Vietnam War. The FBI correlated
the 1,284 names on the master list to 1,198 individuals. Of these,
there were no FBI records on 391 of the reported deserters; 60
names were duplicates or represented an alias. There were
investigative files on all remaining individuals and copies of
sensitive files were provided to the Committee for further review.
In July 1992, the Committee forwarded the information to CDO with
a request that the FBI's information be compared to that in the
databases of each individual service. To date, it appears that
approximately 50 deserters remain unlocated in subsequent records.
The Committee notes that DIA and CILHI's assessment that fewer than
100 (15 in one list; 65 in another) are known to have deserted
while assigned to units in Vietnam. Only two of these individuals,
McKinley Nolan and Earl Clyde Weatherman, are believed to have been
in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.
The Committee also received information from officials in the
former Soviet Union, and from a KGB defector in the United States,
that a group of American servicemen had deserted a U.S. carrier in
Japan with KGB assistance during the Vietnam War. These Americans
had then traveled to Moscow and from there to other countries
outside the United States.
In September 1963, the Defense Department began to compile weekly
statistical reports of American casualties in Southeast Asia.
These reports, retroactive to 1961, were based on information
provided by each of the military services in accordance with a
memorandum from the Director, Statistical Services, Office of the
Assistant Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). The
Comptroller was responsible for compiling and publishing the
reports during and after the war until 1982, when the duty was
transferred to the Directorate for Information Reports of the
Washington Headquarters Services (DIOR). Changes in the
statistical information were made only upon notification from the
services because the services had, and continue to have, the legal
responsibility for making status determinations.
This casualty reporting system was driven primarily by the needs to
re-staff missing personnel and to determine entitlements. Those
who were incapacitated and unable to perform their assigned task
had to be accounted for and identified before replacement troops
could be requisitioned, whether the individuals were believed to be
missing or captured. Since the system was driven largely by
personnel needs, the casualty categories were very specific,
designed to provide precise information as to whether someone was
dead, wounded or missing as a result of hostile or non-hostile
action; whether someone was captured; and if dead, whether the body
had or had not been recovered. Both the services and DIOR
maintained this information, although DIOR's reports consisted of
the aggregate numbers of all service personnel in each of these
categories. DIOR did not begin to keep information on service
personnel by name until the end of Operation Homecoming in March
The information collected by DIOR from the services established a
database which was used not only for personnel reasons but also to
compile information on those who were "unaccounted for" during and
after the war. DIOR's "unaccounted for" statistics were the
"official" DoD statistics which were disseminated to Congress,
other agencies, the public and the families.
Testimony presented to the Committee by Service representatives in
June 1992 suggested that the reporting policies and procedures have
varied little from the early days of the war to the present or from
service to service. In general, the reporting procedure consisted
of collecting as much information as possible immediately or as
soon as possible, after the loss incident, including eyewitness
accounts; and forwarding that information in the form of a casualty
report from the unit commander through one or more levels of
command to the service headquarters in Washington. In each
service, the commanding officer of the unit held the initial
responsibility for determining the casualty status of an individual
lost under his command. By law this status could be changed only
by the Service Secretary or his designee. None of the services
provided casualty reports on individuals absent without leave
(AWOL), unless information demonstrated that the absence was
involuntary, or on deserters. Deserters were dropped from the
military roles by all services unless they came back under military
The United States sustained casualties in Laos in 1961, not all of
which were accounted for through the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos.
The accounting for Americans captured or missing in Vietnam during
the early 1960's was complicated by the nature of the conflict.
Much of the Defense Department's doctrine at the time was an
outgrowth of lessons learned during World War II and the Korean
War. These lessons provided little guidance for categorizing those
who became unaccounted for while participating in an ill-defined,
counter-insurgent war. This dilemma was illustrated by the
Executive branch's policy of referring to prisoners during this
period as "detainees," thereby avoiding a characterization
associated with formal involvement in war.
Even by 1965, after the U.S. advisory effort in South Vietnam had
given way to the deployment of units of division size, there was
still no clearcut definition of the conflict. Without a
declaration of war or large-scale military mobilization, it was
questionable whether the 1949 Geneva Convention governing the
treatment of prisoners of war was applicable. There was no effort,
during these early years, to spur international efforts under the
International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) or similar
organizations either to define the war as being an "armed conflict"
in the legal sense or to designate those captured as bona fide
prisoners of war.
