POWs and MIAs: Status and Accounting Issues
CRS Report for Congress
POWs and MIAs: Status and Accounting Issues
June 1, 2006
Charles A. Henning
Analyst in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
POWs and MIAs: Status and Accounting Issues
There has been a long-running controversy about the fate of certain U.S.
prisoners of war (POWs) and servicemembers missing in action (MIAs) as a result
of various U.S. military operations. While few people familiar with the issue feel
that any Americans are still being held against their will in communist countries
associated with the Cold War, more feel that some may have been so held in the past
in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, or North Vietnam. Similarly, few believe
there has been a “conspiracy” to cover up the existence of live POWs, but many
would maintain that there was, at least during the 1970s, U.S. government
mismanagement of the issue.
Normalization of relations with Vietnam exacerbated this longstanding debate.
Normalization’s supporters contend that Vietnamese cooperation on the POW/MIA
issue has greatly increased. Opponents argue that cooperation has in fact been much
less than supporters say, and that the Vietnamese can only be induced to cooperate
by firmness rather than conciliation. Those who believe Americans are now held, or
were after the war ended, feel that even if no specific report of live Americans has
thus far met rigorous proofs, the mass of information about live Americans is
compelling. Those who doubt live Americans are still held, or were after the war
ended, argue that despite vast efforts, only one live American military prisoner
remained in Indochina after the war (a defector who returned in 1979). The U.S.
government indicates the possibility that Americans are still being held in Indochina
cannot be ruled out. Some say Americans may have been kept by the Vietnamese
after the war but killed later. Increased U.S. access to Vietnam has not yet led to a
large reduction in the number of Americans still listed as unaccounted for, although
this may be due to some U.S. policies as well as the level of Vietnamese cooperation.
There is considerable evidence that prisoners from the end of World War II, the
Korean War, and “Cold War shootdowns” of U.S. military aircraft may have been
taken to the USSR and not returned. The evidence about POWs from Vietnam being
taken to the Soviet Union is more questionable. There is evidence that Navy pilot
Scott Speicher, shot down on the first night of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and until
recently listed as “killed in action” rather than “missing in action,” was almost
certainly captured by the Iraqis. Information about his fate has not yet been
discovered by U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. All American POWs captured by the
Iraqis during the initial stage of the current war were returned to U.S. control; the
remains of all others listed as MIA have been recovered. One U.S. Army soldier,
captured by Iraqi insurgents, on April 9, 2004, is currently listed as a POW; there has
been no word about his fate since his POW status was confirmed by DOD on April
This report replaces Issue Brief IB92101 of the same name. This report will be
updated as needed.
Most Recent Developments................................................1
Areas of Congressional Interest.............................................1
Definition of Terms......................................................1
U.S. POWs and MIAs in 20th Century Wars: Statistics..........................2
Vietnam War POWs and MIAs.............................................3
Vietnam POW/MIAs: U.S. Government Policy and Organization..........4
U.S.-Vietnamese Interaction on POW/MIA Issues: Recent Developments
U.S. Policy and the Remains Issue..................................5
Congress and the POW/MIA Issue, 1993-2005 (FY1994-FY2006).........6
Vietnam POW/MIAs: Were Americans Left Behind? Are Any Still Alive?..7
The “Coverup” Issue.............................................7
Have Americans Remained in Indochina Voluntarily?...................7
Are the Vietnamese, Laotians, or Cambodians Still Holding the Remains
of Dead Americans?..........................................8
Korean War POWs/MIAs.................................................8
POWs and MIAs from Cold War Incidents....................................9
Post-Cold War POW/MIAs...............................................10
The Persian Gulf War of 1991 (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm)....10
The Speicher Case..............................................11
The Ongoing Iraq War, 2003-Present: POW/MIA Matters ..................11
World War II POWs and MIAs: Soviet Imprisonment of U.S. POWs Liberated
from the Germans..................................................12
For Additional Reading..................................................13
List of Tables
Table 1. U.S. POWs, World War I (1917-1918) through the Iraq War (2003-Present)..2
Table 2. Americans Unaccounted For, World War I through the Korean War........3
Table 3. Americans Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia..........................4
POWs and MIAs: Status and Accounting Issues
Most Recent Developments
In early September 2005, another Navy report on the status of 1991 Gulf War Navy pilot Lt.
Cdr. Michael Scott Speicher was completed. It reiterated conclusions reached in earlier
studies that he could well have been captured; that there was no specific evidence of his
death; and that some former members — they were not identified, if known — of the
Saddam Hussein government of Iraq were knowledgeable about his fate. Accordingly, it
recommended that Speicher’s status be maintained as missing, rather than killed.
