In our effort to leave no stone unturned in achieving the fullest possible accounting, the administration decided to undertake a zero-based comprehensive review of all cases involving unaccounted-for Americans in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia resulting from the Vietnam War. This comprehensive review represents the first time such an exhaustive assessment has been conducted. It assesses each case, weighing all related information, including data collected through recent on-site American investigation and research in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We have found that for any case, it is exceedingly difficult to predict the extent to which evidence of knowledgeability by Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia about some aspect of a U.S. loss could lead to an accounting of the individual.
The conclusions derived from this review allow us to focus our understanding on individual cases, provide the basis for a sound investigation strategy and define next steps for achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing in Southeast Asia.
We have already begun incorporating information derived from this review into field operations in Southeast Asia. Most actions will be carried out in the continuing program of in-country investigations conducted by the U.S. with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Others require actions by these three Southeast Asian governments. Some case activity will be focused on U.S.-based efforts, such as the forensic analysis of remains already repatriated or the additional research of U.S. records. For those cases where investigative leads have been exhausted, further investigation must await new information.
Some of our general collection initiatives planned or now under way may yield further actions. Our analysis also indicates that there is virtually no possibility that we will ever recover remains for some cases regardless of any future effort put forward by the U.S., Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian governments.
Information on unaccounted-for Americans is constantly changing as a result of continuing research, investigative and recovery operations, and identifications. The numbers used in this report represent the data base on July 21, 1995, the date on which analytic work was completed. As of that date, there were 2,202 Americans unaccounted for in Southeast Asia: 1,618 in Vietnam, 499 in Laos, 77 in Cambodia and eight in China. Cases involving losses in China were reviewed, but are not discussed as we are pursuing them separately with the Chinese government.
Fifty-eight analysts assigned to the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Office in Washington, Joint Task Force Full Accounting in Hawaii and the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii independently reviewed all cases and then shared views to reach a coordinated position on appropriate next steps for further pursuit. The data they reviewed was based on circumstances of the incident, wartime and postwar collection by the U.S. government, information uncovered through the joint investigative processand data turned over by the Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian governments.
Americans became missing or were killed under a wide range of circumstances. Losses include downed aviators, soldiers known to have died on the battlefield but whose remains were not recovered due to enemy action as well as people drowned while crossing a river but whose remains could not be found.
There are also a small number of individuals who were lost while in U.S. custody (they disappeared from their unit or were lost while off duty in Vietnam, for example). There is no indication these individuals voluntarily disappeared; the assumption is that they met with foul play, although the circumstances and location of their loss remain unknown.
There is another group of cases in which individual remains were known to have been destroyed, for instance, in an aircraft crash or in ground loss-related explosions, but these individuals are still considered unaccounted for because their remains could not be returned.
Finally, there is a small number of cases in which the individual is known to have died and his remains were in U.S. custody at one time, but then were lost. Examples of this latter category include remains falling off an evacuation helicopter as the aircraft received hostile fire or having mistakenly been taken and buried by allied forces.
Wartime efforts to collect information on U.S. losses began, where possible, with investigations by U.S. and allied forces in Southeast Asia at the time of the incident (ground searches of the loss area, investigations among the local population and recovery efforts at known crash sites and graves). During the war and in the years following, the U.S. maintained efforts to acquire additional information on these cases, interviewing enemy POWs, U.S. and allied former POWs, and postwar refugees. We also continued to collect information from foreign media and other sources.
By the beginning of joint investigations in Vietnam in September 1988, in Cambodia in 1991 and in Laos in 1992, we had collected information on 60 percent of the cases. In only about one-third of these, or 20 percent of the total cases, did this new information significantly increase our understanding or ability to pursue new leads.
Since July 1992, as a result of joint operations with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, our continuing archival collection effort has yielded much information that we can correlate to cases of unaccounted-for individuals. We have also learned that information originally thought to correlate to specific losses was not related to the case. In addition, we now judge that we can no longer automatically assume that previous archival correlations indicate additional information can be produced today.
The joint investigation process in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has allowed us for the first time to investigate the cases of all individuals except those lost far at sea. With the assistance of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, we have found significant information through the joint investigation process for 38 percent of the cases of Americans who are still unaccounted for.
