AMERICAN POWs, MIAs AND VETERANS IN THE VIETNAM WAR

AMERICAN POWs IN THE VIETNAM WAR

Hanoi acknowledged having 591 American prisoners of war (POWs) at the end of the war. Many more were captured but were killed or died while in captivity. Other were released earlier. On several occasions the POWs were displayed in propaganda shows and forced to make claims about American atrocities. During one of these displays one POW spelled out T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code by blinking his eyes. Another discreetly gave his captors the finger. A photograph of the latter, with the middle fingers air brushed out, was shown in Life magazine.

To keep from going crazy prisoners communicated by tapping out messages in morse code and their own shorthand code. They became so adept at doing this they could crack jokes in tapped code . Every Sunday, at a coded signal, they recited the Lord’s Prayer and the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.

Describing his capture after his plane was shot down by small arms fire, POW Jim Thompson wrote, "V.C. guerillas found the crash, I regained consciousness when one of them grabbed my hand. He had a knife and he was about to slice my finger off to get my birth stone ring, a ruby. I got the ring off myself and handed it to him. They’d already stripped me of my weapons and everything in my pockets...I was tied to a litter and carried down the mountain. When I regained consciousness that night or the next, I was tied spread eagle on the floor of a Montagnard hut." [Source: Tom Philpott, New Yorker, April 2, 2001 <>]

Thompson was mostly kept in jungles and small cells. One of the first Americans to lay eyes on him, after four years of imprisonment, told the New Yorker, "He looked like something out of Auschwitz. I don’t know how he stood up, how he breathed, how he did anything; His features were so distorted...I could see his entire skeleton and the balls of his joints around his knees and elbows." <>

American commandos assaulted Son Tay Prison in North Vietnam, which was believed to hold American POWs. It turned out to be empty. During the war the Texas tycoon Ross Perot financed an unsuccessful rescue mission into Hanoi to release American prisoners. Perot's claimed there were still live POWs in Vietnam long after the war was over. Former POW John McCain said, "he's nuttier that a fruitcake.

Films: Return with Honor , featuring former POWs, recount what had happened to them, received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival.

Hanoi Hilton

Many American POWs were kept at prison nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. Hanoi Hilton (whose remains are located at the Hanoi Towers hotel and shopping complex in the French Quarter of Hanoi) was the nickname of Hoa Lo Prison, where shot-down American pilots and other American prisoners of war languished for up to eight years during the Vietnam War. Built in 1912 by the French, it was surrounded by a electric barbed fence and yellow walls topped with pieces of broken glass. Vietnamese revolutionaries captured by the French were imprisoned in Hoa La during the war with France in the 1940s and 50s. They called it Hoa Lo, or the furnace, because the cell blocks were unbearable hot.

The prison was used through the 1990s, and finally torn down in December 1994 to make way for a $60 million, 22-story hotel and office complex called Hanoi Towers. Several cell blocks were saved at a museum called Prison Museum. Each of the cells is fitted with shackles. In the courtyard is a guillotine. In a glass display case you can see the helmet, oxygen mask and a flight suit of Sen. John McCain ( he denies they're his, the placard states he “now a Senator in the US House of Representatives”) and Douglas Peterson, the first U.S. Ambassador to post-war Vietnam.

Anthony Faiola wrote in Washington Post, “A place of torture and suffering for almost a century -- first for Vietnamese political prisoners and thieves during French colonial times, then for American troops during the Vietnam War -- Hoa Lo has become a hot tourist attraction in a profoundly changed Vietnam. It draws not only overseas tourists but curious locals as well. Giang Phu and Nhung Thi Tian, 23-year-old college students in Hanoi, did not have to travel very far to see Hoa Lo. At 2 p.m., they are in front of its in-house guillotine, which was used to dispatch death row inmates during French rule. "The French, like the Americans, invaded Vietnam," Giang says, in a room filled with the smell of wood and cold, rusting metal. She rubs the goose bumps forming on her slender arms as she speaks. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, October 25, 2006]

The legacy of the several hundred American POWs housed here from 1964 to 1973 is contained in two small rooms toward the outer edge of the prison museum. Propaganda photos underscore Vietnamese claims that U.S. prisoners were treated with utmost dignity. American soldiers are depicted receiving gifts from guards and attending Christian religious services. Encased in glass is the flight suit of Hoa Lo's most famous former resident -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has written of his horrific years of daily interrogations and torture here. Captured after being shot down in his A-4 Skyhawk while on a bombing run of Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, McCain spent two years in solitary confinement. Like other former POWs who have revisited this place in search of closure or catharsis, he came back here in 2000, the 25th anniversary of the war's end.

Torture of American POWs by the North Vietnamese

The North Vietnamese subjected the POWs to beatings, solitary confinement and starvation. They employed a number of different methods of torture. Thompson told the New Yorker, "The pressure now got as high as it could without killing me." They wanted him to sign a paper calling for the withdrawl of American troops from South Vietnam. "I sat there with a pen in my hand as they shouted at me to write. Periodically, they hit me with bamboo. They kept at for eight, ten and twelve hours a day. When I finally signed the thing...the pressure stopped. [Source: Tom Philpott, New Yorker, April 2, 2001 <>]

Many prisoners were subjected to "the "Vietnamese rope trick" which involved binding the arms behind the back and rotating them upwards until the elbows and shoulders popped out of their sockets. Describing his encounter with the technique, Thompson told the New Yorker, "The guard tied my elbows behind my back until they touched, They lifted up my arms. This forced my arms back even further, causing excruciating pain on my chest plate. Thankfully I had contacted dysentery and was extremely weak. A soon as they put pressure on the ropes, I lost consciousness. I’d be revived, and they’d start again. Finally, the commander got disgusted and tried hanging me by my thumbs. That’s didn’t work either." <>

A former POW who spent two years in captivity had his Achilles tendon shattered after he tried to escape. He said he doubted there would be any POW alive today if they were treated anything like the way he was treated."

Czech defector Jan Sejna, a former defense chief of staff, said he knew of hundreds of American prisoners who acted as "human guinea pigs" and died in Nazi-style medical experiments in North Korea. Sejna said experiments were also conducted on POWs from the Vietnam War. Sejna said some POWs in North Korea were used for practicing amputations. Most died in the experiments, he said, but some were later shipped via Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union between 1961 and 1968. Sejan said that objective of the tests was investigate the effects of radiation, mind-control drugs and chemical and biological weapons on people of different races and background. "Because America was the main enemy," he said, "American POWS were the highly valued experimental subjects."

Famous POWs in the Vietnam War

Evert Alvarez, a pilot who was shot down shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, was the longest-serving prisoner of war. He was a prisoner of war for eight years. Jim Thompson (See Above) was imprisoned for almost as long and had a much rougher time in prison. He spent his first five years in solitary confinement, including four months in a cage that was too small to sit up in or stretch out in, and endured long sessions of physical and mental abuse.

James Stockdale was a senator and the vice president candidate and running mate of Ross Perot in the 1992 presidental election. One of the most-highly decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Navy, was shot down over enemy territory on September 9, 1965, Stockdale was the highest-ranking naval officer held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In the summer of 1969, he was locked in leg irons in a bath stall and routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends' "black activities", he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession. He was released in February 1973 after the Paris Peace Accord was signed. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Stockdale was one of about eleven prisoners known as the "Alcatraz Gang": George Thomas Coker, George McKnight, Jeremiah Denton, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, James Mulligan, Howard Rutledge, Robert Shumaker, Ronald Storz and Nels Tanner. These individuals had been leaders of resistance activities while in captivity and thus were separated from other captives and placed in solitary confinement. "Alcatraz" was a special facility in a courtyard behind the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, located about one mile away from Hoa Lo Prison. In Alcatraz, each of the prisoners were kept in individual cells measuring 3 feet by 9 feet with a light bulb kept on around the clock, and they were locked in leg irons each night. +

The last "prisoner of war," Air force pilot Col. Charles Shelton was declared dead in fall 1994, after being kept "alive" by the Pentagon for 30 years. On April 29, 1965 he was shot down over Laos and captured alive by Laotian communist forces but nver heard from again. His wife searched for him for 25 years; even bribing a boatman to take her to war-torn Laos in 1973. In 1990, she killed herself. Afterwards his children asked that he officially be declared dead.