Areas of Congressional Interest
This report summarizes numbers of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) and servicemembers
missing in action (MIAs) lost during the Vietnam War (1961-1973) and the Korean War
(1950-1953), compares these losses to other 20th century American wars, and describes the
POW/MIA investigation and policy process. It discusses reports asserting that some POWs
from these wars were not returned to U.S. control when the wars ended, and that some of
these individuals may still be alive. Further, it discusses Americans possibly captured by
communist countries during Cold War incidents, or after being liberated from German POW
camps at the end of World War II, and whether any such Americans could still be alive. It
also summarizes POW/MIA matters and controversies related to post-Cold War U.S. military
operations, particularly the 1991 Persian Gulf War; the ongoing Operation Enduring
Freedom that began on October 7, 2001, when the United States began combat operations
against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; and Operation Iraqi Freedom that began on March
19, 2003. Finally, the report describes legislation and congressional oversight concerning
the POW/MIA issue. For information on other aspects of U.S.-Vietnam relations and on the
current controversy over the attempt by some American former POWs held by the Japanese
during World War II to obtain compensation from Japanese corporations, see the For
Additional Reading section at the end of this report.
Definition of Terms
The following terms are frequently encountered in analyses of the POW/MIA issue:
!POW (Prisoner Of War): Persons known to be, or to have been, held by the
enemy as a live prisoner or last seen under enemy control.
!MIA (Missing In Action): Persons removed from control of U.S. forces due
to enemy action, but not known to either be a prisoner of war or dead.
!KIA-BNR (Killed In Action-Body Not Recovered): Persons known to have
been killed in action, but body or remains not recovered by U.S. forces, such
as an aircraft exploding in midair or crashing or a body lost at sea.
!PFOD (Presumptive Finding Of Death): An administrative finding by the
appropriate military service Secretary, after statutory review procedures, that
there is no current evidence to indicate that a person previously listed as
MIA or POW could still be alive.
!Unaccounted For: An all-inclusive term — not a legal status — used to
indicate Americans initially listed as POW, MIA, KIA-BNR, or PFOD, but
about whom no further information is yet known.
Names are shifted, usually from the most uncertain status, MIA, to more certain
categories, during and after hostilities based on new information, or, in the case of a PFOD,
lack of any new information over time that indicates an individual is still living.
U.S. POWs and MIAs in
20th Century Wars: Statistics
Statistics on U.S. POWs and MIAs in Vietnam and past wars are often mutually
irreconcilable. Tables 1, 2, and 3, below, as with all such material, are not always
compatible in detail, but they do provide some basis for comparison.
Table 1. U.S. POWs, World War I (1917-1918)
through the Iraq War (2003-Present)
Total 1917- 1941- 1950- 1961 Gul f 1992- 1995- 1999- 2001- 2003-
1918 1945 1953 -1973 1991 1994 P resent P resent P resent P resent
In tern ed )
Refu sed 2100210000000
Died while 17,0414714,072,70164000000
Sources: All data except for Iraq from Stenger, Charles A., Ph.D. American Prisoners of War in WWI, WWII,
Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan: Statistical Data Concerning Numbers
Captured, Repatriated, and Still Alive as of January 1, 2003. Prepared for the DVA [Department of Veterans
Affairs] Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War. Mental Health Strategic Care Group, VHA [Veterans
Health Administration], [by] the American Ex-Prisoners of War Association. Iraq data obtained from
Department of Defense (DOD) documents and press releases, and regular press reports.
*Reports of the death of this POW, first listed as missing on April 9, 2004, and confirmed as a POW on April
23, 2004, have not been confirmed; he is still listed as captured by U.S. military authorities.
Table 2. Americans Unaccounted For,
World War I through the Korean War
World War I (1917-18) a
World War II (1941-45) b
Remains not recovered78,794 c
Korean War (1950-53) d
Source: a. Bruce Callender, “The History of Arlington’s Silent Soldiers,” Air Force Times, June 19, 1984:
b. U.S. Congress, House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia, Americans Missing inthnd
Southeast Asia, Final Report, 94 Cong., 2 sess., H.Rept. 94-1764, (Washington: GPO, 1976), pp. 73-74.
c. An estimated 9,000-17,000 were subject to the equivalent of a PFOD. Ibid: 74.
d. Current DPMO figure is always stated as “approximately 8,100.” Korean War POW/MIA statistics are a
mass of inconsistencies. The Final Report of the 1976 House Select Committee on Missing Persons in
Southeast Asia: 75, listed a total of 5,866 total Korean War MIA, of which 4,735 had been subjected to a
PFOD; 1,107 listed as KIA-BNR; and 24 known to be in Chinese prisons as of Sept. 30, 1954; of which all were
either eventually released or subject to a PFOD. A Rand Corp. study prepared for DPMO itemizes Korean War
unaccounted-for Americans somewhat differently, but along lines that are broadly similar to the current DPMO
figure of about 8,100- 8,140 KIA-BNR, of which the deaths of 5,945 were witnessed or otherwise well-
documented, leaving 2,195 whose death cannot be explicitly established, although many were undoubtedly
killed. Cole, Paul M. POW/MIA Issues: Volume 1, The Korean War, Rand, MR-351/1-USDP, 1994: xv-xvi.
