It was 1985 when John Rambo peered through the jungle greenery and saw a bamboo cage full of aging Americans, dirty, sweaty, and bearing fresh wounds from their daily beating. Vietnamese guards paced the compound, as they had for the past 15 years, despite the war having ended over a decade earlier, and there remained little useful intelligence to be gained from interrogation. It was Hollywood's envisioning of the rumor that American POW/MIAs (Prisoner of War, Missing in Action) are still held captive somewhere. To some, it's a way of holding out hope that a loved one is still alive and may even make it home someday. To others, it's another conspiratorial evil of the American government, which is alleged to know that the prisoners are out there but refuses to acknowledge them or make any effort to bring them home. Are there POW/MIAs still out there somewhere? What does the military actually know?
Soldiers remain unaccounted for from every American war, but those most associated with the POW/MIA movement are the Vietnam servicemen. They are the ones Rambo was searching for, and they're the ones we're going to try and find today.
So let's start by defining exactly who we're looking for. The official numbers given are taken as of Operation Homecoming, a diplomatically negotiated prisoner exchange at the start of 1973. At this time, all known American POWs were released, totaling 591 men. It is the conclusion of the official agency, the DPMO (Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office), that that 591 does represent all prisoners taken, with the exception of 113 who died in captivity. Those soldiers remaining unaccounted for at that time comprise the subjects of the POW/MIA issue.
That remaining total was, at the time, 2,646, all categorized as missing in action, none considered to still be alive as prisoners of war. However, there are several other published numbers that are higher. The reason is that these numbers include some combination of missing civilians, other foreign nationals working with the Americans during the war, casualties from other actions in Vietnam through 1975, and servicemen who are known to have been KIA (killed in action) but their bodies were not recoverable for whatever reason. The smaller 2,646 number excludes KIAs.
As of April 2011, 953 of these have been accounted for. These accountings have included remains that have since been recovered and identified, remains that were recovered but were not identified, and there are even a few men who returned to the United States alive on their own, mostly in the 1970s. This leaves 1,693 Americans who are MIA and unaccounted for, at least officially; but the documentation supporting that number is pretty strong. Even if that number is off by even as much as a few hundred one way or the other, it doesn't have much bearing on the important question. So please don't email me that you have a different number; although individual guys are important, it's really hard to get totals upon which everyone agrees. Different groups publish different numbers. They're all in roughly the same ballpark.
It's worth noting how much better documented the numbers are than in previous wars. The unaccounted for soldiers in World War II and the Korean War totaled 14% of all casualties; in Vietnam, the 1,693 number comes to only 3%. But really, that's neither here nor there; what we want to know is whether any of those 3% are still held in captivity somewhere, and whether the US government knows about it and is covering it up.
There are a few obvious possible fates for many of those men. One is that they were in fact killed in action, and their bodies were buried by the enemy in graves that will probably never be found. Undoubtedly this is what happened to some of the MIAs; how many, we'll probably never know.
Another possibility is that they deserted. Stories of some deserters are known. 40 men are known to have deserted, which may sound like a dubiously small number. Some returned to the United States under false identities; some escaped to other countries such as Australia or Canada; and some found homes inside Vietnam, both in remote villages and in the larger cities such as Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City).
One such home was the legendary "Soul City", an apocryphal district in a Saigon suburb populated by African-American servicemen, most of whom were presumably deserters. From this stronghold, they are said to have engaged in drug dealing and black marketeering. Soul City was never officially acknowledged or busted, though its existence was something of an open secret. Could some of the MIAs simply be soldiers who stayed at Soul City? It's certainly possible.
However, any deserters who hoped to carve out a life for themselves inside Vietnam would have had a pretty ugly time at the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. North Vietnamese forces swept Saigon and other cities throughout the country. No American prisoners are known to have been taken during this operation. No doubt the North Vietnamese did encounter some American deserters. We'll never know how many or who they might have been, but it's probable that they were killed. North Vietnamese would have assumed that any leftover Americans they ran into were CIA. Any enclaves like Soul City would have been overrun and destroyed.