John McCain: POW

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain was imprisoned for 5½ years in Hanoi after his A-4 Navy plane, which was on a bombing run over Hanoi, was shot down in North Vietnam by a missile that knocked the wing off his plane. Imprisoned from 1967 to 1973, he endured torture until he blacked out and witnessed the death of his friends. He tried to kill himself twice—by attempting to hang himself with his shirt—and refused on offer of early release because the same offer was not given to other POWs—and was tortured for that. "The first time I saw him, I thought he'd be dead by morning," recalls his cellmate, retired Air Force Colonel George (Bud) Day. "He'd been beaten, bayoneted and starved. He weighed maybe 95 lb. He just willed himself to live."

James Carney and Michael Grunwald wrote in Time, "In the Hanoi Hilton, McCain's family tradition of honor and his own instinct for rebellion meshed into an inspiring example for his fellow prisoners. He was the camp troublemaker, cursing out guards despite the constant threat of torture, defying rules barring communication to tell his comrades vulgar jokes. He refused several offers of freedom because the military code of conduct requires all prisoners to be freed in order of capture and he knew that an admiral's son accepting early release would be a propaganda victory for North Vietnam as well as a devastating blow to camp morale. The one time his captors brutalized McCain into a sham confession, he considered suicide. "He could not avoid the conclusion that he had dishonored his country, his family and himself," wrote his biographer Robert Timberg. [Source: James Carney and Michael Grunwald, Time, August 28, 2008]

McCain’s father Jack was commander in chief of the Pacific Command (or CINCPAC, in the Navy's vernacular)—one of the top naval officers dealing with Vietnam during the war. Newsweek reported: "When his parents heard he was missing, they were in London, dressing for an evening at the Iranian Embassy; they kept their engagement, saying nothing about their son, setting a pattern of dignified reticence they would maintain for the next five years. [Source: Jon Meacham, Newsweek, September 8, 2008]

Book: "Faith of My Fathers" by John McCain (Gibson Square, 2008)

Shooting Down and Capture of John McCain

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, "Back in 1967, what is now the small electricity sub-station by the lake was a sprawling plant that supplied power to much of the North Vietnamese capital. For the Americans it was a hugely desirable target and what Mr McCain had been ordered to destroy that morning — his 24th bombing mission since the war began. Flying across the city in a wide sweep, Mr McCain's A4 bomber turned for its final run but was hit by a missile launched 12 miles away. Now a ball of fire, the plane was screaming towards earth as its pilot ejected [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, October 25, 2008 ////]

"The man who shot McCain down was Major Nguyen Lan. "Mr Lan points to the spot where his Russian-built surface-to-air missile unit was hidden and describes the joy of carefully second-guessing Mr McCain's flight path, giving the launch order at precisely the right moment, and then cheering with delight as the blip disappeared from the radar screen. "I was so angry with America then but time has passed. Shooting down McCain is a happy memory from a terrible war." Lan felt that McCain didn’t qualify as a hero. "In Vietnam we are taught to honor the whole unit, rather than the individual but I know it is different in America. Even so, I really don't think that McCain qualifies as a hero. The truth of that day is that he failed and I succeeded. He failed to destroy what he was supposed to bomb and just killed some fish. That is not a hero." ////

McCain broke his leg and both arms in his plunge to earth and was pulled from Truc Bach lake where he landed by an angry mob. Le Van Lua, a factory worker who was the first on the scene after the crash and swam out to retrieve the battered, politically valuable prize. He mimes clutching Mr McCain's hair in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other: "I didn't care about the politics, I just saw a man who had killed so many Vietnamese that I longed to kill him. He was injured badly and at the time I was desperate to finish him off. We only stopped because we were told he was more valuable alive." Mr Lua's account of that day differ significantly from McCain’s own record. Mr Lua speaks of quickly getting Mr McCain to the safety of a police station before any harm was done. Mr McCain writes of mob attacks on his shoulder, ankle and groin with rifle-butt and bayonet." ////

Ron Moreau wrote in Newsweek, "The wail of air-raid sirens and the thunder of antiaircraft fire brought district nurse Nguyen Thi Thanh running. She expected to find casualties from another U.S. bombing run —but instead she saw "the face of the enemy." McCain mentions her in his book "Faith of My Fathers"—a woman "who began yelling at the crowd, and managed to dissuade them from further harming me" and then gave him first aid. Thanh told the mob to back off, poured two spoonfuls of antibiotics into McCain's mouth and put bandages and bamboo splints on his right arm and shattered right knee (his left arm was also broken) before he was hauled away to the Hanoi Hilton. Like many other Vietnamese, she says McCain owes his life to his captors. "We shot him down but saved him, gave him clemency, released him and reunited him with his family," she says, adding "Uncle Ho taught us to treat the enemy humanely." [Source: Ron Moreau, Newsweek, July 11, 2008]

Ms Thanh told The Times, "As a nurse I had to help him. As a Vietnamese I just wanted to kill him. Everyone around me wanted him dead too but we had to follow the Ho Chi Minh ideology. As I walked home from the nurse station, people were furious - screaming at me for saving his life."

McCain in the Hanoi Hilton

On being tortured, John McCain wrote in his book "Faith of My Fathers": "I was hauled into an empty room and kept there for four days. At intervals, the guards returned to administer beatings. One held me while the others pounded away. They cracked several of my ribs and broke a couple of teeth. Weakened by beatings and dysentery, with my right leg again almost useless, I found it impossible to stand.On the third night I lay in my blood and waste, so tired and hurt that I could not move. Three guards lifted me to my feet and gave me the worst beating yet. They left me on the floor moaning from the pain in my arm. Despairing of any relief from pain and further torture, I tried to take my life." [Source: "Faith of My Fathers" by John McCain (Gibson Square, 2008)]

Jon Meacham wrote in Newsweek, "McCain was among the roughly 200 American POWs Bui Tin says he interviewed between 1964 and 1973 for Hanoi's propaganda machine, and Tin says there was plenty of cruel treatment in Hanoi's prisons. "If the pilots agreed to sign a confession that Hanoi was right and their [the pilots'] actions were wrong and criminal, then they could live together with other prisoners," Tin says. "If not, they were kept in solitary until they agreed to cooperate." McCain spent two years in solitary confinement. Tin says Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale was one of the few who didn't crack. He was held for months in a fetid latrine in which he could neither stand up nor lie down, Tin says.[Source: Jon Meacham, Newsweek, September 8, 2008 =|=]

"Still, Tin claims the abuse stopped short of systematic torture. "The prison authorities were authorized to slap [the POWs] around if they didn't speak the truth under interrogation," Tin says. "Slapping them hard was permitted, but no punching." Someone evidently forgot to tell McCain's interrogators. His refusal to cooperate resulted in a series of beatings over several days in 1968, ending with two broken teeth, several cracked ribs and his left arm broken again. He tried to hang himself, but guards cut him down. Nevertheless, he says he was treated more leniently than other prisoners. "My captors were more careful not to permanently injure or disfigure me than they were with the other prisoners," he writes. As the son of a U.S. admiral, he was considered too valuable a propaganda asset. He was finally freed along with his fellow POWs in 1973 under the Paris Peace Accords. =|=