Vietnam War POWs and MIAs
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist; termed the
“National Liberation Front”) authorities returned 591 POWs to U.S. control within the
specified two-month period after the signing of the Vietnam War peace treaty on January 27,
1973. 67 U.S. civilians, not part of the official list of Americans unaccounted for, were
trapped or stayed voluntarily after South Vietnam fell in April 1975. All were released by
late 1976. Since 1976, some Americans have been imprisoned in Vietnam (almost all for
civilian offenses) and eventually released. Most Americans now in Vietnamese prisons for
criminal offenses (some of which would be characterized as “political” crimes by the
Vietnamese authorities) are naturalized Americans of Vietnamese birth or ancestry. Since
1973, only one U.S. military member has returned alive from Vietnam. Marine Corps PFC
Robert Garwood was listed as a POW by U.S. authorities — but never by the Vietnamese
— in 1965 and returned voluntarily to the U.S. in 1979. He was convicted of collaboration
with the enemy, but his light sentence included no prison term.
After the return of the 591 POWs, 2,583 Americans were unaccounted for (not counting
civilians trapped in Vietnam after the South fell, or who later visited Vietnam). Identified
remains of 768 Americans have been returned from Vietnam (540), Laos (197), Cambodia
(28), and China (3) since the war ended on January 27, 1973. Of the 1,815 still listed as
unaccounted for as of August 5, 2005, the Department of Defense (DOD) is still actively
seeking to account as fully as possible for the 1,148. DOD believes that, based on currently
available information and its analysis, it will be unable to ever recover the remains of the
other 667. Examples of the latter would include the 468 men lost over water, as stated in the
note to Table 3, which summarizes data on Americans currently unaccounted for in
Southeast Asia. Another example would be those crewmen of aircraft that, at the time, were
observed by both Vietnamese and Americans to have exploded without any sign of the crew
ejecting; and similar situations.
Vietnam POW/MIAs: U.S. Government Policy and Organization. Since 1982,
the official U.S. position regarding live Americans has been as follows: “Although we have
thus far been unable to prove that Americans are still being held against their will, the
information available to us precludes ruling out that possibility. Actions to investigate
live-sighting reports receive and will continue to receive necessary priority and resources
based on the assumption that at least some Americans are still held captive. Should any
report prove true, we will take appropriate action to ensure the return of those involved.”
Table 3. Americans Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia
(as of August 5, 2005)
Country of Loss
Service N. VietnamS. VietnamLaosCambodiaChinaTotal
Army 9 450 95 24 0 578
Navy 263 89 19 0 7 378
Ci vilians 1 20 8 5 0 34
Total 488 893 372 55 7 1,815
Source: Department of Defense. All U.S. servicemembers are currently listed by DOD as KIA-BNR or, if
formerly listed as a POW or MIA, a PFOD has been made. Until 1994, one POW, a pilot whose capture and
POW status were verified, remained listed as a POW for symbolic reasons. His status was changed to KIA-
BNR at the request of his family. The total of 1,815 personnel includes 468 lost at sea or over water.
The Director of the DOD Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), who also
serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs
(DASD POW/MIA), provides overall direction and control of DOD POW/MIA matters,
both for previous conflicts and the formulation of policies and procedures for future
circumstances in which U.S. military personnel could become POWs or MIA. Field activities
in Indochina and elsewhere around the world related to POW/MIA accounting is supervised
by DOD’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), headquartered in Hawaii. JPAC
maintains POW/MIA files, conducts research and interviews in Indochina and elsewhere in
Asia with refugees and others, and staffs U.S. POW/MIA operations in Indochina. JPAC’s
Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii (CIL-HI) identifies returned remains from around
the world. (JPAC was formerly called Joint Task Force — Full Accounting, or JTF-FA.)
(Some identifications have little or no current foreign policy relevance. World War II-related
recovery of remains, or researches, have taken place in Hungary, China, New Guinea, Betio
Island in Tarawa atoll in the Pacific, and Libya.)
