Report of the
Senate Select Committee
Public Relations Campaign
Late into the war and after enormous pressure from POW/MIA
families, the U.S. Government began to publicize the plight of the
POWs in order to keep pressure on the North Vietnamese and gain
support for the war at home.
The courageous attempts by H. Ross Perot are particularly
noteworty. His efforts to bring food, medicine, and Christmas
packages to POWs in 1969 and 1970 and to publicize their condition
improved the way they were treated, as returned POWs later
described when they returned. President Nixon's description details
Perot's activities and their impact:
Ross Perot supported what we were trying to do in
Vietnam, unlike many other people in the business
community who took a walk, and I appreciate that. He did
everything he could to help the POWs while many others
were doing nothing at all. At a time when many people in
the American establishment were not supporting the POWs,
Ross Perot was doing so.
Sen. Smith noted Perot's accomplishments when he welcomed him to
testify in August:
My words of thanks for your efforts, Mr. Perot, pale in
comparison to the recognition you have already received
from former POWs themselves, the families, and our
nation's veterans groups. As many know, Mr. Perot has a
painting proudly hanging in his office which is signed by
all the POWs who came home in 1973, thanking him for
drawing public attention to their plight. I also note
that the Department of Defense awarded Mr. Perot its
highest civilian honor for his efforts -- the Defense
Medal of Distinguished Public Service.
But the P-R campaign had a stark down-side as well, as families
learned when it the war ended and many forgot the POWs. In 1972,
Defense Secretary Melvin Laird held a press conference to pressure
Vietnam by focusing on 14 men not on Hanoi's list of POWs. "All 14
men were known to be alive, on the ground in North Vietnam, or were
at one time actually identified by the North Vietnamese as having
been captured," he told his audience.
In 1973, when not one of those 14 came home -- including Ronald
Dodge, who was shown in captivity in 1972 in a Paris Match photo --
there was no follow-up press conference. No similar U.S. effort was
mounted again publicly to raise families' unanswered questions
about their loved ones' fates to public attention. The families'
feeling of being abandoned, with their men, still persists: As
Dodge's widow explained:
Sen. Reid: What more do you think we as a committee could
do that we have not done?. . .
Ms. Otis: . . . what I've been wanting is for the public
to really care. And I know it's been really too long,
but the Government and the media didn't press this in the
beginning. They just assumed everybody was dead. And we
felt so abandoned because not only did our Government or
the media care, but the public didn't seem to care.
Post-War Government Policies
Presumed Findings of Death
For years after the war ended, few Americans wanted to re-examine
its effects; families' questions were greeted with silence.
Then, beginning in 1978 and continuing through 1981, came
proceedings to declare missing servicemen dead. The "presumptive
findings of death" pitted families against the Government, with
many trying to prove life against a presumption so strong that even
post-capture photographs and other "hard evidence" failed to
persuade the judges. Only one, Charles Shelton, remained listed as
the symbolic POW.
For those who accepted the death of their kin, the proceedings were
welcomed. They provided finality for a situation that left families
dangling, letting families go on with their lives. But for those
who had not gotten satisfactory answers, the rulings were
traumatic. Their own words best express the experience:
These men -- many -- were declared dead not on
information, but on the lack of information, that we had.
. . . Your comment that 'this thing has taken on a life
of its own' is so very true. It has taken over my life,
and many others' unable to go through the steps of grief
and dying and acceptance because of this limbo.
Commander Dodge's status change hearing was in February
1979. The next-of-kin had to prove the missing
serviceman alive. The Government, with all of their
resources, did not have to prove him dead.
In 1977, the Air Force Casualty Office contacted me and
advised me that they were going to review David's case,
and unless I had any new evidence that he was alive, they
were going to declare him dead. I then stated that I had
no evidence since I was not allowed access to
intelligence. Why is it that the burden of proof is
always on the families?
The process, and not only its conclusion, worsened the matter for
many families. As the wife of a serviceman missing in Laos in
December 1967, explained:
He said the hearing would be held and told me the day.
I told him I'd get in touch with my children and we'd be
down. He said, "Oh, you don't need to come. It is just
a hearing. We will let you know about it." I said, "You
are talking about killing off my husband legally. The
way you've talked to me so far, I don't trust you."
