What Happened to American POWs Kept Behind After the Korean War

Abandoned in Place:

The Men We Left Behind and the Untold Story of Operation Pocket Change

Lynn O’Shea, with forward by Col. Don Gordon (Ret.)

Amazon 2014: Kindle and Paperback

(July 2014) Lynn O’Shea should never have written this book.

Not because there’s anything wrong with this exhaustively-researched and well-written tome – indeed, it’s the best expose yet on American POWs held after the Vietnam War.

But if America’s political, journalistic and academic establishments worked as promised, O’Shea’s findings and others like them would have been revealed decades ago, when they could still have impacted American foreign policy.

At the end of America’s Vietnam War in 1973, there should have been no surprise that Vietnam might violate the Paris Peace Accords and hold back US POWs. A then-secret study for the US government had predicted just that; Hanoi had done it before after its conflict with the French; and, as O’Shea points out in persuasive detail, North Vietnam possessed a clear motive to retain American hostages.

What is surprising is the failure of America’s elites to follow up when evidence emerged of Hanoi’s deceit and its “motive, means and opportunity” to keep American prisoners. Congress fumbled an early investigation, then dropped the topic as a consequential policy issue after a celebrated 1990s Senate Select Committee investigation. That report – architected in large part by now Secretary of State John Kerry --claimed there was no evidence any US prisoners remained alive in Southeast Asia, but was forced to concede the evidence showed "the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after (the war).” Not surprisingly, loved ones of missing Americans pressed the Senate to determine the fate of that “small number” of survivors, but after the Committee’s findings helped clear the way for greater US diplomatic and trade recognition of Vietnam, the appetite of Senate leaders for the truth disappeared (with the notable exception of Senators Smith and Grassley).

Neither was there any pressure from think thanks, academics and lobbyists, which generally ignored the issue expect when supporting efforts to tamp it down as an impediment to better relations with Vietnam. Most disturbing has been the failure of the media to pursue the story. Renowned reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg has pilloried the journalistic establishment for this failure -- including the New York Times, where he won fame for his work in Southeast Asia and “The Killing Fields.” Schanberg recalls unsuccessfully urging one journalist to look at the evidence. “He said, ‘Well look, all I know is that if it had happened we would have known about it by now.’ And I said how would we have known about it if there were only reporters running around like you? I decided that the fact was that he wasn't committed to journalism, he was committed to ideology and to being angry at the war.” [O’Shea’s book includes the nearby document showing how US officials in June 1973 persuaded the media to downplay the recent sighting of unreturned POWs by a North Vietnamese defector – explosive intelligence of “urgent political sensitivity” according to an internal State Department document. NBC even dropped the story entirely, despite its evidence Hanoi was cheating on the POW agreement.]

All of which brings us back to Lynn O’Shea. Instead of a highly-paid celebrity reporter with an influential publisher behind her, the writing of this book fell to O’Shea, a commanding and intelligent presence to be sure, but a woman yoked to a “day job” in business with no book advance for research assistants or high-level connections in government, politics or the media. What O’Shea does have is a smoldering sense of indignation about the fate of these lost American heroes and the investigative skills to uncover the truth, which she has also employed for many years as the research director for the National Alliance of Families (NAF), a group for the family and friends of POW/MIAs [Full disclosure: I have cooperated with NAF on research for many years and am a friend of O’Shea and other NAF members.]


O’Shea pursues the sighting spiked by NBC with the sort of tenacity it should have received from the media and government back in 1973. Defector Lt. Nguyen Thanh Son described seeing six American POWs alive in a camp, men who had not been repatriated as promised and were being forced to instruct the communists on captured US artillery pieces. The defector rendered an especially detailed description of one of the GIs, named John or something similar, with whom he spoke four times. O’Shea’s detective work – with a wonderful “aha moment” -- uncovers a solid case this man was Army Capt. John McDonnell (pictured below), known to have survived his shoot down before disappearing. She also exposes the contradictions and downright misinformation provided on the case by the Pentagon and Vietnam over the years.


The defector not only identified McDonnell by first name, general appearance, home state, rank, military expertise, year of capture, facial scar and even jewelry, but also explained why he and his fellow GIs were being kept. The motive: They were to provide bargaining leverage for Hanoi because “there are many problems to be settled with the United States Government…”

New historical details revealed by O’Shea add weight to this motive for Hanoi’s retention of US prisoners, a motivation echoed by a number of other communist defectors and American intelligence reports. In 1973, President Nixon, eager to end the conflict, had secretly offered Hanoi up to $4.75 billion in aid to be paid after the war. Hanoi knew its leverage would decline dramatically after America pulled out; US prisoners would be one of its few bargaining chips to trade for that aid.

Lest there be any doubt about the link between US aid and POWs, Nixon’s letter promising the money was handed over to the Vietnamese in direct exchange for a list of US POWs in Laos (prisoners whom North Vietnam in effect controlled).

