Half a century after the last American combat troops left Vietnam, the U.S. has taken the first steps in a major but little-noticed policy shift to solidify relations with its former adversary by helping the Vietnamese account for and identify their war dead.
Under a July 2020 Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Vietnam, the U.S. Agency for International Development was given the formidable task of providing technical assistance and archival research to Vietnam on as many as 300,000 Vietnamese missing.
"The United States appreciates all the support that Vietnam has provided over the last 35 years in accounting for missing U.S. service members," then-U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink said at the Hanoi signing of the memorandum between USAID and the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP).
That reasoning would have been unthinkable when Americans recoiled at the brutal treatment of U.S. prisoners of war by Vietnam and urban legends proliferated about the possibility that Hanoi was still holding living POWs long after the war.
Kritenbrink added that the U.S. is now "committed to supporting the people of Vietnam as they seek to identify and ultimately reunite remains of combatants with their loving families."
By helping the Vietnamese, the U.S. also stands to gain in the search for America's missing from Vietnam, according to officials of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
"It's a win-win situation for us," said Dr. Gregory Berg, lab case manager for the DPAA's scientific analysis directorate. At a June 28 DPAA media roundtable, Berg said that the Vietnamese in conducting searches inevitably "will stumble upon something that's not theirs. There's a good chance they're going to find one of our missing."
In addition to U.S. government efforts to assist the Vietnamese, a team of officials and students from Texas Tech University is currently in Hanoi to share with the Vietnamese information from the vast archive maintained at the school's Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive, including the captured letters and diaries of Vietnamese troops.
In an interview from Hanoi with Lubbock, Texas, TV station KCBD, Steve Maxner, director of the Texas Tech Vietnam Center, said that, in combing through the archives, "We knew that there would be diaries and materials. The challenge then is transitioning that from a document you find in microfilm and then finding the family."
At a ceremony in early June in Hanoi, the Texas Tech team was able to deliver six sets of materials, including letters and diaries, to the families of six fallen and still missing Vietnamese troops, Maxner said.
"Those families, just like American families are suffering, have heartache and longing to understand what happened to their soldiers," Maxner said.
With the support of the Defense Department, the Unseen Legacies of the Vietnam War Project at Harvard's Kennedy School has also been involved in setting up a searchable database "to facilitate the location and identification of Vietnamese war dead," according to a statement from the school.
A team from the project was in Vietnam in the spring to begin work and was expected to return in the fall, a spokesperson told Military.com.
"In addition to our core work reviewing documents to facilitate the location and identification of Vietnamese war dead, the Unseen Legacies team will also share information and participate in training on our research and discovery process to enable teams in Vietnam to conduct similar efforts in the future," the spokesperson said.
The ultimate goal of USAID's initial $2.4 million project was "to build local government systems to implement a comprehensive identification program, as opposed to a case-by-case identification approach," a USAID spokesperson said in an email statement to Military.com.
USAID is also looking to equip a lab in Vietnam by 2025 for DNA analysis to aid in identification of recovered remains, according to the statement.
In support of the USAID project, the U.S. Institute of Peace, with the authorization of Congress, has begun a multiyear project to promote greater dialogue between the U.S. and Vietnam on war legacy issues and reconciliation.
"It's no longer super controversial" for the U.S. to be making what the U.S. Institute of Peace calls the "landmark" decision to assist in identifying Vietnamese remains, said Andrew Wells-Dang, a senior Southeast Asia expert at USIP.
In a phone interview, Wells-Dang said that "the numbers are staggering," with as many as 300,000 North Vietnamese troops missing in action, and "nobody knows how many South Vietnamese," or Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), are missing.
In an August 2021 online forum, Vietnam's Ambassador to the U.S. Ha Kim Ngoc said that the agreement to assist in the search for Vietnam's missing marked "a significant milestone" in "the long journey of overcoming our legacies of war."
Veterans Stepping Up and Stories About the Missing
In addition to the USAID project, veterans acting on their own have recently renewed their 30-year commitment to assist in the accounting of Vietnam's MIAs through the return of personal effects taken during the war, eyewitness accounts and the identification of unmarked grave sites.
Following a three-year recess due to the pandemic, a two-person team from the Vietnam Veterans of America was in Vietnam for 20 days ending June 5 to renew VVA's "Vietnam Initiative" and demonstrate "our continuing commitment to the recovery of those still not home from our war," VVA said in a statement.
The USAID project, combined with the ongoing work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, marks a new chapter in the long and often troubled history of U.S. efforts to account for the missing in action from Vietnam.
From the outset, when Vietnam released 591 U.S. POWs in February and March 1973, there were charges that Vietnam was still holding additional prisoners, and over the years conspiracy theories grew on unfounded "live sightings" of Americans in Vietnam.
The mistrust of the official versions of what was happening in the search for the missing was only exacerbated by the suspicions of many MIA families that the government was withholding information for political reasons.
At a June 22 Pentagon event to unveil the 2023 POW/MIA Recognition Day Poster, several veterans of the conflict were in attendance, including retired Air Force Col. Michael Brazelton, a Silver Star recipient who had more than 100 combat missions in Vietnam flying the F-105 Thunderchief. He was forced to eject when his aircraft came under fire in August 1966 north of Hanoi.
Brazelton, who endured more than six years of abuse in the fetid prison camps of North Vietnam, would be more than justified in bearing a grudge, but he's backing the new project by USAID to help the Vietnamese account for their missing.