The increasing number of casualties, coupled with reports of
prisoner executions and North Vietnamese threats to try U.S.
prisoners as criminals, prompted a review of the issue during the
first part of 1966. On July 21, 1966, the Office of the Assistant
Secretary of Defense issued a directive providing that "U.S.
military personnel captured in Vietnam will be categorized as
captured or interned rather than detainees." Thereafter, the
United States argued (albeit in vain) that its prisoners should be
accorded the protections of the Geneva Convention, including a
public accounting, access by humanitarian groups and the right to
send and receive mail.
U.S. units arriving in Vietnam before and during the major build-up
in 1965 collected and reported POW intelligence in accordance with
procedures established by the DIA. Selected units in Vietnam also
initiated agent operations in an effort to locate and recover
American prisoners. In addition, the Military Assistance Command
Studies and Observation Group (MACSOG) directed covert in-country
and cross-border agent operations against targets approved by the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, particularly inside North Vietnam. These
operations were carried out by the Joint Personnel Recovery Center
(JPRC). JPRC's activation was intended to meet a growing need for
POW intelligence and to respond, if possible, to the intelligence
The loss of servicemen at an ever increasing rate by 1966 increased
the urgency of the accounting process and demonstrated the need for
more and better intelligence. The effort to establish a focal
point for POW/MIA accountability led to the involvement of the DIA
in the accounting process.
Beginning in late 1966, DIA was assigned specific responsibilities
with regard to U.S. POWs by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The
Services retained the responsibilityfor accounting for their own
personnel and for producing their own intelligence about the fate
of casualties. DIA's role was to ensure that a high priority was
given to the collecting of POW intelligence. Beginning at that
time, detailed weekly casualty data was provided by the military
services to DIA. The result was the development of a second system
of POW/MIA accounting maintained by DIA and based on casualty
information produced by DIOR and intelligence information.
DIA's role in the accounting process grew after 1966, as DIA
assumed the chairmanship of the Interagency POW Intelligence Ad Hoc
Committee and participated in the POW/MIA Intelligence Task Force
formed in 1971. The intelligence branches of each of the military
services, the CIA, and the State Department were represented on
each of these entities.
In October 1969, DIA approved the Pacific Command's request for a
Human Resources Collection Directive (HRCD), which envisioned
conducting agent operations in Laos and North Vietnam for the
purpose of obtaining POW intelligence. The Pacific Command
pointed out the need for clandestine agent operations because the
North Vietnamese had not divulged the identity and location of U.S.
prisoners. Two primary targets were established in Laos, Khang
Khai and Sam Neua; and four in North Vietnam: Hoa Lo Prison, Xom Ap
Lo Prison, Cu Loc Prison and the Citadel Prison. This effort was
the start of a high-level clandestine agent operation, aspects of
which remain classified.
DIA's wartime accounting efforts were focused almost exclusively on
determining who were prisoners and where they were held. Unlike
the Services, DIA collected information on American civilians as
well as military personnel. However, DIA did not collect
information on any individual until the services or the State
Department indicated that that person was missing. As information
on prisoners and missing was received, DIA's POW/MIA Office
attempted to correlate that information to an individual POW or
MIA. DIA had no written criteria or procedures, either during the
war or after, to determine who was a prisoner of war. DIA's
categorization of an individual as a POW was an "analytical
From 1966 onward, DIA kept an automated database reflecting who was
a prisoner and who was missing. It did not keep records on
Americans believed to have been killed, but whose bodies were not
recovered, so DIA did not maintain wartime files on approximately
half of the 2,264 Americans currently listed as unaccounted for
from the war in Southeast Asia. The only exceptions were those
initially declared dead and later determined to have been captured.
DIA relied on numerous sources of information including enemy news
releases, captured documents, enemy prisoner interrogations, and
intercepted enemy radio communications. Other information
concerning the fate of missing or captured individuals was received
from escapees and early releases. During the war, 84 individuals
either escaped or were returned alive from captivity. Based on
their reports, DIA listed 21 individuals to have died without the
recovery of remains.
