Reprinted from the September 1994 issue of Penthouse magazine. Copyright 1994 Penthouse International.
It is not conspiracy theory, not paranoid myth, not
Rambo fantasy. It is only hard evidence of a
national disgrace: American prisoners were left
behind at the end of the Vietnam War. They were
abandoned because six presidents and official
Washington could not admit their guilty secret.
They were forgotten because the press and most
Americans turned away from all things that
reminded them of Vietnam.
In 1973, after the peace accords, Hanoi returned
591 American prisoners and said these were all
the prisoners they had. Yet more than 2,200
American military men are still missing and
unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Half or
more of those men are known to be dead though
their remains have never been recovered.
But then, there are the others. The Defense
Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.) has received more
than 1,600 firsthand sightings of live American
prisoners and nearly 14,000 secondhand reports.
After reviewing them all, the D.I.A concluded that
they “do not constitute evidence” that men were
Prisoners left behind
Here are some stories, many previously untold,
about the prisoners who did not come home from
Vietnam. All of them are accounts of how
Washington, in its deep shame at having
forsaken these men in its haste to get out of that draining war, has ignored,
withheld, distorted, and destroyed evidence of their existence. These accounts
are based on government intelligence documents, on sources closely involved
with the material, and on other concrete evidence uncovered during two years of
reporting. Sadly for this nation’s history, they are but a small sampling of a
mountain of evidence.
Only nine prisoners were returned from Laos at the end of the Vietnam War. This
startled the experts in U.S. military intelligence, because their closely held lists
showed more than 300 men missing in that Hanoi-dominated country. More
telling still, their field reports indicated that most of the men were probably still
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, years after the war was over, numerous radio
messages about American prisoners were intercepted from Laos, a country
bordering on and essentially controlled by Vietnam. The messages, which were
exchanges between Laotian military units, spoke clearly about American
prisoners being transferred from prison to prison or from prison to labor camp
Those transmissions were picked up by
the Thai signal personnel and passed to
the National Security Agency (N.S.A.)
the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.),
and the Pentagon’s D.I.A. Some of the
reports were backed up by HUMINT —
human intelligence, meaning live
sightings by witnesses on the ground,
who reported these same prisoner
Incredibly, all three U.S. intelligence
agencies refused to judge these reports
as reliable. Their reason: The intercepts
were made by a “third party” — namely,
Thailand — and under the ground rules
laid down by the American intelligence community, third-party information can
never be regarded as valid on its own. But this response, a catch-22 if ever one
existed, defied common sense, because these Thai signal units had been trained
by none other than the N.S.A., the U.S. Intelligence organization responsible for
monitoring “signals” transmissions around the world. And the reason the N.S.A.
had trained and was using the Thais was that after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the
agency largely dismantled its own “collection” network in Southeast Asia.
Here from the files of the C.I.A. is an example of one of those radio intercepts,
supported three days later by an independent source on the ground. The radio
message, picked up on the morning of December 27, 1980, said: “Refer to the
Politburo Ministry of Defense that because U.S. and Thai prisoners have been
identified by Thais, Politburo orders they be removed from Attopeu Province (in
Southern Laos). Aircraft will pick up POWs at the (Attopeu) airfield on 28
December at 1230 hours”. Then, on December 30, came this message from the
C.I.A. station in Bangkok to the C.I.A. director’s office in Langley, Virginia: “Met
with and taped source from Vientiane. The POWs, half Thais and half European,
are now in the valley in permanent location (a prison camp at Nhommarath in
Central Laos). They were transferred from Attopeu to work in various places …
POWs were formerly kept in caves and are very thin, dark, and starving.”
Now, consider the insanity of Washington’s
circular argument. American listening posts
were gone, and thus the Thais were essential to
monitoring the radio traffic about POWs. Yet, by
Washington’s definition, the Thai reports were
invalid without U.S. corroboration. But the
United States no longer had any means of
corroboration. The result was unbelievable: With
the exception of one botched cross-border foray
in 1981, using Lao mercenaries recruited in
Thailand, no serious efforts were made to
pursue these reports.
Sometimes, documents show, the failure went
beyond lack of effort and became just plain
cover-up. Documents retrieved from the
National Archives show that some of the radio
intercepts were simply purged from U.S.
government files, presumably to keep the
bungling from ever being discovered by
outsiders. One of these documents is a paper
copy of one of the radio intercepts about
prisoners being moved within Laos. On it, the
N.S.A. chief in Southeast Asia, John O’Dell, had written, “Purge … files of any
traffic on this subject.”
