Report of the
Senate Select Committee
Remains Recovery Efforts
For many families, a serviceman's remains may be the only answers
there are to questions about his fate. Crash and grave-site
excavation remain a high priority, just behind investigating live-
sighting reports because, in the words of Maj. Gen. George
[Families] want them to walk out of the jungle and come
home, but they will tell you very quickly that "if that
can't be the case, please end the uncertainty for me.
Give me something so that I can put this to rest, I've
been with it so long."
Of the 2,546 unaccounted for servicemen as of 1977, no more than
1,339 were expected to be accounted for, according to a March 1977
DoD briefing of the Woodcock Commission. Of these, the remains of
436 men were determined by their battlefield comrades to not be
recoverable; many were lost over water, or disappeared in a
fireball when their planes were hit by enemy fire or crashed.
Another 772 were men whose fates DoD did not think the Vietnamese
and Lao knew (344 in Category 3 "Doubtful Knowledge," plus 428 in
Category 4 "Unknown Knowledge.")
To get the fullest possible accounting, however, American teams
need to be on the ground to do the accounting job properly. That
was the message Dr. Shields delivered to the Commission in 1977;
U.S. teams had not gotten access.
Vessey "Sensibility Check"
Another approach to attempt to gauge what remains are recoverable
was suggested by Gen. Vessey:
General Vessey: Well, I think that we need to look at
what we know about remains. And there are certain things
we know. One is that the Vietnamese did have -- did
issue instructions to their subordinate military and
political authorities for what to do with American
casualties, whether they were alive or dead. And if they
were dead, what to do with them.
And the DIA has constructed a good briefing on the steps
that were in this Vietnamese process, and the first was
that they were to -- for example, if there were an air
crash they were to find -- the local people were to find
the crash, find the pilot if he were alive, capture him;
if he wasn't alive, find the remains then bury them on
the spot and then report the location of those -- of the
grave to the central authorities. And then the central
authorities clearly had a system for recovering those
remains at a later date, some 2 -- some 1, 2, to 5 years
later, and then sending those remains to central storage.
Now there are a wide variety of theories, now, on what
that produced in central storage. We have the case of
the mortician whose evidence at least is credible in the
terms of he said he saw this and that's one set of eyes.
It's not clear how many he counted and so forth, but
clearly he says he worked on 230 sets of remains himself.
So that's quite good evidence.
Now, the question of whether or not there are still
hundreds in storage is the basic question. I've taken
the four-step DIA model, which some people say produces
X hundred still there despite the fact that 500 sets --
or actually about 400 of might-be-Americans have been
returned -- that it still produces maybe 500 sets in
So what I did is I took the four-step model and assigned
subjective probabilities to each of the four steps,
because it's a compound probability problem. I went to
the Air Force and I said what percentage of peacetime
crashes produce remains, and the answer is 70 percent.
So you start out with the .7, and certainly the war-time
probably can't be any better than .7.
Then you say well, what's the probability, then, of the
people finding the airplane and the remains and
recovering them and burying them. Well, if it crashed in
a local area I'm sure it's close to .1 -- or it's 1, but
if it crashes in a remote area, I don't know what it is.
So I said well let's just say .7. Maybe that's good,
maybe it's not, but it's not bad for starters.
Then what's the probability of the grave being reported
accurately from people who buried the remains without a
map reporting its location, and then its surviving the
three things that would effect it. That is the Southeast
Asian weather and scavenging, which was taking place, we
know, and general shifts in the terrain due to other
I don't know what that probability is, but say it's .7.
Then what's the probability of going back 2 to 5 years
later and finding that grave that was reported -- whose
location was reported by people who didn't have a map.
Say it's .7. If that -- if all those are .7, then the
product of the compound probabilities is about .24, which
means about a quarter of the air crashes in North Vietnam
would have produced remains in central storage.