POW/MIA information comes from refugees and other human contacts and assets,
physical evidence (such as “dog tags” worn by U.S. military personnel, photographs, and
aircraft debris), communications intelligence and aerial reconnaissance, and open sources.
According to DOD, between April 1975 (the fall of South Vietnam) and August 5, 2005,
22,677 reports “possibly pertaining to Americans in Southeast Asia” have been acquired by
the U.S. government, including 1,976 alleged first-hand sightings. Of the 1,976, fully 1,942
(98.28%) have, according to DPMO, been resolved. More specifically, 67.86% (1,341)
correlate with persons since accounted for (i.e., returned live or known dead); another
28.14% (556) have been determined to be fabrications; and 2.28% (45) correlate to wartime
(pre-mid-1975) sightings of Americans, either military or civilian. The remaining 34, or
environment, and “represent the focus of DPMO analytical and collection efforts.” Of the
34, 24 were reported to have occurred prior to 1976; 4 between 1976 and 1995; and 6 during
the period 1996-present.
U.S.-Vietnamese Interaction on POW/MIA Issues: Recent Developments
and Issues. Since 1991, the U.S. has gained substantial access to aircraft crash sites,
Vietnamese records, and Vietnamese civilians, and has established a substantial permanent
presence of military and civilian personnel. For several years, the Vietnamese have allowed
U.S. personnel some access to their government archives and permitted some interviews with
senior Vietnamese military leaders from the war. This increased access, however, has not
yet led to large numbers of Americans being removed en masse from the rolls of people who
are unaccounted for; between 1991 and 2005, the total number has generally dropped by 30-
35 cases per year. However, much information or material or information obtained in
Vietnam does not assist in remains identification; upon close study it turns out to be
redundant, already in U.S. hands, or pertaining to resolved cases. In addition, DPMO has
stated that a “Vietnamese Government disinformation program has been associated with
recent reporting on missing Americans. Those reports all pertain to the alleged recovery of
remains and identifying data (i.e., dog tags) by Vietnamese citizens.” [Cited in recent editions
of the Vietnam-Era Unaccounted For Statistical Report of the DPMO, located at the DPMO
Some involved with the POW/MIA issue argue that Vietnamese cooperation on the
POW/MIA issue has actually been spotty and uneven at best, arguing that the U.S.
government has tended to equate activity with results and resource inputs with true outputs
in terms of the fate of unaccounted-for Americans. They suggest that the true cost of all U.S.
military and diplomatic activities associated with post-Vietnam War POW/MIA-related
activities is much higher than stated DPMO budget outlays of approximately $15 million
yearly, perhaps as much as $50-100 million yearly. They allege that Vietnam and North
Korea charge extraordinarily high fees for providing support to DPMO/JPAC operations,
such as logistical support, aviation costs, food and lodging, and the like, and that the services
received are by no means as lavish as the bills presented indicate.
U.S. Policy and the Remains Issue. As noted above, DPMO believes of the 1,815
Americans listed as unaccounted for as of August 5, 2005, that 667 are definitely dead and
that further investigation could result in no more evidence or remains being found. Such
cases include those that resulted from aircraft explosions, drowning, or simple disappearance.
Some believe that the Vietnamese have documentary evidence about the fate of at least some
of them. Others argue that concerns over public reaction, more than disagreements on the
part of American analysts that the individuals concerned really are dead, are holding up the
decision to close these cases. The question may be as follows: if evidence other than remains
is not conclusive, what use is it, if no remains are available? The number of cases listed for
“No Further Pursuit” by DPMO does fluctuate, based on new evidence — cases hitherto
thought unresolvable are made active by more information; those in which leads were being
pursued can turn out to be apparently unresolvable.
Congress and the POW/MIA Issue, 1993-2005 (FY1994-FY2006).
2005 (FY2006) Congressional Action. No relevant matters concerning POW/MIA
issues were in the FY2006 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 109-163).
On June 20, 2005, in House floor debate on the FY2006 Department of Defense (DOD)
Appropriation Act (H.R. 2863, 109th Congress; passed House June 20, 2005), a colloquy on
POW/MIA matters took place between Representative Nathan Deal and Representative C.W.
Bill Young, chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee (see
Congressional Record, June 20, 2005: H4767). At Mr. Deal’s request, Mr. Young agreed
that a report should be prepared about allegations that the Defense POW/Missing Personnel
Office (DPMO) has recently been arbitrary, uncooperative, and hostile with POW/MIA
organizations and families, and that this report should be published in the eventual
conference report on the act. Mr. Deal was further concerned about “compliance with all
applicable provisions of law,” with particular reference to allegations about attempts to use
military air transportation for MIA families to coerce them into supporting DPMO initiatives,
and said that “this report must reflect a comprehensive study of DPMO’s guidance and policy
initiatives.” The National League of Families of American Prisoners of War and Missing in
Southeast Asia has stated these allegations in detail in its Newsletter/Review of 2004,
available online at [http://www.pow-miafamilies.org/3-22-05%20Newsletter.pdf].