This leaves the other frequently suggested fate of some of the 1,693 MIAs: That they are still held prisoner as POWs somewhere, and the United States government knows it, and is covering it up. If this conspiracy has indeed been discovered, that means someone somewhere must have discovered it and knows where these alleged prisoners are.
Rambo's bamboo cages are not the only place such POWs might be held. In 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin issued a statement that some American POWs had been transferred from Vietnam to prison camps inside the Soviet Union, where he said it was "very possible" they may still be alive today. This revelation sent shockwaves throughout the POW/MIA community. President George H.W. Bush and the bipartisan leaders of a Senate subcommittee investigating the POW/MIAs praised the announcement, and praised the vow of a new joint US-Russia POW/MIA commission to redouble its efforts.
Yeltsin is not the only highly-placed official to have made such comments. For a year and a half in the early 1990s, a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs was formed that included both John Kerry and John McCain, mainly to investigate charges of conspiracy and coverup by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and the current Bush administration. Two former Secretaries of Defense, Melvin Laird (January 1969 - January 1973) and James Schlesinger (July 1973 - November 1975), testified to this committee that they believed there were still prisoners left behind. To many, that sounds like about the most authoritative statement possible and proves the case. So how can it be that the committee eventually concluded that no compelling evidence exists that any Americans remained alive in captivity?
Secretaries of Defense know only what their staffs tell them. Laird and Schlesinger had served during and immediately after the war, at a time when none of the many reports had yet been thoroughly investigated, and at a time when American investigators did not have access to the battlefields and incident sites. What Laird and Schlesinger testified to was what their staffs knew in the early 1970s. But ever since the late 1980s, the US has had full access to those sites, including cooperation from southeast Asian officials, and has maintained research offices on the ground throughout the region. By the time of the Senate Select Committee, we had a much fuller and clearer picture of what had actually happened at the close of the war.
Where Yeltsin got the information backing his claim is not known, but it is known that no reliable evidence was ever produced that supported it. Some have speculated that Yeltsin simply asked his staff for something he could announce to give the appearance of glasnost and increased cooperation between the two great superpowers. No prisoners from any American wars have ever been found held captive in Russia, China, Korea, or anywhere else. The DPMO has more such reports than you can shake a stick at, but all that have been considered reliable enough to investigate have led nowhere.
And it's this lack of any living POWs rescued that has fueled not only the conspiracy theory that the government is covering up their existence, but also a protracted and ugly battle of words between those within the DPMO and a massive activist community spearheaded by veterans who collect their own reports, and remain firmly convinced that prisoners are still being held. Twenty years ago many of these activists were still in the field, doing their own searches throughout southeast Asia; these days the community has aged and it's a bunch of grouchy old men calling each other liars on web sites. Most of them appear to me to be split along political party lines, with conservatives generally supporting the claims of a coverup, and liberals generally supporting the findings of the Department of Defense. Tribalism at its finest. I have no doubt that much of the feedback I receive will criticize me for not including the astonishing discoveries of researcher so-and-so; there are too many of them to list.
The Library of Congress maintains a web site, POW/MIA Databases and Documents, with over 150,000 declassified documents from the DPMO that are fully searchable by name. Search on the name of an MIA or POW and a list of documents will come up. Many of these are quite interesting, giving reports of sightings or decriptions of photographic analysis. Some consider this database to be an example of the transparency of the DPMO's efforts; others consider it fool's gold made to pacify the gullible.
Either way, claims that the government is ignoring the issue are hard to defend. More of the 1,693 are identified and put to rest each year, as can be seen on the DPMO's web site. In 2001, all sixteen members of a joint American-Vietnamese team searching for American MIAs were killed when their helicopter crashed in Vietnam on their way to excavate a site searching for remains to identify. Ironically, another such team was diverted from Laos to identify them. The war is over for many, but still very much a daily danger to some.
Some of the 1,693 probably died in combat. Some of them probably deserted. Some are probably living under assumed identities anywhere in the world, and many of those have likely died of natural causes. Are any of them held prisoner? We can't say that they're not, but we can say the evidence has not yet been convincing enough. Volumes of shoddy evidence don't aggregate into good evidence. You can stack cowpies as high as you want; they won't turn into a bar of gold.