Report of the
Senate Select Committee
Missing a Loved One
Nothing can produce emotion, passion and controversy like war. How
could anyone ever forget the scene of a returning POW from Vietnam
kissing the ground as he first set foot on U.S. soil after years of
captivity, and the thrill of watching his wife and children run
across the tarmac and into his open arms? When a soldier comes
home, it is a joyous reunion.
War also claims victims and produces often untold suffering. Men
and women are killed, and their loved ones mourn. Taps, flags,
military funerals, tears of sadness and shattered dreams are all
products of war. One of the worst tragedies of all is that some
simply become "missing." Their loved ones both mourn and hope. The
years drag on, and the long wait for answers can become unbearable.
In this regard, the Committee notes with sadness the tragic death
last year of Mrs. Marion Shelton, the devoted wife of Capt. Charles
Shelton, USAF, the only serviceman still officially listed by the
Department of Defense as a "POW" captured in Laos during the war.
What could be worse than the emotional turmoil of "not knowing?"
Two family members explained their feelings:
When a beloved son becomes missing in any war, parents
like us become the living dead.
He loved the Air Force and because of that love, I chose
to serve in the same branch. I feel I owe an awful lot to
my big brother, Buddy. Not a day goes by that I don't
wonder what happened to him and if he could still be
For many Korean War POW/MIA families, this anguish has lasted for
four decades; for Vietnam War POW/MIA families, many have hoped and
prayed for 20 years.
National security is no longer a valid excuse for events
that happened 40 years ago. . . .
I feel the American people need to understand some of the
anguish that families experience when a father is taken
away and there's no explanation given to the child as to
why. . . .
[My daughter] writes, "I recently returned from Russia
where I spent two weeks with my mother searching for
clues regarding my father's disappearance. I found no
answers, just more questions. I don't know what to say,
except that as I write this memories of my childhood
haunt me, and I am crying. They are tears of sadness,
for I never met my father.
"I grew up wondering what he was like. I was told he was
dead. Then a year ago I found out he was probably taken
prisoner of war at the time of the incident and might
still even be alive. These days I cry, wondering about
all the pain and suffering he must have endured, and I
wonder if he's still alive somewhere in Russia, or maybe
someone else is still alive.
"Please keep working on the exchange of information
between our two countries. There are many good people on
both sides willing to help."
Another Korean War veteran and POW/MIA family member also has
wondered -- and persisted in his efforts to find the truth -- for
more than 40 years:
I was a Korean War veteran; two tours of duty in Korea.
I had four brothers on the front line at one time. My
youngest brother was captured on November 4, 1950 at
Anju, northeast of Anju, right up here on the map.
In 1953, when the last group of prisoners of war were
released on September 3rd or 4th, and I looked at the
television set after I had gotten home -- I came out all
right -- and I didn't see my brother's name on that list,
I told my mother and father there are three things wrong
here. You have to be a prisoner of war, killed in
action, or missing in action. That's three categories.
And I'm sure he was one of those three, and I was hoping
he would have been alive, and is still alive today.
So, I made a promise to my mother and father in 1950 that
I would never stop looking for him until I brought him
home, dead or alive.
Families' Views and Experiences
The Committee understands that it is impossible to make general
statements about specific family members who have all suffered in
their own way from the tragedy of having a "missing" loved one.
Whether we speak of Vietnam or prior wars, the pain is the same.
Families are diverse in their views, in the particular
circumstances surrounding the loss of their loved one, in the
experiences they have had in dealing with their government, and in
the feelings toward the Communist governments who hold answers.
Some believe the U.S. Government has done all it can over the
years; others believe it has bungled inexcusably. Some of these
families have decided to accept death and move on with their lives;
others wait, convinced that living Americans remain in captivity.
No one among the Senators on this Committee is qualified to
criticize the beliefs of the families. None of us has a missing
loved one from a prior war. On these questions, every POW/MIA
family member has fair claim to be considered an expert in the
saddest, truest sense of the word.