If you don't like those probabilities, raise all the
other probabilities except the .7, and you still only
come up -- if you make them all .9 it doesn't get any
better than .5. Now maybe the Vietnamese were better
than that. I doubt it. So what I say is the number of
remains that some people expect to be in storage is too
high. It doesn't stand the sensibility check.
In 1979, a mortician from Vietnam defected. He testified before
Congress during the early 1980s that he had processed 452 sets of
remains, which he believed were those of U.S. servicemen, during
1975-76 and that the Vietnamese had "warehoused" them. The
moritician expressed the belief that the remains were to be used to
gain diplomatic and other concessions from the U.S.
The mortician met with Committee investigators in late 1991 for two
days of depositions. He testified at length about his previous
testimony, including a statement that he had seen Robert Garwood
and two other Caucasians whom he believed were Americans in Vietnam
during the late 1970's. The mortician stated that he had advised
DIA as early as 1982 that he could identify certain remains upon
which he had worked by the way they were put into their caskets. He
also stated that he could identify other remains by unique factors
that related to the bones he had worked on while in Vietnam.
In May, 1992, the DOD provided a briefing for Vietnamese officials
in Washington, D.C. concerning the evidence of warehousing remains
that had been provided by the mortician.
The text of the briefing included the following:
. . . comparison of the number and type of those remains
returned to the U.S. in subsequent years with those the
mortician saw reveals a significant shortfall . . . we
are not able to conclude that all the remains processed
or observed by the mortician have been returned to the
. . .Our forensics experts tell us that approximately 70
percent of U.S. remains returned by your government show
evidence of long-term storage. By this, we mean they
exhibited minimal bonemass loss, commingling with other
remains of individuals lost in widely disparate areas,
and coating with preservatives and/or disinfectants.
Thus, while your government has returned many sets of
remains that exhibit evidence of storage, the information
available to us leads to the conclusion that there are
still American remains that are readily available or
easily retrievable and that could be repatriated to the
United States in a very short period of time. By storage,
we mean remains kept above or below ground, collected
into one or more centralized facilities, or located in
It was not until September 1992 that the DIA, after constant urging
by the Committee, took the mortician to CIL-HI for him to review
the remains there. The Committee has not yet been able to determine
from the DIA if the mortician was able to identify any of the CIL-
HI remains; the passage of more than a decade could not have made
this identification any easier.
Witnesses familiar with current Vietnamese approaches testified
that any warehouse now is empty, and that remains probably are in
private hands. Ted Schweitzer, the researcher who gained access to
Vietnamese archives after their denials of the archives' existence
for 20 years, believes:
There is no such warehouse, sir. If at one point in the
'70s or early '80s, if there were some remains somewhere
in Hanoi, those remains have by now -- as the officials
retired who were in the program, as they went back to
their provinces, various memorabilia, maybe even remains,
[went] back with them.
According to Garnett Bell, a U.S. investigator who has worked
throughout Southeast Asia on POW/MIA issues for 27 years:
My view, sir, is that there certainly was a warehouse in
the Hanoi area at one time. The mortician, I think, after
he defected in 1979, testified here in Congress that he
processed some 452 [sets of] remains.
The Vietnamese were confronted with that information.
They denied it. They indicated that they thought the
mortician was fabricating. . . . The Vietnamese, I
believe, came to the conclusion that we were confident
that the man was telling the truth.
Since the mortician gave his testimony, they have
returned to us approximately 450 [sets of] remains.
Approximately 260 to 269 [sets of] remains have now been
identified. . . and they have also informed us, as well
as Mr. [Robert] Wallace from the VFW, that we did have a
warehouse but we don't have one now, and what that
indicates to me is that they have admitted that the
mortician was telling the truth. They're telling us that
we have given you those remains back, and the warehouse
here in Hanoi is now empty.
Vietnamese Amnesty Program
In early December 1992, Vietnam announced an amnesty program for
citizens holding Americans' remains. Vietnamese laws forbid
citizens to have possession of American remains, an effort to
curtain the rampant dealing in American remains by bones dealers.
