Remembering our pearls



March 29th, 2018  is the first Vietnam Veterans Day. What have we already forgotten?

If you didn’t live through the ‘60’s and ’70’s, it’s difficult to imagine the pressures and the psychological impact that the Vietnam War had on this country. Five years of intense fighting until, in ’68, candidate Nixon declared, “I have a plan to end the war.” 

He was elected, of course, but the war dragged on well into the ‘70’s with protests increasing, civil rights leaders becoming anti-war leaders, shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, and the rise of such anti-war organizations as Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Students for a Democratic Society, The Weathermen, and many others. Demonstrations and bombings. The Berrigan Brothers. Body bags. The Pentagon Papers. Enlisted men ‘fragging’ their officers. And rampant drug use in Vietnam by our soldiers. 

People asked: Why the hell are we there anyway? By 1968 the citizens wanted out. Now. Right now. And we did get out. But not before much more fighting and many more losses (totaling more than 58,000 deaths) before the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

In this agreement the U.S. demanded the return of absolutely all American POW’s. 

But in our rush to get out . . . 

Did we leave some of our men and women behind? 

Did we know that we were leaving them behind?

It’s hard to argue otherwise. In 1992, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger testified officials before the Senate Select Committee on P.O.W.-M.I.A. Affairs that: “As of now, I can come to no other conclusion.” Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird testified to the same. [1]

These are not flying saucer crazies, Bigfoot enthusiasts or hot-headed Rambos. They knew that the North Vietnamese had continually linked return of all  POWs to reparations, and that Nixon had made personal assurances that billion of dollars would be paid. 

But Nixon had other problems, and the reparations, or “reconstruction money” as it was euphemistically referred to, was never paid. 

Why would the North Vietnamese keep our soldiers? For the same reason they kept French POWs after France departed the area in 1954 following their own peace conference. The North Vietnamese called the French POW’s ‘Pearls.’ Why? Because they were white and valuable. They could be used later as bartering chips for money and goods. And, yes, as ransom for reparations. 

To this day the Pentagon lists 1,606 Americans as still missing over there. Is this a clerical error? No. The vast majority were undoubtedly killed in action before we departed but their bodies were not recoverable. But does that account for all 1,606 who were missing? No.

How many did we leave behind? What We do know is that our government was surprised when, in January, 1973, only 591 POW’s were released. In Laos alone there had been 300 downed airmen, some known to have survived. Only 9 were released, and none of the men were the ones we had known about. 

Here’s a fraction of what reached Washington:

1. Between 1973 and 1992 there were more than 1,600 firsthand sightings of live Americans and 14,000 second-hand reports. [2]

Were all these sightings true? Certainly not all of them. But were they all fabricated? That would be even harder to believe. 


2. In 1968 Major General Jan Sejna, the Czech Minister of Defense defected to the U.S. In 1992 he testified to the Committee on POW-MIA Affairs that at least 200 Americans had been shipped from Vietnam to the Soviet Union through Czechoslovakia

“I personally was present when American POWs were unloaded from planes, put on buses whose windows were painted black, and then driven to Prague where they were placed in various military intelligence barracks and other secure buildings until they were shipped to the Soviet Union." [3]

Having a big sale, on-site celebrity, or other event? Be sure to announce it so everybody knows and gets excited about it.

3. In 1992 US General Tom Lacy testified to our Senate committee on POW/MIA Affairs that: “We, to my knowledge, we left people, specifically, left people in Laos when we started withdrawing, shutting down that particular operation." [4]

General Lacy also reported that he had personally returned to Vietnam in 1989, and through intermediaries, located and met with a former pilot-friend he had flown with and whom he had personally seen shot down. He testified to the name of the pilot, the existence and location of the camp, and the contents of their conversation. It’s all public record now.

  Question to Lacy: " are saying that you saw a live American prisoner of war and that you spoke with him, and you've identified him." 

 Answer: "In January of 1989." 

 Question: "In 1989? In January?" 

 Answer: "Yes, sir."

4. In 1981 a reliable CIA Laotian source with connections to the Communist Party, reported that as many as 30 U.S. pilots were working on a road gang near Nhommarath, Laos. (A spy satellite confirmed the presence of a nearby prison camp.) [5]

The "Walking K"

 5. As late as January 1988, Central Intelligence Agency surveillance discovered the letters "USA" dug into a rice field near Sam Neua, Laos, along with what looked like a “K”, made of rice stalks. [6] The letter “K” within an elongated leg, and called a “walking K” was an emergency distress signal that was commonly used by US pilots. 

6. On June 23, 1992, Reagan’s National Security Advisor, Richard Allen was subpoenaed by the POW-MIA Committee and asked whether he remembered an offer by the Vietnamese to sell back Americans. 