In Vietnam, we have investigated all of the 1,169 in-country losses at least once. We have also investigated 35 percent of the over-water losses. In Laos, we have investigated 97 percent of the 499 losses; the remainder is scheduled for future investigation. In Cambodia, we have investigated 100 percent of the cases at least once.
While some of these cases have been investigated only once, many have been investigated as many as seven times. Even "off-the-scope" cases have been investigated at least once at their last known location. We have investigated on both sides of the borders between Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have also conducted trilateral investigations in Laos, in which Vietnamese witnesses provided firsthand information on U.S. losses.
The cases in which we have not found significant information comprise a wide variety of losses. In many instances, failure to find new or significant case information is not surprising. Some involve off-the-scope losses, and neither the U.S. nor, apparently, the countries where the losses occurred know where to begin to investigate. Others occurred where there were no local witnesses, for instance, in areas controlled by U.S. forces, in remote jungles, in contested battlefields or at sea. In addition, witnesses are often very difficult to locate today. In the years since the war, many Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodians who might have provided information have died or moved. Others are unidentified Vietnamese soldiers who witnessed a battlefield loss but were not native to the area and have long since returned home.
In addition to joint investigations, the Southeast Asian governments have provided information on 831 individuals (38 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia). The information on 506 of these individuals (23 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia) provided new information or leads that enabled us to move the case investigation forward.
Vietnam, which, since 1973, has turned over information on 551 Americans still unaccounted for in Vietnam, 215 in Laos and 11 in Cambodia, has shared the results of its own investigations on captured, missing or killed Americans; provided copies of wartime records on POWs, aircraft downings and other engagements in which Americans became unaccounted for; and turned over records of deaths and burials, and photos from the archives of the Vietnam News Agency, museums, and wartime Vietnamese media reports. They have also facilitated our access to Vietnamese military historians, authors and researchers as well as museums and other collections of data, weaponry and material.
Laos has provided information on seven loss incidents involving 20 individuals, none of which has led to case resolution. The Lao government has steadfastly refused requests to review their wartime archives or to interview military veterans and political officials. Consequently, we only interview local villagers, most of whom were not in the loss areas during the war.
Cambodia has provided data on 20 Americans lost in that country. This information has come principally from wartime periodicals in the Cambodian national archives. We judge it unlikely that many useful governmental records survived the Khmer Rouge. Magazines and books of Vietnamese origin found in the Cambodian archives contain information on 13 Americans lost in Vietnam. Cambodia has provided access to former Khmer Rouge military leaders and officials, who provided useful information.
In addition, all three countries have cooperated in the investigation of possible sightings of live unaccounted-for Americans in Southeast Asia. Since 1991, Vietnam has facilitated the investigation of 96 reports by persons alleging to have seen live Americans held in that country. We have been unable to associate any of these reports with missing Americans. The Lao and Cambodians have each permitted nine joint live-sighting investigations. None of these investigations has surfaced any information relating to unaccounted for Americans.
The most important finding of this comprehensive review is the identification of specific "next-step" actions. In many cases, these next steps are precisely that: next, but not necessarily final. They do not represent an exhaustive array of all the avenues of investigation that might be required to resolve a case. They do represent what is considered the best next step to move a case toward resolution.
This process is evolutionary. For some cases, next steps have been identified, but implementation is contingent upon activity currently taking place. For others, we anticipate new leads will develop out of ongoing investigations. The Department of Defense will continue to evaluate all new leads to ensure those actions that could lead to the fullest possible accounting are pursued.
The review distinguishes the type of actions for each case. The first -- further pursuit -- are those where we have specific next steps to pursue in the investigative process. For some of these, the lead is a single action; in others, several different approaches are necessary. The second group -- deferred -- includes cases where we have exhausted all current leads. We must defer further investigation of these cases until additional leads are developed. The final set -- no further pursuit -- involves those cases where we judge no actions by any government will result in the recovery of remains.