The families have suffered the indignities of Communist governments
who have refused to provide even basic humanitarian information and
answers over the past half-century. They have endured the emotional
roller-coaster ride of hope and failure year after year after year.
They have watched governments in Southeast Asia dribble out remains
and heard flat denials that records exist -- and then seen that
these documents existed all along.
With the full cooperation of these governments in past years,
results would have been obtained for many POW/MIA families long
ago. Former President Nixon himself said in January 1992:
It has been obscene, the way they have just dribbled out
information to these poor families who simply want to
know what happened.
The families have been the victims of fraud and they have seen
their own ranks divided by intense differences over the best way to
obtain results. Through it all, they have persevered.
Through years of not knowing, both during and after the war, of
bearing the brunt of bureaucracies incapable of answering questions
or responding to requests, of grapplying with wrenching and
sometimes conflicting information, and of dealing with the inhumane
actions of former enemies, POW/MIA families have unfailingly kept
their hopes alive and realistic.
The feelings and commitment of POW/MIA families may best have been
summed up by the son of a serviceman shot down over Laos:
I was 16 years old when my dad was shot down. Dad was
42. He was a big man with a good sense of humor and a
big appetite for life. He liked sports cars, bagpipe
music, Irish whiskey; he fished, he rode broncos in the
Rodeo; he loved New Mexico and the Air Force.
I remember him vividly, and miss him terribly.
Nonetheless, I have long been resigned to the fact that
he's almost certainly dead, and resigned to the fact that
I will probably never know what happened to him. But that
does not relieve me or you of the obligation to try to
find out what did happen to him.
I don't expect the impossible, only the confidence that
the Government that ordered my father into combat is
doing all that it can to determine his fate and that my
family knows all that this Government knows.
Families' Central Role in Committee's Work
The Committee owes its creation to the activism of family members,
and from the beginning we sought to work closely with POW/MIA
families. Family members were represented at the Committee's
opening and closing hearings. In addition, the Chairman and Vice
Chairman addressed the 1992 conventions of the National League of
Families and the National Alliance of Families.
To ensure that families' concerns were addressed, the Committee's
Chairman and Vice Chairman wrote to the primary next-of-kin of all
2,266 then unaccounted for servicemen in January 1992, seeking
their advice and participation. Over the course of the Committee's
year in existence, more than 100 responded, and both the League and
the Alliance have actively monitored the Committee's work.
In addition, C-SPAN coverage of 18 of the Committee's 22 open
hearings has kept an audience of 59 million viewers informed.
"Please talk to as many families as you can -- they are the only
ones holding the truth," one family member wrote. "I was glued to
TV [coverage of the hearings] and watched until 5:30 a.m."
The questions before the American public are the ones that still
gnaw at the families. If there are leads that can be traced to a
living American serviceman, then there must be facts, places,
dates, and descriptions or names. Some of the rhetorical questions
of activists have been provocative, but at the same time the
Government has jealously guarded its documents.
Through all of this, the families simply want answers and results.
The Committee has focused on compelling leads and questions based
on facts. The families deserved no less than an honest search to
understand the truth. We sought information from all sources,
public and private, including activists and current and former
The families of the missing deserve not merely words, but actions,
answers, and -- above all -- the truth. The Committee has labored
tirelessly in their behalf to provide them the truth. It is a labor
of love, devotion, and gratitude.
The Search for Answers
In families' search for answers, two ingredients are essential.
First, they must know the U.S. is pressing Vietnam, Laos and
Cambodia for all information they have. As the wife of a serviceman
missing in Laos, explained:
"If these men are not alive today, it's because they were
either starved, executed, mistreated, or simply died of
broken hearts in the last 20 years it has taken to go
looking for them. They [the Lao or Vietnamese] know
where my husband is. I know this. My family will not
rest until we find the fate of David."
Second, families must know that the U.S. is doing all it can on
behalf of missing servicemen. As Ann Mills Griffiths, the League's
Executive Director told the Committee:
The vast majority of the POW/MIA families are realistic.