. . . . He said, "Isn't there anything I can do?" I said,
"You can make reservations for me at the visiting
quarters. There will be my son, two daughters, my mother
and myself." He said, "Oh, I can't do that. You can't
stay there. You'll have to get a motel."
They closed my husband's case and declared him killed in
action as of August 17, 1979. He was such an honorable,
straightforward man; he would not be pleased with the
situation I'd been placed in all of these years.
The League of Families chronicled the process from families'
Immediately after the signing of the Paris Accords,
January 27, 1973, the Department of Defense planned to
initiate presumptive finding of death rulings based on
U.S. knowledge of incident circumstances and lapse of
time without information to indicate the individual was
still living. What was obviously not yet available was
knowledge from the Vietnamese, Lao or Cambodian
governments. . . the families, under the umbrella of the
League, initiated a class-action suit to stop the status
reviews. . . .
The court decided. . . that PNOK [primary next-of-kin]
receiving compensation must be provided hearing rights.
The Defense Department extended these rights to all PNOK,
whether or not currently receiving government benefits.
. . .
some in the League publicly offered to return their
government pay if active-duty status could be retained.
This was to prevent the Indochinese governments from
throwing back the claim that our own government had
legally determined our relatives were dead. This, too,
With the presumptive findings of death came another
problem; the more presumed dead, the fewer it appeared
were still prisoner, missing or unaccounted for from the
Vietnam War. We, the families, knew that legal
administrative rulings had nothing to do with
accountability and that the numbers were actually more
[than mere numbers] -- they were Americans. . . .
At the same time, the U.S. Government added to the POW/MIA list. At
the end of 1978, 224 were listed as POWs; by the end of 1980, that
had grown to 2,500 -- simply by changing the definition to include
Taken together, the action seemed to signal that the Government had
made a decision was being made to move on -- that one serviceman,
whose fate was uncertain, now would get the same level of attention
as the next, whose death was witnessed by his comrades.
The solution was satisfactory to no one, and the stroke-of-a-pen
changes, based not on facts but on some other consideration, raised
even more questions about the sense and sincerity of Government
For scores of families -- including some whose kin's remains had
been returned -- the next information to be confronted came with
the flood of Vietnamese refugees: reports that Americans were alive
in Southeast Asia. The reports were tantalizing, and the heavily
blacked-out sections of classified information made them more so.
The slowness of live-sighting investigations, and the fruitless
efforts of families to gain access to the intelligence contained in
hundreds of these reports, marked a new battlefront for many
Questions during the mid-1980s about the sincerity of U.S. efforts
heightened families' concerns. While some of the allegations of
conspiracy or incompetence came with fund-raising appeals, others
were leaked by insiders with no readily apparent motive besides
altruism. A spate of internal DIA reviews spelled out the agency's
shortcomings and, for many, confirmed fears that the "highest
national priority" label assigned to POW/MIA efforts by the Reagan
Administration was nothing more than words.
Repatriation of Remains
For some 379 families, the next development was the return of
remains from Southeast Asia. In many cases, the remains were only
fragments of bone, sometimes commingled in the casket with another
servicemen who had died in the same crash. Sometimes, they were
determined to be the remains of Asian people; in a few cases, they
were found to be animal bones. Serious questions about the
capability of the U.S. lab that identifies remains to make accurate
determinations further shook families' faith in the U.S. Government
(see Chapter 5).
In the half-century since World War II, technology has bettered the
chance of identifying remains, but the science is far from an exact
There have been so many conflicting reports concerning
Bill. We have always felt he was alive, and being held in
Russia, even though remains (a few single teeth said to
compare favorably with Bill's) was sent home in November
of 1957. When we had the casket opened by court order, we
found a sack with a few single teeth and a few bone
fragments so that identification was impossible as far as
we were concerned. We buried the body as Bill, even
though we still believed that he was in Russia.
We have felt so helpless all these years, trying and
trying to get positive proof of whether he is in Russia
or not. My parents both died believing that the U.S.
Government had not been honest with them. . . .