In addition, the DIA relied on the "official" lists provided by
North Vietnam to private individuals and to Senator Kennedy in
order to update and judge the accuracy of its own lists. One of the
most important lists the DIA received was from an early releasee in
1969, Captain Wesley Rumble. While in captivity, Captain Rumble
memorized a list of more than 300 servicemen whose names he had
heard in conversations with his fellow prisoners.
Another important source of information, especially later in the
war, was the receipt of mail from American prisoners in North
Vietnam. Unfortunately, no mail came from either Cambodia or Laos
and little was received from POWs held by the Viet Cong in South
DIA's correlation efforts resulted in the establishment of what DIA
officials call "working lists" of Americans believed by DIA to be
missing or held captive. Since DIA has no legal responsibility
for making casualty status determinations, these lists were not
"official". At various times during and after the war, DIA's lists
differed from those maintained by the individual services. The
apparent reason for this is that DIA was in a better position to
respond quickly to new intelligence information than were the
boards set up by the services to review casualty status
The DIA and the military services were not the only agencies
involved in the POW/MIA issue. The U.S. Air Force had overall
responsibility for survival, escape and evasion. Within Vietnam,
the JPRC was responsible for planning efforts to rescue U.S. POWs.
Beginning in the mid 1960s the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) decided
to classify and/or falsify the loss locations of many military
personnel killed, captured or missing in action from covert,
cross-border operations in Laos and Cambodia and exempt them from
normal casualty reporting requirements. As a result, the casualty
and intelligence files for many individuals lost on these "black"
operations contained incorrect countries and locations of loss.
The purpose of this policy was to maintain the secrecy surrounding
U.S. operations in Laos and Cambodia. The consequence of this
policy was that service casualty officers unwittingly provided
families with inaccurate casualty data. For example, in one
instance, a woman was told that her husband was missing after a
combat action in South Vietnam when, in fact, he had fallen from a
helicopter while being extracted from an intelligence mission in
Corrections in loss locations for these individuals were made
beginning in May 1970 for Laos and in May 1971 for Cambodia.
Formal, public disclosure of these operations and the admission of
the falsification of loss locations and coordinates did not occur
until July 1973. Due to the loss and destruction of wartime
special operations records, the process of correcting inaccurate
loss locations continued at least through 1977.
The confusion caused by the falsification of the records was one of
many sources of concern expressed by Brig. Gen. Robert Kingston,
first commander of the JCRC, when he assumed the job of accounting
for missing U.S. personnel in the post-war period. The JCRC began
work with the wartime records it inherited from the Joint Personnel
Recovery Center (JPRC). In a message to the Pacific Command at the
time, Gen. Kingston wrote:
Since its inception the JCRC has been confronted with the
task of attempting to develop a complete and accurate
database of information on missing and KIA personnel for
whom search/investigation operations are required. At
the time of its activation, the JCRC acquired the records
of the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC). Since
that time, continuous and extensive efforts have been
made to correct deficiencies in the records. The premise
that JPRC records were reasonably complete and accurate
was erroneous... Recently, the JCRC initiated
search/investigative operations and inadequacies in the
records became apparent... Review of our records reveals
numerous... cases where there is reference to previous
search/rescue operations but reports of the operations
are not available. Additionally, there are instances of
omitted or conflicting coordinates on crash locations.
Due to previous security restrictions, some personnel are
carried in one country when in fact they were lost in
another...We have had cases of KIA/BNR where research on
the part of JCRC has revealed that remains were
previously recovered. We expect there are more such
cases. In few cases do JCRC records contain reports of
eye-witnesses to the incident. In many cases,
information contained in the records was obtained by
informal liaison and word of mouth...
Documents related to the falsification of records concerning the
cross border operations have been declassified at the Committee's
Databases and Accounting Terms
As indicated above there were two databases which were used within
the DoD to determine the number of individuals unaccounted for in
Southeast Asia. The first database, which DIOR maintained, was
built upon basic casualty information provided by the services.
The second, created by DIA, consisted of casualty information from
DIOR and intelligence information. During and after the war both
DIOR and DIA used their respective databases to generate lists of
those unaccounted for.
During the war the term "unaccounted for" was used by DIOR, and
thus officially by the DoD, to refer to prisoners of war and
missing. Until 1973, DIOR included both those "missing in action"
(MIAs) and those "missing in nonhostile circumstances" (MNH) under
the term "missing." The MNH are individuals who disappeared under
non-combat situations. Beginning in 1973, DIOR began treating MIAs
and MNHs as separate categories and reported them as such.