We don't expect miracles. We expect seriousness by our
own government, Executive and Legislative branches,
rather than spontaneous reaction to the squeaky wheel or
the latest editorial.
Beyond that, however, what constitutes an answer about the fate of
a missing loved one varies from individual to individual. To
satisfy U.S. Government "accounting," policy requires "the man
alive, the man's remains, or convincing evidence of why it's not
possible." For families, the standard is generally different:
photographs are compelling for some; for others, positively
identified remains are the only acceptable proof; for still others,
even remains are not convincing.
Many families know that the answers available most often are merely
clues and not full answers; but few can accept inexplicably
conflicting information as satisfactory, even in a partial answer:
[At the time of my brother's disappearance], the Army
told us that every effort was being made to locate him,
including dropping leaflets with his picture. Three
months later, the story changed. They said he had been
engaged in a skirmish, that he was ahead of the majority
group and then shot. No other information was provided at
the time and we never got his body or any of his personal
effects. As far as my family is concerned, there are
still many unanswered questions: What really happened?
Who were the men with him? Where are his things?
I am not expecting a miracle, but I do want to know and have
an explanation/accounting of what took place. Were there, for
example, eyewitnesses? Is this a crash site that has
previously been excavated? What is the terrain?. . . . My
personal goal is to do for [him] what I couldn't do then and
resolve my grief issues. . . This is the least I can do; Len
and others like him made the ultimate sacrifice.
It was during a monsoon, and due to the terrain, a ground crew
could not get to the plane and a helicopter could not land.
After about seven days, they presumed them dead. . . . we have
wondered for 23 or 24 years. Just to know for sure --
something -- would help. My mother has never remarried,
thinking that someday a miracle might happen and he could come
home. We all need to know. . .
He saved seven men and carried them to a safe place and
then returned to his post. All of the men he saved have
since died. This is just a father who is still hoping for
that "someday" when we will hear more.
If my father is dead, I want him brought back and buried
at Arlington with the rest of the dead heroes. Because no
matter what anyone thinks of the futile and tragic war in
Vietnam, the men who fought there were heroes. If my
father is alive after all these years, he must think
we've forgotten him. I want him to know that we haven't.
There is still time to bring him home. If others are
alive, we must bring them all home. My wish is simple. If
my father is alive, I want to know him, not things about
him. If he is dead, I want to be able to put a flower on
This search for the truth by the families was frustrated over the
years by limited information from the governments of Southeast
Asia, and by our own government's failure to provide satisfactory
answers. In fact, according to many families, the policies and
actions of the U.S. Government during and after the war not only
failed to resolve the problems, but the lack of attention and focus
in past years actually made things worse.
For families whose experience with the Government has shattered
their faith in it, only full disclosure of everything the
Government knows will reassure them.
U.S. Government Actions During the War
If there is one facet of the POW/MIA issue that is without
ambiguity, without disagreement, it is that the treatment accorded
families of missing Americans has deepened their anguish, not
The difficulties confronting most families were rooted not only in
their kin's loss, but also in the secrecy surrounding the loss. At
first, families were not told -- sometimes for years -- that their
husbands, sons or brothers had been captured. The impact of war-
time secrecy on the lives of families can best be described in
their own words. As Donnie Collins, wife of then-Captain Tom
Collins (captured in October, 1965), testified:
Mrs. Collins: Tom was missing four years, two months, and
two weeks, and I received a letter from him in Christmas
of '69. Now, I knew before then, but not through
anything the Government did. I found on my own that Tom
was seen alive in Hanoi in 1966. . . . I was more
fortunate than most family members. I had friends in
Sen. Smith: Do you have any reason to believe that anybody in
the United States Government knew he was alive and did not
Mrs. Collins: Oh, yes, I'm certain that they did.
When families were informed of their loved one's fate, they rarely
were given important details. As Mrs. Collins explained:
I, as an MIA wife, was frustrated by knowing little,
being left out of the loop, and it seemed at times being
treated as the enemy, more feared by the administration
and military intelligence than the North Vietnamese whom
we should have been unified against. This was typical of
the attitude of the Government in those years.
