1,621 Americans are now listed by DoD as missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War: Vietnam – 1,264 (VN-466, VS-798); Laos–301; Cambodia-49; Peoples Republic of China territorial waters–7. (These numbers occasionally fluctuate due to investigations resulting in changed locations of loss.) The League seeks the fullest possible accounting for those still missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains. The League’s highest priority is accounting for Americans last known alive. Official intelligence indicates that Americans known to be in captivity in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were not returned at the end of the war. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that these Americans could still be alive, and the US Government should not rule out that possibility.
Vietnam established comprehensive wartime and post-war processes to collect and retain information and remains; thus, unilateral efforts by them offered significant potential. Vietnam has since taken many unilateral actions that are welcome and appreciated, plus announced that there are no obstacles to full cooperation. Recently, Vietnam has increased implementation of commitments to provide long-sought archival records with relevant, case-related information, thanks in part to improvement of working-level efforts, but primarily due to increased bilateral relations across the board. The early 2015 League Delegation brought commitments that offered real promise for increased success. First undertaken in northern Vietnam in 1985, joint field operations have dramatically changed and are now much more effective. Vietnamese officials are participating with greater seriousness and professionalism, achieving increased results, including both US-led Joint Excavation Teams and Vietnamese Recovery Teams (VRTs), led by Vietnamese and supported by a few US personnel. This formula allows a greater number of teams to “increase the pace and scope of field operations,” as requested by Vietnam during discussions since 2009. Due to increased military-to-military cooperation, US Navy assets are now allowed to participate in underwater survey and recovery operations, when requested. These steps, long advocated by the League, are now coming to fruition and are routinely raised by US officials at all levels.
After a rough period, joint field operations in Laos are now increasingly productive, even though more difficult than elsewhere. Accounting efforts had slowed due to Lao Government inflexibility, attempting to over-price payment for helicopter support and denying permission for ground transport to accessible incident sites. Laos is now showing greater flexibility, earlier having increased the number of US personnel permitted in-country, now allowing ground transport to accessible sites, and has renewed a business license to a foreign company to provide reliable, small helicopter support. When helpful, Vietnamese witnesses are also allowed to participate in joint US-Lao operations. The Lao Government permits DIA’s Stony Beach POW/MIA specialist to full time in-country; however, is still far too limited in terms of operating outside the confines of scheduled DPAA field operations. Also, despite strong support from, and interventions by, US Ambassador Dan Clune, there are still challenges that must be addressed and resolved.
Related to DIA’s Stony Beach Team, one Cambodia specialist works full time at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, and research and field operations in Cambodia have received excellent support. Two Stony Beach personnel have for years rotated on temporary duty in and out of Vietnam, collecting information via archival research and interviews of potential witnesses. Vietnam was long ago requested to permit, and is still reportedly considering, permanent status for these two POW/MIA specialists. Successive US Ambassadors have strongly supported this important move, but increases in bilateral military relations should be sufficient to overcome any reluctance. The US Ambassador to Laos has also supported full use of the Lao specialist. It is hoped that the expanded bilateral relationships with Laos and Vietnam will mean these positive decisions will not be further delayed. The Stony Beach specialists are sorely needed to augment the investigation process while witnesses are still living and to facilitate locating additional incident sites for follow-up DPAA recoveries.
The greatest obstacles to increased Vietnam War and worldwide accounting efforts are 1) too few qualified scientists to lead recovery teams; and 2) unreliable funding that has caused US cancellation of scheduled operations, thus sending mixed, negative signals to foreign governments and counterparts. These challenges are being addressed by Mr. Michael Linnington, named to lead the “complete reorganization” of the accounting community directed by former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Since over 80% of US losses in Laos and 90% in Cambodia occurred in areas where Vietnam’s forces operated during the war, Vietnam’s expanded provision of helpful records, improved and increased archival research, interviews and field operations are the core means to expand accounting for Vietnam War missing personnel.
Live Sighting statistics provided by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)
Live Sightings: As of February 22, 2016, 1,996 first-hand live sighting reports have been received since 1975, none recently. 1,941 (97.24%) were resolved: 1,340 (67.13%) equated to Americans previously accounted for (i.e. returned POWs, missionaries or civilians detained for violating SRV codes); 45 (2.25%) correlated to wartime sightings of military personnel or pre-1975 sightings of civilians still unaccounted-for; 556 (27.86%) were determined to be fabrications. The remaining 55 (2.76%) unresolved first-hand reports are the focus of continuing analytical and collection efforts: 48 (2.40%) concern Americans reported in a captive environment; 7 (0.35%) are non-captive sightings. The years in which these 55 first hand sightings occurred are listed below:
Pre-1976 – 36
1976-1985 – 3
1986-1995 – 1
1996-2005 – 14
2006-2013 – 1
Total – 55
Accountability: At the end of the Vietnam War, there reportedly were 2,583 unaccounted-for American prisoners, missing or killed in action/body not recovered. As of March 26, 2016, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lists 1,621 Americans as missing and unaccounted-for, 90+% of them in Vietnam or in areas of Cambodia and Laos where Vietnamese operated during the war. A breakdown by year of recovery for the 962 Americans accounted for from Vietnam War-related losses since the end of the war in 1975 follows:
1965-1974 War years: (recently identified) – 2
1974-1975 Winding down USG effort – 28
1976-1978 US/SRV normalization negotiations – 47
1979-1980 US/SRV talks break down – 1
1981-1985 1st Reagan Administration – 23
1985-1989 2nd Reagan Administration – 168
1989-1993 George H.W. Bush Administration – 128
1993-1997 1st Clinton Administration – 326
1997-2001 2nd Clinton Administration – 57
2001-2004 1st George W. Bush Administration – 64
2004-2008 2nd George W. Bush Administration – 62
2008-2012 1st Obama Administration – 48
2012-2015 2nd Obama Administration – 8
According to the DPAA Lab, unilateral SRV repatriations of remains with scientific evidence of storage have accounted for less than 200 of the 654 from Vietnam; two were mistakenly listed as KIA/BNR in Vietnam in 1968, but remains were actually recovered at that time. All but eight of the 265 Americans accounted for in Laos since the end of the war have been the result of joint recoveries. The seven were recovered and turned over by indigenous personnel, six from Laos and one from Vietnam. In addition, three persons identified were recovered in Vietnam before the end of the war. There follows a breakdown by country of the 962 Americans accounted for since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Vietnam – 654
Laos – 265
China – 3
Cambodia – 40
An additional 63 US personnel were accounted for between 1973 and 1975, a grand total of 1,025. These Americans were accounted for by unilateral US effort in areas where the US could gain access at that time, not due to government-to-government cooperation with the post-war governments of Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.