McCain’s Father as a Vietnam Commander While McCain Is In Prison

Jon Meacham wrote in Newsweek, The McCain family "was in an extraordinary position, with one son in Hanoi and the father, Jack, becoming commander in chief of the Pacific Command (or CINCPAC, in the Navy's vernacular) in May 1968. "The communists have chosen to make Vietnam the testing ground for their so-called wars of national liberation," Admiral McCain said. "If they can make this kind of aggression work there, we can expect to be faced with more such wars elsewhere. We are there to prove to them it won't work." [Source: Jon Meacham, Newsweek, September 8, 2008 =|=]

"The admiral never mentioned what it was like to order bombings that might put his imprisoned son in danger. "When you're a commander it is hard to put your men in peril, it is hard to put your men in harm's way, and John was in harm's way, but that in no way dissuades you from doing what you need to do," says Joe. "Whether he speculated on what John's reaction to hearing bombs come down [was], I don't know. I'm sure he worried about it … but they're two different areas—area of father and son, and area of commander." During Vietnam, Admiral McCain rarely spoke about the fact that John was in prison. "I really can't talk about the boy," the admiral would say when asked. "I pray for him every day." One Christmas, the admiral traveled to the 17th parallel between North and South Vietnam. "Gentlemen, excuse me just a moment," Admiral McCain said, and then he stood alone, gazing across the border for 10 or 15 minutes—gazing toward his son. =|=

Rear Adm. Joe Vasey, who spent much of his career at the side of the ever-frustrated Jack McCain, told Newsweek of the constraints placed on Admiral McCain as he tried to command U.S. forces in the Pacific during Vietnam. "There were a lot of restrictions on what we could bomb in North Vietnam and what we couldn't," Vasey said. How did Admiral McCain react? "He was just frustrated and let go an oath," says Vasey. "I wrote a lot of the messages that went into Washington under his direction. He was not a bashful man. I would say, 'Well, the State Department won't like that, sir.' He would puff on his cigar and say, 'To hell with the State Department'… He was not a pussycat, I'll tell you. Straight talker." =|=

McCain’s Interrogators

Tran Trong Duyet was the director at the Hanoi Hilton. Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, "As the months of captivity in the Hanoi Hilton and Plantation rolled on, Mr Duyet wanted to examine those attitudes for himself. He describes a growing fascination with Mr McCain and a series of regular discussions the two had. "I wanted to deal with him. I wanted to talk about the war and to discuss who was right and who was wrong. In the end I don't think either of our opinions changed. Maybe after the war, or as he was leaving, he saw the destruction that had been done and saw he was wrong." [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, October 25, 2008 ////]

"Tran Trong Duyet first met Mr McCain a year after he had been shot down. He recalls a defiant rule-breaker, the patriotic son of an admiral and a fervent believer in the war. What he does not recall, however, is a victim of torture or violence. "I never tortured or mistreated the POWs and nor did my staff," says Mr Duyet in contradiction of Mr McCain's account and those of other prisoners. "The Americans were dropping bombs on military and civilian targets - so it's not as if they had important information we needed to extract." McCain did eventually sign a confession to his supposed crimes against the Vietnamese people and holds that it was only extracted after weeks of pain inflicted by his tormentors. In a more recent interview Mr McCain explained the signing of the confession as his failure. ////

"Nguyen Tien Tran, another of the directors at the prison, confirms his colleague's story: "We had a clear code of taking care of the injured. We did our best to patch McCain up and he was treated by a good doctor. Why would he say that he was tortured?" Mr Tran recalls Mr McCain's persistent rule-breaking and even remembers an angry threat to deny him medication if the defiance continued. He also denies that there was any ill treatment of the prisoners, and even remembers sleeping next door to Mr McCain in the hospital to protect him from anyone trying to kill the "crown prince". ////

Jon Meacham wrote in Newsweek, Tran Trong Duyet "bristles at any mention of the graphic accounts given by McCain and other POWs of the abusive, humiliating and cruel treatment they endured in North Vietnamese prisons. "I totally refute any accusation of abuse or torture of the prisoners," Duyet told Newsweek. There was "no hatred, and only camaraderie… I entirely reject Mr. McCain's and others' accusations that we mistreated or tortured them. No other people on this earth have ever treated prisoners better than we did." [Source: Jon Meacham, Newsweek, September 8, 2008 =|=]

"I never had the POWs interrogated," Duyet asserts. "We already knew their targets and tactics from the maps, pictures and other documents we captured from their aircraft." His liaison officers were in daily contact with the prisoners—not to browbeat them, but to relay the POWs' difficulties and requests to him. In Duyet's telling, he and McCain were practically a debating society. "We had strong discussions," Duyet says. "He didn't agree with my assertion that U.S. intervention was wrong and an infringement on our internal affairs. But I didn't try to impose my contrary ideas on him." Duyet says he came to like McCain. "He had a very determined character, held strongly conservative ideas and was very loyal to the military and government of his country," the jailer says. McCain and his aides declined to comment on the stories told by Duyet and other Vietnamese who say they met him during the war.

Lewis wrote: "Of all the Vietnamese who knew Mr McCain, Nguyen Tien Tran, the director at The Plantation between 1965 and the release of the POWs in 1973, believes that he has the deepest insights into the man's character. "He's not [morally] good enough, not enough to call himself a ‘good man' after everything he did, with the bombing and the destruction and the thousands he killed. He has done good things for Vietnam-US relations but none of it is enough for him to call himself a good man." Mr Tran believes that it was during one of their regular conversations that Mr McCain first mooted the idea of becoming a politician. "I once asked him, ‘What are you going to do when you get home?' I asked him because of his injuries - I could see that he wasn't going to remain a pilot for much longer. He paused, and thought about it, and told me he would become a politician." ////

Impact of the Prison Years on McCain and Vietnam

James Carney and Michael Grunwald wrote in Time: "In books with names like "Faith of My Fathers," "Character Is Destiny" and "Why Courage Matters," McCain has said his captivity was a personal turning point that opened his eyes to causes larger than himself, transforming a vain jet jockey into a servant of his country. It was also a political turning point that forged his views on foreign affairs. McCain saw Vietnam as an honorable and winnable war botched by spineless politicians who tied the hands of American soldiers and betrayed their South Vietnamese allies, dishonoring the U.S. and emboldening its enemies. And those were not just knee-jerk reactions to his own traumas; McCain spent a year after his release studying Vietnam and its history at the National War College. McCain's Vietnam lessons dovetailed with the World War II lessons he had learned at home. He even believed his father should have resigned to protest President Lyndon Johnson's insufficient aggression. "John gets that appeasement doesn't work with our enemies," says Orson Swindle, a fellow POW who later served in the Reagan Administration. "They have to know that if they slap us, we're going to knock the hell out of them." [Source: James Carney and Michael Grunwald, Time, August 28, 2008]

Ron Moreau wrote in Newsweek, "Just about everyone in Vietnam knows who McCain is, and no one seems to hold a grudge about the 23 bombing missions he flew against targets in and around Hanoi. That goes for ordinary Vietnamese, senior bureaucrats and people who met him during his captivity—the district nurse who may have saved his life after he was shot down, and the hard-line military officer who was his chief jailer for more than five years at the Plantation and the notorious Hanoi Hilton. They like the way McCain pushed Washington to normalize relations in the 1990s....He's returned to Vietnam at least 10 times since the war ended. His aide Mark Salter recalls a dinner with Vietnamese officials where one of them approached Salter and gestured to another man seated nearby, saying the man claimed to have been one of McCain's prison guards. Unsure how his boss would react, Salter hesitated before whispering the news in McCain's ear. Salter says the senator looked over and studied the man. "Don't recognize him," McCain said, and turned back to his meal. [Source: Ron Moreau, Newsweek, July 11, 2008]

MIAs from the Vietnam War

At least 300,000 Vietnamese and 1,645 Americans are still listed as "Missing in Action" (MIA). U.S. teams continue to search Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for the remains of U.S. service killed in the Vietnam War era as they still do for servicemen still not accounted for from World War II. According to Lonely Planet: "In more recent years, the Vietnamese have been searching for their own MIAs in Cambodia and Laos. Individual family members often use mediums to try and locate the remains of their loved ones. [Source: Lonely Planet]

As of 2003, the U.S. government was still spending $103 million a year and employing 600 people in five agencies to search for Americans still listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War as well as 78,000 from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War, 126 from the Cold War and three from the Gulf War. The work is done even though it so expensive to fulfill within reason the promise by the military to leave no man or woman behind on America’s battlefields.

