Vietnam War POW/MIA Issue - Recovery and "rescue"

Recovery and "rescue"

In the mid-1980s, the U.S. and Vietnam increased the frequency of high-level policy and technical meetings to help resolve the POW/MIA issue. The U.S. government viewed this work as a humanitarian obligation. The Vietnamese slowly began to return American remains that they had previously collected and stored; eventually they permitted the U.S. to excavate a few crash sites. The Lao government, with whom the USG maintained diplomatic relations, also agreed to several crash-site excavations in the mid-1980s. This resulted in the return and identification of the remains of a few dozen Americans. In Cambodia, political turmoil prevented such efforts.

A number of individuals were not satisfied with or did not trust U.S. government actions in this area and took their own initiative. Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jack Bailey created Operation Rescue, which featured a former smuggling boat named Akuna III and solicited funds from POW/MIA groups. Bailey never produced any prisoners and the boat spent years never leaving its dock in Songkhla in Thailand, but the effort proved adept at bringing in money through the Virginia-based Eberle Associates direct mail marketing firm. It was later revealed that Bailey had greatly exaggerated his military record.

During the 1980s, former United States Army Special Forces member Bo Gritz undertook a series of private trips into Southeast Asia, purportedly to locate American POWs which some believed were still being held by Laos and Vietnam, for example at location Nhommarath. These missions were heavily publicized, controversial and widely decried as haphazard — for instance, as some commentators stated, few successful secret missions involve bringing to the border towns women openly marketing commemorative POW-rescue T-shirts.

One such mission in 1982 was to free POWs reported to be in Laos; Gritz led 15 Laotians and 3 Americans, but they were ambushed shortly after crossing the border from Vietnam to Laos and the mission failed. CSM Eric L. Haney, a former Delta Force operator, claims that the unit was twice told to prepare for a mission involving the rescue of American POWs from Vietnam, but both times the missions were scrubbed, according to Haney, when Gritz suddenly appeared in the spotlight, drawing too much attention to the issue and making the missions too difficult to accomplish. The U.S. National Security Council would eventually say of him: "Throughout his years of involvement, Mr. Gritz contributed nothing of value to the POW/MIA issue. In fact, his activities have been counter-productive."

Another figure of the 1980s was Scott Barnes, who claimed he had both been in a secret operation in Cambodia and had seen an American POW. His actions caused significant dissension among POW/MIA activists, especially once he claimed that he had seen more American POWs in Laos but had been ordered by the CIA to assassinate them. The National League of Families ended up accusing him of exploiting the MIA issue for personal gain, as one wife had mortgaged her house to fund him. Barnes, who had concocted much of his purported military background, would subsequently become a controversial figure within Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign.

A former American POW, Eugene "Red" McDaniel, also became convinced that American prisoners had been left behind, and became active in the issue during the 1980s and early 1990s.

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