During the war and throughout most of the 1970s, DIA used two
categories to refer to those who were unaccounted for: prisoner
of war and missing in action. The latter included those lost under
both hostile and non-hostile circumstances.
During the war, field units established casualty boards to review
and make recommendations on the casualty status of each individual
unaccounted for. Casualty boards were expected to meet while
incidents were still fresh in people's minds, witnesses were
readily locatable, and pertinent documents could be made available.
In many cases, particularly with respect to the loss of Air Force
and Navy pilots over North Vietnam, the casualty review boards
concluded that an individual had been killed but that the remains
were not recoverable at the time. These casualties were
categorized by DIOR, the services, and DIA as "killed in
action/body not recovered" (KIA/BNR). Individuals in this category
were not considered to be "unaccounted for" during the war years.
The Committee notes, however, that in some cases information later
surfaced that provided an accounting for those listed as KIA/BNR.
Casualty Status Determinations
The Missing Persons Act gives Service Secretaries the sole
statutory authority to make casualty determinations. The law was
enacted to alleviate financial hardships endured by the dependents
of members of the military services who were officially carried as
"missing." It requires the Service Secretaries to review the
determination of casualty status within 12 months of the
individual's classification as "missing." A presumptive finding
of death (PFOD) may be made if the service member can no longer
reasonably be presumed to be living and if the passage of time, the
absence of information, and the circumstances of disappearance
warrant such a determination. The PFOD is a legal mechanism for
permitting the settlement of estates. It cannot be made when there
is evidence that an individual is alive; however, it can be made
without certain evidence of death.
During the early years of the war, the Service Secretaries approved
PFODs for 21 servicemen who were reported to have died in captivity
without the recovery of remains. In some instances, the deaths
were reported by POWs released in South Vietnam by the Viet Cong.
In other cases, the Viet Cong announced that a prisoner had been
In December 1970, North Vietnam released what its officials
purported to be a comprehensive list of U.S. POWs detained inside
North Vietnam. Included was a list of 20 servicemen reported by
North Vietnam as having died in its custody. Dr. Roger E. Shields,
Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ISA), recommended
to the Secretary of Defense that the list be accepted "as an
official notification by the NVN government of the status of the
men listed thereon," and that the list be forwarded to the Service
Secretaries for their evaluation.
In a subsequent memorandum, Dr. Shields recommended that the
Secretary of Defense ensure that the Missing Persons Act was
interpreted uniformly, that the authenticity of North Vietnam's
list be verified, and that there be a coordinated notification to
the next-of-kin. Dr. Shields wrote further:
I believe it is unlikely that we will receive the
information required by the Geneva Convention... A
finding of death in these cases will not foreclose a
continuing demand for more details from NVN... We suspect
most (next of kin) will accept a finding of death, but a
few may protest very vocally... It is doubtful that legal
action challenging a finding of death would be successful
in overturning a Service Secretary's decision. Similar
actions attempted in the past have failed.
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird did not concur with Dr. Shields'
recommendation on the ground that it might undercut U.S. efforts to
press for implementation by North Vietnam of the Geneva Convention.
In December 1972, while preparing for the impending release of
American POWs that would accompany the signing of the Peace
Accords, Dr. Shields revisited the PFOD issue in a memorandum to
Rear Admiral Donald B. Whitmire, Assistant Deputy Director for
Intelligence, DIA. Dr. Shields wrote:
In the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict... one of the
major problems which will face the Department of Defense
and several hundred family members will be the resolution
of the status of our men missing and unaccounted for
throughout Indochina. Continuing uncertainty... has
resulted in an increasing distress... among the next of
kin... pressure will be intense... to adequately resolve
the MIA cases within a reasonable time frame.
During the war, DoD kept two broad categories of lists of POW/MIAs.
The first was the basic casualty lists prepared by the services;
the second was intelligence casualty lists prepared by DIA and the
DoD for the purpose of tracking those who were "unaccounted for".
Early computer models and automated data processing (ADP) began to
be used in casualty accounting during the late 1960's. Accuracy
depended on the reliability of information entered and the care
taken by those entering it. At times, errors in one area or
another caused the production of lists which were not totally
Although individual casualty reports were often unclassified,
except in the case of covert cross-border losses, the overall lists
of casualties were usually classified as "confidential."