About 80 percent of those missing were airmen who were shot down over North Vietnam or Laos, usually over remote mountains, tropical rain forest, or water; the rest typically disappeared in dense, confused fighting in jungles, About 55 MIAs from the Vietnam War were "last seen alive but have never been accounted for." Another 600 or so are regarded as "not recoverable" because, for example, their planes crashed in the South China Sea. In some cases the friend of a killed soldier had his buddy listed as missing so his wife could continue to receive full Army benefits.

February 1982, Vietnam agreed to have talks with the U.S. about American MIAs. In September-October 1988, U.S. and Vietnam conduct their first field investigations on MIAs. In 1993, the Vietnamese returned the remains of 67 individuals believed to have been American personnel. Later they handed over 28,000 documents that pertained to the MIA issue and let U.S, officials check the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to investigate rumors about POWs being kept in secret tunnels there.

After th several the U.S. listed about 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action and roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action and body not recovered. By the early 1990s, this had been reduced to a total of 2,255 unaccounted for from the war, which constituted less than 4 percent of the total 58,152 U.S. service members killed. This was by far the smallest proportion in the nation's history to that point. In November 14, 2011 according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office there are still 1,681 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.[88] As of June 20, 2013, the number is 1,645. [Source: Wikipedia]

Looking for Vietnam War-Era MIAs

Teams sent by the U.S. military to look for MIAs are often sent to some of the most difficult terrain in Southeast Asia if not the world—to search for MIA remains. The leader of a team involved in searching for MIAs told the New York Times, "We send our teams into a country 30 days at a time, armed with very detailed information on specific cases—they don’t just go digging randomly.

Since 1992, the military has sent teams to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia about 10 times a year to look for MIAs. Two to six teams are sent on each trip. Much of the work involves digging and sifting for human remains in places where a plane went down or a battle took place. The teams sometimes have an anthropologist with them and they usually hire local people to do much of the digging and sifting. As of 2004, these teams had accounted for 724 servicemen.

The teams only need to find a small amount of human remains to make an identification using DNA technology. Sometimes all they find is "possible osseous material" and feel lucky if they find a tooth, the hardest part of the human body. Cases in which their was no physical remains—a foot, an ear, a finger—are considered "unresolved." If there is a picture of a body part that is categorized as a "special remains case" Many MIAs were vaporized by powerful bombs or their bodies were difficult to recover because of dense jungle or flooded land. As time goes by the hunt gets harder and harder as the teams more remote places and witnesses die and search teams have to rely on second-hand information from their descendants.

Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in American Heritage magazine, About 15 searches take place annually under the charge of the Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii—400 military personnel and civilian anthropologists and archeologists who so far have conducted more than 80 Prisoners of War/Missing in Action operations in the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, and many other places. On average, JPAC identifies 2 soldiers a week in its forensic laboratory, which is the largest in the world. There remain today more than 78,000 missing soldiers from World War II (of which 35,000 are deemed recoverable), more than 1,800 from Vietnam, 8,100 from Korea, 126 from the Cold War, and 1 from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. [Source: Rachel Louise Snyder. American Heritage, February/March 2005]

See Laos

Looking for MIAs in Vietnam

The Vietnamese assisted American recovery teams dam a stream and dig up 20 tons of mud to locate the wreckage of an America F-4; scuba divers have searched off the southeastern coast for the remains of two B-52s; elephants have been hired to pull airplane engines out of the muck. In a successful search near Haiphong an American team spent several weeks desecrating a graveyard, draining a pond and sifted mud through a half-inch mesh to located 402 pieces of human remains and two gold wedding bands. One American who looked for American remains in a Vietnamese cemetery told U.S. News and World report, "We desecrated that cemetery with the help of the Vietnamese."

In one case 250 Vietnamese laborers were hired to dig up a site where an F-4 phantom was thought to have crashed near Hanoi. The laborers dug a 10-foot hole under the direction of a U.S. Navy anthropologist and sifted the soil for aircraft pieces and human remains. After working for a month they found a couple of bone fragments which were sent to a lab for DNA testing. In another case, seven American servicemen died in a helicopter crash while looking for MIAs.

Describing an MIA search team at work, Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in American Heritage magazine, "Atop a half-mile-high mountain deep in the heart of the A Shau Valley in central Vietnam, a poisonous worm snake winds itself onto the edge of a spade. After a fleeting glance, the U.S. sergeant holding the spade, Tammi Reeder, 34, flicks her wrist and flings the vermilion serpent into the double-canopy jungle surrounding this mountaintop enclave. It is the fourth such snake in an hour and about the millionth over the past several weeks, so this group of 10 U.S. military personnel, 2 civilian anthropologists, and more than 70 Vietnamese workers have developed a resigned tolerance for reptiles. [Source: Rachel Louise Snyder. American Heritage, February/March 2005 ~~]

"We are in a cloud forest, three miles from the Laos border in the A Luoi District, an hour’s helicopter ride from anything. Verdant trees—banana, banyan, traveler’s palm, and cassia—are rooted in curried mud. A wet layer of humidity wilts the jungle. The group’s mission is to find and repatriate a warrant officer whose Huey helicopter went down in May of 1967 with three other crew members. Those three were rescued within 48 hours. In the days afterward, several attempts were made to retrieve him too, but heavy enemy fire made it impossible...So far, along with viper, worm, coral, and cobra snakes, land and water leeches, stinging ants, and biting centipedes, they have found a rusted M-16 bayonet, what is possibly a whip antenna from a radio, a load-bearing equipment fastener typically used to attach items to a soldier’s belt, myriad burnt metal and plastic pieces, spent shell casings, and an unused .45-caliber round of the sort carried by pilots. Perhaps the most telling evidence found so far is the data plate off the plane, a tiny piece of metal that lists the serial number, make, and model of an aircraft and which can be correlated exactly to the 1967 helicopter that went down. The previous mission found a compass, a survival knife, and a boot, along with a scattering of Plexiglas globules formed when the helicopter’s windshield melted. None of it is enough to classify our warrant officer on its own. The military’s standards for identifying a soldier are exacting; dog tags alone are not enough, nor is a data plate, or personal effects like boots, helmets, and wedding rings. Not even a bit of bone is enough. But all these items, in various combinations, establish an identity." ~~

