Lost History: Missing in Action and the Unknown Soldiers

 

On 15 October 1945, the U.S. Navy gunboat, LCS 52 eased into harbor at Tokushima, Japan. Two days earlier, the residents of Tokushima reported to occupation forces they had found a body washed-up on the beach. The corpse wore the uniform of a United States Army colonel but was missing both head and hands. The ship transported the body to a Graves Registration headquarters; thereafter, the body disappeared and the case seemed closed.[i] Some of the crew of LCS 52 began their own investigations after the war, but the identity of the soldier would never be determined. The soldier was probably buried in a grave marked “Unknown.” With that designation, the colonel’s life, genealogy, legacy, and accomplishments would also forever be unknown. As the sailors-turned-detectives sought help from military and government agencies, they grew increasingly critical of the lack of interest and assistance they received.

The unknown colonel’s case is not an exception. More and more family members, veterans, and concerned citizens are forced to action in private endeavors to find Missing in Action (MIAs) and Prisoners of War (POWs). As they do, they encounter profound governmental obstructions. Given the military’s maxim of “no man left behind”, any lack of vigor in finding and returning these service members warrants an explanation. I will attempt to provide here some insight as to why the government would prefer these mysteries remain unsolved.

At present, there are more than 83,000 Americans listed as MIA. Those MIAs range from soldiers in WWII through present-day conflicts. For the families and comrades-in-arms (pseudo-family) the emotional and psychological pain is immense.

Recovery and identification of the war dead dates back to the Civil War. The often-renamed organizations responsible for locating and identifying the fallen have traditionally existed within the Army’s Quartermaster Corps. The two most familiar titles are “Graves Registration” and “Mortuary Affairs.” The agency now responsible is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Organized in 2015, DPAA was a stopgap solution to the gamut of problems critics of governmental ineffectiveness expressed to them and the public. The root of the complaints grew out of poor performance in returning reasonable numbers of MIA/POWs. The agency, apparently aware of its own shortfalls, is now contracting private groups such as Justin Taylan’s Pacific Wrecks – a not-for-profit company, typically staffed by volunteers – to search battle and crash sites.

For the families, return of the missing is long-overdue closure. Deborah Bardsley, the daughter of John L. Robertson, whose plane crashed in 1966 in North Vietnam, said, “the war never ends” for us.[ii] The families often pass their quest for answers down to children and grandchildren. Bardsley and her sister travelled to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Russia following leads and rumors of sightings of their father. Bardsley agrees the government seems to frustrate efforts more than help. In the process of conducting private investigations, many have uncovered data potentially embarrassing to the United States government, with the potential to increase diplomatic tensions with several foreign countries.

In 1993, Stephen J. Morris uncovered the “Quang 1205 document” in the archives of the former Soviet Union. The alleged top-secret document referenced hundreds of American POWs not included in the 1973 repatriation. The Clinton administration was working toward improving relations with Vietnam when the document surfaced – to some the discovery seemed too convenient. The supposed author, General Tran Van Quang, denied he produced such a document. Prisoners were not in his realm of responsibility, he stated. Quang was probably being squeezed between the Russian and Vietnamese governments and his answers could reflect that fact. The document still bristles with controversy. Arnold Isaacs in Vietnam Shadows devoted several pages to discrediting the document’s authenticity.[iii] Conspiracy theorists play a huge role in all such intrigues. One notion argues the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) produced the document to undermine talks between the two governments.

Bardsley also followed reports of POWs held in camps throughout Vietnam and Cambodia as late as the 1990s. According to witnesses, these holdovers were transferred to the Russians in an attempt to brainwash them for espionage.[iv] The disposition of these POWs after the Soviet Union crumbled would be bleak. If such allegations were ever proven, it would underscore the most atrocious violation of the Geneva Convention since WWII.

The Pentagon and Veterans Administration, to name only two of the responsible agencies, seem to see little need for expediency in locating men who they assume are dead and therefore are not going anywhere. The longer a soldier stays where he fell, however, the more nature removes all trace of his existence. Historians, archeologists and homicide detectives work under similar rules. They must get to the scene quickly, secure it, and carefully extract evidence. That fragmented evidence, when combined, can answer the question of who this person was. It provides a snapshot of whether they died from assault, accident, disease, or malnutrition and abuse. More importantly it provides an account of the victim’s last moments to the family and allows them to begin healing.

A military person’s history is compiled in a folder called the Service Record Book (SRB). Within the SRB is the description of the service member, down to blemishes and fingerprints. The SRB follows veterans throughout life, compiling evidence for health and pension benefits, and lastly, their tombstone. An SRB also records the soldier’s participation in operations, including sensitive missions disconcerting to the government.[v]

On 12 July 1973, six months after the peace agreement with Vietnam was signed, a catastrophic fire occurred in the National Personnel Records Center, where all SRBs beginning with WWI are housed. The damage from the conflagration and abatement efforts with contemporary firefighting technology caused the loss of more than eighteen million records.[vi] Conspiracy theorists accused the government of setting the fire, for reasons from saving money on paying veterans’ benefits to destroying evidence of secret missions of questionable legality. For historians and genealogists it was the most extensive erasing of history since the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.