In a brief interview, Brazelton told Military.com that he "absolutely" supports the policy shift to provide technical assistance to Vietnam and work with U.S. veterans who may have knowledge of grave sites.
Brazelton also didn't think much of the 1985 Sylvester Stallone movie "Rambo: First Blood Part II," which fueled conspiracy theories about U.S. troops left behind when all that was needed to free them was to send a super soldier armed with a bow and arrow, and a great big knife.
Then there were the Chuck Norris "Missing in Action" movies in which the fearsome Col. Braddock went on "a mission deep into the jungles of Vietnam to find the POW camp that he escaped from and free the Americans still held captive there."
"They were terrible movies, I thought," Brazelton said of the Rambo and Braddock franchises in that they depicted the POWs as "downbeaten and disillusioned" when in reality most remained tightly organized and resistant to propaganda.
But the impact of the movies and the proliferation of groups and individuals claiming to have knowledge of the whereabouts of Americans still held prisoner was such that a 1991 Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll showed that 69% of Americans believed that the Vietnamese still held American troops prisoner.
The controversy led to extensive hearings in 1991 by a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz), and Bob Smith (R-N.H.).
The conclusion of the lengthy final report filed by the committee was that "there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia," but did not completely rule out the possibility that an American might still be held by the Vietnamese.
The live sighting reports "have not checked out; alleged pictures of POWs have proven false; purported leads have come up empty; and photographic intelligence has been inconclusive, at best," the report said.
The report also ripped the "latter-day Rambos" claiming they could go on rescue missions, for a price, and noted the buildup of a "cottage industry specializing in the creation and dissemination of false POW-MIA information" in Southeast Asia, mainly in Thailand.
Following the committee's hearings, the U.S. in 1994 lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam and normalized relations with Hanoi in 1995.
A Change in the Search
Since the '90s, as the possibility that any live POWs might return from Vietnam receded with each passing year, the issue of demanding a full accounting of the missing from Vietnam had reached the point where advocacy groups were having difficulty raising funds.
In February, the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which was incorporated as the National League of Families in 1970, announced that it would have to disband.
The intrepid Ann Mills Griffiths, board chairman of the League and an advocate for a full accounting of U.S. POWs and MIAs for more than 50 years, said in a phone interview that, "We were so flat out of money" that the League at the end of 2022 had to cancel its annual meeting.
Based on Mills Griffiths' announcement that the League was closing shop, Vietnam Veterans of America President Jack McManus put out a statement saying, "It is with heavy hearts that we receive the news of the dissolution of this fine organization. The League has changed the course of history and the way we, as a nation, deal with the accounting of our war missing."
But a donor who remained anonymous came through with a contribution of $2 million to keep the League in business, and Mills Griffiths announced on June 20 that the League's full name, founding date and nonprofit 501(c)(3) status had been legally restored and fully funded.
"Our ability to advocate for achieving the fullest possible accounting for 1,579 Vietnam War missing is restored," said Mills Griffiths, who says she stopped counting how many times she's been to Vietnam to advocate after the 30th visit.
"This good news provides inspiration and confidence that the League's efforts to obtain answers on missing Americans will not only be sustained, but expanded," Mills Griffiths said.
The decision by American leaders to help Vietnam in the search for its missing is not the first time the U.S. has helped a former enemy search for war dead, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, told Military.com.
After World War II, the U.S. assisted Japan's efforts to recover remains in the Pacific, McKeague said, but the Vietnam project is unprecedented in the sense that Vietnam was an undefeated former enemy.
At the June 22 unveiling, McKeague said that the recovery of the remains of U.S. service members from Vietnam, and from Korea and World War II, was a No. 1 priority for the Department of Defense, and he praised the diligence of recovery teams whose "work is complex, arduous and often involves great risk" in harsh environments.
In her remarks at the event, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth noted that more than 81,000 U.S. service members remain unaccounted for from the nation's wars, the vast majority of them from World War II.
Each of those missing personnel "represents a family that has not received the answers that they need or the closure that they deserve," Wormuth said. "And we know that this matters because every month there are families who do receive the news that they have often been waiting decades to hear."
Wormuth said that during this year DPAA has repatriated the remains of 81 service members -- three from Vietnam, 26 from the Korean War, and 52 from World War II.
In all, more than 1,000 remains of U.S. service members have been recovered from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos since cooperation with the U.S. on missing in action searches began more than 30 years ago, but a total of 1,579 U.S. personnel from the Southeast Asia war are still listed as missing, according to the DPAA.
One of those in attendance at the poster unveiling was Jeanie Jacobs Huffman, who was a baby when her father, Navy Cmdr. Edward J. Jacobs Jr., was reported missing in action in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam on Aug. 25, 1967.
Jacobs was piloting an RA-3B Skywarrior with two crew members aboard on a reconnaissance mission when radar contact was lost as the aircraft approached the coastline. Jacobs and the two crew members are still listed as missing by the DPAA.
In February, Jacobs Huffman and her husband, Dave Huffman, formed the nonprofit Mission POW-MIA to press the U.S. government and Vietnam for a full accounting on the missing.
In a phone interview, Dave Huffman said, "The war is over and the families want answers. The families deserve to have answers. I would imagine the Vietnamese feel the same way."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Texas Tech was not acting as part of a government effort and that USAID was not involved with Harvard's efforts.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.