Over the years, scores of what appear to be distress signals were detected by the
C.I.A.’s satellite system. The signals were in the form of markings on the ground
in Vietnam and Laos — the very markings that American pilots had been
specifically trained to use in their pre-Vietnam survival courses. Some symbols
consisted of certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special way. Other markings
were the secret and individual four-digit authenticator numbers given to many of
the pilots who flew over Vietnam. And, at times, men have simply carved out their
But time and again, when these numbers or letters or names have shown up on the satellite digital imagery, the Pentagon, backed by the C.I.A., insisted out of
hand that humans had not made these markings. What were they, then? Nothing
but shadows and vegetation, said the government, and normal contours like
rice-paddy walls. Whether the satellite picked up letters or numbers or names, the
dismissive answer was always the same. Officials of the Defense Intelligence
Agency would say, in what seemed an automatic response, “Shadows and
vegetation. Shadows and vegetation.”
After hearing this refrain for months, one Senate investigator, Bob Taylor, a highly
regarded intelligence analyst who had examined the photo evidence, finally
commented in sardonic dissent, “If grass can spell out people’s names and a
secret digit code then I have a newfound respect for grass.”
Some striking details of the D.I.A.’s nay-saying posture were contained in the
report issued last year by the committee on which Taylor served, the Senate
Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The material got into the report, however,
not because of the committee but largely in spite of it — after heavy resistance,
editing, and other machinations by the panel’s Pentagon-leaning majority.
Sometimes the D.I.A. uses its fancy word for the
distress symbols it rejects: anomalies. The D.I.A.
men explain with straight faces that a “photo
anomaly” is something you see but really isn’t
there. Independent experts in imagery analysis
consider this a bad joke, saying that when you
see something on a photo or on digital imagery,
it’s usually real.
To date, no MIA family has ever been notified by
the Pentagon about any of these ground
markings, many of which correlated to the name
or distress letters or secret four-letter code of a
particular missing man. The Pentagon says that
since the markings in its opinion were
“anomalies” and not man-made, to inform
families about them would only subject them to
needless, additional anguish.
But the government’s own survival experts are
livid over the D.I.A.’s “shadows and vegetation
and contour” line. In firm rebuttal, the men at
J.S.S.A. (the Air Force’s survival training unit,
officially titled Joint Services Survival, Evasion,
Resistance, and Escape Agency ) kept
explaining that using vegetation and natural
formations to construct distress markings was
exactly what their agency had trained pilots to do
in captivity — so as to be less obvious and avoid
detection by their jailers.
Then there are the distress signals that were
never even found. Almost all the signals we know
about — roughly 100 or so — were discovered in
the last few years, meaning that this can be only
a fraction of the likely total. The astonishing
reason for this is that, although the United States regularly flew low-level
reconnaissance planes and spy satellites over Indochina from the end of the war
onward, it was not until the 1990s that the intelligence agencies began to look for
distress symbols on the voluminous photos and digital imagery they collected.
Incredibly, they had no instructions to do so.
The Senate report said, “The Committee was rather surprised to find that neither
D.I.A. or C.I.A. imagery analysts were familiar with Vietnam pilot distress
symbols, or had a requirement to look for possible symbols, prior to the
Committee’s inquiry. This was confirmed under oath by imagery analysts from
Further on, the report grew even more
damning: “Another indicator that D.I.A.
has done little to address the possibility
of distress symbols appearing on
photography is its inability to account for
the Army’s, Navy’s or Marine Corps’
pilot authenticator numbers. J.S.S.A.
still preserves those for the Air Force.
As recorded in the hearing of October
15 (1992) D.I.A. does not know what
happened to the numbers. This is a
significant failure … It supports the
theory that D.I.A. has never taken the
possibility of symbols seriously…
“In theory, therefore, if a POW still living
in captivity were to attempt to communicate by ground signal, smuggling out a
note or by whatever means possible, and he used his personal authenticator
number to confirm his identity, the U.S. government would be unable to provide
such confirmation if his number happened to be among those numbers D.I.A.