Another MIA wife, whose husband was lost in December, 1967,
. . . was notified about my husband's MIA status by
telephone. When I asked if my husband's navigator, who
he had trained with, was with him, Air Force would not
give me an answer. . . . since [his] navigator's wife was
pregnant, I did not want to call and upset her if her
husband had not been on that plane. It took a sideways
call to the Pentagon from one of the colonels on base to
get the needed information. He told me never to tell who
got me the information.
And all were cautioned to say nothing about their husbands, sons
and brothers, so as not to give their captors leverage over the
. . . [T]hey said, "you don't need to know this. . . . if
you were to let this out, this could cause his death --
now, you wouldn't want to do that, would you?" I love
that old hang-that-guilt-trip-on-them.
The effect was devastating for many. As one MIA wife explained:
I needed the support of other families who knew what I
was going through. I asked my Personnel Affairs officer
and sergeant to deliver my hand written notes to other
wives who lived within 100 miles. There were only a few,
but I did not know the names and right-to-privacy laws
demanded that I go through the casualty office. In my
notes I offered my home as a rest or coffee stop when
other women came to shop. When I received no word of
reply from my notes, I accepted the fact that the other
women wanted their privacy and I'd have to go it alone.
Everyday some well-meaning civilian would call or come by and
say, "My dear, I don't know how you do it." I'd just be
devastated! When they'd leave or hang up I'd think, "Yes --
how do I do it?" I really needed the support of the other
women; the other wives of POW and MIA.
I did not learn for four years that my notes had not been
delivered to the single hearings or picture viewings at the
base. Why were we never allowed to get together? Why were my
To her, the Government lost all credibility when its directives not
to publicize the POW's fate didn't change as soon as the U.S.
knew its men were being tortured:
Giving the Johnson Administration and its Ambassador at
Large in charge of prisoner of war affairs, Averill
Harriman, the benefit of the doubt, some might assume
that these guidelines really were engendered in the best
interest of the wives.
That rationale became totally invalid for me, however,
when the Johnson Administration learned for a fact
certain that American prisoners of war were being
brutally tortured, but continued to insist that we wives
remain silent in order to continue our husband's so-
called good treatment by the North Vietnamese.
I know the Government knew of the brutal torture for a
fact certain, because I was the conduit who delivered the
message to the Johnson Administration. Averill Harriman
never came off his insistence that we wives must keep
quiet in order to ensure the so-called good treatment of
our loved ones.
It was not until more than two years after Averill
Harriman knew our men were being tortured that Melvin
Laird, Secretary of Defense in the newly elected Nixon
Administration, publicly acknowledged the gross
mistreatment of our men and the violations of the Geneva
Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war.
On the 19th of May, 1969, when Secretary Laird first made
this public announcement, Jim Stockdale had been in
prison for almost four years. . . .
No one in the Johnson Administration, not McNamara, nor
Rusk, nor the Bundy brothers, nor Clifford, ever seemed
to realize that we wives were not so stupid as to not be
able to figure out that they wanted to suppress the truth
about our men's circumstances in order to keep the
American public from being emotionally involved in the
Just as they never called up the reserves or imposed rent
controls, they didn't want the truth about our men's
torture to emotionally involve the American people in
their stick and carrot war.
I knew only too well they had started their war under
false pretenses, because my husband had led all of the
air strikes in the Tonkin Gulf incidents. President
Johnson had even doubly endangered all of the lives of
the men in the first air strike against the North
Vietnamese mainland by announcing their arrival to the
enemy on the radio an hour and a half before they
The gag order was too much for some:
Mrs. Collins: Let me just go back and point out a couple
of things. That Tom was heard on the radio. He was seen
coming out of the plane. He had a wing man, there were
another two in the formation. He was seen on the ground.
So they did know he got on the ground. They did talk to
him. Yet even later on, they never allowed anyone who
was with him on his wing or behind him, the two behind
him, to tell me anything at all, even that bare little
element to hang onto.