To encourage those who are holding remains to return them, Vietnam
offered to pay a small amount for remains (to cover expenses);
after Senators Kerry and Smith visited Hanoi December 17-18, the
Government extended the amnesty program the reward signalled.
Early response was encouraging; sets of remains were
repatriated by publication time and are awaiting identification by
The slow process of excavating crash and grave sites is the tedious
work of archaeology, as U.S. investigators sift through 20 years of
soil and debris to find bones, teeth and wreckage. An example of a
recent excavation illustrates the work:
Admiral Larson: . . . I've had the opportunity to visit
our teams out there in the field. And after watching the
excavation in a very difficult mountainside out in the
steamy, hot jungles of Laos in a very difficult
helicopter landing zone, as many of you have experienced
out there in the field, you appreciate the real enormity
of the problem, but also the dedication of the fine young
Americans that are out there working in the field to try
and solve the fullest possible accounting of this
difficult issue. . . .
I visited our group out in Laos in the field, where
they're living in a very primitive base camp there in the
jungle, where they even have to fly in fuel to refuel the
helicopters there because there are no facilities
whatsoever in this little village, Tchepone, out there on
the old Ho Chi Minh trail.
And then, they're doing an excavation with about more
than 30 people, working up on the countryside, on the
hillside, up in the mountains area just off the trail.
Very hot, very steamy. You get leeches. You get dirt.
You get a lot of humidity. They're working with local
villagers up there. It's a 2-1/2 hour hike from the
bottom of the hill up to the site where the villagers are
working. We fly our people in by helicopter.
They worked -- I think that last thing was over 20 days.
I think it was almost 30 days they were in the field
there, working from the base camp, going up there every
single day, working from dawn 'til dark, and then
returning to the base camp.
Chairman Kerry: And how many people are on the ground in
Vietnam and Laos?
Admiral Larson: Our teams have varied in size from a low
of about 28 to a high of about 63. It depends on how
many teams we actually have. We shoot for about 70. We
like to get five or six teams in the field at a time,
particularly in Vietnam.
Chairman Kerry: General Needham, if you could relate to
the committee -- I was struck. I mean, most people sit
in this country and they say, well, why can you not go to
the crash site, or why you cannot -- by God, let us just
And I think it is important for people to have an
understanding of the logistical difficulties and of the
realities out there. I mean, when we are talking about
helicopters, we are not even talking about our own right
now. And the living conditions are really difficult, to
say the least.
I would like you just to share with us your personal
sense of that. I know you have spent a lot of time out
in the field, and we talked about it when we were over
there, and you were suffering from it when we were over
there. I wish you would sort of share that.
General Needham: Well, first of all, Senator, let me go
back to the numbers. We presently have 40 United States
servicemen in Cambodia today. Less than half of those
belong to the JTF because the helicopters support is
coming from the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division. And
therein lies the support that we get from the CINCPAC
components. It's virtually unlimited.
In Laos today we have 30 people, less than half, again,
that belong to the Joint Task Force. The majority of the
other half belong to the Central Identification Lab.
In areas that we operate on in the three countries, there
are a number of considerations that have to go into the
operation. First, the weather. The weather is very
dependent on what we can do over there.
Secondly, the mountainous terrain that you observed is
very difficult to get into. Some of the cases of
extremely high altitudes -- for example, a case that
you're very much interested in, case 1983, which we will
be going into in January, is located at approximately
7,000 feet. There's only about three months of the year
that we can get in there.
A helicopter coming in to a landing zone at that location
is reduced in what it can carry, and if anything happens,
it has very few options. Many of these LZ's are very
small; can only take small helicopters that require a
large number of runs to get the force in there.
Lastly, I have forgotten over 20 years how hot it is in
that country, how difficult the terrain is, how many bugs
there are, and how difficult it is to support
logistically when we have to carry in everything from
water to food. It is extremely tough. Some of the
toughest I have seen in terrain that is very hard to
explain unless you've actually seen it yourself, yet our
people are out there day in and day out, under very
trying circumstances, trying to solve these cases.