Intelligence lists were routinely classified as "secret." The
reason for the different degree of classification was that the
intelligence lists often contained more precise data about loss
location and analysis of the likelihood of capture. The estimated
location often reflected a range of intelligence estimates and may,
or may not, have been based on firm information.
The refusal of the DRV to apply the 1949 Geneva Convention to the
Vietnam War was an obstacle to U.S. efforts to confirm the casualty
status and condition of American POWs. For example, very little
mail was received from U.S. POWs prior to 1970, despite prisoners'
right to send and receive mail under the Convention. DoD did
receive some wartime lists and other forms of information about
American POWs from private individuals who were involved with the
In 1967, Mr. Joseph Elder, a staff member of the American Friends
Service Committee, traveled to North Vietnam carrying with him a
small quantity of mail to be delivered to POWs. Through 1969, he
and other Friends staff carried mail from next-of-kin in the United
States to POWs in Vietnam and often brought mail from POWs to their
next-of-kin whn they returned. The quantity of mail on each trip
varied from a half dozen letters to hundreds. The Friends' effort
was complemented by anti-war activists who also traveled to
In October 1969, Mr. Elder met with U.S. officials in Hong Kong and
was given a list of U.S. POWs about whom the U.S. hoped North
Vietnam could provide information. The U.S. officials soon changed
their minds, however, and asked Mr. Elder not to share the list
with the North Vietnamese. As a consequence, Mr. Elder simply
asked North Vietnam to provide its own list of American POWs. This
request was denied.
On November 26, 1969, DIA received what it described internally as
its "first list." While perhaps coincidental, the receipt
from Hanoi of such a list may have been related to Mr. Elder's
visit to Hanoi the previous month. This "first list", consisting
of 59 names, was provided to anti-war activist Mr. David Dellinger.
Of the 59 names on the Dellinger list, 54 were carried by both DIA
and the services as POWs. The other five were carried as POWs by
DIA and as MIAs by their respective services.
In January 1970, the Committee of Liaison with the Families
(COLIAFAM), released a list of 156 U.S. POWs detained in North
Vietnam. The Co-Directors of the Committee were Cora Weiss and
David Dellinger. The Committee also released a list of five
servicemen "confirmed as being dead by the North Vietnamese." Of
these five, three were listed by the DRV at the time of the Paris
Peace Accords as having died in captivity, while the other two were
never confirmed as having been held captive. The remains of all
five have been repatriated.
Throughout 1970 and 1971, the list of confirmed POWs grew, as
efforts to facilitate the exchange of mail and to obtain partial
lists from North Vietnam slowly progressed. Mail and other
information arrived through a variety of channels, including the
Friends, COLIAFAM, other activists, Mr. H. Ross Perot, and even the
Swedish Prime Minister, Olav Palme. By September 1970, the number
of confirmed American prisoners had risen to 335. On December 22,
1970, North Vietnam provided Senator Edward Kennedy with a list of
368. As before, the North Vietnamese claimed that this was a
comprehensive list of U.S. POWs detained inside North Vietnam.
In mid-1972, the Japanese "Nipon Dempa" News Agency released a list
of 390 U.S. POWs. DIA analysis found that 339 of the names
on this list had been acknowledged previously as POWs by the DRV,
9 were individuals already released, 20 were servicemen the DRV had
reported earlier as dead, and 22 were new names, all airmen lost
over North Vietnam between December 1970 and May 1972.
In June and August, 1972, Senator Kennedy announced the receipt of
two new lists, of 24 and 10 respectively. All of the names on
these lists were associated with recent combat activity. By the
fall of 1972, the list of confirmed U.S. POWs held by North Vietnam
had risen to more than 400.
The Sullivan Report
In June 1972, a high-level interagency report on the POW/MIA issue
was completed under the direction of Assistant Secretary of State
William H. Sullivan, Chairman of the Ad Hoc Group on Vietnam.
The report examined lessons to be learned from the POW exchange at
the end of the Korean war, the French experience in Indochina in
1954, and the U.S. experience in Laos in 1962.