October 28, 2004; 118 Stat. 1811, included a provision (Sec. 582) which required DOD to
maintain the number of military and civilian personnel in the DPMO at 46 and 69,
respectively, and the FY2005 budget at $16.0 million, the levels of FY2003. It also required
GAO to study the adequacy of DPMO funding and personnel levels in relation to the
missions it has to perform. This provision appears to have been engendered by congressional
concern over DOD efforts to decrease the resources allocated to the DPMO, both personnel
and funding. This provision essentially incorporated the House version of the bill, with some
minor changes; the Senate version included no similar provision.
2003 (FY2004) Congressional Action. Section 588 of the FY2004 National
Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 108-136, November 24, 2003; 117 Stat. 1392) expressed
the sense of the Congress that the United States should aggressively pursue the case of MIAs,
with particular reference to Speicher, and authorized a $1 million reward to individuals who
provide information leading to the resolution of the Speicher case and others (see below, “A
Persian Gulf War POW/MIA Case”).
2002 (FY2003) Congressional Action. The FY2003 National Defense
Authorization Act (P.L. 107-314, December 2, 2002; 116 Stat. 2458), included two
provisions related to POW/MIA matters. Section 551 prohibited DOD from reducing
personnel or budget levels of the DPMO (this appears to have resulted from planned
reductions of at least 15% in the size of the DPMO staff as part of a general effort to reduce
headquarters staffs). Section 583 required the Secretary of Defense to submit a
comprehensive report on the Speicher case (see below, “A Persian Gulf War POW/MIA
Case”) to Congress within 60 days after the bill became law.
1993-2001 (FY1994-FY2002) Congressional Action. From 1993 through 1997
(FY1994-FY1998 legislation), the annual defense authorization bill included POW/MIA-
related sections with considerable policy significance and, frequently, political controversy.
However, during 1998-2001 (FY1999-FY2002 legislation), Congress was less active on
POW/MIA matters. None of the National Defense Authorization or Intelligence
Authorization Acts of the latter period contained significant POW/MIA-related provisions
or report language with broad policy implications.
Vietnam POW/MIAs: Were Americans Left Behind? Are Any Still Alive?
Those who believe Americans are still held, or were held after the war ended, feel that even
if no specific report has thus far been proved, the numbers unaccounted for, and the
cumulative mass of information about live Americans is compelling. Frequently, people
holding this view suggest that throughout the 1970s, in the bitter and sour aftermath of the
Vietnam War, there was a lack of will in the government, which reflected that of the country
as a whole, to continue investigating the POW/MIA issue. They posit that this contributed
to “a mindset to debunk” reports of live Americans, as well as a desire on the part of
successive Administrations to wash their hands of the issue.
Those who doubt Americans are still held, or were when the war ended, argue that
despite numerous reports, exhaustive interrogations, and formidable technical means used
by U.S. intelligence agencies, no report of an unaccounted-for live American (with the
exception of Garwood) has been validated as to who, when, and where the individual is or
was. They believe that much of the “evidence” cited relates to already accounted-for
Americans, wishful thinking, or fabrication.
Most U.S. government analysts have come to believe that it is extremely unlikely that
the North Vietnamese kept U.S. prisoners after the end of the war, or transferred any to the
USSR. They appear to acknowledge the repressive nature of totalitarian communist regimes
— that the Vietnamese could have opted to keep some Americans. They just feel that their
examination of the evidence indicates that they did not. Significantly, the progressively
increasing penetration of Vietnam by a large American official presence, American business
interests, and tens of thousands of American and European tourists, has failed to disclose any
indications that American POWs were kept behind in the early 1970s, let alone are still being
The “Coverup” Issue. Some say the U.S. government has engaged in a “coverup”
of evidence about live Americans still being held in Indochina; they attach greater credence
to some sources than does the government, and suggest that the criteria set by the
government for validating reports of live Americans are unreasonably, and perhaps
deliberately, high. The government responds by stating that such assertions are based on data
that is inaccurate or fraudulent. It also asserts that numerous investigations have cleared
DIA of coverup charges and that the ability to maintain a coverup strains credulity in an era
of press leaks and openness. Since 1982, it has been U.S. policy to provide intelligence to
families of unaccounted-for Americans that pertains or may pertain to their missing men.