And, lastly, as the Admiral said, when it comes to
excavating a site, it's like looking for a needle in a
haystack, and it's very slow, meticulous, tedious work.
Admiral Larson: I might just add, Mr. Chairman, to that.
The helicopter landing zone that I landed at this little
excavation site, which is about 2,200 feet upon the
mountains, at a slope of about 60 degrees, where they
were doing the excavation, the villagers and our people
had to walk up there and clear the helicopter site out of
dense jungle and trees. And the helicopter site was
smaller than this space between our two tables here,
where we brought the little Squirrel helicopter in and
landed, with about four people in it. So, it's very
difficult to get there.
The JTF-FA has conducted 35 excavations since it was created in
early 1992 (18 in Vietnam, nine in Laos, and eight in Cambodia),
plus inspecting crash or grave sites at 149 locations (114 in
Vietnam, 27 in Laos, and eight in Cambodia). In all, JTF-FA
has recovered the remains believed to be those of 30 American
servicemen. Most are awaiting identification by the Central
Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.
In April 1992, JTF-FA had a full schedule of crash-site excavations
for the next five years. CINCPAC Admiral Charles Larson ordered
that pace increased to take advantage of recent Vietnamese promises
to Gen. Vessey and the Senate delegation of better access. In Gen.
. . . we don't know whether they hold remains or not.
What I believe though, now, is that we have in our hands
the keys to get to the answer to that question. I just
talked to General Needham and said, you know, if you just
have a quick-reaction remains team out there with
Vietnamese and Americans, when something comes out of the
archives that shows that so-and-so was killed and his
remains were in the hands of the Vietnamese at a given
time, that's the set of remains we ought to start looking
for right now.
. . . . I think going back over there and saying you're
holding remains and having them say we're not holding
remains is a wasted exercise. Whether they are not we
don't know, but let's start with what we do know. . . .
[this man] is dead, you had his body at one time, what
happened to the remains, and start from there. And I
think that will get us to the answer.
Remains Repatriation Efforts
The Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CIL-HI) is
responsible for searching for, recovering, and identifying the
remains of military personnel killed or missing in action.
CIL-HI'S primary duties are:
. to conduct search and recovery operations in the Pacific for
World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War dead;
. to process remains and establish identification through the
use of anthropological (physical structure), odontological
(dental), and other scientific identification techniques;
. to accumulate and catalog information on American and allied
personnel who have been listed MIA or KIA-BNR; and
. to provide emergency support world-wide in searching for,
recovering, and identifying the remains of service members
killed or missing in current operations.
Since 1973, CIL-HI has identified the remains of 537 U.S.
servicemen -- 381 from the Vietnam War, 115 from World War II and
Korea, and 41 from other operations. CIL-HI's current staff
numbers 87 military personnel, whose focus is primarily field
operations and locating records, and 16 civilians, whose focus is
on identifying remains.
GAO Investigation of CIL-HI
CIL-HI laboratory was the subject of scathing criticism in the mid-
1980s, when critics charged:
. that CIL-HI's techniques did not meet scientific standards,
. that it lacked capable staff and adequate facilities and
. that it used questionable review procedures.
In December, 1991, the Committee asked General Accounting Office
(GAO) to determine whether there had been improvements in CIL-HI
operations since Congressional hearings during the 1980s sufficient
to minimize the possibility of making erroneous identifications;
and whether controls in day-to-day management allow CIL-HI to
oversee effectively the remains identification process. In
response, the GAO determined that, with some exceptions, CIL-HI has
taken the steps needed to improve its accuracy and
The GAO was charged with examining operations designed to minimize
the chance of making erroneous identifications; and with
determining whether controls in day-to-day management are
sufficient. As part of GAO's investigation, it sought the
technical assistance of outside experts.