Secrecy and untruths
These revealing passages, however, belied the true nature of the Senate
committee. It was dominated by a faction led by its chairman, the charismatic
John Kerry of Massachusetts. This group wanted to appear to be probing the
prisoner issue energetically, but in fact, they never rocked official Washington’s
boat, nor did they lay open the 20 years of secrecy and untruths. Thus, in their
final report, issued in January 1993, after more than a year in operation, the
conclusions as to men left behind were watered down and muddied to the point of
And although a skilled and tenacious staff of committee investigators had
managed to weave into the 1,223-page document sizable chunks of potent data
that went a good distance toward exposing the POW story, some of the material
never made it into the report. Significantly, the staff made the following finding,
using intelligence reports that covered sightings only through 1989: “There can be
no doubt that POWs were alive … as late as 1989.” This staff document was
Two senators, Bob Smith and Charles Grassley, refused to go along with the
majority finding in the final report that said there was “no compelling evidence that
proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.” But their
dissent was relegated to a tiny footnote. The footnote said the two could not
accept this finding “because they believe that live-sighting reports and other
sources of intelligence are evidence that POWs may have survived to the
(Asked for comment, Kerry contended, “No evidence of a cover-up has ever been
substantiated. And all 12 senators, including Bob Smith, unanimously agreed to
the committee’s conclusion that there was no conspiracy”.)
The frustrations faced by those on the committee who were determined to get at
the truth are crystallized in the tale of the International Security Affairs
documents. The following account is taken from memos, letters and other
documents obtained by this reporter.
In July 1992, eight months into its investigation, the Senate committee was
granted clearance by a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Alan Ptak, to
examine and copy certain key POW files from a branch of the Defense
Secretary’s office known as International Security Affairs (I.S.A.). On July 10,
committee staffers headed for the Pentagon’s Central Documentation Office
(C.D.O.) in Clarendon, Virginia, where the files had been shifted, because this
was the office designated to process all the committee’s requests for information.
The stonewalling began instantly upon their arrival at C.D.O.
Chuck Wells, a middle-level Pentagon manager, met the committee aides in the
lobby and told them that it was the contention of I.S.A. that the committee had
seen all its files. The staffers told him this wasn’t true, noting specifically that they
had yet to see a single W.A.R. (Weekly Activity Report) or SECDEF Breakfast
item. These are pivotal documents. Breakfast items, for example, are minutes of
then weekly one-on-one meetings of the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary
of State, at which the two men would discuss sensitive, top priority foreign-affairs
matters in an informal and very candid setting. The committee staffers knew that
POW issues had been discussed at some of these meetings and in the Weekly
Wells kept stalling them, saying he would try to call I.S.A. again. Finally, after
three hours, stuck in an out-of-the way room, “He told us flatly there would be no
files made available.”
Another staffer, in his record of this encounter, wrote: “Our access … Remains
Returning to Capitol Hill, the staffers kept pushing. They got committee counsel
Bill Codinha to call Alan Ptak, who repeated that they had full access, as had
been stated in a letter to the committee from the Defense Secretary himself. Ptak
said the problem must lie at the Central Documentation Office. To the staffers it
sounded as if the finger pointing was a smoke screen for the likelihood that
everyone was in on the stonewall, since it made no sense that a lowly Pentagon
document office would defy a clearance granted by the Defense Secretary.
Also obstructing these staffers was the fact that some of the top committee
people — including the committee chairman, Senator Kerry, and his chief counsel
and old friend, Bill Codinha — seemed to have an inappropriately cozy
relationship with the Defense Department.
For one thing, Codinha and Ptak maintained unusually close ties throughout the
investigation. (Staffers noticed that the Pentagon always seemed to know the
committee’s next move.) But more important, Kerry, in his public remarks over
time, had made clear that his interest was in ending the embargo against Vietnam
and bringing about improved relations. And he also arranged committee hearings
and meetings in a manner that made the Pentagon a virtual partner in the
committee’s inquiry instead of being a subject of the probe.
As one staffer wrote, in a memo preserved from the period: “Speaking for the
other investigators, I can say we are sick and tired of this investigation being
controlled by those we are supposedly investigating.”
(Kerry disputes all this. When asked to comment for this article, he said his “only
interest in lifting the embargo was to improve access” to POW/MIA information.
And he says that “the committee was dependent on the Pentagon to obtain much
of its information but the relationship was in no way a partnership. The committee
fully investigated all allegations of Pentagon cover-up and malfeasance.”)
Tellingly, though, the committee staffers came across transcripts of electronic
messages from within the Pentagon that confirmed what they already suspected.