Have Americans Remained in Indochina Voluntarily? Some Americans
stayed in Indochina voluntarily, Garwood being the best known. Another defected to the
Viet Cong in 1967 and was killed by the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists) in 1975
or 1976. Ideology, collaboration with the enemy and a fear of punishment upon return to the
U.S., personal problems, a home, a local wife and children, “brainwashing” by captors, or
a combination of these factors, all could have played a role in other Americans remaining in
Indochina voluntarily. The Vietnamese have always left room for such by denying Americans
are living in areas “under their control.” In addition, the U.S. government policy cited above
on live Americans is careful to refer to “Americans ... still being held against their will.”
Are the Vietnamese, Laotians, or Cambodians Still Holding the Remains
of Dead Americans? There is a widely-held belief that for many years the Vietnamese
had a collection of remains from which they released remains as they saw fit. The DPMO
believes that this collection may have been exhausted by August 1990. Whether the
Vietnamese hold other remains is not known. Some suggest the Vietnamese have not
released remains that would indicate mistreatment of POWs and/or that some were alive
when the war ended but died in Vietnamese custody thereafter (although such mistreatment
is well known).
The large number of Americans lost in or over Laos, the number of known discrepancy
cases, and the few Americans returned who had been captured in Laos suggest that the
Laotians know more about the fate of unaccounted-for Americans than they have yet stated.
On the other hand, most Lao governments, communist or not, have exercised little control
over large parts of their country, due to Vietnamese occupation and their own lack of
resources. This suggests the Laotians may not have the ability to provide many answers
about missing Americans, and such answers may be better found from the Vietnamese. Laos
is, however, one area where searches of aircraft crash sites have resulted in the recent
identification of some unaccounted-for Americans. Recently, for example in March 2005,
a U.S. POW/MIA-related delegation held talks with Lao officials to discuss ways to improve
U.S. access to information and aircraft crash sites related to U.S. Vietnam War POWs.
Korean War POWs/MIAs
Since the Korean War ended in 1953, there have been rumors Americans captured by
the North Koreans or Chinese were, or still are, held against their will in North Korea, China,
or Russia/the former USSR. It is generally accepted that the communist powers involved
in the war withheld significant amounts of information on POW/MIA from the United
States, probably with more withholding by North Korea and China than Russia.
DPMO states that although there is no first-hand, direct evidence of Korean War POWs
being transferred to the Soviet Union, the cumulative weight of circumstantial evidence is
so compelling that they believe that at least small numbers of Americans were in fact so
transferred. There are indications that some sightings of Caucasians by foreign nationals in
North Korea may be of several American soldiers who defected to North Korea in the
post-Korean War era. In addition, some U.S. POWs were not released by China until 1955,
two years after the war ended. Two civilian CIA aircrew members shot down over North
Korea during the war, in 1952, were imprisoned for 20 years and not released until 1972.
Declassified U.S. documents indicate that the U.S. government maintained an intensive
interest in live POWs from the Korean War throughout the 1950s. The end of the Korean
War in 1953 was followed by intensely bitter relations between the U.S., the North Koreans,
and the Chinese. This suggests that the two communist enemies of the United States during
the Korean War, as well as a Stalinist Soviet Union, might be inclined to hold live
Americans — perhaps more so than Vietnam in the 1970s.
During the mid-1950s, the U.S. demanded the North Koreans and Chinese account for
missing Americans. After 1955, due to the lack of response (except for the return of 1,868
remains in 1954), the issue abated, although the United States periodically raised the issue.
In 1957, House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on the Korean MIA issue aired
frustrations similar to those raised since 1973 on Indochina MIAs. Although the issue of
Korean MIAs began to get more attention in the early 1980s, concrete results of contact with
the North Koreans were minimal until 1996. Between mid-1996 and mid-1997, negotiations
took place in which United States and North Korea agreed on parameters for conducting field
investigations and archival research for U.S. MIAs. Between 1996 and 2004, U.S. personnel
completed 36 “joint field activities” (JFAs) — searches for American remains — in North
Korea. These teams recovered 224 remains, of which 20 have been identified as those of
Americans. Agreement was reached in late 2004 for five more JFAs to be conducted in
However, on May 25, 2005, DOD suspended the operations of U.S. POW/MIA
personnel operating in North Korea, citing heightened concerns about their safety in the
context of rising tensions between the United States and North Korea. “The teams operate
in North Korea under terms that effectively cut off their ability to communicate with anyone
outside the country....The only message permitted is a daily situation report sent from a
liaison officer in Pyongyang [the North Korean capital]. ... Although acceptable to U.S.
commanders in the past, this restrictive condition would clearly hamper any effort by other
U.S. forces to protect the recovery teams should an emergency arise. Such a consideration,
[a U.S. military spokesman said] played a part in the decision to suspend the missions.”1
The most recent identification of remains returned from North Korea took place on July
22, 2005, when DOD announced that the remains of a U.S. Army soldier MIA from the
Korean War had been identified. The remains had first been returned to the United States
from North Korea in 1993.