Summary of GAO's Findings
The General Accounting Office concluded that, on the whole, CIL-HI
effectively instituted the necessary reforms. Specifically, the
GAO found that CIL-HI:
. used scientifically accepted techniques;
. appointed a world-renowned, board-certified forensic
anthropologist as the laboratory's first scientific director
and hired other qualified staff;
. upgraded its facilities and equipment; and
. incorporated extensive review procedures to minimize the
possibility of errors in making identifications.
Finally, GAO determined that critics' charges to the contrary, the
long tenure of CIL-HI's commander did not affect the scientific
judgments of his staff.
GAO noted several problem areas in CIL-HI's operations; DoD pledged
to make the recommended corrections by March 1993.
Most troubling to the Committee was the destruction of bone
fragments -- mostly splinters -- in 25 cases in the mid-1980s. The
incident appeared to be a one-time occurrence, and verbal
instructions are to keep all remains, however small or impossible
to identify. At the time, technology was incapable of identifying
the remains -- and still is -- but GAO, its panel of outside
experts, and CIL-HI itself agree that options should be preserved
in the hope of future scientific advances. In addition, GAO
recommended that CIL-HI develop written guidelines to buttress the
standing verbal directions.
Also of concern was the resignation of two top staff members,
although a preliminary review suggested that their problems were
not with CIL-HI's scientific operation.
Other systemic problems identified by GAO were:
. CIL-HI's inadequate and ineffective file locating system that
resulted in difficulty finding files and, at times, finding
. CIL-HI's inadequate tracking system of pre-death information
requests that can hinder the identification effort; and
. DoD's lack of guidance on the control of remains sent to
family-appointed experts -- a problem that has resulted in the
loss of some of those remains.
Outside Experts' Findings
In addition to its own review, GAO convened an external panel of
experts to examine the technical integrity of CIL-HI's work. Panel
members were selected based upon experience, knowledge, and their
lack of connection to recent affiliated work on identifying
remains. The panel interviewed CIL-HI staff and others, inspected
its facilities, equipment, and file review procedures.
In general, the outside experts lauded CIL-HI's current operation,
citing its commitment to "maintaining high standards of
professional performance, as manifested by its use of modern
facilities, equipment, and analytical methods" and noted that
"CIL-HI performs more in-depth analysis to establish
identifications than most other forensic laboratories in the
world." They offered the following specific suggestions:
. consolidate records and store original documents in a central
. maintain radiographs;
. modernize and standardize operating procedures;
. improve the chain of custody of remains, including taking
steps to prevent the disappearance of remains by examination
by outside experts hired by families to evaluate CIL-HI's
. hold unidentified remains, even where identification may be
exceedingly improbable, in the hope that advances in
technology will improve the chances of identifying them;
. restrict staff comments to those areas where they are experts;
. segregate scientific personnel from the military chain of
command in order to resist the possibility of undue influence
over the scientific decisions;
. require CIL-HI's forensic pathologist to play a larger role in
the identification process; and
. grant CIL-HI's laboratory director additional authority over
the scientific operation.
On-Going Work at CIL-HI
Much of the frustration that POW/MIA families have with CIL-HI is
precisely because of its plodding approach -- that it is at once
slow to make identifications and lightning-quick to render them as
soon as one tooth, or any other bit of evidence, supports a
scientific finding. In fact, the completeness of skeletal remains
is rarely as important as locating key portions. As Thomas D.
Holland, CIL-HI's physical anthropologist explained:
. . . The majority (70 percent) of remains at CIL-HI fall
into the CIL-Portion category, i.e., small fragments of
bone unassociated with REFNO [POW/MIA case reference
number] or valid name. Most CIL Portions are undiagnostic
fragments less than two centimeters in diameter. Other
sets of remains are more complete.
It should be remembered, however, that the degree of
skeletal completeness is correlated only weakly with
identification potential. CIL-HI has in curation at least
one skeleton that is approximately 99 percent complete,
and yet no identification currently is possible. On the
other hand, CIL-HI has effected identification based on
Of the larger bone fragments, just 1.3 percent of the sets of
remains at CIL-HI in mid-December 1992 were more than three-
quarters of a full skeleton; 23.9 percent were less than one-
quarter of a full skeleton; the remaining 4.5 percent were between
one and three-quarters complete.
