When one takes all of the evidence available, down through the years, it is more than "where there is smoke, there's fire" theories for the existence of POW/MIAs still surviving in Southeast Asia. It has taken years of mistakes and sure things turning into a wisp of smoke to come to these conclusions. There are no wild stabs here, only the cold, hard facts of life.

First I would like to address some of the larger areas where numerous "live sightings" have been reported. These have been of two varieties. One of these areas that straddle the Lao/Vietnamese border is a near masterpiece of Vietnamese ingenuity. The area is mountainous and has hill tribes. But, these hill tribe people are not indigenous to this area. They were moved to the area in 1979, when an entire Hill Tribes Autonomous Zone was created.

In Laos, this area is controlled by the Hill Tribes Development Corporation, managed by former Lao Neutralist Colonel (now General) Cheng. He deals in two commodities; heroin and cocaine. The natural camouflage and man-made camouflage once used on the so-called " Ho Chi Minh Trail" have been employed to good use by Cheng in hiding his drug operations and American POW/MIAs.

Just across the border from Cheng's Laotian redoubt is an area controlled by Do Moi and, at one time, administered by General Quang. This area has transplanted hill tribes from the area of Dien Bien Phu and from Cambodia. The original tribesmen from the area have been placed into "New Economic Zones," further south in the area of Song Be. No American captured in the region is held there. They have been "transplanted" along with the tribesmen. To these hill tribesmen, mountains are mountains.

But, there is a problem, because of ancestral worship. This has created a natural kinsmanship between the two groups of immigrants, the hill tribesmen and the American POW/MIAs. This has resulted in the joining of the two groups amid mutual suffering. There have been marriages and all are "citizens" of these new autonomous regions. Neither group knows exactly where they are and are held in check geographically by real and imaginary mines and other obstacles in the surrounding "off limits" areas. What has happened in these surrounding areas, though relatively small, is a renewal of wildlife, long since thought extinct by international observers. This accounts for the occasional sightings of certain oxen and deer, long ago given up as totally gone, suddenly reappearing in the late eighties and nineties. Their natural habitat has returned to almost virgin territory.

Down through the years people have sporadically reported being taken to see this area. These reports have come from people who claim to have been taken from the Danang/Hue areas, from ethnic Bru areas in Laos and on one occasion from the area of Vinh in North Vietnam. There are also a couple of reports from people quoting relatives, who supplied or worked in the area, about American POWs. These have been pretty much ignored as "hearsay."

There is another area that sits astride the tri-border area between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This area is the one most referred to, when the Vietnamese and Lao state: "There are no POWs in the areas under our control." This area is ruled in reality by former ARVN soldiers, former Royal Lao Army, Montagnards and former Viet Cong. The most recent residents are the former Viet Cong, denied their right to positions of authority, they joined with the former ARVN and went back to the jungle. Attempts to root them out have met no more success, in the eighties and nineties, than when regular American units tried in the sixties and seventies. Those mountains are just as unfriendly to the Northern Vietnamese as they were to the American Infantry.

Re-supply to this area is carried out by villagers and by the Hoa Hao religious order. The Americans there are not POWs. At least not anymore. One has been described and has gone by various names for years. He is not on the list of missing Americans. It was only within the last few weeks that the military leader of a religious army interviewed him and he told how he had come to the area. Any mistake his Commander made in listing him as KIA is totally understandable and is not part of one of the fabled "dark conspiracies." He was a driver of a fuel tanker, when a convoy was ambushed. When the truck was hit, he understandably ran into the bush as far away from it as possible. He was captured by local force Montagnard Viet Cong, who, shortly thereafter, went back into the mountains and joined their community. He has been there ever since.

Other Americans have been brought to this area by Lao or hill tribes from that country. One was brought there from North Vietnam, by Black Tai hill tribes. More came when the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai were given responsibility for POW security, during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. These men were listed as having died and were "buried in the forest." Some refused to participate and this placed them in good favor with their Vietnamese captors, once they again assumed control. Like my Sergeant First Class, they moved into Category 3.

In Chau Duc, the Seven Mountains and the U Minh Forest, there are various groups who took a "wait and see" attitude on the peace agreement of 1973. All had operated as Viet Cong, but remnants of the anti-French Nationalists still remained. In other parts of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh made sure they were wiped out in the late fifties in the North and put them up front in the TET Offensive of 1968, in the South. Most of the contacts made during the UN time in Cambodia, about POWs, came from this area. The control of these people and support of their up-keep comes from the Buddhist Monks in the area. Some of these POWs have come from other areas including North Vietnam. The most famous in this area is the one know as "Wally Wood." These were the people contacted by Viet Cong General Tran Van Tra and resulted in him being betrayed by the Americans, who took the intelligence to Hanoi.

Along the Lao border with Cambodia in Stung Treng and Rattanikiri, there have been reports of Americans for many years. These are hill tribe areas and "Driver" and "Mr. Benny" are the two Black POWs most often identified in the region.

Nearer to Thailand and in Mondolkiri Province of Cambodia, there are reports of people ripped off from the Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge on incursions into Vietnam, prior to and after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979. These have, it appears, been intermingled with foreigners taken hostage in Cambodia and kidnapped from Thailand. All have been written off by their respective countries.

As I stated previously, I have tried to grant absolution to low level operatives in order to gain the release of American POWs. "Blame the old men in Hanoi" and "Blame Hun Sen or Pol Pot in Cambodia" are familiar refrains. This pitch I make to enemies and former enemies.

I have set up support mechanisms for former ARVN, hill tribes and religious armies still fighting. By turning the spigot on and off, I intend to gain access to the Americans there. If various members of these groups in the West as refugees had not been warned off this issue by US Government operatives or treated so shoddily that they gave up, I believe the POWs would have returned long ago. I try to fill that gap left by our Government.

This is not everything you want to know about POWs. But, in most cases, I believe this explains many of the cases and the live sightings. I believe that people who were sent to the USSR are now in Category 3 in Southeast Asia. China, Cuba, and North Korea remain "Black holes" to me and I am trying to learn. Any help would be appreciated.

The mistakes made by various people and groups, including myself, have dealt mostly with the smoke screens thrown up by Vietnamese Intelligence. These have dealt mostly with disinformation using Category 3 personnel as "stalking horses." People keep pulling off the outer layers of skin and become frustrated by not finding the fruit under the first couple. The problem is, you must deal with it and continue peeling. The fruit is there, you just have to work for it. But like all fruit, some will be over ripe, some will have died on the vine and some will have gone rotten. But all must be treated the same, until the peeling is done. Even with the "rotten," the position I take is simple; They would not have been that way if they had been picked in time. They did not rot on their own. Only time can do that and that belongs to Governments and not individuals.

Copyright 1998, by Mark A. Smith, Major, USA, Retired

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