The comprehensive review identifies further investigative leads for cases involving 1,476 individuals (67 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia). Actions have been identified for 942 (58 percent) of the individual losses in Vietnam, 470 (94 percent) of the losses in Laos, 61 (79 percent) of the losses in Cambodia and three of the losses in China.
Our review also allows us to characterize whether these specific actions should be pursued through joint action, U.S. action or Southeast Asian government action. (In the following discussion of the types of actions, the numbers total higher than 1,476 because multiple actions have been identified for some cases.)
Joint activity with the relevant Southeast Asian government: actions on cases involving 741 individuals (37 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia). Such activity involves further in-country investigation, detailed loss-site surveys, full-scale site excavations, joint archival research, witness interviews or other joint effort. Many times, joint activity may be all that is required. In some cases, however, another form of investigation may also be taken concurrently with the scheduled joint efforts.
U.S.-based research, analysis or other collection: actions on cases involving 423 individuals (19 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia). The most prominent example is the forensic analysis of previously recovered remains, which is undertaken at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii. This includes the emerging technology of mitochondrial DNA, which offers promise for identifying remains that cannot be identified using traditional forensic techniques. Other U.S.-based initiatives involve research into American combat records to clarify loss coordinates or battle details and interviews with American observers to the incident.
Vietnamese, Lao or Cambodian government activity: actions on cases involving 464 individuals (21 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia). In 342 of these individuals' cases, actions by a Southeast Asian government have been identified as necessary for further investigation. For the remaining 122, similar actions have been identified for pursuit in tandem with joint or U.S.-based pursuits. These leads are complex and varied in scope, requiring action at the local, technical or higher levels. The actions fall into two groupings.
For other cases, partial remains were recovered and turned over to CILHI, but are unidentifiable without additional information. It must be emphasized that we cannot be certain that the Southeast Asian government involved can provide additional information due to the loss of records, death of relevant persons and other factors. We have no evidence that information is being deliberately withheld.
In the cases of 159 individuals (7 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia), our analysis indicates that all investigative leads have been exhausted and, currently, no further avenues of pursuit can be identified. Although the investigation of these cases is not complete, we require additional information to develop new leads.
Based on a thorough review of all available information, our analysis indicates that 567 individuals (26 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia) perished and regardless of any future effort by the U.S. government and the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, their cases cannot be resolved through the repatriation of remains. Examples include service members killed in explosions that destroyed their remains, aviators whose planes ditched at sea far from land and who were not recovered, persons who were buried on river banks that have since eroded, others who drowned in flooded rivers and were swept away, and individuals who were buried in areas where the topography has changed significantly.
Although we have concluded analytically that these individuals perished and their cases cannot be resolved through the repatriation of remains, this assessment does not immediately close these cases. Based on the review results, we recommend that the secretary of defense establish a review board to review independently each case. When appropriate, the findings of that board will be forwarded to the relevant service secretary for a final determination whether to continue U.S. government efforts to account for these individuals.
As the final step in our review process, we examined our next steps in the context of those cases which the U.S. government has highlighted in talks with the Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian governments. The next steps for cases discussed in Secretary of Defense [William J.] Perry's Feb. 17, 1995, report to the Congress include Vietnam -- special remains and photo cases; priority discrepancy and fate not confirmed cases; and priority discrepancy, death confirmed; Laos -- priority discrepancy and Viet-Lao border cases; Cambodia -- priority discrepancy cases.
Special remains cases: In August 1993, the U.S. government presented the Vietnamese with a list of 98 individuals (4 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia) for which we had evidence indicating the Vietnamese had knowledge of an American's death and the disposition of the individual's remains. This list was representative of, not all-inclusive of, these cases. The evidence of Vietnamese knowledge used to select the 98 individuals falls into four categories:
Photo cases: This group of cases focuses on combat photos from Vietnamese files showing deceased American personnel and material in Vietnamese custody. Many of these were given to Vietnam in two so-called "photo books"; one by [former] Secretary of Defense [Richard] Cheney, [former] Secretary of State [Lawrence] Eagleburger and Gen. [John W.] Vessey [special U.S. presidential emissary to Hanoi for POW/MIA affairs] in 1993 (23 individuals); and another by Sen. [John] Kerry in 1993 (71 individuals). Once duplications between the lists are removed and accounted-for individuals are subtracted, these two photo books include 77 unaccounted for Americans (3 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia). All but 10 of these 77 individuals also appear on the special remains case list and/or the last known alive cases list.