In all, CIL-HI presently has 938 sets of remains -- 882 from
Southeast Asia and the rest from Korea -- that have not yet been
identified. These are not necessarily 938 different individuals,
The remains repatriated from North Korea are a good
example of why the completeness of a skeleton is not
necessarily a good indicator of identification potential.
All three of the Korean War skeletons listed as at least
75 percent complete are commingled. In other words, even
though the skeleton may have a skull, two arms, two legs,
and the axial elements, the arms and legs may not go
together, and neither necessarily is associated with the
skull returned in the same box. In fact, there is an
average of over 1.6 individuals represented in each of
the boxes officially repatriated by the North Korean
The GAO concluded that CIL-HI uses techniques that exceed those
used in other modern forensic laboratories. In its view, the
operation has minimized the possibility of erroneous
identifications and provides sufficient day-to-day management to
effectively oversee the remains identification process.
The Committee notes, however, that even a fully professional
forensics laboratory is going to have difficult overcoming the
obstacles that exist to the rapid and confident identification of
war-time remains. The ravages of time, the incompleteness of
medical records, and the limits of science dictate that progress,
if it is to be as sure as we demand, will also be far slower than
we would like.
Conclusion: Conspiracy Theories and Myths
Chairman Kerry: The reason I measure it against you
years of service is that the minute somebody draws that
kind of conclusion or says there is not evidence, I
cannot find the evidence, some people in this country
immediately take that person and, rather than look at the
evidence objectively or rather than analyze how you may
have come to that conclusion, they jump and suggest that
you are there for part of a conspiracy because you have
not come to the conclusion they want you to come to.
Now how do you feel with that? What is your advice to us
as a former battlefield commander and general? How do
you speak to that? You are obviously not a traitor to
your country , and you are obviously, at least in my
judgment, not somebody joining in a conspiracy. But you
have sat here, after dedicating years of your life in
retirement, to finding answers. And you cannot find
credible evidence, correct?
General Vessey: Thus far, we have not. That's right.
Chairman Kerry: So what do you say to those people who
throw you in a conspiracy?
General Vessey: I guess what I would say, what I've said
to those who have confronted me personally, is this is
not a religious issue. It's not a religious issue of
faith. It is something -- it's a human issue, a material
human issue on this earth. And there are facts that will
disclose the answer to the questions we are seeking.
Let's find the facts and let the facts speak for
In the meantime, you can have all the hopes that you
want. But don't turn it into a religious faith that
somebody's alive when we don't know whether or not
Cries of "cover-up" or "conspiracy" are used often by people
dissatisfied with the U.S. Government's progress on accounting for
missing servicemen. The conspiracy charge is an easy one to make,
but difficult to prove.
A prominent investigation of whether a conspiracy exists or existed
on POW/MIA issues was conducted by Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe, whose
efforts are praised by the very activists who subscribe to the
conspiracy theory. The Tighe Commission found:
no evidence that anyone in DIA (or anywhere else in the
U.S. government) has intentionally covered up anything
about the POW/MIA issue.
Its first conclusion was, "We have found no evidence of cover-up by
For a conspiracy theory to be valid, it would entail hundreds or
even thousands of people from the military services, from the
very lowest-rated enlisted person (E-1) through four-star admirals
and generals; and in the civilian sector it would encompass civil
servants from a GS1 through the Cabinet level. This would have
been accumulated since 1973 and by this time would have encompassed
in the millions of people that had access to sensitive information
on the POW/MIA issue.
Gen. Vessey, a widely praised 46-year veteran, former Chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President's Special Emissary to
Vietnam since 1987, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of
Freedom, shares this view:
Senator McCain: In order for there to be a conspiracy or
a cover-up of this issue, do you agree with me that it
would have required the active participation of hundreds
of members of the military?
