Published Airpower Journal - Winter 1992
RECENT testimony before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs revealed that high-level US government officials, including two former secretaries of defense, believed that live American servicemen remained under the control of North Vietnamese and/or Laotian forces at the conclusion of Operation Homecoming (the repatriation of American POWs) in 1973. Despite this knowledge, the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam went ahead as scheduled, as part of the Paris Peace Accords.
Authorities disagree over whether the Nixon administration intentionally wrote off these men to expedite the peace process with North Vietnam or whether they just fell through the cracks. In any event, it is inappropriate to second-guess the actions of officials who, at a very difficult time in American history, sorely did what they thought was best for their country.
The number of survivors in question is relatively small. Most of the 300 or so servicemen who disappeared in the jungles of Laos are thought to have been killed in action, but their remains were never recovered. In the case of missing airmen, the jungle is much like the sea, in that doomed aircraft and crews can seemingly vanish upon impact. Until recently, this was a comforting explanation by which one could rationalize the fate of MIAs. The Senate hearings, however, revealed that a few hardy souls evidently survived their crashes and were taken prisoner.
These "non-MIAs" remained in enemy hands after the war, but a lack of concrete evidence as to their whereabouts seemed to rule out rescue. The fate of these servicemen is unknown. The slim possibility that some may have lingered on for years is more horrifying than the more believable contention that they died quickly in captivity.
We all realize the inherent risks of being in the armed forces. Indeed, serving our country means that sometimes we put our lives on the line. Whether in peacetime training accidents or actual combat, military people die. We tell ourselves it's part of the job and force ourselves to move on. On another level, however, some casualties are more difficult to accept than others (witness the incidents of fratricide during the Gulf war).
The current revelations are especially compelling. The possibility that some American servicemen remain in Laotian or North Vietnamese hands long after all POWs were supposedly repatriated is deeply disturbing. We can only hope that this testimony is, perhaps, a final footnote to the frustrating tale of our involvement in Southeast Asia. The American public must consider the plight of these servicemen who may have been left behind and appreciate the fact that at a very difficult time in American history, they did what they thought was best for their country. We in the Air Force never forgot them ... and never will. JJD
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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