Never before in the history of warfare has so much been done to learn the fate of missing service members than what the United States has been doing throughout Southeast Asia.

Volume 10, Number 76

Working Toward the Fullest Possible Accounting

Prepared statement of James W. Wold, deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs, to the House International Relations Committee, July 12, 1995.

Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Although I have only served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs for the past 14 months, my ties to the POW/MIA issue date back much farther -- to my military flying days during both the Cold War and the War in Southeast Asia. I flew over 240 combat and search and rescue missions in Southeast Asia, and in 1973, during Operation Homecoming, I worked with many returning Air Force members, helping them make the necessary readjustments so they could resume their lives and their military careers.

Today, in my present position, I have a greater understanding of the issue, and my resolve on behalf of our missing Americans and their families is even stronger. The United States government has committed more resources, deployed more personnel and used more equipment than ever before in an effort to resolve the remaining cases of unaccounted-for Americans in Southeast Asia. Never before in all the history of warfare has so much been done to get this kind of accounting.

Shortly after President Clinton's decision to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam, then acting director of the Defense POW/MIA Office Ed Ross testified before a congressional committee that the Department of Defense believed the lifting of the trade embargo would provide us with greater access to Vietnam and to Vietnamese people and thereby increase our prospects for attaining the fullest possible accounting. Today, I can confirm that has occurred.

In the past year I have traveled to Vietnam on five occasions, twice as a member of presidential delegations and three times as the leader of Department of Defense delegations. During these trips I have discussed the POW/MIA issue with senior government officials in Vietnam, received numerous briefings from the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting personnel, and met with State Department officials at our liaison office in Hanoi. I have also had the good fortune to observe our Department of Defense personnel in the field conducting joint operations with their Vietnamese counterparts.

As you are aware, 2,202 Americans currently remain unaccounted-for in Southeast Asia, Of these, 1,618 were lost in Vietnam. I report to you today that the United States government has made, and continues to achieve, steady progress in its efforts to account for missing Americans as a result of the War in Southeast Asia. I would like to review our efforts in Vietnam.

President Clinton has repeatedly stated that further progress toward normalization will be predicated on progress in four areas: (1) concrete results from efforts by Vietnam to recover and repatriate American remains; (2) continued resolution of the fates of the 55 individuals involved in the remaining discrepancy cases; (3) further assistance from Vietnam in conducting investigations along the Lao-Vietnam border; and (4) accelerated efforts to provide POW/MIA-related documents.

The recovery, repatriation and identification of remains continues to be the key measure of our accounting efforts. The return of a fallen American's remains to his or her family, or conclusive evidence why we cannot recover those remains, ultimately provides the only true comfort to family members. With regard to the recovery of remains, in 1993 we repatriated 82 remains, 43 from joint activity and 39 from unilateral turnovers. Last year we recovered and returned to the United States 61 remains, 40 jointly and 21 as a result of unilateral turnovers. Thus far this year we have repatriated 24 remains, 16 as a result of joint efforts and eight from unilateral returns.

The ultimate goal, however, remains the identification of remains so they can be returned to the families for proper burial. Our identification process is painstaking, deliberate and slow to ensure accurate identification and accounting of missing Americans. As was the case during our recent identification of two Americans lost in Laos, the identification process often takes a year or more after remains have been repatriated.

During the present administration, we have identified 39 remains repatriated from Vietnam: 10 in 1993, 26 last year and three to date in 1995. In addition, the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii anticipates 40-50 additional remains will have been submitted to the Identification Review Board by the end of this year.

These numbers reflect the excellent joint cooperation we enjoy with the Vietnamese. Our teams currently travel throughout the country and have virtually unrestricted access. Indeed, even areas that were once restricted -- such as around Cam Ranh Bay and Haiphong Harbor -- are now accessible to our teams.

In addition, the Vietnamese have unilaterally taken broad steps to solicit cooperation from their public. During the past year, they widely publicized their amnesty program throughout the country, maintained a separate office in Ho Chi Minh City dedicated to recovery of American remains and listed the Joint Task Force detachment in the Hanoi phone book.

These are more than symbolic actions, they are the continued signs of Vietnamese commitment to help the United States resolve this issue. However, our bottom line is to achieve the fullest possible accounting through the return of remains by the Vietnamese and by obtaining answers to our questions regarding the discrepancy and special remains cases which will enable us to reach resolution.

The U.S. government has long maintained that trilateral investigations of specific incidents in Laos could provide critical answers to the accounting process. We see such operations, involving Vietnamese witnesses, as pivotal to our investigations and recovery operations in Laos. In December 1994, I met in Hanoi with Lao and Vietnamese government officials to establish the formal process and routine procedures for conducting trilateral operations in Laos involving Vietnamese witnesses. After intense negotiation and discussion, all sides agreed upon procedures [for] such operations.