There has been some controversy about the payments the U.S. has made to North Korea
for POW/MIA-related search activity. Since 1993, DPMO has paid North Korea about $15
million for recovery operations; “as with joint recovery operations in Vietnam, Laos, and
other countries, the payments are calculated by negotiating the compensation provided for
the workers, materials, facilities, and equipment provided by” the North Koreans. Some
have alleged that the sums are a form of disguised subsidy and provide little benefit, in terms
of remains found, although it may be that the extremely austere conditions in North Korea
make any sort of operations there difficult and expensive by American standards. For further
information, see CRS Report RL31785, Foreign Assistance to North Korea, by Mark E.
POWs and MIAs from Cold War Incidents
During the Cold War (1946-1991), some U.S. military aircraft were shot down by the
USSR, Eastern European countries, China, and North Korea. Some of these aircraft were
performing intelligence missions near or actually inside Soviet airspace; others were
1 Bradley Graham, “U.S. Halts Missions To Recover Remains in N. Korea,” Washington
Post, May 26, 2005, p. A-19.
definitely in international airspace and/or were not involved in intelligence operations.
While virtually all such aircraft losses were acknowledged at the time, often with
considerable publicity, their intelligence functions were not.
Between 1946 and 1977, according to a DOD list released in 1992, there were at least
38 such aircraft shootdowns and one involving a ship (the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo, by
the North Koreans in early 1968). Of the 364 crewmembers, 187 were eventually returned
to U.S. custody, the remains of 34 were recovered, 11 were known to be dead from
eyewitness reports but remains were not recovered, and 132 were “not recovered, fate
unknown.” Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, intelligence (mostly apparently
obtained from German and Japanese POWs from World War II, several hundred thousands
of whom were not released by the Soviets until 1954-1955) provided considerable evidence
that some crewmembers of these aircraft had been seen and spoken to in Soviet concentration
camps. After the Cold War ended in 1989-1991, the United States began to receive
substantial Russian cooperation about Soviet involvements in Cold War shootdowns.
However, there is little doubt that the Russians have not released all available information,
due to varying levels of obstructionism and the often-disorganized nature of government in
A second type of “Cold War incident” involves kidnapping of U.S. personnel in or near
Soviet-occupied territory in Europe after the end of World War II, by Soviet intelligence
agents. Most, however, were defectors, or had wandered into Soviet-occupied areas for
nonpolitical reasons (romantic entanglements, drunkenness, and the like). The full story of
such kidnappings may well not have been told and may never be. There is no question that
numerous West Germans were kidnapped by Soviet and East German intelligence agencies
in the late 1940s and early and mid-1950s.2
Post-Cold War POW/MIAs
The Iraq war that began on March 19, 2003, provides the most recent illustration that
the POW/MIA issue is not merely one of historical interest. Congressional concerns over
Americans unaccounted for during the Cold War have been an integral component of the
discussion about how to account for Americans missing or captured since then. The largest
conflicts since the Cold War began to end in 1989 were the two wars with, or in, Iraq.
The Persian Gulf War of 1991
(Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm)
A total of 49 American military personnel were initially listed as missing in action
during the Persian Gulf War. Of these, 23 were captured by the Iraqis and released after the
war ended, the remains of 13 were recovered, and another 13 were eventually determined to
be KIA-BNR. However, the status of one of the latter 13 was changed back to MIA in
January 2001, based on evidence that he may have survived and been captured, as discussed
2 See Smith, Arthur L., Jr. Kidnap City: Cold War Berlin. Westport, CN, Greenwood Press,
The Speicher Case. On January 10, 2001, the Navy changed the status of Lt. Cdr.