We have determined that 66 of these 77 individuals require further investigation. The investigation of three other individuals must be deferred until additional information is developed, and we believe the cases of eight individuals cannot be resolved through the repatriation of remains.
Priority discrepancy cases: The priority discrepancy -- also known as last-known-alive -- cases are those involving American personnel who were known to be alive, not gravely wounded and in proximity to the enemy at the time of their loss. Of the original 296 individuals meeting this definition who were lost in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Of those, 269 individuals (12 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia) remain unaccounted for, and fates have yet to be confirmed for 154 (7 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia).
Resolution of such difficult cases as died-in-captivity, over-water, and off-the-scope cases has been, and will continue to be, a major challenge for our accounting effort.
Died-in-captivity cases: At the conclusion of Operation Homecoming in 1973, the military services -- or in the cases of civilians, the Department of State -- identified 97 Americans as prisoners who did not come home. At about the same time, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the provisional revolutionary government in the south provided lists that altogether named 59 unaccounted-for Americans said to have died in captivity. The two lists were combined, and 15 duplications were removed to create the current list.
Removing the names of the 76 Americans who have been accounted for since 1973 leaves 65 unaccounted-for Americans (3 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia). These individuals have long been a focus of U.S. investigation because available evidence indicates that the Vietnamese and Lao governments should be able to help provide information on their remains.
As a result of joint investigative work and information from the Southeast Asian governments, we have confirmed that seven graves are no longer locatable due to their remote location, the passage of time or changes in topography. In 57 cases, however, we believe recovering identifiable remains is still possible. Work on one case must be deferred until additional information is discovered.
Over-water losses: There are 470 unaccounted-for individuals (21 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia) who were involved in at-sea losses: 449 in Vietnamese waters, 15 in Cambodian waters and six in Chinese waters. These include aviators whose planes crashed at sea, persons who perished when their vessels sank, those who fell or were swept overboard and a few swimmers swept out to sea.
Most of these losses were not known to the Indochinese governments, and our analysis indicates the individuals involved perished and their cases cannot be resolved through the repatriation of remains. After reviewing the cases of every over-water loss, 366 individuals were determined to have been lost at sea, and their remains are not believed to be recoverable. This number includes five of the six over-water losses in China. The cases of 96 individuals, most of whom were lost near shore or an enemy maritime force, merit further investigation. Investigation of the cases of eight individuals lack any leads to pursue.
Off-the-scope cases: 308 individuals (14 percent of those missing in Southeast Asia) were never heard from again after embarking on long-range ground or air reconnaissance missions or after their aircraft were last seen visually on radar heading toward a given target. This type of loss is referred to as off-the-(radar) scope because the location and circumstances of loss are still unknown. Some of these cases are also over-water losses.
Many of these cases will be very difficult to investigate because we do not know where to focus our efforts. However, we will continue to investigate the cases for 215 of these individuals. For 39 individuals, we have no leads to pursue and must defer further action. Our analysis indicates we cannot resolve the cases of 54 individuals who perished in incidents far at sea.
This analytic review represents the first time the U.S. government has assessed all information and material collected since the war's end. Our analytic judgments are based on the evidence, as well as on Southeast Asian cultural and historical practices and operational realities. The results provide a basis for a comprehensive work plan to forward systematically the accounting process.
These results will be presented to the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in late November by the presidential delegation headed by Deputy Secretary for Veteran Affairs Hershel Gober, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kent Weidemann, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/MIA Affairs James Wold and representatives from the National League of Families and veteran service organizations.
Our conclusions and judgments have allowed us to identify the best next steps to move cases toward resolution. There is no certainty, of course, that every case will ultimately be resolved. Many of these actions are already incorporated in JTF-FA's work plan. In some cases, investigative steps have already been completed and assessed. We will continue to analyze results as they become available and reassess cases based on those results.