MIA Seach Site in Vietnam

Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in American Heritage magazine, "The dig is set up like an archeologist’s site, using block excavation in four-by-four squares measuring 9,100 square feet. Once location is established through military records, historical research, and on-site investigations, which include witness interviews, a team like Goodman’s will set up shop for a four- to six-week stay. Though teams often put up in nearby guesthouses or hotels, the A Shau Valley is so remote that the team first must build a tented base camp where they will eat, sleep, and shower. The dig is a half-mile trek from this camp, along an up-hill, downhill, uphill path over trampled leaves and honey-colored mud. It has rained for nearly 12 hours straight, and the ground is like an oil slick. The 100 villagers hired to work this site walk an hour or two in flip-flops each way to get to the digging area from Houng Phong, their village. [Source: Rachel Louise Snyder. American Heritage, February/March 2005 ~~]

"The dig takes place on a treacherous slope leading to a steep ravine full of white-veined rocks and shallow trees in an area that would have been classified just a few weeks ago as a double-canopy jungle but which has since been cleared. (For every tree that is cut down, the U.S. government reimburses Vietnam, which theoretically uses the money to re-forest.) The grids are measured above-ground and dug out anywhere from a couple of centimeters to several feet, depending on the crash site and the terrain. The task is essentially to dig until "sterile" (undisturbed) ground is reached and then to move to a new location. Buckets of earth are filled and handed down a line of dozens of Vietnamese and sent to the covered screening station, where the dirt is dumped onto screens and sifted for clues. "Anything not of the earth" is the mantra for choosing what to look for. ~~

To Augustus Goodman, "a forensic anthropologist who wears a red MIA bracelet for a soldier named Charles Wallace (1967), trying to find a missing combatant requires as much archeology as detective work. He begins by reconstructing a battle. Burnt ammunition suggests where units were fighting and, if they were an "air loss," whether or not they were potentially found by the enemy, whether they ejected from a seat mid-flight or died from the blast. If unspent casings are found, it can be assumed the soldier was killed on impact. If not, he may have died fighting. "We know the chopper burned and where it went down," Goodman says, "so we don’t need to document every piece of burnt ammunition or metal." Unlike regular archeology, which seeks to find and preserve every single item found, a dig like this ranks material evidence. Not every piece of poncho plastic or scorched metal has to be saved; only those materials that can aid in the identification. ~~

"After days and weeks of sifting dirt with few findings, the team drags. Monotony is the enemy here. Fog rolls in every afternoon before the rains. Cries of locusts and birds fill the jungle nightly to create an otherworldly surround-sound. A fine mist hangs in the air after the rain. Charcoal deposits and scorch marks on the rocks have oxidized, leaving red and gray streaks, the unification of machine and megacosm. ~~

"The A Shau Valley is a mean, pulchritudinous land, alive with poisonous creatures, where the beautiful and the deadly live in constant, fitful juxtaposition. The team must be ever on alert: bamboo trees are thick with fire ants; half-buried rocks covered in slick moss sit atop ancient land mines; tiny waterfalls are alive with miniature rainbows and thirsty leeches; bomb craters turned gardens bloom with cerulean and flaxen wildflowers. It is a land full of portent, charged with a color-saturated dewy beauty, victim of its own history and its own environment." ~~

Another MIA Seach Site in Vietnam

Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in American Heritage magazine, "In the Cam Lo district, several hours north of where Augustus Goodman is working in the A Shau Valley, another JPAC team is busy. An earthy blond biological archeologist named Dr. Elizabeth ("Zib") Martinson Goodman sifts through sandy soil that tumbles in loose clusters down the sun-baked hill in an area yet untouched by the season’s monsoons. Her hair is looped through a baseball cap, and she wears a red MIA bracelet just like Goodman’s on her wrist (David S. Price, lost in Laos). At JPAC they call her the Sure Thing because she’s had bone finds on four of her five missions; it is a formidably successful track record. She is the team leader in charge at this site, and the last name is no accident; she is also Augustus’s wife. [Source: Rachel Louise Snyder. American Heritage, February/March 2005 ~~]

"She is digging out—a ground loss from April 1968, when a Marine patrol was ambushed—she is also trying to decide how deep to go now that a grenade has ended up in the screens just minutes ago from a fresh bucket of dirt. Unexploded ordnance and land mines are a constant concern; before an area is excavated, it is de-mined, but metal detectors can’t always find every danger. An Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician accompanies each JPAC team. ("An old EOD is a good EOD" is an often cited military maxim.) ~~

"When the grenade appears, the entire team evacuates the dig site and retires to a tarp-covered break area up the hill. Sgt. James Traub, Martinson Goodman’s EOD, moves toward the abandoned dig with a metal detector and headphones. Beyond his solitary figure lies an expanse of sloping green hills and rice paddies, the Cam Lo River looping iridescently through the landscape, and a single red-clay road almost garish as it seams through the greens; not a single house is in sight for miles. It is spring in Vietnam, the hottest time of year, when the sun, white-scorched in the sky, becomes a sort of environmental weapon. One member of the team referred to this season as "walking into a hair dryer." Sergeant Traub signals the all clear, then tells Martinson Goodman, "You want to hand-dig, that’s fine and dandy, but going in with an ax is asking for trouble." ~~

"She surveys the area around a boulder. "We have a lot of sandstone cobble mixed in," she says. "You can see the red. There’s still some fill here. Let’s not tunnel. Just take what we can from the outside, and then we’ll make a judgment call." Unlike the myriad vermin found on Augustus’s site, this area is about the unexploded remnants of war. They found a rifle grenade on the last dig and just recently a bomblet on this one, as well as what looked to be the makings of a homemade land mine, a can with a trip wire attached to it, rusting inside a little earthen crevice. ~~

"Sometimes they find Vietnamese and American remains commingling at a site (there are hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese missing in action, but the country does not have the resources for digs like this). The Vietnamese and Americans work the sites together, sifting the screens, collecting buckets of dirt, smiling awkwardly, and leaving much unsaid. The material evidence found so far includes bits of a poncho liner, an American gas mask, the sole of a military boot, a C-rations spoon, and what looks like a belt buckle. "Here guys dumped their loads in an ambush or whatever, so the hillside is full of stuff," Martinson Goodman says. "We photo document it, then leave it. It’s a hard thing for an archeologist to do: leave something. It goes against my training." She glances up toward the screening station where the team has launched into a resounding, off-key rendition of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and stabs her trowel into the dirt. " ~~

Deciding Which MIAs to Search For and How the Identifications Are Made

Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in American Heritage magazine, "To decide which of this multitude to try to locate, JPAC’s Casualty Data section analyzes each case, assessing such factors as the political stability of the country, available weather windows, safety, and accessibility. Once adequate information has been collected and analyzed, the intelligence, operations, and laboratory sections decide whether or not to pursue a recovery. Basically, they go for the easiest to reach—an approach that gets more difficult with every passing year.[Source: Rachel Louise Snyder. American Heritage, February/March 2005 ~~]

"All the cases involve the dead. The wistful, angry conviction that grew up in America after Vietnam that prisoners were still being held has spurred JPAC to pursue thousands of reports of "live sightings" throughout Southeast Asia. Not a single case was found to be credible. While they continue to follow up any such leads, investigators do not believe that any living soldiers are being held from past wars. Augustus Goodman, the 30-year-old anthropologist in charge of some missions, said, "It’s an amazing endeavor. Not many other cultures go as far as we go to honor those who died. It says a lot about our society." ~~

"Accounting for casualties, prisoners, and missing soldiers began in Southeast Asia in 1963, and the search for remains went on throughout the war when it was possible. But it began in earnest with teams similar to the Goodmans’ six months after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Paris Peace Accords, which ended the war, established in Article 8b that "the parties shall help each other to get information about those military personnel and foreign civilians of the parties missing in action, to determine the location and take care of the graves of the dead so as to facilitate the exhumation and repatriation of the remains, and to take any such other measures as may be required to get information about those still considered missing in action." Nevertheless, the tense political relations between the two countries kept the search in Vietnam sporadic until the 1990s. ~~