The combination of:
. past experience with the Government on POW/MIA matters;
. only partly conclusive results; and
. the few number of bones available to make the determination
makes it impossible for many families to accept the remains as
proof of their kin's death.
Each day I wait, and look, and hope for some revelation
as to how did my son die -- if he did! Oh yes, I know my
Government considers [his case] a closed book because
Hanoi sent back a box of bones with his name on it. But
there was no identification tag, nor picture, nor
anything in the way of personal effects found on his
person returned to us. No fingerprints! No dental
I do know Hanoi had David either dead or alive -- the
Pravda (1965) article told me that. He did not go down in
his plane as previously thought. I want any and all
information my Government has on David -- my family can
handle it!. . . .
I was shocked, surprised and stunned. . . . It took some
getting used to, and I can't describe the overwhelming
relief I felt, knowing how, where and when he died, and
that it was quick. . . . My baby, Sue, was six weeks old
when the telegram was delivered to me. . . . In an
instant, I [had] lost my husband, home, status as a wife,
social life, my planned future -- and I was just getting
over childbirth. I heard nothing from the three surviving
crew members. All official business was handled by mail.
I had no advisor or advocate from the military to help me
sort out my life and figure out what I should do. I felt
abandoned. . . . a way must be found to see that
dependents of men who died serving their country are
given the personal support they need.
The Defense Department has come a great distance since the days of
telegrams announcing the loss of a serviceman. Today, officers
serve the point of contact for families and the efforts of most are
well-regarded by the families they serve.
However, few have the experience and clout needed to pry
information out of the DIA, and their stints in the job are short:
except in the Air Force, assignments last no more than three years.
This forces families to drive the information-gathering process --
and their lack of security clearance and knowledge ill-equips them
to get the answers they seek.
Simply put, the agencies of our Government responsible
for the MIA issue do not provide us of their own volition
and in a timely manner all information that they had
about my father's fate, despite their often-repeated
promise to do just that.
The inability of casualty officers to satisfy families' legitimate
needs for information often worsens communication. In their
eagerness to learn all they can, many families have turned to other
channels -- pressing intelligence analysts or private activists for
more. The different interpretations, and sometimes different facts,
obtained through these channels have exposed a bureaucracy that is
lumbering and often senseless in its operations. It has left many
families unsure about who to believe.
Our family has never been officially told that Steven was
taken prisoner, but we had received a declassified
document from another POW/MIA family, that stated Steven
was positively identified by photograph in November of
1968 (three months after his disappearance) as being
taken prisoner. I do not know which list he now falls
under, the 111 confirmed to have died in captivity or the
133 of whom no other information is available. I'm sure
we will be notified in time.
I just wanted to say we are proud of Steven for his
unselfishness in fighting for his country, and how proud
we are of you and the committee for having the courage to
look into this matter to the extent you have in order to
resolve the issue.
Secretary Cheney's plan to use the POW/MIA office to trouble-shoot
is commendable, but further efforts to unify POW/MIA operations are
needed. Too much is lost in "translation" between the men and women
in the field and POW/MIA families, because information goes first
through DIA and then casualty office channels. Oftentimes,
information also is passed through the Inter-Agency Group (see
Chapter 5), further delaying notification of the individual's
While the Committee recognizes the need for some "channels," it
also urges DoD to let the public, and especially family members,
hear directly from those who have first-hand information about
searching for unaccounted-for servicemen.
Families Turn Elsewhere for Help
The National League of Families
The League's origins can be traced to the West Coast during the
late 1960s. Sybil Stockdale, wife of Admiral James Stockdale, the
ranking POW in the "Hanoi Hilton," initiated the movement which
evolved from a loosely organized, small group of families into the
formal organization now known as the National League of Familise of
American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
The impetus for this action was the strong belief by these POW
families that the U.S. Government's policy of keeping a low profile
on POW/MIAs was unjustified and causing the families undue pain --
and perhaps even risking the lives, health and the very return of
their missing loved ones (as described above in "War-Time
In October 1968, the first media account of a POW story was
published. As a result of that story, many families began to
communicate directly with each other. What once was a small group
grew to hundreds and ultimately several thousand family members.