As I say, I can deal with dead. . . . But missing, they
didn't know how to deal with missing. So they decided
that the best thing to do was don't tell the families
I want to remind you that Tom was security ops officer.
Because of that, he had such a security clearance you
would never achieve to, Senator. John will tell you
that. And because of that, I was brought into the loop
and I was also part of the security clearance. So Tom
didn't marry a dodo who fell off the turnip truck when it
went through town on Saturday. Most pilots did not.
Vice Chairman Smith: That is very obvious, by the way.
Mrs. Collins: Thank you. And because of that, why they
could not sort out and tell the families the basic
elements. When I later found out in early '68 that they
had had this information in his jacket, I was angry but
I told no one, including his parents, what was in the
jacket, no one.
Now, if you read my testimony you realize that I was
jumped on by big-time people. I mean State Department
threatened me with you're going to shut up or else, and
I never could figure out what or else was. I guess the
firing squad, send Tom to Hanoi, something equally
As I responded to them finally, no military has control
over a wife. Only the military member himself may
discipline her. So if you can find Tom and get him home
and he wants to kick me in the rear end, let him go at
it, but don't threaten me. And finally I had to call
friends in high places to get the State Department off me
because I decided, in '66, to ask some questions in the
public. So I was probably the first one to get swatted.
The secrecy had two distinct ill effects. First, it back-fired:
. . . the old military cliche that wives and families
should be told nothing and should know nothing was, and
I presume to some degree is still, the rule. This is an
over-reaction to legitimate military security needs, and
has probably resulted in more inadvertent leaks through
ignorance than if the spouses and families had been
brought into the network in matters that concerned them.
. . . Had they brought us into the loop, telling us the
things that we had a right to know from the onset, we
would never find ourselves in this position today.
Second, and far more damaging to both families and subsequent
Government efforts, the secrecy made families an easy mark for any
con artist with information to peddle. In Collins' words:
The closed-door attitude of the Government, which started
and became ingrained in the early war years, has
contributed greatly to making the families vulnerable and
prey for the antiwar activists on the left and the con
artists and mystics on the right. If the Government was
silent to their questions, then where were they to go for
information and help? Some elements of both groups meant
well, but their impact has been cruel to the
Another witness, Carol Hrdlicka, laid the blame for fraudulent
schemes more forcefully at the Government's door:
I can appreciate these other scams, but I have to tell
you that if our Government had done their job in the
first place, I wouldn't be in the situation where I could
be a victim or Carol Collins could be a victim.
In sum, another MIA wife said:
I tell you as I told the [PFOD] hearing: if a situation
like this happens again I hope you all are smart enough
to know you can trust the families with inside knowledge
to protect them from con artists. I did not bite when
asked for a donation to bring home the men. I felt I had
When Evidence Suggested Death
Tragically for many families, strong incentives existed for combat
veterans to soften the blow that reporting a buddy killed in action
would deliver to families. Admiral Stockdale felt the pressures
after he witnessed a plane go down:
He was in an AD -- last called a Mayday, hit about 1,000
feet going in a steep dive, and of course, as you know,
John, [there was] no ejection seat in that plane. They
went out there the next morning and they found that the
Vietnamese had removed the debris.
And the squadron commander said the guy is -- he's dead.
And I went up to see Captain Bart Connally and I said I'm
just getting started in this thing. And I sent the
message, whether I should have called him KIA or MIA. .
. . He said, "I did this in World War II, of course, and,
he said, there's a great temptation to do the wife a
favor. But in the long run I think you do her an
injustice, because you're giving her the wrong message.
If you think he's dead, say he's dead."
Now, I did that [reported the man killed in action]. . .
. I've been told that people who were seen to spin in the
traffic pattern and crash in their plane were listed as
MIA for that same darned reason. We ought to think of a
better way to compensate families besides lying to them.
