|This year marks the 25th year since the third Friday of
September was designated as Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA)
The silhouetted black-and-white flag honoring American POW/MIAs will be
flown Friday, Sept. 16 at most federal locations, including Fort McCoy.
The POW/MIA flag originated in 1971 during the Vietnam War, and the
first official recognition for POW/MIAs occurred in July 1979.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of U.S.
involvement in the Vietnam War.
Recovery efforts continue for unaccounted-for Americans. Since U.S.
government efforts to account for servicemembers listed as POWs/MIAs
began, the remains of more than 900 Americans killed in the Vietnam
War have been recovered, identified, returned to their Families and
interred with full military honors. As of Aug. 29, 1,683
servicemembers still are listed as missing in Southeast Asia.
The following provides a history of efforts to account for the
missing from the Vietnam War.
Immediately after the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1973,
Operation HOMECOMING returned 590 POWs captured in Vietnam, Laos and
Cambodia (two POWs from Vietnam and a Cold War POW were released
from China) to the U.S.
The MIA Families and some government officials, however, expected a
greater number of returnees, giving rise to concerns that POWs had
been withheld. This gave rise to the urgency of the accounting
Although Article Eight of the Accord called for mutual
assistance among the parties in accounting for the missing in the
immediate postwar period, continuing hostilities precluded access to
many sites. After the POWs came home, the U.S. still listed some
2,646 Americans as unaccounted-for, with roughly equal numbers of
those missing in action, or killed in action/body not recovered.
Initially, the accounting was to be accomplished by the Four Party
Joint Military Team, a temporary organization comprised of
representatives from the four signatories. U.S. and Republic of
Vietnam teams conducted joint but restricted searches from February
1973 to March 1975 for Americans missing in South Vietnam. These met
with only limited success, but did recover and identify 63
servicemen, 23 of whom had died in captivity in North Vietnam, and
five who had been killed in Laos. The work was severely limited
after the ambush slaying of U.S. Army Capt. Richard M. Rees by
guerrillas Dec. 15, 1973, and ended completely with the Communist
takeover of Vietnam in April 1975.
From that point until September 1990, Vietnam unilaterally returned
some 175 remains of missing Americans it had previously collected
and stored. In the 1980s, spurred by suspicions over this
withholding and the reports of the Indochinese refugees that POWs
were held, the U.S. re-energized its efforts with high-level policy
and technical meetings. Then in August 1987, President Reagan
dispatched retired Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr., Special Presidential
Emissary, to Hanoi on the POW issue, to find ways to resolve these
continuing questions. As a result of the Vessey meetings, the
Vietnamese permitted U.S. teams to search throughout the country.
Joint searches began in Vietnam in September 1988. Parallel
arrangements were reached in Laos and Cambodia at about this same
time, with occasional targeted investigations in China as leads
arose. Continuous joint searches began in April 1988 in Laos, and in
October 1991 in Cambodia.
In 1992, the U.S. organized its accounting efforts into the
large-scale field operations that continue to this day. Teams work
several periods each year in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia alongside
their foreign counterparts. Together, they have interviewed
thousands of witnesses and conducted archival research in all five
countries regarding the fate of missing Americans. Their hard work
has resulted in the continuous location of crash and burial sites
all over the region, from the highest mountain top to underwater
Archaeologists and anthropologists use meticulous site exploitation
rules to find possible remains and material evidence. This is
followed by a scientifically rigorous and forensic process that
leads to identification of the missing servicemembers and a return
to their Family for burial.
(Information in this article is from the Defense Prisoner of
War/Missing Personnel Office and The United States of America
Vietnam War Commemoration.)