The League's first major activity was to directly confront the
North Vietnamese delegation in Paris with inquiries about the fate
of their loved ones. On other occasions, family members travelled
to Laos and Vietnam on their own to seek answers.
Over the past 25 years, both during and after the war, the League
has pressed hard through its public awareness programs and its
intense pressure on the U.S. Government to get answers. The
League's goals are:
. to obtain the release of all prisoners;
. repatriation of all recoverable remains;
. to provide the fullest possible accounting for all of the
Through the U.S. Government's POW/MIA Inter-Agency Group, the
League has participated over the last decade in the development of
official policy in the areas of intelligence and diplomatic efforts
on the POW/MIA issue. The participation of the League's Executive
Director, Ann Mills Griffiths, as a member of the IAG has led to
great controversy and division among family members (see Chapter
5), but even criticics recognize that Griffiths' participation on
the IAG has givven the League a key role in influencing government
policy on the POW/MIA issue, however. In addition, the Committee
recognizes that the League has provided a continuity to changing
U.S. officials' responsible for policy on this issue spanning 25
years and five Presidencies of both political parties.
The National Alliance of Families
The Alliance was founded in Seattle in June 1990 under the
leadership of Dolores Alfond, sister of Maj. Victor Apodaca who is
missing from the Vietnam War. The Alliance has been a leader in the
effort to unite family members, former POWs and other citizens who
seek information on missing personnel from World War II, the Korean
Conflict, Cold War incidents, and the Vietnam War.
The Alliance also has been a strong advocate for the
declassification of all Government documents pertaining to the
missing from these wars. Another primary purpose of the National
Alliance has been to educate communities (including public and
civic organizations, schools, and the general public) about POW/MIA
issues. Like the League, the Alliance also has held major forums
with family members and Government officials in Washington, D.C.
Fellow Combat Veterans
Another, natural alternative for families hungry for information
was the men who served with their kin. Contacts were ad hoc and
often secretive: officially, the Government observed servicemen's
privacy rights; unofficially, individual servicemen often passed on
information as personal favors, and witnesses regularly reached out
to their buddies' families voluntarily. For untold numbers of
families, the stories that these witnesses told made the
I know my brother went down into the South China Sea. The
radar technician was a very good friend of the family and
he watched the plane go down into the sea. So I feel I
know where my brother is. I feel he was not captured, so
as far as I'm concerned, he's gone. Let him lie in
For some veterans, though, the requests continued -- from family
members unable to accept their necessarily incomplete stories, or
from children who wanted to hear it first-hand. Often, the requests
were not only for the facts of a 20-year-old incident, but for an
explanation of the war itself, an answer to rumors, and more. In
one letter to the son of an MIA, his co-pilot struggled to answer
cosmic questions with a careful recounting of facts:
What happened to your dad and I was the real definition
of rotten coincidence. . . . [We were on a mission to
make] strikes into Laos and Cambodia to stop supplies
from getting into South Vietnam from the North. We didn't
talk much about them only as a matter of policy. There
were not "secret missions" or CIA-driven. . . .
As we rolled in and released the bombs, two anti-aircraft
rounds struck the airplane on the starboard (right) side
forward of the engine intake. The explosion caused the
engine to explode also and the right wing blew off at the
fold. At this point, we looked at each other and ejected
from the aircraft. I went out a second or so before Mike
and wound up on the west side of a small river. He was on
the east. . . the material and people we were after were
I gathered my stuff, hid it, called our wingman and tried
to talk to Mike on the radio kind of all at once. I also
found that my hands and face were burned pretty well and
there was some shrapnel in my arm and head. At this
point, these were the least of our problems. I then tried
to find Mike by wandering around in the jungle in the
dark (12:30 a.m.). Not a good idea as I fell down a small
cliff (8-10 feet) and had to climb out. At this time I
could see down to the river and saw 4-6 troopers come
across the river and head my way. I hid in a bamboo
thicket and waited. . . .
There was enough evidence that Mike might be held in the
general area where we were hit that a "bright light" team
was interested to attempt to find and rescue him. They
are mercenaries that "lived in the area." They found
nothing indicating his having been there. You've been
told the rest and most likely more than I. It was hard to
accept, but I feel he was killed that first night. I
would hope that I was wrong.
