Vietnam War POW/MIA

Aerial view of Son Tay prison, 23 miles from Hanoi in North Vietnam, where up to 100 American prisoners were held.  Operation Kingpin (20-21 November 1970) was a daring raid on Son Tay by a joint force composed of USAF Special Operations and rescue personnel and U.S. Army Special Forces, supported by U.S. Navy Carrier Task Force 77, intended to release and rescue the POWs. The assault troops, in six ARRS helicopters accompanied by two C-130 aircraft, flew 400 miles to Son Tay from bases in Thailand. U.S. Navy pilots made a diversionary raid while 116 USAF and Navy aircraft from seven air bases and three aircraft carriers flew refueling, surface-to-air missile suppression, fighter cover, close air support, early warning, communications support and reconnaissance missions. Although no prisoners were found in camp, the raid was a brilliant success in transporting, landing and recovering an assault force of 92 USAF and 56 Army personnel without the loss of a single man
Aerial view of Son Tay prison, 23 miles from Hanoi in North Vietnam, where up to 100 American prisoners were held. Operation Kingpin (20-21 November 1970) was a daring raid on Son Tay by a joint force composed of USAF Special Operations and rescue personnel and U.S. Army Special Forces, supported by U.S. Navy Carrier Task Force 77, intended to release and rescue the POWs. The assault troops, in six ARRS helicopters accompanied by two C-130 aircraft, flew 400 miles to Son Tay from bases in Thailand. U.S. Navy pilots made a diversionary raid while 116 USAF and Navy aircraft from seven air bases and three aircraft carriers flew refueling, surface-to-air missile suppression, fighter cover, close air support, early warning, communications support and reconnaissance missions. Although no prisoners were found in camp, the raid was a brilliant success in transporting, landing and recovering an assault force of 92 USAF and 56 Army personnel without the loss of a single man.

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POW/MIA from the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War ground troops, shot-down pilots, and others often survived their combat encounters with the enemy and were taken prisoner. Some quickly escaped and made their way to friendly lines or where picked up by search and rescue parties. Others survived alone for long periods until rescued. But others were captured and imprisoned, sometimes for many years, until POW negotiations at the end of the war. During imprisonment inhumane treatment was the norm. Many POWs were routinely tortured brutally, with constant physical and mental abuse.

As called for in the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973, prisoner exchanges began almost immediately. Then "Operation Homecoming," in April 1973, returned 591 POWs captured in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Although the Paris agreement called for assistance in accounting for the missing, North Vietnam denied access to most loss sites. At that time, the U.S. listed about 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action and sought the return of roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action and body not recovered.

On 12 February 1973 twenty-seven American and South Vietnamese POWs were released in exchange for NVA/VC prisoners, organized by the Four Power Joint Military Commission.  In this photo, Viet Cong soldiers are carrying Captain David Earle Baker, an injured American POW who was captured 27 June 1972, from a hospital tent to the release point
On 12 February 1973 twenty-seven American and South Vietnamese POWs were released in exchange for NVA/VC prisoners, organized by the Four Power Joint Military Commission. In this photo, Viet Cong soldiers are carrying Captain David Earle Baker, an injured American POW who was captured 27 June 1972, from a hospital tent to the release point.

After the return of the POWs, there were still many servicemen missing. U.S. teams conducted some very restricted searches in 1974 to account for Americans missing in South Vietnam, with limited success. At the same time, the work by the "Four Party Joint Military Commission" resulted in the return of 23 sets of remains of men who died in captivity in North Vietnam. The 1975 Communist victories in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia virtually halted U.S. work in the region as America was forced to completely withdraw.

Over the next decade, Vietnam returned few remains of missing Americans. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. and Vietnam increased the frequency of high-level policy and technical meetings to help resolve the POW/MIA issue. The U.S. government viewed this work as a humanitarian obligation. The Vietnamese slowly began to return American remains that they had previously collected and stored; eventually they permitted the U.S. to excavate a few crash sites.

The Lao government, with whom the U.S. maintained diplomatic relations, agreed to several crash-site excavations in the mid-1980s. This resulted in the return and identification of the remains of a few dozen Americans. Cambodia's political state of affairs did not permit in-country accounting work.

In 1988 a presidential emissary, General John Vessey, USA (Ret.), convinced the Vietnamese to permit U.S. teams to search throughout the country.

The MIA Search Continues

>A joint U.S. and Vietnamese anthropological team on Dong Nua Mountain, Quang Binh Province is shown collecting buckets of earth which will be sifted through in an effort to locate personal effects of American soldiers listed as missing in action (MIA). Photographed 8 Feb 1991
A joint U.S. and Vietnamese anthropological team on Dong Nua Mountain, Quang Binh Province is shown collecting buckets of earth which will be sifted through in an effort to locate personal effects of American soldiers listed as missing in action (MIA). Photographed 8 Feb 1991.

The most urgent investigations try to resolve the question of captive Americans remaining behind in Indochina. Working jointly, American and Vietnamese experts focused on "Last Known Alive" (LKA) cases, missing Americans whom the U.S. believed might have survived their initial loss incident. To date, the U.S. has identified 296 individuals as LKA in all of Southeast Asia. Following very deliberate and exhaustive investigative efforts, the Department of Defense has determined that more than 190 are deceased.

In 1992, the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) formed to expand U.S. field operations. Teams from this organization worked in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia alongside their foreign counterparts. Together, they interviewed thousands of witnesses regarding the fate of missing Americans. Their hard work resulted in the location of crash and burial sites all over the region, so that the recovery elements made up primarily of Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI) personnel could excavate them. This work continues under the direction of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC).

There are currently (2005) about 1,900 Americans unaccounted-for from the war in Southeast Asia. The work of the official departments and teams responsible for closing the gap has been criticized as too timid and ineffective. The Vietnamese have been obstructionist and manipulative at times. The status of the MIAs is very emotional and personal to friends and family and it is highly unfortunate that this sensitive subject has often been mishandled. Everyone should remain hopeful and insist that eventually all POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War will be found and brought home.

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