Since the accord was struck last December, we have conducted trilateral operations in conjunction with three joint field activities in Laos, including our return to Lima Site 85 on Phou Pha Thi. In that instance, the Vietnamese commander of the sapper unit which overran the American base led a U.S.-Lao joint team back to the site. He reconstructed events on top of the mountain, showing where Americans had been shot and killed.

Taking advantage of his leads, the investigation and recovery team extended operations through Christmas, but regrettably recovered no remains. Given the fact that the site was heavily bombed following the Vietnamese attack and contains little topsoil today, this result is understandable. Regardless, our field team put forward a tremendous effort in their search.

To date, Vietnamese government support for trilateral operations has been excellent, and approved Vietnamese witnesses have been allowed to participate fully in joint field investigations in Laos. We are convinced that such operations will allow us to resolve some of the more difficult cases that remain in Laos. Our judgment is based on the additional information that has been gained regarding cases in which Vietnamese witnesses have participated.

We also continue to request that the Vietnamese government search for relevant wartime documents relating to their control of territories in Laos, including the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Of particular interest to us are specific reports of shootdowns, captures and burials -- documents, for example, which record the wartime operations of the 559 Group. On Jan. 20, 1995, the Vietnamese reported finding no relevant documents other than the book "Statistical List of Enemy Aircraft Shootdowns," which was passed to U.S. officials in 1993.

During the previous two years, U.S. government delegations, along with the National League of Families and various veteran service organization delegations, have requested that the Vietnamese government provide us with archival material that could shed light on unresolved cases. Our efforts to acquire such Vietnamese documents are bearing fruit, and results continue to improve.

In late 1994, at the urging of our presidential delegation, the Vietnamese announced they had created unilateral teams in the ministries of National Defense and the Interior to search for documents. Since then, these teams have traveled throughout the country searching for relevant documents to turn over to U.S. authorities.

In January, we received the first indication of their efforts when one team reported on its efforts to locate "feeder" documents related to the 559 shootdown record. The team provided a detailed account of its search effort and ultimate inability to locate such documents. Nevertheless, we continue to press for these source documents.

In mid-May, the Vietnamese provided the presidential delegation 116 documents totaling 187 pages, including sketch maps and provincial records recovered by the two ministry teams. In addition, the Vietnamese provided an important unilateral report detailing Vietnamese knowledge about the special remains cases, Two weeks later, the Ministry of Interior's unilateral team provided an additional 44 documents totaling 86 pages.

In late June, both teams provided U.S. officials with additional documents which are currently being analyzed. The conclusion is that these unilateral teams are having considerable success in locating, retrieving and providing to us documents which offer new leads that can further the accounting process.

Since the lifting of the embargo, we have made tangible progress in determining [the] fate of the 196 individuals included in discrepancy cases (those involving individuals who were last known alive on the ground in Vietnam). Investigations during the past 16 months have enabled us to confirm the fates of an additional 18 individuals, reducing the number of those whose fate has not yet been determined to 55. Of these, each case has been investigated at least once, some as many as 10 times.

In addition to determining the fate of these individuals, we continue to account successfully for individuals involved in these incidents. Since February we have identified two individuals from the discrepancy case list, and CILHI anticipates some additional identifications will be made by year's end. Nevertheless, we continue to press for more progress and accounting, particularly with the special remains and last known alive cases.

We also continue to conduct live sighting investigations when and where information warrants. The investigation of credible firsthand reports of live sightings receives our immediate attention and the first cut at available resources.

The recent allegations by Mr. Bill Hendon received substantial media coverage. A special investigator conducted a thorough field investigation of Mr. Hendon's claims that a prison was hidden in a mountain at a specific location in Vinh Phu Province, approximately 50 NM [nautical miles] northwest of Hanoi. Using the coordinates provided by Mr. Hendon and a global positioning system receiver, the investigator went to several sites in question.

One site turned out to be a truck depot; the other was in the middle of a rice paddy. There were no mountains near either site and no indications of underground facilities. The investigation concluded with no evidence of American POWs being uncovered. Since 1975, DoD investigators have received over 1,750 firsthand reports of live sightings. Follow-up investigations have not yielded any convincing, firsthand evidence of American POWs being held in Vietnam or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I would like to stress that the process and the mechanisms necessary to achieve the fullest possible accounting are in place. Although the pace at times can be agonizingly slow, the results I have outlined for this committee today demonstrate that our procedures are effective.

We must never forget, however, that the goal of achieving the fullest possible accounting can only be achieved with diligence and hard work. With that in mind, I launched the ongoing DoD comprehensive review of all Southeast Asia cases. I hope to issue a report of that review soon. This all-encompassing look at every individual case will provide a solid analytic assessment of the appropriate "next steps" for achieving the fullest possible accounting. Our unaccounted-for Americans deserve no less. I will work to ensure that we keep our promise to them. Thank you.

Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at

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