"Though there remains to this day some tension over the MLA issue with countries like Vietnam, North Korea, and Burma, JPAC efforts have managed to find and identify close to 1,200 missing soldiers. Today the search for the missing has been as significantly aided by technology as it has by improved political relationships. JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI), in partnership with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockville, Maryland, enables identifications through DNA technology not only on the twentieth century’s missing soldiers, like those found in the field by JPAC’s 18 teams, but even going as far back as the Civil War with cases from the pioneering, doomed Confederate submarine Hunley and the USS Monitor , which sank off the Carolina coast in 1862. ~~

"Victims of the September 11 attacks were identified at AFDIL as were Uday and Qusay Hussein, the Columbia astronauts, and Michael Blassie, the casualty interred in the Vietnam War’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Dead from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are also identified here and correlated with a DNA reference database maintained in a nearby warehouse that stores samples from more than 4.5 million soldiers and civilians working at the Department of Defense. Average cases from JPAC take a month to complete because the material received contains such limited amounts of DNA. James Canik, the AFDIL deputy director, says DNA work is not like the technology portrayed on popular television shows. "It’s an exacting science, and answers often lead to other questions. Here we are able to work at very low levels of DNA compared with other labs, but [DNA] breaks down over time and Southeast Asia is a particularly difficult environment. The material degrades quickly." He adds, however, that AFDIL processes an incredible 800 specimens per year. "No other lab in the world can sustain that," he says. ~~

MIA Lobby

As of the late 1990s, lobbyist for the MIA-POW movement had convinced the American public (70 percent according to one poll in the 1990s) that Vietnam still held American servicemen. Dolores Alfond of the National Alliance of Families lost her brother, a pilot, in 1967. She told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, "The Vietnamese probably move them around and out of the way when American's come into a village. The American's don't get a chance to talk to anyone whose story hasn't been rehearsed and checked out by Vietnamese authorities. So basically the statements you hear in the media and from the joint task force are lies and misinterpretations."

Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in American Heritage magazine, "The plight of missing men really became a public issue only after the Vietnam War. That conflict’s lack of popular support made the MIAs a potential crisis for the government, and political leaders wanted to assure their constituents that every effort was being made not to leave America’s lost sons on hostile territory. Paul Mather, a military historian with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, thinks that "in the case of Vietnam, there not only wasn’t the national sense of patriotism [of the world wars], but there were also serious reservations on the part of the public whether we should even be involved in the war. In comparison with World War II, I believe that many Vietnam-era families who lost loved ones felt bitterness toward our own government. Sons and husbands—and daughters also—were sent off to fight a war that just didn’t quite turn out right in the end. And no one was sure the sacrifice was worth it." This, coupled with the formation of the National League of Families, which maintained constant pressure on Congress to negotiate with Vietnam for both prisoners of war and the missing in action, ensured that combatants in the military service of the United States would never again be forgotten on a battlefield.[Source: Rachel Louise Snyder. American Heritage, February/March 2005 ~~]

Rambo and Other MIA Personalities

The Rambo character is supposedly based on the exploits of a retired Army officer named James (Bo) Gritz, who organized four mission into Indochina, looking for MIA and POW. No prisoners or missing soldiers were found or rescued. One of Gritz's men, however, was captured by Laotian troops.

A Vietnamese emigrant known under the classified name "the Mortician" according to U.S. News and World Report told U.S. investigators that during and after the war the Communists stored the remains of dead American GIs because they were believed to be "as good as gold" and a means for the Communists to extract billions of dollars in war compensation. "The Mortician" said that he had worked on 452 sets of U.S. servicemen remains from 1965 to 1978, about 200 of which were stored in Hanoi. He passed a polygraph test. [Source: U.S. News and World Report, February 14, 1994]

In 1992, Jack Bailey, a man who made a living searching for MIAS, released a photograph purported to be taken recently of a missing soldier named Capt. Donald Carr. Later, it was revealed the picture was actually a photograph of a German citizen taken at a Bangkok bird farm.

Vietnamese Search for Their MIAs and the American Double Standard

The Vietnamese government estimates that there were 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs in the Vietnam War. Accounting for them in some ways is more important in Vietnamese culture, which believes that everyone should have a good burial so they can rest in peace and not become a homeless ghost, unhappily wandering the world as a lost soul and possibly bringing misfortune on those who were supposed to take care of his or her burial. Some North Vietnamese families continue to set a place at their dinner tables for MIA soldiers every night even though they were lost more than 40 years ago. The main reason there are so many MIAs is that most North Vietnamese soldiers didn’t have dog tags, dental records or other ways to identify them. DNA testing is prohibitively expensive for a poor country like Vietnam.

Many people think that a double standard has been attached to the M.I.A. issue when it comes to digging up Vietnamese cemeteries in search of American remains. "Imagine if the government of Vietnam believed that one of its estimated 300,000 MIAs had been buried on Arlington National Cemetery," Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek, "Would the United States allow the Vietnamese to go into Arlington in the middle of the night and dig up old bones?...Yet Vietnamese officials have allowed American officials to do the equivalent."

Many Vietnamese who lost relatives in the war want to find them. A Vietnamese veterans newspaper runs as many as eight pages of free advertising for families looking for information on missing loved one. On Sunday night there is 30 minute television show that flashes pictures of missing soldiers with requests for help in located them. Some people have appeared on television and tracked down members of a loved one’s regiment and find a burial place. [Source: New York Times |:|]

Vietnamese and Americans looking for MIAs have enlisted the help of Nguyen Thi Nghi, a psychic who uses a cracked saucer and three coins to communicate with spirits of the dead. Working out of the village of Chi Do, 70 miles southeast of Hanoi, she that after she drops the coins on the saucer she can see faces "as clearly as you see them on television." The physic usually says the remains of lost ones can be found "under a tree with purple flowers" or "a cave guarded by a magic serpent that you can only get into by using a magic powder." Sometimes people find buried bones but it is difficult to say who they belong to or if they even human. |:|

Mass graves of soldiers from the Vietnam-War found-era are periodically found. In 2007, Associated Press reported: "Government officials in Viet Nam announced today that they have found a mass grave of communist soldiers. The soldiers were killed during the Viet Nam war while attacking a military station of the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government. The grave was found after military officials were tipped off by U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers who fought there. According to the article, "Authorities are searching the site, which they believe may contain the remains of several hundred Vietnamese soldiers." Six sets of remains have been found so far, but none of the bodies were identified. The remains will be buried in a military cemetery later this week. [Source: AP, September 11, 2007]

Vietnam War Veterans

Many U.S. Vietnam War veterans were deeply psychologically scarred by what the experienced. Col. David H. Hackworth spent five years in Vietnam between 1965 and 1971, commanding U.S. infantry and advising South Vietnamese troops. He was wounded four times, decorated often, and saw America's young men "march into a meat grinder." "The war changed my life forever," he wrote in Newsweek, "it made me lose my faith in my country, its leaders, its institutions." By 1971, I could no longer be part of the killing machine. I took early retirement while I was still the youngest colonel in the U.S. army and left for Australia, where I lived in self-exile for nearly two decades."

Many veterans suffered from what became known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of the now recognized condition include terrible nightmares, depression, insomnia and high levels of anxiety. In some cases panic attacks have been triggered by things like individuals associated with the war, the sound of helicopters or the smell of diesel fuel. Many sufferers have turned to drugs and alcohol for relief.

Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and Secretary of Defense under Obama, said: "You know, we’ve gone through this 30 years and 20 years and 10 years of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Really is there such a thing? And do guys wake up in the middle of the night? I remember my father, when I was young — he was in World War II overseas for almost three years. I remember him waking up in the middle of the night screaming. No. It does happen. And it happens not just because of necessarily the blood and gore that you see in combat. It’s the — it’s the pressure of the mental process that — that makes you that way. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]

Famous Vietnam War Veterans

Norman Schwarzkopf, the hero and commander of the first Persian War, served in Vietnam. He was wounded by bullet fragments and shrapnel. With his knees shaking from fear, he walked into a mine field to rescue an injured soldiers. He became disillusioned by the war and protested his job of tallying up body counts that he knew were inflated.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also served. He was wounded by a punji trap, a spike smeared with dung, and broke his leg in a helicopter crash. With his ankle broken, Powell managed to drag his commanding officer to safety.

U.S. President Bill Clinton got out the war by studying at Oxford. Clinton had to cover his political ass when making the decision to lift the embargo. Since he didn't serve he had be careful about criticism for not being sensitive to the MIA issue. George W. Bush also managed escape serving in Vietnam. Instead he served in the Texas National Guard. Al Gore is a Vietnam war veteran.

The film maker Oliver Stine fought in Vietnam and made movies about the war such as Platoon and Born on the Forth of July .

See POWs

John Kerry in Vietnam

John Kerry, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, U.S. Secretary of State Under Obama and 2004 U.S. Presidential candidate, was the commander of a "swift boat" that conducted search and destroy missions on the Mekong Delta. He won a number of medals, which became a campaign issue in 2004 because some accused him exaggerating his combat stories for which he received them. Kerry's Medals: 1st Purple Heart: December 2, 1968; 2nd Purple Heart: February 20, 1969; Silver Star: February 28, 1969; Bronze Star / 3rd Purple Heart: March 13, 1969

John Kerry's service in Vietnam lasted 4 months and 12 days, beginning in November 1968 when he reported to Cam Ranh Bay for a month of training. His abbreviated combat tour ended shortly after he requested a transfer out of Vietnam on March 17, 1969, citing Navy instruction 1300.39 permitting personnel with three Purple Hearts to request reassignment. American conservatives say Kerry was the only Swift sailor ever to leave Vietnam without completing the standard one-year tour of duty, other than those who were seriously wounded or killed.

Some veterans have challenged Kerry's version of the circumstances surrounding the incident that led to his Silver Star award for battlefield heroism, as well as his three Purple Heart medals. The Silver Star was awarded for his actions in pursuit of enemy forces while commander of swift boat unit PCF-94. In May 2004, Associated Press reported: "The Navy's chief investigator concluded that procedures were followed properly in the approval of Sen. John Kerry's Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, according to an internal Navy memo. Vice Adm. R.A. Route, the Navy inspector general, conducted the review of Kerry's Vietnam-ear military service awards at the request of Judicial Watch, a public interest group. The group has also asked for the release of additional records documenting Kerry’s military service and investigate Kerry's anti-war activities. [Source: AP, May 17, 2004]

Judicial Watch had requested in August that the Navy open an investigation of the matter, but Route said in an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press that he saw no reason for a full-scale probe. "Our examination found that existing documentation regarding the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals indicates the awards approval process was properly followed," Route wrote. "In particular, the senior officers who awarded the medals were properly delegated authority to do so. In addition, we found that they correctly followed the procedures in place at the time for approving these awards."

After returning home, Kerry became something of an anti-war crusader. In his 1971 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he said American soldiers "raped, cut of ears, cut off heads...randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan." There was "nothing in South Vietnam , nothing which could happen that could realistically threaten the United States of America." The United States went there with lofty ideals about freedom but the South Vietnamese "only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs and napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart."

Kerry’s "Christmas in Cambodia" a Lie?

Byron York wrote in The National Review, a well-known conservative magazine: "A former member of John Kerry's swift-boat crew says the Democratic presidential candidate's account of spending Christmas 1968 in Cambodia is not true. Steve Gardner, who served on board PCF-44 under Kerry's command in December 1968, as well as part of January 1969, says that at the time, in the area in which Kerry and his crew were operating, it was not possible to take a swift boat to Cambodia. "It was physically, totally, categorically, across-the-board impossible to get into the canal that went to Cambodia with a swift boat," says Gardner. "There were concrete pilings that were put in the water...plus, the Navy kept patrol boats there to make sure nobody went in. When I was on the 44 boat, it was a physical impossibility to take a swift boat into Cambodian waters." [Source: Byron York, The national Review, August 10, 2004 <<>>]

Over the years, Kerry has said on a number of occasions that he spent the Christmas holiday in 1968 in Cambodia. For example, in September 1997, during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kerry said, "I first was introduced to Cambodia when I spent Christmas Eve of 1968 in a river in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict, and I found it to be a rather remarkable and very beautiful country...." More recently, in a profile of Kerry that appeared in the Washington Post in June 2003, Kerry revealed that he kept an old camouflage hat from the war in a secret pocket in his briefcase. "My good luck hat," Kerry told the paper. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia." In March 1986, Kerry said, during a speech on the Senate floor, that, "I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared — seared — in me...." <<>>

On other occasions, Kerry has said he was not actually in Cambodia but rather "near" the country. In an interview with the Providence Journal-Bulletin that appeared in April, 1994, Kerry said "Christmas Eve I was up getting shot at somewhere near Cambodia." The account of Kerry's service in Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty says Kerry was on patrol near Cambodia, but does not mention him being in the country. "Because they were only an hour away from that neighboring country," Brinkley writes, "Kerry began reading up on Cambodia's history...." Brinkley also quotes from Kerry's Vietnam journal, in which Kerry wrote that he was "patrolling near the Cambodian line." <<>>

"Of course, the U.S. military did undertake missions in Cambodia — missions that resulted in enormous controversy at the time and in later years. But it does not appear that Kerry was part of those. Gardner, who is a member of the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, says that PCF-44's "nothernmost patrol area" was the town of Sa Dec, about 50 miles from Cambodia. And retired admiral Roy Hoffman, a leader of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, said "You've got to be kidding," when asked by National Review Online about Kerry's account of entering Cambodia. Kerry's other commanding officers have denied any Cambodian incursion, as well. Hoffman said that after an earlier incident in which some soldiers had unintentionally crossed the Cambodian border, the line was very clearly marked with signs warning not to cross. <<>>

"Finally, another member of Kerry's crew, Jim Wasser, who supports Kerry in the presidential race, told the Dallas Observer last month that he wasn't sure where PCF-44 was at the time in question. "On Christmas in 1968, we were close [to Cambodia]," Wasser said. "I don't know exactly where we were. I didn't have the chart. It was easy to get turned around with all the rivers around there. But I'll say this: We were the farthest inland that night. I know that for sure." <<>>

U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey Accused of My-Lai-like Atrocities

Former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, Bob Kerrey participated in a My-Lai-like raid in which 13 children were killed. Their mission was to attack a village believed to be a Viet Cong stronghold. All they found was women and children but—out of fear, confusion or some other reason—they opened fire anyway. Before this was revealed to the public in 2001, Kerry was regarded as a much decorated hero who had lost half his right leg to a Viet Cong grenade. He was even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, , the nation's highest military award. When news of the his involvement in the massacre appeared, Kerry told the Wall Street Journal: "I was so ashamed I wanted to die. This is killing me. I'm tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside." In 2002, the Vietnamese government charged him with war crimes.

Describing the raid on the hamlet of Thanh Phong near the South China Sea, which left between 19 and 21 civilians dead, depending on the source, Kerrey wrote, "We had two choices: withdraw or continue to search houses in the dark. Before we could make a decision, someone shot at us from the direction of the women and children, trapping them in a crossfire. We returned a tremendous barrage of fire and began to withdraw, continuing to fire. I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat from the canal."