Gen. Vessey had experienced the same situation:
Sen. McCain: You and I have discussed, and I mentioned to
Admiral Stockdale yesterday, this very tragic situation
that exists when a person is listed as missing or
captured, especially in the case of the air war.
There were cases that we know of -- Admiral Stockdale cited
one yesterday, where the plane hit the ground and exploded and
no chute was cited; but with the knowledge that if that person
is declared dead, all benefits cease after his death
(gratuities, insurance, etc.), [his buddies listed] that
person as missing. Then the pay and benefits continue for an
indeterminate length of time.
Do you have any idea how we can get around this dilemma,
Gen. Vessey: . . . It's something that drives our making
inaccurate reports. The very fact that you deprive your
comrade's family of their livelihood by declaring him dead. .
. so the inclination generally has been, if there's any doubt
at all, move [the status report] toward the missing rather
than face the facts. . . . I think the present system will
drive us to the same problems that we had from the war in
In 1973, Lt. Cdr. George Coker cited two examples of what he had
seen as a Navy pilot in an address to the National League of
A guy is flying, he does see his wingman shot down. Two
guys go in, and they're deader than a doornail. He's
thinking to himself, "If I report that they're dead, the
wife's going to be brokenhearted, she'll get death
gratuities, and that's it. If I report him MIA, his pay
keeps going, and it will cushion the blow for a little
"I just saw your son fly into the ground." Do you think
I'm going to tell you that? Hell, no, because the way I
think, if I tell you your son got target fixation and
flew into the ground, to my way of thinking, what I would
be saying to you is, "You know, what you had for a son is
a real idiot."
That's not true, so what am I going to say? "Well, he
flew down, and he probably lost control, he was probably
hit by a 57 or something and lost control of the aircraft
and went in." But I'm not going to say, "I think he had
target fixation." . . .
But now I've given you a shred of hope. It's not an out-
and-out false report. I told you he flew into the ground,
but I just twisted 'why.' So now he has the option of
When Evidence Pointed to Life
However, the Committee also uncovered cases where servicemen were
reported as dead, in view of information suggesting survival.
Moreover, the families were never provided with this information.
For example, the Committee notes the following comments from the
family members of two cases in particular:
Lance Corp. Kenneth L. Plumadore was officially listed as KIA/BNR,
although a 1992 case narrative from the JTF-FA indicates that PAVN
forces may have captured him. IN 1992, Plumadore's sister wrote to
If what I am told is correct and the government continues
to withhold intellience data on my brother's capture that
has been concealed from his family for 25 years, I submit
to you the following questions: What reason is there for
secrecy now? Why am I not entitled to know everything
about my brother that you know?
Maj. Robert F. Coady, USAF, was listed as missing in Laos since
1969. His family was only provided the initial loss report, but
recently discovered that there was additional information which
suggested that Coady may have survived his incident. In 1969, the
U.S. Embassy in Laos reported a possible correlation between Coady
and a similar name reported by a POW who returned in 1969. Coady's
sister wrote to the Committee in August 1992:
When my family asked if there was any information on my
brother, we were told there was nothing but the initial
report of his loss. I could not believe that after 17
years of believing the Air Force I found out that there
was information regarding my brother not given to the
family. I find this totally unacceptable.
A final example concerns a serviceman believed dead during the war,
but subsequently determined to have been captured. This example was
brought to the Committee's attention in November 1991 by Dr.
Patricia O'Grady, the daughter of Col. John O'Grady, who was
captured in 1967 in Vietnam:
O'Grady: I testify before you today on behalf of my
father, Col. John O'Grady, who is finally known to have
been captured alive. This information could have been
obtained many years ago, but after 24 years, I can
finally tell you how many cigarettes were in his pack,
and I can also tell you where his actual captors live
today. Yet this information was not released to me
directly or readily. This information was only released
to me accidentally. . . . up until 1991, August of this
year, they have disputed that my father was in fact
Sen. Smith: . . . but now they say otherwise?
O'Grady: Now they say it, based upon the fact that they
have finally found his actual captors and they
interviewed them in detail.