   "Yes, I do,” he answered. “It was $4 billion, it was indeed for live prisoners.” 

    He was then asked, “How many?” 

    NSC Advisor Allen’s response: “Dozens. Hundreds.”[7]

When a transcript of his testimony was reporter Robert Caldwell of the San Diego Union, he confronted Allen with his statements. Allen now claimed, not under oath, to have been confused at the time. [8]

7. In 1993 a transcript was discovered of a senior North Vietnamese general, Tran Van Quang, reporting to the politburo just four months before the release of the 591 soldier, that there were actually 1,205 POW’s being held, and that many would be kept to assure Washington would pay for reparations. [9]

8. In 1997 Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire reported that President Jimmy Carter was offered, through a third party, an opportunity to release prisoners who had been left behind when we pulled out. [10]

9. Retired KGB General Oleg Kalugin stated in his 1992 testimony to the POW-MIA Committee that the KGB interviewed Americans still held in Vietnam as late as 1978,[11] when Soviet intelligence officers questioned a former CIA officer, a naval officer and an Air Force officer not far from Hanoi. [12

10. In 1979, a CIA source whom they called Phimmachack claimed that 18 Americans prisoners still held had been moved to a cave north of Nhommarath, Laos. [13]

11. In December of that same year, a US trained Thai signal unit, Team-213, reported intercepting a message from a top Laotian leader ordering that Americans were being moved from Attopu, Laos to an area in central Laos. [14

12. In January, 1981, Operation Pocket Change was launched to retrieve the airmen believed to be near Nhommartha.

13. On March 29, 1981, a 13-man CIA team went into Laos. The pictures they took from 500 yards turned out blurry, and they did not get close enough to see the prisoners believed to be housed in the inner compound; they reported back that they had seen no Caucasians. Richard Allen, National Security Advisor to the president said, “We missed the best chance we ever had to find POWs still alive.”[15]

Is all of this hard to believe? 

Undoubtedly. But there is more, much more testimony and information available to us now, as well as careful investigations by a number of credible journalists. There is also credible information that some Americans have been secretly returned over time, but kept quiet, ostensibly not to inform the public that we had deserted them in the first place. 

Why isn’t this information public? 

Actually, it is. It’s all public record. But who knows? Who is keeping track? We knew all about the hostages in Iran only because we were told about them. Why haven’t we been told more about this? Perhaps we’d all like to forget the war we didn't win.

But they are our pearls. Each one is valuable. Returned or not, they testify to an entire nation that was expedient to dispose of an unpopular war. 

With all the scandals and investigations in the Capitol now, perhaps this scandal deserves another look. Feel free to meet with your representative. See if he or she knows or cares. Ask them to release the secret testimonies to Congress. And, carefully investigate the record for yourself online. Get ready for controversy. Get ready for denials and counter-denials. But the facts are there. The ones who knew have testified. 

Now, it’s our turn to remember and honor the Pearls we forgot. 


Peter Gilboy was an intelligence officer in Binh Dinh Province, South Vietnam in 1971 and 1972. He was part of Egress Recap, a then-secret operation to locate U.S. MIA’s and prisoners of war, and to bring them home. He holds degrees in Asian Studies, and is also the author of the novel, The American Pearl

[1]  Barbara Crossette, “POW’s Were Left Behind, Top Aide Believed,” New York Time, September 22, 1992 

[2]  Sydney Shanbert, “McCain and the POW Cover-Up,” The American Conservative, July 1, 2010

[3]   U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan, “Accounting for Pow/Mia’s from the Korean War and the Vietnam War,” Diane Pub Co (1996), Page 59.    

[4]   U.S. Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, April 2, 1992.   

[5]   Douglas Waller, “The Americans Left Behind,” Time, June 24, 2001.

[6]   Barbara Crosette, “U.S. Aide Says Laos Markings Remain Puzzle in M.I.A. Issue,” New York Times, October 16, 1992

[7]  Glenn Rogers, “The Secret POW Return Program” The California Zephyr, 1994.

[8]  The American Conservative, July 1, 2010, McCaIn and the POW Cover-Up, by Sidney Schanberg    

[9]  Ibid   

[10]  Glenn Rogers, “Dead or Alive? Silent Running, The Secret POW Return Program,” The California Zephyr, 1994  

[11]  Barbara Crossette, “Vietnam Admits K.G.B. Interrogated Americans,” New York Times, January 22, 1992 

[12]  Nicholas M. Horrock, “Senators Seek KGB Data On Alleged Pow Interrogations In Vietnam,” Chicago Tribune, January 03, 1992    

[13]  Douglas Waller, “The Americans Left Behind,” Time, June 24, 2001

[14]  Ibid.

[15]  Ibid.

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The American Pearl