The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office will contact primary next-of-kin for all Americans lost in Southeast Asia who remain unaccounted for via letter through the service casualty offices to advise them of the impact of this review on their specific case. In all cases, information pertaining to individual cases will be shared with the families before it is made available to the public.
Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, February 21, 1996 -- "We don’t think we’ll ever be able to recover remains for 567 of [the 2,162 Americans still missing in Southeast Asia]," said James Wold, deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA Affairs.
The revelation was made in a report to Congress last winter. It prompted accusations by some that the Pentagon is forsaking the missing. But Wold refuted that notion. He said such an announcement "generates the most publicity because it's the first public recognition that no matter what we do or what host governments [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia] do, we'll never be able to recover some remains. This is no different from past wars from which there still remain thousands of missing Americans. "
"The decision was based analytically on our review of all the cases," Wold noted.
There are a number of reasons why some missing may never be accounted for, Wold said. "Americans became missing or were killed under a wide range of circumstances," he noted. "Losses include downed aviators; soldiers known to have died on the battlefield, but whose remains were not recovered due to enemy actions. There were, for example, soldiers who drowned while crossing a river whose remains could not be found.
"A small number disappeared from their unit or were lost while off duty in Vietnam. The assumption is they met with foul play, although the circumstances and location of their loss remains unknown."
Some of the most difficult cases to solve involve airplane crashes at sea, Wold said. There are 470 unaccounted cases of individuals lost at sea: 449 in Vietnamese waters, 15 in Cambodian waters and six in Chinese waters. "This includes aviators whose planes crashed at sea, persons who perished when their vessels sank and those who fell or were swept overboard and a few swimmers swept out to sea," Wold said. After reviewing the cases of every over-water loss, 366 individuals were determined to have been lost at sea, and their remains are believed to be unrecoverable.
There are also cases involving ground action loses, Wold said. "A platoon or company of men, perhaps, was involved in a battle by a fast-moving stream where a person swept down stream is never recovered."
Service members missing in Southeast Asia receive the most publicity, but DoD hasn't forgotten the missing from World War II, the Korean War or the Cold War, the retired Air Force brigadier general said.
"We're trying to increase dialogue with other countries about Americans missing in prior conflicts," Wold said. "Last August, we completed the 12th U.S./Russia Joint Commission plenary session in Moscow. There's a lot of productive activity going on, and we're getting additional information."
The United States is trying to get the North Korean government to conduct joint investigations into the whereabouts of U.S. service members buried in cemeteries in that country. Officials are also asking the Chinese government for access to military archives to help account for Americans missing from the Korean War.
The United States isn’t giving up on accounting for any of the missing, Wold emphasized. "DoD is conducting major joint field activities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia," he said. "We recently completed two significant joint investigations in Cambodia. The Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and the Life Science Equipment Laboratory at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, are extremely busy working on these cases. We’re also engaged in a major research and document declassification effort concerning Vietnam and Korean War losses."
Vietnam turned over more important documents in 1995 than ever before, Wold noted. "In terms of joint field activities," he said, "the cooperation is good and they're very flexible "I must say the same thing about Laos," he continued. "But Laos doesn't have as many resources per capita as the Vietnamese to work with us on joint field activities.
Cambodia is a little different, Wold said. There are 77 outstanding cases in Cambodia. "We concluded a very successful operation off Tang Island, on the coast of Cambodia. This was related to the Mayaguez incident in 1975. [The Khmer Rouge captured the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez. President Ford sent in Marines to rescue the crew. A total of 15 Marines died and 50 were wounded in the operation].
The salvage ship USS Brunswick dredged around a helicopter that was shot down and crashed in the surf. "Navy divers recovered remains and artifacts that may lead to accountability in several cases," Wold said. "We also investigated another helicopter crash northeast of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
Letters explaining how the results of DoD's report "Zero- Based Comprehensive Review of Cases Involving Unaccounted for Americans in Southeast Asia" is being sent to families of missing service members. The analytic review represents the first time the U.S. government has assessed all information and material collected since the Vietnam War ended.
"Information about individual cases isn't classified, but it may be restricted because of privacy concerns," Wold said. "So the information can't become public until the families are notified."
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