From a huge archive of documents about the Vietnam War declassified in recent months, new evidence is emerging that some American pilots held prisoner in Laos were not released at the end of the war, and that U.S. intelligence officials might have known where some of them were.
The Defense Department lists 330 Americans, almost all pilots and crew, as missing in action in Laos. Most were certainly killed when their planes crashed in the remote jungles of the mountainous, sparsely populated country.
Officially, only two American fliers, Col. Charles Shelton and Lt. Col. David Hrdlicka, are known for certain to have been alive in custody of pro-communist Pathet Lao rebels. Shelton and Hrdlicka died in captivity in the 1960s, Pentagon officials believe.
But declassified documents from the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency provide some support for those who argue that the number of prisoners was considerably higher, perhaps as high as 41 Americans.
Some military intelligence specialists and prisoner of war activists have believed for years that U.S. prisoners may have been left behind in Laos. Senior officials of the Richard Nixon Administration, in anguished testimony before a Senate committee in September, 1992, acknowledged that they feared it was true at the time but said they decided then there was little they could do.
Of the 591 Americans released by North Vietnam in "Operation Homecoming" in 1973, only nine had been captured in Laos, and those nine were in custody of the North Vietnamese, not the Laotians. None had been held by the Pathet Lao in areas of northeast Laos where, according to some intelligence documents, groups of downed U.S. fliers were kept prisoner.
In the negotiations with North Vietnam that produced the Paris Peace Agreement and ended U.S. involvement in the war in January, 1973, Nixon's national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, repeatedly sought assurances from the North Vietnamese that they would deliver all U.S. prisoners "throughout Indochina" in the postwar prisoner exchanges.
The United States never acknowledged officially participating in a war in Laos, and Laos was not a party to the Paris accord. U.S. negotiators believed, however, that the Pathet Lao communists were, in Kissinger's term, "stooges" of the North Vietnamese and would deliver their prisoners if ordered to by Hanoi.
U.S. officials were shocked when only nine were delivered from Laos, according to declassified documents and testimony at the 1992 hearings.
Lawrence S. Eagleburger, then a senior Pentagon official and later secretary of state in the final months of the George Bush Administration, wrote in a memo to his then-boss, Defense Secretary Elliot L. Richardson, that after the last of the acknowledged prisoners had been released, the United States should stage a "demarche," or diplomatic initiative, on the Laotians about the rest.
"This initiative should plainly and forcefully assert that the U.S. will no longer play games with the POW issue in Laos," said the memo, written a week before the final prisoner release. The Laotian communists "should be told that we have reason to believe they hold additional U.S. prisoners, and we demand their immediate release, as well as an accounting and information on all those who may have died."
Nixon, in an address to the nation at the conclusion of Operation Homecoming, said: "All of our American POWs are on their way home." Later in the same speech, he said provisions of the Paris agreement regarding Laos "have not been complied with," but he did not indicate there might still be U.S. prisoners there. Several times in the next few months of 1973, he repeated that all prisoners had come home.
But the declassified documents show there was intelligence information that the Pathet Lao held some U.S. fliers in caves near Pathet Lao headquarters in Sam Neua, in northeastern Laos near the border with Vietnam.
Asked by a House committee in 1976 how it could be that none of more than 300 Americans lost in Laos could be a prisoner, Vernon E. Walters Jr., then deputy director of the CIA, replied in writing that "this question has been very disconcerting to the intelligence community also. We have information that some of these 300 individuals survived their shoot-down incident. Admittedly, the number is small."
If any of the intelligence information were correct, the apparent conclusion is that some men were abandoned to their fates when the last U.S. troops left Indochina, unless the Pathet Lao killed them, as some U.S. officials believe.
Among the documents supporting this view:
--A January, 1973, CIA listing of "confirmed enemy prisons" in Laos, with locations. Several of these carry descriptions of the likely inmates: "American prisoners," "American pilots (possibly 20)," "approximately 15 American prisoners" and "American pilots (possibly in a cave.)"
--Minutes of a Washington interagency meeting, about the same time, in which the Defense Department representative is recorded as saying: "We don't know what we will get from Laos (in postwar prisoner exchanges.) We have only six known prisoners in Laos, although we hope there may be 40 or 41. We have known very little about the caves where they keep the prisoners in Laos. We just got the first photos of those caves recently and our impression is they are pretty big. We think they are holding a lot more than six prisoners there."
--A Defense Intelligence Agency account of a Laotian communist soldier, described as "cooperative . . . intelligent . . . sincere . . . has a good memory," who entered a cave in northeastern Laos in March, 1972, to replace the batteries in a field telephone. There, he said, he encountered three American, four Thai and four royalist Laotian prisoners, all said to be healthy and adequately fed. They had books and a guitar for entertainment.
--A 1970 CIA report saying that "until recently, the Ban Nakay Neua VH 1965 (a location designation) prison complex was the only prison facility in Laos known to contain American POWs." Ban Nakay Neua was the region of northern Laos where prisoners were believed to have been held in caves. None of the Americans released from Laos in Operation Homecoming had been held there, so what happened to the prisoners "known" to have been in the caves?
--A 1992 deposition given to Senate investigators by Bobby Ray Inman, President Clinton's nominee to be secretary of defense and a senior naval intelligence officer at the time of the 1973 prisoner releases, in which he testified that "in '73 a large number of us thought there were (prisoners in Laos), simply because we had known people had gotten to the ground, that there were substantial prisoners in Laos that were unaccounted for."
Inman added, however, that he later changed his opinion. When none of those men ever surfaced or was found, he said, he decided that either the original assumption of their safe landing was incorrect or the Pathet Lao shot the prisoners rather than keep them.
Also in the files is a 1992 CIA memo saying that "photographs taken by a reconnaissance aircraft in October, 1969, show what may be as many as 20 non-Asians accompanied by Pathet Lao guards near caves" at Ban Nakay Neua.
This was a reference to the "volleyball photos," a subject of furious disagreement in the intelligence and MIA activist community since their existence became known almost a decade ago.
To the untrained eye, these aerial photographs of a jungle clearing appear to show 20 non-Asian men in identical clothing, surrounded by armed men in the black uniforms often worn by the Pathet Lao. In some of the prints, the non-Asian men appear to be playing volleyball.
Defense Department officials long have insisted that expert analysis of these photos shows they are not what they appear to be. But activists--including Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.)--who believe the Pentagon has a "mind-set to debunk" such information are citing the CIA memo as validation of their belief that the photos show American prisoners who never came home.
None of the evidence is conclusive. The Defense Intelligence Agency repeatedly has argued that no information has ever been verified that would show specific American individuals at specific locations, aside from Shelton and Hrdlicka.