Vessey: Yes, sir. And I think that's an improbable sort
of thing. American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines
are not conspirators. It's hard to keep military secrets
long enough to get the operation going along without the
enemy knowing what's going on. Even at the time when we
were at low ebb, we still had 100-and-some-odd people
involved, and those rotated. Many of them rotated every
two or three years. So I'd say the prospect or
probability of a conspiracy being kept without it being
blown wide open is almost zero.
Senator McCain: Have you ever seen any evidence of any
conspiracy or cover-up?
Vessey: No, sir, I have not.
Senator McCain: Did you when you were in your position
as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
Vessey: No, sir.
Senator McCain: Or at any other time in your military
Vessey: No, sir.
Another witness, the ranking officer in the Hanoi Hilton, was
Senator McCain: We have had witnesses, Admiral, that
there was after that a conspiracy, and that is why I was
interested in the part of your statement that you
remained involved in this issue for some years
afterwards, that there was a conspiracy or a cover-up
orchestrated by various administrations in the
intervening years. Have you ever seen any evidence of
Admiral Stockdale: No.
Senator McCain: Do you believe that it would be
Admiral Stockdale: No, I think . . . to go into it as a
venture, you'd be a fool because there are so many
possibilities of leaks and so forth.
Nor did Henry Kissinger place any credence in the idea:
There is no excuse, two decades after the fact, for
anyone to imply that the last five Presidents from both
parties, their White House staffs, Secretaries of State
and Defense, and career diplomatic and military services
either knowingly or negligently failed to do everything
they could to recover and identify all of our prisoners
Howard Baker, formerly President Reagan's White House Chief of
Staff and Senate Majority Leader, testified similarly:
I cannot think of a single thing that suggests to me that
there was a conspiracy of silence or any active
conspiracy or any other kind of conspiracy. . .
Others with long experience found charges of a conspiracy to be
baseless as well. Maj. Gen. George Christmas:
Mr. Chairman, my experience is that most people who
become well-informed on this issue have no trouble
agreeing that the accounting of our missing men means
obtaining information from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Those who maintain that there is some secret set of files
being kept by misguided U.S. Government personnel intent
on maintaining some bizarre cover-up are deluding
themselves and the American people. The answers are in
Southeast Asia and that is where the U.S. Government is,
correctly in my view, putting its emphasis.
General Leonard Perroots:
Senator McCain: In order for a cover-up to be successful
as has been alleged, it would have taken the active
participation of hundreds if not thousands of military
General Perroots: Yes, sir.
Maj. Gen. Richard Secord:
Senator McCain: Do you believe that there was any
conspiracy to cover up existence of any live Americans
either in Laos or anywhere in Southeast Asia?
General Secord: No, sir, I don't. I've never seen any
evidence of that.
Senator McCain: Do you believe that it would have been
possible, without the knowledge of a number of military
officers and enlisted people such as yourself who were in
some way in the loop?
General Secord: No. There are so many people in that
loop that it would not have been possible, in my
And witnesses who recently have spent time in the field testified
about the possibility of a conspiracy:
Chairman Kerry: I want to ask you a question. You are
under oath. You are either ex-service people or people
committed to this effort. But there remains at large in
this country a body of suspicion about people involved in
it, and it comes largely from the way it's been handled
and resourced in past years. I ask you this question
under oath so that people can have some sense of where
you're coming from.
And I want to know whether anyone here has ever seen any
evidence or believes that there was a conspiracy to
actually tube this or cover it up. Mr. Sydow?
Mr. Sydow: No, sir.
Chairman Kerry: Mr. Sheetz?
Mr. Sheetz: You've always seen me in civilian clothes.
I've been in the Navy. I'm still in the Navy Reserves
since 1965, so I consider myself sort of also a uniformed
person. I've seen nothing to indicate conspiracy or
Chairman Kerry: Colonel Cole?
Colonel Cole: Certainly not, sir.
Chairman Kerry: Mr. Gadoury?
Mr. Gadoury: Never.
Chairman Kerry: Mr. DeStatte?