The purpose of the stalling was to allow the Pentagon to go through the
requested files and sanitize them — that is, take out all the sensitive papers. One
such internal message said: “Purpose here is to give Ptak/Ross time to review
the roughly 25 percent of … material [the committee] has not seen.” (Edward
Ross was Ptak’s deputy and ironically, was later promoted to chief of the
Pentagon’s POW/MIA office.)
The day turned into months and still no documents. On September 8, 1992,
Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who has led the fight in Congress against
the cover-up, sent off a strong and detailed “eyes-only” letter to Defense
Secretary Richard Cheney. In it he cited the document stonewalling by the
officials and said, “One can only presume their reason was to gain time to screen
the remaining files for certain documents they, apparently, did not wish the
committee to see.” Smith called it “a serious breach” of Cheney’s stated
full-access policy and demanded that something be done.
Cheney forwarded the letter to the I.S.A. office, thus giving the job of explaining
away the stonewalling to the very office responsible for it. The I.S.A. chief,
Assistant Secretary of Defense James Liley, assigned his deputy, Ptak, to draft a
response to Smith. According to a confidential source, Ptak consulted his friend,
committee counsel Codinha, and a September 28 letter to the senator was
produced over Liley’s signature. (Codinha denies that his relationship with Ptak
was a close one and says there was “nothing untoward” or “inappropriate” about
it. He also says that he has no memory of the Liley letter. As for Ptak, at press
time he had not responded to request for comment.) The letter said that the
whole mess was “the result of a misunderstanding. Committee staff members
were notified quickly that the remaining … policy files were available for review,
and committee investigators subsequently reviewed the files in their complete,
Agency cleared itself
All this was patently false. And ridiculous. The I.S.A. had essentially cleared itself.
“We never did see that 25 percent of the files”, a committee investigator said
afterward. “They shoved files at us and said it was everything, but it was stuff we
had already seen. It was outrageous. We never did get to see a single Weekly
Activity Report or Breakfast item”.
He went on: “They were afraid of what we would find in those files, and that’s why
they cleaned them out. And Cheney’s commitment was only on paper. They were
obstructing the investigation, pure and simple.” (Senator Kerry, in his comment,
said: “The Defense POW/MIA office has documented that it responded fully and
accurately to all of the more than 400 requests for documents made by
committee members and their staff”).
Then there are the instances when vital documents have not only been withheld,
but actually destroyed.
Missing airmen, special codes
One such case involved certain letters that had emerged from Laos in the late
1980s and reached the Department of Defense at about the same time. They
were reportedly written by three missing airmen — John Robertson, Larry
Stevens, and Albro Lundy.
The letters drew particular attention at the Pentagon because they appeared to
be written in code. According to documents, including memoirs written by former
POWs, a number of the airmen who flew combat in Vietnam had been trained in
special coding methods as a survival technique, should they be captured. The
purpose, for example, was to get messages out to the Pentagon through their
families by writing letters in language that was coded but would seem harmless to
their captors and would therefore be passed on.
Documents in the National Archives show that Lundy was one of the airmen
trained in this technique. Like all others with this training, one of his missions
upon capture was to teach the coding system to as many other prisoners as
Something else was important about those trained in the coding, who numbered
perhaps a couple hundred men. The Pentagon kept a separate file on each of
them, containing that man’s personal coding details. Each file also held special
biographical and personal information that would be known only to that man and
those closest to him. These private facts were to be coded into any letters or
messages the men sent out, to establish their authenticity.
When the Robertson, Stevens, and Lundy letters came in, as revealed in archival
records, they were given to the special Pentagon unit trained to decipher codes
and other “authentication” techniques the missing men might use. Upon
examining the letters, the experts in this unit concluded that they contained signs
of special coding. They said they had found a number of “striking correlations”
consistent with the conclusion that the letters were likely the work of American
POWs. But the only way to decode the messages was to have access to those
special files — and the files were held by the D.I.A.
The special Pentagon unit requested Lundy’s file, since he was the only one of
the three trained in these procedures and could have trained the other two. The
answer came back that Lundy’s file had been destroyed. The unit could proceed
no further. With this, the D.I.A. not only chose to ignore the unit’s preliminary
findings, but arbitrarily decided the letters were fraudulent.
