The Phantom Menace

Are American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia?

On a humid March afternoon, U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) found herself in a rather uncomfortable position:squatting in the heat of a mosquito-filled jungle clearing in Cu Chi Province, a rugged, forested area located a few hours northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam's sprawling southern metropolis.

Sanchez hadn't come to Vietnam to visit Cu Chi or to see the province's famous underground network of Viet Cong tunnels that earned it the nickname "Iron Triangle" on U.S. military maps of South Vietnam. She was there to lecture the Vietnamese (whose country the U.S. bombed, napalmed and defoliated) on the importance of "human rights," especially the need for greater religious freedom for Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics.

Another goal: to discuss refugee-resettlement programs the U.S. hopes to wind up by the end of the year—programs aimed at reuniting thousands of Vietnamese with their relatives in America, many of whom live in Sanchez's 46th Congressional District. But Sanchez had yet a third agenda to fulfill, one she is almost obligated to carry out by virtue of the man she defeated in November 1996, Robert K. Dornan: hunting for American soldiers who never came home from the war.

This is what brought Sanchez to the clearing in Cu Chi, for it was there that she could observe a team of U.S. and Vietnamese scientists working side by side to find the remains of two American soldiers. The site had been chosen, Sanchez later announced, because the pair had last been seen there by their comrades as they retreated during a brutal firefight with North Vietnamese army troops. The two soldiers were rumored to have been buried in the clearing by villagers after they perished from their wounds.

In a March 30 press release, Sanchez thanked the Vietnamese government for helping to ensure "that our missing [American] service personnel will never be forgotten." She also met with Vietnamese military officials, who promised her they would hand over a written summary of 559 American MIAs whose cases had been classified by the U.S. military as "no further pursuit," meaning they had been closed for lack of leads.

Back home in the United States, many observers greeted the news as evidence that Vietnam might have been hiding something all along. "The divulgence, days after Sanchez returns from the country, seems to be an act of good faith," The Orange County Register reported on May 5. OCN on-air personality Brooke Robbins was even more excited. In an interview a few weeks after Vietnam made its announcement, Robbins pressed Sanchez about whether the Vietnamese government might finally be ready to admit that it had withheld U.S. prisoners after the end of the war.

Sanchez responded by telling her host—and thousands of viewers—that she knew of no credible evidence that any American prisoners are still alive in Vietnam. "At this point, we're pretty much talking about finding their remains," she said.

Despite Sanchez's skepticism, millions of Americans—fueled by right-wing politicians, silver POW-MIA bracelets, flags, movies, books, countless television programs, congressional hearings, supposed POW "investigations" and even sightings accompanied by photographs—believe that American MIAs are still alive in Southeast Asia. Most Americans are familiar with the POW-MIA crusade through its famous black-and-white banner, which was designed by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

The group's flag features the profile of an abandoned American soldier. Looming over him is a bamboo guard tower; below the dejected prisoner is a menacing line of barbed wire above the defiant motto "You are not forgotten."

President Bill Clinton paid tribute to the POW-MIA flag on April 9 when he officially proclaimed the date to be recognized as National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day. "The somber black-and-white POW-MIA flag serves as a reminder of their sacrifice and symbolizes our nation's deep concern for and steadfast commitment to these brave Americans and their families," Clinton announced.

Clinton might have added that, since 1982, the POW-MIA flag is the only other banner that, by law, has enjoyed the right to flap alongside the American flag atop the White House. Here in Orange County, the POW-MIA flag even graces the lawn in front of Westminster City Hall, which houses the City Council that recently refused to afford the same privilege to the flag of the former Republic of South Vietnam—despite threatened protests by the city's Vietnamese population. The flag also decorates the entrances of thousands of federal, state and local government buildings throughout the U.S., along with countless union halls, veterans buildings, biker bars and militia compounds.

According to the U.S. government, 2,016 Americans who fought in Vietnam are still unaccounted for, a number that has grown smaller each year as more remains are found. A few thousand missing soldiers may sound like a lot, but it's remarkably low for a decade-long conflict that involved millions of U.S. servicemen. By comparison, the Korean War, which lasted only a few years, produced nearly four times the number of MIAs—8,200 in total. And from World War II, 78,000 Americans remain unaccounted for. Bodies from all three wars—along with those from even older conflicts, such as the U.S. Civil War—continue to be discovered every year.

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