When a MIA is recovered, the story becomes part of the SRB, putting them ahead of 80% of fellow veterans, thanks to the fire. It also provides an account of the men and women who were a part of that particular operation who returned. Subsequently, a larger picture of American history emerges.

Identification of MIAs and Unknowns solves many of the issues of absence of history. Also, the government can no longer omit (bury) unsightly actions that might incriminate prior administrations. Each time identification is made, conspiracy theorists lose another propaganda piece. Modern forensic techniques, predominantly DNA, however, have given rise to new questions. In 1998, the tomb containing the Vietnam Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery was disinterred and the soldier’s DNA tested against nine families’ samples. As a result, Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie, an Air Force pilot listed as MIA since 1972, never reoccupied his former grave. The military, in a flurry of over-optimism, pondered whether the Unknown’s grave should house a body again; assuming under the best circumstances, future occupants would be identified and then removed. With thousands of Unknowns buried around the world, this should be the least of the government’s concerns.

For years to come, there will be more questions than answers. Some have set out to prove that the stories of POWs left behind in Vietnam are myths. Others cite evidence that POWs were left behind in North Korea – a cover-up that our government denied and continues to deny culpability for.[vii] If Korea, why not Vietnam, or Afghanistan? Until a body is produced and identified, the government must acknowledge the possibility exists they are still alive.

The number of veterans in Congress rose to 20% after the 2016 election. While that may sound encouraging to those troubled by the lackadaisical efforts of the government to locate MIAs, the number has continued to drop since 1975, when veterans held 70% of the seats. In September 2016, Arizona Senator John McCain, a recent presidential candidate and former POW, introduced a new resolution calling for “intensified” efforts by the government to locate MIAs. McCain, however, has been accused of being a co-conspirator in covering-up POWs left behind in Vietnam. Two former defense secretaries, James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, swore in testimony they were aware “men were left behind,” a fact McCain has denied throughout his public career.[viii] It seems that the issue will not be resolved anytime soon, unless new blood is injected into Washington.

This is a compelling, well-written essay. I have very few criticisms. You want to avoid the mechanical language of “this paper will” and you should avoid passive voice, though it is not a pervasive problem here. I thought you should introduce the agency responsible for tracking MIAs earlier. Otherwise, I think this a publishable article, perhaps in a Veterans-related publication or a local newspaper. Great work.

 

 

 

[1] Gary Burns, Shipmates: The Men of LCS 52 in World War II (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016), 163.

[1] Missing In Action: A Daughter’s Search For Her MIA Father, directed by Carol L. Fleisher, (XIVETV, 1991).

[1] Arnold R. Isaacs, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 107-109.

[1] Missing In Action, Fleisher, 1991.

[1] Karen Tumulty,“Pentagon Official Resigns, Alleges Cover-Up on MIAs: Military: He sees an effort to ‘bury the whole mess out of sight and mind’ as U.S. seeks better Hanoi ties.” Los Angeles Times, 21 May 1991.

[1] Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker, “The National Personnel Records Center Fire: A Study in Disaster,” The American Archivist (October 1974), 521-549.

[1] Mark Sauter and John Zimmerlee, How US POWs Were Surrendered to North Korea, China and Russia by Washington’s “Cynical Attitude” (CreateSpace, 2013).

[1] Sherwood Ross, “McCain Said to Conceal Facts About POWs Left in Vietnam,” Global Research, 29 September 2008.

 

[i] Gary Burns, Shipmates: The Men of LCS 52 in World War II (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016), 163.

[ii] Missing In Action: A Daughter’s Search For Her MIA Father, directed by Carol L. Fleisher, (XIVETV, 1991).

[iii] Arnold R. Isaacs, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 107-109.

[iv] Missing In Action, Fleisher, 1991.

[v] Karen Tumulty,“Pentagon Official Resigns, Alleges Cover-Up on MIAs: Military: He sees an effort to ‘bury the whole mess out of sight and mind’ as U.S. seeks better Hanoi ties.” Los Angeles Times, 21 May 1991.

[vi] Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker, “The National Personnel Records Center Fire: A Study in Disaster,” The American Archivist (October 1974), 521-549.

[vii] Mark Sauter and John Zimmerlee, How US POWs Were Surrendered to North Korea, China and Russia by Washington’s “Cynical Attitude” (CreateSpace, 2013).

[viii] Sherwood Ross, “McCain Said to Conceal Facts About POWs Left in Vietnam,” Global Research, 29 September 2008.