The Sullivan report concluded that North Vietnam's overriding
military and political objective was the withdrawal of all U.S.
military forces and the eventual takeover of South Vietnam and the
neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. It presumed that North
Vietnam was using U.S. POWs as leverage to achieve U.S. withdrawal
and speculated on the possibility that U.S. POWs would be retained
as bargaining chips. The report cited Laos as a particular area of
concern because of the more than 300 Americans were listed as
missing in that country. Despite indications that some U.S. POWs
captured in Laos had been moved to North Vietnam, there was reason
to believe that a number of Americans could still be held as
prisoners in Laos. The Pathet Lao had stonewalled on any
accounting for U.S. POWs until after a ceasefire and the cessation
of all U.S. bombing in Laos.
As to how many U.S. POWs might actually be repatriated, the report
concluded that an estimated 120 Americans were alive in captivity
over and above the approximately 400, officially acknowledged at
the time by North Vietnam. Returning POWs were expected to provide
answers about the fate of many of the missing. With respect to a
post-ceasefire accounting, the report stated that lessons learned
from the Korean War suggested it might not be possible to account
for Americans immediately, or to recover American war dead from
areas of enemy control.
The report also noted that North Vietnam had raised the war
reparations issue since 1967 and had linked it both to a ceasefire
and to a prisoner exchange. In reviewing the Sullivan report, the
Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed opposition to any payment for the
return of U.S. POWs.
Preparations for Repatriation
The military services had been charged with maintaining dossiers on
each POW and MIA since August 1966. The dossiers were to
include the most recent photograph, a summary of personnel and
medical records with complete identification data, the
circumstances of the casualty, all information about the individual
received since becoming a casualty, and appropriate military
As part of the preparations for Operation Homecoming, DIA adopted
an ADP system, originally developed for the Air Force by a private
contractor, in order to "...expedite the determination of the
status of U.S. personnel not returned to U.S. control."
This ADP system was managed by DIA "...for the expeditious
correlation and analysis of information derived from the initial
debriefing of PWs" and to "provide intelligence support to the USG
negotiations and other national bodies." On October 11, 1972, DIA
agreed to give the Air Force executive agency authority over the
ADP system under DIA management. Information entered into
the database would be from both military and civilian sources.
Civilian-associated information would be collected by the military,
based on a 1972 agreement between DIA and the Department of State
and would be reported to State.
The ADP agreement specified that the Air Force would determine the
distribution of the initial debriefing reports but, in fact, the
DIA played a key role. It excluded from the distribution
list the JCRC, which was charged with seeking to resolve the status
of MIAs and KIA/BNRs through the recovery of remains. DIA's
argument, put forward by its POW/MIA Chief, Commander Charles
Trowbridge, was that the Phase III debriefings were too voluminous,
would require extensive photocopying, were not casualty-oriented
and did not provide information of value to the mission of the
JCRC. The CINCPAC was excluded from the list for similar
Operation Homecoming Accounting
The Paris Peace Accords were signed and POW lists exchanged on
January 27, 1973. The U.S. delegation received what were
represented to be complete lists from the DRV and PRG. The United
States did not at any time during the negotiations, or after,
present the Vietnamese with its list of Americans expected to be
returned. American negotiators feared that prisoners would be
withheld or used as bargaining chips if a U.S. list were handed
As of January 27, 1973, the Defense Department listed 1,929
Americans unaccounted for. These included 1,220 missing in hostile
action (MIA), 118 others missing from non-combat related causes
(MNH), and 591 servicemen officially listed as prisoners of war
(POW). These statistics were based on the status determinations
made by the service Secretaries. In addition, 1,118 servicemen had
been declared dead by the service Secretaries without the recovery
The DIA list was not identical to the DoD list, in part because the
DIA list included civilians. The DIA list of 1,986 unaccounted for
included 54 civilians, of whom 41 were listed as POWs and 13 as
missing. The remaining 1,932 unaccounted for were military
personnel including 626 listed as POWs and 1,306 listed as missing.
Unfortunately, the Committee was unable to locate any archival
compilation of names to support DIA's statistics or any evidence to
suggest that DIA attempted to coordinate its overall statistics
with those of the services or the DoD.
On January 28, 1973, the DIA completed its first analysis of the
DRV/PRG lists and reported its findings to the Office of the
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.