Your dad was a great guy and a good friend. He did his
job better than most, but unfortunately was killed. The
best part is he was doing what he loved the most.
. . . you become obsessed. You cannot sleep, eat, work,
because you would waltz with the devil to bring one man
The Government's shortcomings in live-sighting investigations and
elsewhere prompted some families to turn to latter-day Rambos, as
well as to responsible veterans and family organizations, for
Most of us have been tempted at some point to participate
in some form of POW rescue based on nothing more than
questionable and circumstantial information at best, such
as unverified photos, live sightings, and anonymous
reports. If it sounds hokey and mystic, it probably is,
and it almost always plays a very cruel hoax on the
families by raising false hopes. . .
I am very pleased to know this committee will take up
these issues and problems in the near future, and hope
this will eliminate once and for all the con artists, and
clear the way for those who are credible and
knowledgeable to resolve the long standing tragedy of our
Another POW/MIA wife was not able to ignore the information
profferred by a private group:
After the [positive] analysis had come out from Los
Alamos and Dr. Charney I began to doubt my own view of
the picture, which was there was a slight possibility
that it could be Don. I mean I just -- I did not know.
But something that my son said to me sort of turned me
around. He said, "Mother, that picture is obviously an
American. I mean he looks like an American to me. . . .
he's somebody's father, he's somebody's brother, husband,
cousin. If there's a chance in a billion that it's my
dad, you've got to do something."
So with that, that's when I started.
The result of many encounters are devastating, emotionally and
One former Congressman was shown on a nation-wide
television show telling a national audience that he knows
who the prisoners are and where they are. He should be
made to go on nationwide television and retract his lies.
One former Lieutenant Colonel has been exposed on
television for claiming a photo he obtained was of an
American prisoner still in captivity. This was nothing
more than a diabolical plot to raise money; [it] caused
the family involved untold grief and compelled our
Government to expend untold assets to track down this
One extremely convincing former Lieutenant Colonel Bo
Gritz hoodwinked me into believing his story that he knew
where prisoners were being held in Laos and could get
them out. In 1981, the prisoner and missing issue was
getting little or no attention and I saw this as an
opportunity -- not necessarily to recover my son, but to
get at least one prisoner out to prove what we had been
working for. Since my wife and I had been notified by the
Navy Department that our son "had survived to evade" and
were informed by his squadron commander that Nick had
been captured and escaped, I am sure you can appreciate
the vulnerable situation we were in. The "secret rescue
mission" failed very quickly; it never got out of the
state of Florida and cost us $30,000, with nary an
. . . I am not bemoaning the loss of money since that
operation is one-tenth of the amount our family has spent
in our 23 years of involvement. But I do believe that
this Committee has a responsibility to investigate and,
where necessary, prosecute these incredible liars. . .
The fraudulent sideshows also sidetracks U.S. investigators away
from serious leads and force them to chase phantoms:
Sen. McCain: "How much of the effort that your
organization is engaged in has been -- how much of your
assets have had to be diverted to tracking down the bogus
pictures and the hoaxers?
Mr. Sheetz: At times, Senator, I would tell you that
that process has literally precluded us from doing
anything else. Because the political pressure has been
so intense and the high interest among the people in the
Government, this committee, the American public, to know
what is the truth on those cases. . . It's an
opportunity-cost argument. Essentially, what you're
doing is dropping the work that would probably have more
payoff to chase after things that ultimately turn out to
be useless exercises.
The committee wishes to commend the families and advocacy groups
for their strong leadership and perseverance over the years. They
have moved the issue in a positive manner in spite of incredible
obstacles. The most difficult obstacles were the intransigence of
the Communist governments and the lack of focus and attention by
the U.S. Government at many points during the last 40 years.
At the Committee's first round of hearings, in November 1991, all
witnesses -- families, activists, and government officials --
agreed that, ." . . one of the most important things that could
come out of the early days of these hearings is a new structure,
and a new relationship process with the families." Assistant
Secretary Carl Ford explained:
. . . we didn't lose our credibility with you, with the
families, with the American people overnight and we're
not going to gain that credibility back overnight. . . .