O’Shea quotes a now declassified US document about the exchange. The US Air Force colonel sent to swap the 1973 aid letter for the POW list in Paris reported his North Vietnamese counterpart “made a grab for the envelope containing the message and without breaking his fingers I told him that my instructions were to exchange the memorandum for his list.” When the colonel saw the list of POWs was obviously missing many names, “I felt like returning the list and taking back the memorandum until they displayed a more serious attitude.” Declassified records and depositions taken by the Senate POW investigation show the Secretary of Defense and other top officials were immediately concerned Hanoi was holding back POWs captured in Laos (and perhaps Vietnam as well). There was even secret high-level discussion of resuming the bombing of Laos or sending an aircraft carrier off Vietnam to persuade Hanoi to identify the additional prisoners. Decades later, a number of former top officials from that era testified they were convinced Vietnam withheld American POWs.

But in 1973 the US, determined to be done with Vietnam, backed down without getting the missing names or men. The “more serious attitude” needed from Hanoi about returning all its POWs, O’Shea concludes, ultimately depended on the promised US payments. Those payments were never made and Vietnam never returned all the US POWs.

Abandoned in Place provides a detailed history of the POW issue after 1973. The high point came in the early 1980s when US intelligence identified a possible US POW camp in Nhom Marrot, Laos. After the war, refugees, including one who passed two lie detector tests, reported surviving Americans in the Nhom Marrot area (and in a number of other camps in Laos in Vietnam, as the book details). In late 1979, the NSA obtained signal intelligence on the movement of US POWs in Laos. Then came satellite images and confirmation from a CIA asset with access to the Laotian government. The general then in charge of all US military intelligence later stated under oath the combined intelligence was “outstanding” and he was “thoroughly convinced” the Nhom Marrot prison held US prisoners.

In 1980, the Joint Special Operations Command (decades later to launch the mission to kill Osama bin Laden) was ordered to prepare a POW rescue mission using the Army’s Delta Force. O’Shea breaks new ground in her reporting of the intelligence and operational preparation for that mission, ultimately code-named POCKET CHANGE. The story is a sad and often infuriating one of bureaucratic infighting and incompetence. Ultimately the mission was done in by that most under-handed of Washington bureaucratic tricks – the leak. When details of the operation appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times, the cover was blown and the effect was essentially over. Here too O’Shea uncovers disturbing details around the leak and a political decision at the highest levels to allow the story to run, thereby dooming POCKET CHANGE and any hope to recover Americans at Nhom Marrot.

The cynicism behind the infighting over POCKET CHANGE continued to permeate the effort to recover US POW/MIAs and their remains. Hanoi was eventually proven to have a warehouse of US remains that it was doling out to America over time as part of (successful) scheme to generate cash and eventual diplomatic recognition.  Hanoi was also caught “salting” the locations of crash sites, staging burials and providing local officials and villagers with canned cover stories about the fate of specific missing Americans to share with US investigators. When Vietnam returned Navy officer Clemie McKinney’s remains, Hanoi claimed he died in 1972, but a US examination of his returned remains revealed forensic evidence that he had died well after all US prisoners were supposed to be returned in 1973. As discussed below, another American's remains showed signs of serious malnutrition, even thought it was claimed he was never in captivity.

Rather than expose Hanoi’s ruses, the US government often kept them quiet or even went along with them. One well-known missing aviator was seen landing under a good parachute, but the Pentagon declared he had died in the incident based on the discovery years later of three of his teeth.  His family rejected the finding, O'Shea writes, after learning the teeth bore marks of extraction and periodontal disease, indicating he had been held in captivity and his teeth extracted. (Many first-hand details of Hanoi’s deceptions are included in Bill Bell’s book, discussed below. It is important to note the great efforts by many US military personnel -- often under extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions -- to recover the remains of POW/MIAs. The return of these remains has been a great service to the families and an act of honor by the US government. The quarrel O'Shea, and I, have is with the government's failure to make the return of retained POWs, both after Vietnam and the Korean War, a top priority and then, in later years, to adopt a tacit understanding from the top that reports of their survival would be buried in the bureaucratic process, to be debunked or kept classified and "investigated" for years. For example, the Pentagon is still "investigating" a report of "Americans in North Vietnam" from 1979. In recent days, the Pentagon denied me even more documents on reports of US POWs in North Korea, saying they are still classified, along with other records including 60-year-old ones at the National Archives.)

Despite clear and continuing evidence of Hanoi's deception and withholding of evidence, the US government eventually certified that Vietnam was providing “full cooperation” in resolving the fate of US POW/MIAs. As a practical matter, pressure for Vietnam to return any living captives, or admit their retention, was gone.

In the end, O’Shea concludes, the otherwise canny North Vietnamese made a basic mistake – they overestimated the value of their human bargaining chips to the United States. Or, as a former intelligence officer once told me, American POWs eventually became Vietnam’s “White Elephants,” expensive to maintain and with no buyers.

Other Vietnam POW/MIA Books of Note

2008’s An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia was written by former congressman Bill “Billy” Hendon and attorney Elizabeth A. Stewart. This voluminous and well-documented book – one of the few on this topic that major publishers have designed to release --calls upon decades of work and professional battles by Hendon as both a congressman and congressional POW/MIA investigator.  The book details not just the intelligence on the POWs but the bureaucratic knife fighting that has surrounded the POW/MIA issues in the halls of the Pentagon and Congress.  


