They raised and spent millions, accused governments of lying and staged bravura raids into other countries. With the help of Hollywood they even produced a new, macho American hero.
But after two decades, America’s MIA hunters have failed in their declared mission: to bring back live U.S. servicemen they claimed were being held prisoner in communist Indochina.
Some have hung up their jungle boots and retired, but diehards remain. Former U.S. Rep. Billy Hendon insisted in March that he had “irrefutable evidence” that American prisoners of war were still alive 20 years after the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos ended.
The MIA search has brought out a colorful cast of characters - former warriors, well-meaning patriots, bar stool commandos and local swindlers preying on the anguish of those who lost loved ones in the wars.
Among the American searchers:
James “Bo” Gritz, Vietnam War veteran who led unsuccessful forays into Laos in search of live Americans in the mid-1980s and later tried to run for U.S. president. Among his backers were H. Ross Perot and Clint Eastwood. “It is time for the POWs to come home. It just needs to be finished and if I and my people don’t do it, I don’t know anyone in Washington who will,” he once said.
Jack E. Bailey, a veteran fighter pilot who scoured the South China Sea to save fleeing Vietnamese boat people and question them for information about American servicemen listed as missing. Bailey gave up “Operation Rescue” when funds from private backers dried up and debt forced him to abandon his ship in Thailand with an unpaid, angry crew.
Hendon, a North Carolina Republican whose group in 1988 floated plastic bags across the Mekong River boundary between Thailand and Laos. The bags contained dollar bills stamped with an offer: $2.4 million to anybody who produced a live American POW. Children on the Thai side promptly grabbed some of the bags. No POWs were produced.
Despite such failures, individuals and private organizations still pursue the MIA-POW issue, many with passion.
“Private efforts can be very constructive as long as they are not based on unfounded claims, wishful thinking or illegal activities,” said Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families, an MIA group founded in 1970.
In a telephone interview, Griffiths said private searches escalated because of public frustration over the U.S. government’s inability to resolve the fate of the 2,207 MIAs.
More radical groups have heaped abuse on the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. They claim both cover up information about live Americans and prevent MIA activists from going into Indochina to uncover the truth.
Vietnam maintains that all POWs were repatriated after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 ending direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War.
Although a U.S. congressional committee declared in 1976 that all the MIAs had died, Washington has changed its stance in recent years, saying it operates on the assumption that some may still be alive. Critics say the new stance was simply to appease MIA groups and brought no real change to U.S. policy.
U.S. government and military officials have generally been displeased - sometimes outraged - with the MIA hunters, saying their clandestine raids and other actions undermined official cooperation from the nations of Indochina.
Rewards like Hendon’s also spawned a grisly “bone business,” with local bounty hunters tampering with MIA sites to dig up remains. Swindlers faked dog tags, documents, photographs and videos, including one in which a Russian seaman was hired to play the starring role of a “live American.” Some people robbed graves of Asians for skeletal remains.
Such material was then offered for sale to MIA groups or families.
Yet the faith of many remains unshaken that American prisoners remain in Indochina and they strongly support groups that keep the issue alive. In 1989, people donated nearly $4 million to four of the major MIA organizations, including Operation Rescue and the National League of Families.
Some analysts say the inability of families to acknowledge the likely deaths of loved ones has been fed by the bracelets, T-shirts and slogans (“POWs Never Have a Nice Day”) of the MIA groups and by Hollywood.
The image of brave American POWs suffering in the jungles at the hands of Vietnamese communists was spread by such films as “Uncommon Valor,” “Missing in Action” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” series.
Without “Rambo,” the “POW-MIA issue could hardly have assumed its mythical role in the lives of tens of millions of Americans,” H. Bruce Franklin, an American studies professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, wrote in a 1991 article.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.