Mr. DeStatte: Never, sir.
Chairman Kerry: Sergeant Deeter?
Sergeant Deeter: No, sir.
Chairman Kerry: Mr. Bell?
Mr. Bell: No, sir, I don't have any indication of a
cover-up, but I think we should always stress objectivity
in our work.
The Select Committee examined allegations of conspiracy and heard
testimony about the allegation. No witness gave credible evidence
that a conspiracy ever existed on the POW/MIA issue; nearly all
called the notion an impossibility and found it highly unlikely
that military personnel would ever be involved.
Another difficulty in separating fact from fiction in POW/MIA
efforts has been the prevalence of myths. The amount of
information on the issue overall is monumental and fictitious
claims often contain just enough shards of truth to make them
believable. Oft-repeated myths have become popular lore in the
vast collection of stories about the Vietnam War and the POW/MIA
issue in particular.
Island of Syphilitic Souls Theory
One of the stories perennially told in Vietnam and remembered today
by many veterans, is about a secret island to which were sent,
there to spend the rest of their lives, persons who had contracted
a dangerous and incurable sexually-transmitted disease.
The premise was that the consequences of the disease were such that
society could not risk the possibility of an epidemic in the United
States. The existence and location of the island needed to be kept
secret, so the story goes, so people sent to the island were listed
as MIA or KIA/BNR.
Logic exposes the story's flaws. Veterans were not routinely given
physical examinations immediately before leaving Vietnam or upon
arrival to the U.S. -- foiling the island's purpose, because
persons contracting a disease would carry it back to the USA
undetected. As immediate "social" contact was common for many vets
returning from Vietnam, the spread of any disease would have been
inevitable -- and yet no such disease has surfaced in the U.S.
population (AIDS' origins having been traced elsewhere). Logic
notwithstanding, the myth prevails to this day as an explanation
for the fate of some unaccounted-for Americans.
Systematic Lie Theory
Other stories are more difficult to disprove, but even their
defiance of common sense does not stop their spread, which in turn
mainstream media, fuels these rumors. For example, one persistent
story is that the U.S. Government has been bringing POW/MIAs back
secretly and providing them with new identities such, as is done in
the federal witness protection program or, in the alternative,
incarcerating them in mental hospitals. The ostensible reason for
this secrecy is presumably to avoid contradicting official policy
since 1973 that all live POWs were returned home. Another theory
argues that since no amputees or mentally deranged people returned
at Operation Homecoming, these men have been smuggled back and are
Committee investigators interviewed a newspaper reporter who
printed this story as fact, his sources, and others with variations
of this story; they found no factual support for it. One supposed
"source" summoned to testify, and subpoenaed, was the victim of his
"Black Ops" Theory
Another publication printed a suggestion that 2,454 men should be
added to the list of 2,265 POW/MIAs -- because the additional 2,454
was the number involved in highly classified operations whose
inclusion on the list of missing would have compromised the
"Crazies" and Amputees Theory
This belief and the belief about secretly smuggling individuals
into the country and providing new identities assumes that no
family members or friends who would miss these men or else that
they willingly participated in a conspiracy of magnitude -- ideas
that flout common sense. It is also belied by the testimony of
Admiral James Stockdale, who testified about the return of at least
Perhaps the most persistent kind of rumor grows out of events with
simple, straightforward explanation:
. The opening of a bigger, permanent office with the standing in
the military hierarchy needed to get things done fueled
suspicions that the move was designed to silence an
investigator. Garnett Bell, a key player before Hanoi agreed
to U.S. terms' full-time presence in-country, remained a key
player after the office was changed to take advantage of the
. In another case, the illness of a senior Vietnamese diplomat
was twisted into accusations that he had been killed trying to
defect over the POW/MIA issue and blaming Congressional
offices for botching the defection. The diplomat's efforts to
correct the story, through a letter to the editor, were then
manufactured into a story that the diplomat only wrote the
letter because there was a "gun to his head."
The Committee investigated both charges and found them baseless.