The only thing that is going to persuade people is our
actions and our results, and to prove over time that we
are serious, that we do mean what we say, and that
despite occasional setbacks, despite occasional human
errors, we're going to demonstrate over the next months
and weeks, years, that we can do it better than we have
done it in the past. That's our only commitment, to try.
And if there are problems that this committee uncovers,
we'll try to fix them.
In addition to other steps noted above, two actions taken on behalf
of POW/MIA families during the last year have been significant:
. To answer families need for an ombudsman that both DIA and
casualty officers would respond to, Defense Secretary Richard
Cheney created a top-level liaison office at the Pentagon in
January 1992. The job of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for
POW/MIA Affairs is to spearhead POW/MIA policy-making and to
try to get answers when casualty officers cannot.
. POW/MIA documents were ordered declassified in July 1992 by
President Bush, at the unanimous request of the Senate. This
step was taken in conjunction with the establishment of a
central "library" that families can turn to for consolidated
information about their case and others, in accordance with an
amendment sponsored by Sen. McCain and enacted in November,
1991. (See Chapter 5, Declassification).
The most substantive response to families' concerns, however, has
been field operations that have put American troops on the ground
in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to search for answers. For most of
the past 20 years, U.S. investigators shuttled back and forth from
Bangkok to Hanoi whenever they could get permission from Vietnam.
Then, a month before the Committee was formed, a temporary U.S.
POW/MIA office in Hanoi was permitted to open; that became
permanent in November, 1992.
Increased Vietnamese cooperation, won by Presidential Emissary Gen.
John Vessey (USA, Ret.), Assistant Secretary of State Richard
Solomon, and three Senate delegations to Southeast Asia, widened
U.S. investigators' access, letting them go to places where
Americans were reported seen alive after the war, talk to prison
guards and others who may know what happened to missing Americans,
and examine archives and top-secret files that hold promises of
For many POW/MIA families, however, 20 years' experience dealing
with the Government makes it difficult to accept these new
promises. Answers about their kin's fate are still necessary -- but
they are not sufficient to explain the intervening 20 years of U.S.
Government run-around and worse -- and the lack of concern by
Communist governments for basic human dignity.
The Committee's review of past family experiences reflects an array
of problems in dealing with our government that never should have
happened. With proper organization, planning, sensitivity and
openness, the Committee believes these problems can be avoided in
The Government has wavered repeatedly in its efforts to account for
missing servicemen. Their families never have.
POW/MIA families want action, not more promises. The best that the
U.S. Government can do for them is to do its best for their missing
kin. The Committee believes the following steps must be taken to
assure families that the Government is doing its best, and not
simply assigning a priority that is merely words.
Accordingly, the Committee recommends:
. Those actually working on POW/MIA accounting in the field in
Southeast Asia should be made available, when schedules
permit, to meet with families in the United States.
. Military service casualty offices should be headed by
civilians who are not subject to the kind of routine duty
rotations experienced by military personnel. Individuals in
these sensitive positions must have experience and a base of
institutional memory if they are to deal effectively and
knowledgeably with family members.
. The resumed publication of a regular newsletter containing
POW/MIA related information would be a useful means of sharing
new developments with the families.
. Guidelines should be established immediately for the creation
of a central computerized data base within the Executive
branch with information on all unaccounted for U.S. personnel
from past military conflicts, to include World War II, Korea,
the Cold War and Vietnam. All relevant casualty and
intelligence data, in addition to any recently obtained
information potentially correlating to a specific case should
be made readily available to family members and researchers
through the central data base. On-line access to the central
data base should be made available through an easily
accessible modem system.
Procedures also should be developed to ensure that requests
for information contained in the data base can be processed
easily so that family members receive prompt, printed
responses when necessary. Additionally, procedures should be
established by the Department of Defense and the Department of
State to ensure that the data base is updated regularly. The
Committee further recommends that the Secretary of Defense
authorize the DOD family liaison officer to work with the
service casualty officers to develop a data base program which
meets the needs of families and researchers who need to use
. Family members of Vietnam era POW/MIAs who would like to
travel to Southeast Asia for direct discussions with
appropriate U.S. and foreign government officials should be
encouraged and helped to do so.