However, according to archival documents, staffers on the Senate POW
committee learned of this and began asking questions of the Pentagon. Why,
they asked, had Lundy’s file been purged? The Pentagon replied that a number of
those folders had been destroyed one by one over the course of the Vietnam
War, as airmen periodically were declared K.I.A./B.N.R. — Killed in action/Body
not recovered. One reason the Pentagon gave for this action was to clear some
space in its overburdened file system.
Destroyed in a day
The committee staffers, digging deeper, discovered that the files had not been
destroyed one by one, but all at the same time. And his purge occurred not during
the war but in 1975, two years after the American military role had ended with the
Paris peace accords. “It was bullshit. They destroyed them all on one day,” said
The staffers also determined that the Pentagon’s story — that the only files
destroyed were those of men who had been declared Killed in action/Body not
recovered — did not stand up under examination. A number of men who had been
written off in that category were, to the Pentagon’s surprise, among those
prisoners returned in 1973. Their files had not only not been destroyed before
1973, but they are still kept by the Pentagon. Also, the files of men who were
known definitively to have died in captivity were never destroyed. Their files, too,
Thus, astonishingly, the only files the Pentagon destroyed were those of men
who were still missing in action and unaccounted for after 1973 — and thus could
have been some of the men held back by Hanoi, men who could possibly be
prisoners to this day.
Hiding its dishonor?
Unless the Pentagon was trying to hide its dishonor over leaving men behind,
why would it destroy the files of men still unaccounted for and preserve files of
men who have returned? Remember, the sole reason such records were
maintained in the first place was to help verify the existence of prisoners and get
“The destruction of those files was devastating,” said a source, “because it wiped
out any ability to confirm the authenticity of any coded letters or messages that
might have come out since 1973 or might come out in the future.”
In short, if a POW tried to signal his existence now, using such coded messages,
it would be useless.
Nixon and Kissinger
What could explain this shameful pattern of behavior, spanning six presidencies
breaking faith with those who went to battle believing their country would do
everything for them if they were taken prisoner?
For the answers one has to go back 21 years, to the days when President
Richard Nixon, desperate to get out of Vietnam and besieged by the expanding
Watergate scandal, instructed Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser and
chief negotiator with North Vietnam at the Paris peace talks, to do whatever was
necessary to end the longest war in our history.
Thus, on January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed the
peace agreement. And, on that day, the North Vietnamese gave the United
States their list of American prisoners. It showed only 591 men — a figure far
below what U.S. Intelligence had expected. But what could be done? The
agreement had been signed, and neither the American public nor Congress,
weary to the bone with this war, would countenance a resumption of the conflict.
Two months after the signing, Hanoi released the last of the 591 men and Nixon
went on national television and said, “All of our American POWs are on their way
It is now unshakably clear, from a mass of evidence, that Nixon knew this was not
true. Several of his key appointees — notably, Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird,
Elliot Richardson, and James Schlesinger — testified under oath at Senate
hearings that they were convinced by the intelligence data before them that a
number of men were not returned. That intelligence, and a flood of data since
unearthed, shows that the number was in the hundreds.
Schlesinger, when he testified, was asked why Nixon would have accepted this.
He replied, “One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position
of the United States … was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out
and we were not going to roll the waters…”
Then he was asked a very simple question: “In your view, did we leave men
‘Some were left behind’
“I think that, as of now”, replied the former defense secretary and C.I.A. chief.
“That I can come to no other conclusion, senator … Some were left behind.”
The intelligence data also makes clear that Hanoi’s motive for holding back
prisoners was ransom. The North Vietnamese kept them as pawns to extract
from Washington the reparations money they believed they had been promised
by Nixon and Kissinger. Indeed, a letter from Nixon to Hanoi’s Prime Minister,
Pham Van Dong, pledged $3.25 billion over five years in “reconstruction” aid plus
another “one to 1.5 billion dollars … on food and other commodity needs.”
Though that letter was written on February 1, 1973, just days after the peace
accords were concluded, it was kept secret for more than four years.
Both Nixon and Kissinger have since said that the aid was never given because
Hanoi consistently violated the peace agreement. Kissinger also said, in his
testimony before the Senate POW committee in 1992, that “it had been our
constant position that we would never give aid to ransom our prisoners.”
Credible reports have surfaced over the years of Vietnamese overtures to
Washington through third countries, offering to return live prisoners for that same
$4 billion. The overtures, according to the reports, were either rejected or fell
apart in negotiations. Official Washington refuses to provide details.