The DRV/PRG lists totaled 717 persons, including both U.S. and
foreign nationals. The DRV list had 495 names; the PRG had 222. A
total of 577 Americans were to be repatriated alive, of whom 22
were civilians. According to DIA, this left 1,325 Americans not
accounted for, including 56 listed as POWs and 1,269 Missing.
On January 29, the DIA reported the following breakdown to the
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense:
566 Americans were to be returned alive; 64 were reported as having
died in captivity; and 87 of those DIA had listed as POWs and 1,277
listed as MIAs were not accounted for. The breakdown was
corrected on January 31 to include one additional unaccounted for
MIA. In a later report, DIA indicated that of the 64 listed
as having died in captivity, 18 had previously been so listed by
the services and DIA, 9 had been listed as MIA, 3 were cases of
misidentification, and 34 had been listed by DIA as POWs.
Also on January 29, DoD's POW/MIA Task Force provided its own
analysis of DRV/PRG lists. It determined that the DRV list
of 495 names included 12 persons previously released, 23 reported
to have died, and 460 to be released (456 military, 1 civilian and
3 foreign nationals.) The PRG list of 222 included 50 previously
released, 47 said to have died in captivity, and 125 to be released
(99 military, 21 civilians and 5 foreign nationals.)
On February 1, 1973, the DRV provided U.S. officials with an
additional list (DRV/Laos list) of 10 persons who had been captured
in Laos. The DIA reported that, with the new list, a total of 586
Americans were to be returned alive, 63 had died in captivity, and
80 POWs and 1,276 MIAs remained unaccounted for.
On February 6, 1973, DIA provided its analysis of the names on the
DRV/Laos list, in addition to expressing concern about the
incompleteness of the list. Of the nine Americans and one Canadian
on the list: three had been listed as POWs associated with Laos;
four were listed by DIA as POWs associated with North Vietnam and
by the services as POWs associated with Laos; and two were listed
as MIAs. DIA also noted, with concern, that 215 of the 350 missing
Americans in Laos were lost under circumstances where the enemy
probably had knowledge of their fate.
The DIA report mentioned that the agency had listed a total of 13
Americans as POWs associated with Laos prior to the first exchange
of lists on January 27. Four of these were accounted for on the
DRV/PRG lists and three on the DRV/Laos list. This left six
individuals -- five servicemen and one civilian -- listed by DIA
as POWs associated with Laos. It should be noted that, at this
point, the military services listed only two servicemen as having
been confirmed captured in Laos. The reasons for the difference
were (1) the inclusion of one civilian and (2) becuase three of
those listed as POWs by DIA did not meet the services' criteria for
classification due to insufficient evidence of captivity.
In hindsight, the DIA reports between January 29 and
February 6, 1973, indirectly impinged on the services' authority to
determine casualty status by reporting as accounted for all those
listed on the DRV/PRG lists as having died in captivity (or
returned alive). In fact, DOD took no action to adjust its
official casualty records pending actual repatriation of live POWs
and a formal casualty board review of the status of those not so
repatriated. Since the evidence of death for those reported by the
DRV and PRG to have died in captivity was not necessarily
conclusive, these reports may have contributed to future
misunderstandings about who had been accounted for and who had not.
At Operation Homecoming, ten Americans, including one civilian,
were listed as unaccounted for over China. Of these, three had
been reported alive in the Peking Municipal Prison as late as
December 1971 and were released in March 1973. The others remain
As mentioned above, DIA listed 80 Americans as unaccounted for POWs
after the exchange of the DRV/Laos list. This number was reduced
by one with the return of Captain Robert White, who was not on the
Paris lists, but was repatriated alive on April 1, 1973. This left
79 on the DIA list, 67 military and 12 civilians. At the same
time, DoD listed only 53 servicemen as POWs; two of these were
considered MIA by DIA. Both were later found to have been captured
and to have died in captivity. Of DIA's 67 military, one was a
deserter not carried by DoD as a casualty; the remaining 16 were
servicemen last known alive on the ground, but not confirmed in
captivity. With one exception, DIA changed its listing to conform
to services' listings within six months of the end of Operation
Homecoming. The exception was U.S. Navy Commander Harley H. Hall,
whose plane had been shot down only hours before the signing of the
Paris Peace Accords. The Navy's listing of Commander Hall was
subsequently changed to POW.