This is worth reading just for Hendon’s analysis – and on-the-ground investigations in Vietnam -- of American intelligence reporting and satellite images regarding reported US POW camps after the war and how it dovetails with other events, such as the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979.


Like O’Shea’s book, it makes a convincing case that Hanoi managed a secret “tier two” prison system for captives it intended to keep after the war.

The best "page turner" among POW/MIA books is also one of the most detailed, not surprising given its author, Bill Bell, perhaps the most expert and experienced of all American POW/MIA investigators. Leave No Man Behind, by Garnett “Bill” Bell and George Veith, covers Bell’s decades of service in Southeast Asia.  Born to a family of cotton growers in Texas, Bell learned Vietnamese while serving as an infantryman during the war and leveraged his deep understanding of Vietnamese culture and communist tradecraft to represent America on battlefields from the jungle to the POW/MIA negotiating table.

Bell later earned fame, and enmity from the Pentagon, for breaking official ranks and telling the 1990s Senate Select Committee investigating POWs that some men had indeed been kept behind. He named them and provided information on their locations and specific communist cadre and agents involved with them. See a document on his testimony below.

His book includes many insights on the cases of missing men and is just as illuminating on Hanoi’s use of deception against US POW/MIA investigators and communist intelligence objectives associated with the issue. The sophistication of Vietnamese intelligence efforts against America during and after the war are detailed, from wartime penetration of Army intelligence to Vietnamese “Mata-Haris” and the kidnapping of US GIs – all the way through to the strategic and tactical manipulation of the POW issue after the conflict.

The case of Army PFC Donald Sparks proves a microcosm of the broader issue. The Iowa native was declared dead by the Pentagon after his unit reported him killed and his body destroyed by American bombs in 1969. Then, in 1970, two letters from Sparks were discovered on the body of an enemy officer; the letters were dated in April of that year, showing Sparks had actually survived the 1969 battle.


Bell traces intelligence, sometimes confusing and contradictory, on the case from Sparks’ movements after his initial capture to communist refusals to answer US queries on Sparks’ fate decades later. The GI – whose blood type was the universal “O” -- had reportedly been used as a source of blood transfusions for wounded enemy soldiers and then kept separately from other US prisoners. Bell makes a persuasive case that Sparks was alive but never returned at the end of the war; there are reports he was seen in Vietnam as late as 1991.


When Bell asked some communist officials if Sparks could still be alive and living in the area, he received only “a smile” in response. “To this date (2004), I’m told that JTFFA (US pow investigators) still receive the same enigmatic smile when they inquire if Sparks survived the war.”

One cannot read this book without concluding the US government failed to provide the POW/MIA accounting mission with the priority and resources it deserves. Worse, in a number of cases -- through incompetence, indifference or policy – the government repeatedly allowed Hanoi to mislead on the fates of specific Americans and Vietnam’s general level of knowledge and cooperation on POW/MIA issues.

For example, Bell mentions the return of a missing American’s remains that showed “signs of ‘malnutrition deprivation’ due to a prolonged period of incarceration,” even though the man had officially never been captured. Bell learned those same remains had been “wired together,” apparently for display in Vietnamese medical schools. Based on these and other facts, Bell concludes this American POW, much like Sparks, was segregated from other US prisoners, supporting analysis in O’Shea’s and Hendon's books of a separate camp system kept secret from the US POWs slated for repatriation in 1973. However, despite Bell’s analysis, the US government simply closed the case after getting the body, declining to follow up on its obvious intelligence implications. To this day the Pentagon denies there was a separate POW camp system from which no Americans returned, in large based on the circular reasoning that no American who did return reported such a system.

In addition to its revelations on the POW issue, Leave No Man Behind is a riveting read when it describes Bell’s exploits in the field and the personal tragedy, and then redemption, with which the Vietnam conflict confronted him.

Unlike too many high-level bureaucrats in the Pentagon, State Department and CIA, Bill Bell never broke faith with his missing comrades.

[If you’re interested in buying Bell’s book, considering getting it directly from him, as he will donate half the profits to POW/MIA Radio or the National Alliance of Families.  Contact him at: billbell@pinncom.com]

Bell's co-author, George Veith, has written two other excellent books on the conflict, Code-Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War and Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75.

About the Reviewer:

Mark Sauter is an investigative historian and publisher of the sites www.kpows.com and www.dmzwar.com.

Widely quoted on the issue of POWs from the Korean War, he has investigated the issue for 25 years and is co-author of numerous articles and books on the subject, with a focus on POWs in North Korea/China and Americans captured by the Soviet Union.

His most recent book, American Trophies: How US POWs Were Surrendered to North Korea, China and Russia by Washington's "Cynical Attitude," has been seen in media outlets from the Associated Press to the Drudge Report.

A former award-winning investigative correspondent on national TV, Sauter also served as an Army officer in Special Forces and infantry units.

Gilbert Ashley (l) & 4 of His Crew Alive at War's End

Confirmed in North Korean Hands

But Never Returned: See the Disturbing Facts Here