Kerrey had been seen as a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2004 and ran unsuccessfully for the office in 1992. At one time he was engaged to be married to the actress Debra Winger. Kerry’s reputation for battlefield bravery was a prominent theme of his candidacy. A grenade exploded at his feet, taking off his right leg below the knee. But he continued directing his unit's fire until his men were able to escape. As a result, he was given the Medal of Honor, Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star after the encounter which left the civilians dead.

Reuters reported: "A U.S. Navy Seal squadron led by former Senator Bob Kerrey acted with brutality when it attacked a Vietnamese hamlet, a local official said. Pham Di Cu, head of the foreign relations department of the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre, where the massacre occurred, said that 13 children, five women and an elderly man had been killed in the attack on February 25, 1969. Kerrey has acknowledged that the killing of civilians took place, but he said the squad was returning fire and did not know that civilians had been killed until after the fighting. Cu quoted surviving witness Pham Thi Lanh, 67, as saying the attack on the hamlet of Thanh Phong began in darkness at about 8 p.m. and lasted just 20 minutes. "I think in terms of brutality, this was the worst incident in this province during the war," he told Reuters. "Personally, I think it was inhuman." [Source: Reuters, April 27, 2001 <<<]

Vietnam's official media Friday called the incident a crime. "Another painful tragedy has been exposed...although no one is still vague about the crimes of the Americans during the war," the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said under the headline "Nightmare in Thanh Phong." The Thanh Nien (Young People) said: "In terms of the way it was done, it was a war crime." Kerrey said he felt guilty about what happened and unable to justify it militarily or morally, but he did not consider it a war crime. "When we fired, we fired because we were fired upon," he told a news conference. "In short, we did not go out on a mission with the intent of killing innocent people," he said. He told CBS: "To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt, and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it." <<<

Accounts of Bob Kerrey My-Lai-like Atrocities

Kerry’s unit reportedly arrived in the hamlet, looking for a Viet Cong leader based on a tip that a Viet Cong meeting was taking place in the village. The Vietnamese survivor of the raid, Pham Thi Lanh, the wife of a Viet Cong fighter, told the Washington Post, "They killed people in cold blood....Everyone was screaming and very frightened when they began shooting. All of them were killed except for me." She also said several villagers had their throats cut. She told the New York Times, "I was hiding behind a banana tree, and I saw them cut the man’ neck, first here and then there. His head was still attached at the back." "It was very crowded, so it wasn't possible for them to cut everybody's throats one by one,'' Lanh told CBS News. "Two women came out and kneeled down,'' she said. "They shot these two old women and they fell forward and they rolled over and then they ordered everybody out from the bunker and they lined them up and they shot all of them from behind.''

Reuters reported: "Cu said Lanh had told how the seven-man squad — six masked Americans and a Vietnamese interpreter — moved from bunker to bunker in the hamlet killing people. He said the villagers could not tell if all the squad had taken part in the killing. One person survived from one of the bunkers, a girl named Luom, now about 40, whose leg was severed by bullets. Cu, a history graduate, said the hamlet was a military target in that it was controlled by the communist Viet Cong guerrillas in an area used to unload arms brought by boat from North Vietnam, but he said all those killed were civilians. [Source: Reuters, April 27, 2001]

Kerry’s account was contradicted by another squad member, Gerhard Klann, who told CBS: "We herded them all together in a group" and "lined them up and opened fire" from very close range. Kerrey told NBC News Wednesday Klann's recollection that the unit fired on civilians at close range was "not true." He said it had been returning fire. However Cu said: "The villagers said there were no other shots." Kerrey said of Lanh's account of the shootings to CBS: "The eyewitness is, at the very least, sympathetic to the Viet Cong. At the absolute very least."

According to a New York Times Magazine article a senior commando in Kerrey's Navy SEAL unit, Gerhard Klann, says that at Kerrey's order the unit rounded up and killed unarmed women and children, and that a "baby was the last one alive. There were blood and guts splattering everywhere." The unit expended 1,200 rounds of ammunition, according to an after-action report filed by the unit to superior officers.

Howard Kurtz wrote in the Washington Post, "Klann, speaking to the Omaha World-Herald about his relationship with Kerrey, said: "There is no animosity between him and me. There never has been." Michael Ambrose, a Houston executive who served with Kerrey, told The Post that Klann's account is "the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life. It is untrue in every sense of the word." Ambrose said the unit advanced on the village based on intelligence about a high-level enemy meeting there, responded to hostile fire and "we were all upset ... Bob was tremendously upset" when "we found only innocent victims, not our target whatsoever." Visibility was "literally zero," he said, and "we were lucky to get out of there alive." Another member of Kerrey's squad, Lee "Doc" Schrier of Dayville, Ore., told the World-Herald he had talked to his former squad leader and other members of the unit, with the exception of Klann. He said he understands there is a disagreement between Kerrey's and Klann's accounts but is not taking sides. "I don't have any animosity to anybody - at this moment," Schrier said. "We wouldn't be in these kinds of messes if people wouldn't talk." [Source: Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, April 26, 2001]

Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran and friend of the former senator, defended Kerrey in a floor speech. He urged the media not "to engage in some kind of year-later binge because there is a difference of memory about a particularly confusing night in the delta in a free-fire zone under circumstances which most of us who served in Vietnam understood were the daily fare of life in Vietnam."

Chuck Hagel in Vietnam

Chuck Hagel, a former Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska and the Secretary of Defense under Obama, was a GI in the Vietnam War. He told the Library of Congress Veterans History Project: "I sat before the draft board and said, "No. I think the best thing for me is to go in the Army. It may not be the best thing for the Army, but I think that’s the way to get all this straightened out." I was the oldest of four boys. I mentioned earlier my father passed away, and I just was not coming together the way I should come together. There was a war going on in Vietnam. I felt a sense of some responsibility. So I said, "No. Let’s — let’s go." And so I volunteered for the draft, went in the Army and celebrated my 21st birthday down at White Sands Missile Range. [Source: Time January 16, 2013 =^=]

"On his assignment Hagel said: "I had the most famous of all, 11-Bravo, that which is the infantryman MOS, which I didn’t fight that. I thought that was — if you’re going to be in the Army, you want to be a warrior. I didn’t think it was very romantic and heroic to be a cook, although cooks are important. But I was glad to — and very proud actually to be assigned as an infantryman. And that’s what I was all the way through. I was assigned to go to the middle — to the midrange, at that time, top-secret Redeye missile gun course. They had selected 10 of us in the Army units across the country. This was the first shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile that was all top secret. And I was going to Germany after they trained us, and we would all be moved into NATO units over there. The Russians were not supposed to know about this. =^=

"Then we were sent to Fort Bliss — or Fort Dix, New Jersey, where we were to process out to Germany. And that’s where I took my orders down to the processing station and handed them in, said I’d like to go to Vietnam. And at that point, there was a hush in the orderly room and said, "Young man, sit down." And a chaplain came out. A psychiatrist came out. We had two majors come out. Took me aside. And obviously, they were concerned that I was running away from something. And I don’t think you probably found that many guys that would come in with orders to Germany and say, "I want to go to Vietnam." And we — we talked for about three hours and what the motives were. So they said, "All right. We’ll take you off — off the manifest, and you stay here.’ =^=

"I volunteered to go to Vietnam, which all my friends thought I was out of my mind, that I’d had too much of that Tijuana tequila when I — when I did it, but nonetheless, I just felt it was the right thing to do. A war was going on. They needed their best people, and I didn’t want to be in Germany when there was a war going on in Vietnam. =^=

See Separate Articles on Fighting in the Vietnam War for accounts of his combat experience.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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