Michael Scott Speicher from KIA to MIA. Speicher was the first U.S. pilot shot down
during the Persian Gulf War, on the night of January 17, 1991. His body was never
recovered. There is no doubt his aircraft was shot down and crashed in Iraq about 150 miles
southwest of Baghdad. Issues include the lack of remains, resultant questions about whether
he was in fact killed upon impact, and some evidence, from a variety of sources, that he was
taken prisoner by the Iraqis when in relatively good physical condition. A joint DOD/CIA
report prepared at the request of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and first
publicized in 2001, stated that “We assess that Iraq can account for LCDR Speicher but that
Baghdad is concealing information about his fate. LCDR Speicher probably survived the
loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis” (CRS
italics). Significantly, the occupation of Iraq by U.S. and other coalition forces since March
2003, and extensive investigation of possible leads about Speicher, has not, so far, led to
more substantive information about his fate, although some leads could not be pursued due3
to the security threat posed by the Iraqi insurgency. In early September 2005 another Navy
report on Speicher’s status was completed. It reiterated conclusions reached in earlier studies
that he could well have been captured; that there was no specific evidence of his death; and
that some former members — they were not identified, if known — of the Saddam Hussein
government of Iraq were knowledgeable about his fate. Accordingly, it recommended that
Speicher’s status be maintained as missing, rather than killed, and U.S military and civilian
agencies in Iraq, and the new Iraqi government, “increase the level of attention and effort
inside Iraq” devoted to the case.4
The Ongoing Iraq War, 2003-Present: POW/MIA Matters
On April 13, 2003, the seven remaining American POWs known to have been captured
by the Iraqis since the war began on March 19, 2003, were recovered by U.S. troops. An
eighth had already been rescued by U.S. special operations forces on April 1 (this was the
widely reported case of Army PFC Jessica Lynch). A maximum of 21 U.S. military
personnel were listed as POW or MIA during the initial stages of the war. On April 28,
2003, DOD announced that the remains of the last remaining American listed as MIA at that
time had been positively identified.
On April 9, 2004, one American soldier was captured by Iraqi insurgents. He was the
first POW taken by the enemy in Iraq since the eight captured in the early part of the war
were liberated by U.S. forces in April 2003. Although there were rumors in late June, 2004
that he had been killed, these reports were not confirmed and have since died down; U.S.
officials say they have no reason to think he is not still a POW, and he is listed as such.
3 See, for example, Scarborough, Rowan. “U.S. team concludes Navy pilot died in Gulf
war,” Washington Times, July 22, 2004: A3; and “No Clues to Fate of Missing Pilot,” AP
Story from [http://www.military.com/
NewsContent/0,13319,FL_pilot_100704.00html?ESRC=eb.nl] on Oct. 8, 2004. This is an
unofficial, commercial military news website oriented toward concerns of military
4 Burns, Robert. “Navy: Members of old Iraqi regime know pilot’s whereabouts.”
Associated Press story retrieved online, Sept. 9, 2005.
It is not clear whether or not a U.S. Marine of Lebanese extraction — who was first
declared missing from his unit in Iraq in June 2004, returned to U.S. custody a month later,
and then gone absent without leave (AWOL) in January 2005 — was ever a POW: that is,
held against his will.
World War II POWs and MIAs: Soviet Imprisonment of
U.S. POWs Liberated from the Germans
There are allegations that the USSR failed to repatriate up to 25,000 American POWs
liberated from the Germans after World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945. This
appears to have no foundation in fact and to result in large part from an apparent lack of rigor
and care in analyzing the issue. Archival research in the United States and Russia, combined
with interviews in Russia, appears to establish conclusively that virtually all such prisoners
were returned. In addition, the large flow of information on Soviet concentration camps of
the Stalin era, beginning in the early 1960s, both in writing and from emigre accounts, has
provided no indication of mass imprisonment of Americans.
Some U.S. citizens of German birth who served in the German armed forces or lived
in Germany were taken prisoner by the Red Army as it advanced into Central Europe; in
addition, the Soviet secret police singled out Americans with German, Russian, or Jewish
names for special attention. Both figures are consonant with other knowledge of the arbitrary
and brutal nature of the Stalinist USSR. Accounts of U.S. dealings with the USSR during
and immediately after World War II on the POW issue are replete with accounts of Soviet
obfuscation, truculence, and reluctant cooperation. The Joint U.S.-Russian Commission on
POWs/MIAs investigating these issues has obtained a good deal of information. However,
as was noted above in the section on Cold War shootdowns and similar incidents, there has
been considerable hesitancy and obstruction of the Commission’s work by Russian officials
still sympathetic to the former Soviet regime.
For Additional Reading
Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. Extensive statistical breakdowns, lists of
individuals, and studies and analyses on POW/MIA matters from World War II to the
Nenninger, Timothy K. “United States Prisoners of War and the Red Army, 1944-45: Myths
and Realities.” The Journal of Military History, July 2002: 761-82.
Sledge, Michael. Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military
Fallen. New York, Columbia University Press, 2005. 376 p.
Swift, Earl. Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers. Boston, Houghton
Mifflin Co., 2003. 307 p.
U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. POW/MIA’s. Report.
January 13, 1993. Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993 (103rd
Congress, 1st session. S.Rept. 103-1). 1223 p.