The charge that America had left Prisoners of War (POWs) behind in Vietnam is one of the most controversial and emotionally wrenching claims to be made over what is already a very contentious conflict; one many Americans wanted to forget about as soon as it ended.
However, in the decade after the conflict ended there were persistent rumors emerging from South East Asia that American troops had indeed been left behind after the conclusion of the war.
There were signals intercepts and overhead imagery from Laos that appeared to indicate perhaps there were some American POWs still alive there after all.
In 1980, a signals intercept indicated some twenty American POWs had recently been moved to a camp at Gnommorath inside Laos. Overhead imagery, taken via satellite or spy plane, was then collected. The results shocked those working on the issue at the Defense Intelligence Agency. At Gnommorath they found a prison camp with stockade walls and guard towers that defense planners began calling Fort Apache.
Imagery analysts assessed that the numbers "52" were dug amongst the crops in the camp followed by the letter "K" in the ground nearby. Each character was about nine feet long by six feet wide and etched into the ground so that the guard towers could not tell they were there, but could clearly be seen from the air.
The DIA assessed these were escape and evasion codes being used by American POWs, and 52K likely stood for 52 downed aircrew members.
While the CIA was skeptical of the DIA's assessments about Fort Apache, they eventually agreed to dispatch a small reconnaissance team to the site to confirm or deny the presence of Americans there.
Meanwhile, in the event that the DIA assessments were confirmed, a Delta Force team was being notified at Ft. Bragg to prepare for the mission which had been dubbed Operation Pocket Change. It was 1981, and this would be Delta's second mission after Operation Eagle Claw, the failed mission to rescue American hostages held in Iran.
This would also be the first rescue mission for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which had been recently formed to prevent future operations from ending in tragedy the way that Eagle Claw had the year prior.
Selected to lead Operation Pocket Change was Lt. Col. Lewis H. Burruss who had served with Mike Force in Vietnam, completed SAS selection and training during an exchange program, and helped Col. Charlie Beckwith stand up 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, or Delta Force. Burruss, known to many as "Bucky" had been the deputy commander on the ground during Operation Eagle Claw.
Burruss felt that Delta's odds at success were high stating, "it was a kick ass time at Delta during Pocket Change. Not only did we have good intel, we had good morale, too, because we knew that this time, unlike 'Desert One,' we had a Commander in Chief who would back us up if the going got tough," he told the authors of An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in South East Asia.
A bureaucratic battle then broke out as to who would conduct the reconnaissance mission: A CIA-led and trained team of indigenous personnel or a JSOC led team of Delta operators?
Burruss wanted to use a Delta team with 1st Ranger Battalion available as backup in case they needed a hot extraction out of Laos. The CIA won this battle and sent in their team. Delta continued to plan for the assault on Fort Apache while the CIA sent in a 13-man team in March of 1981.
The recon team reached Fort Apache in early May and established a base camp in a nearby cave. Team members crept within a few hundred meters of the camp and took photographs while observing prisoners, at least one of them appearing to be caucasian.
While the recon team returned to Thailand to turn their film over to the CIA and begin debriefings, JSOC continued to develop their plan. Lt. Col. Herschel Morgan worked with Burruss, helping to get them brand new Squad Automatic Weapons (SAW), special ammunition, and radar jamming equipment they would need for the cross border surgical strike.
It was to be, "a quick in and out, and believe me, we had the troops, the firepower, and the political backing to pull it off," Morgan said in a 1997 interview.
JSOC sent men to Thailand to assess the road network in the northern part of the country as well as old U.S. military bases to figure out how to move men, weapons, and equipment into the area quietly as well as finding a staging ground to launch the mission from.
At the same time, plans were underway to construct a full-scale replica of Fort Apache for the Delta operators to conduct mission rehearsals on at Tinian Island, just north of Guam. The operators would be able to rehearse the mission in isolation in the middle of the Pacific, then stage out of Northern Thailand and launch into Laos to hit the POW camp once they received the green light from the White House.
After debriefing the recon team, the CIA decided that a second team should be inserted to make a second recon, and this time the team should include at least one American. The CIA initially withheld information about a caucasian being spotted in the camp from JSOC according to former Congressman Bill Hendon and author Elizabeth Stewart.
When asked why this information was withheld, CIA East Asia Division chief William G. Graver told the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA affairs that it was because the CIA, "did not want to put gasoline on the issue."
Several days after the report of an apparent U.S. POW at Fort Apache arrived at CIA headquarters, a major news story broke in The Washington Post. The article detailed how a force of mercenaries sponsored by the U.S. government snuck into Laos that month to find American POWs. According to the article, they took photographs which were later analyzed at the CIA, "and concluded that there were no Americans in the jungle camp."
At that moment, any chance of a second recon mission much less a Delta Force POW rescue in Laos went up in smoke. With their operational security compromised due to someone leaking details of their activities to The Washington Post, the element of surprise had been lost. The mission could not go forward. Just a week and a half later, a feature-length article appeared in Parade magazine declaring that American POWs were still alive in South East Asia.
The POW/MIA issue had been successfully brought to the attention of the American public but at the cost of what could have been a successful operation to actually repatriate those POWs.
Operation Pocket Change and the subject of POW/MIA service members in Vietnam remains a painful and emotionally charged issue for so many Americans who served there. To this day, there remains no factual evidence proving that any American POWs were left behind in Vietnam after the war. For some in the Pentagon, the leaks to The Washington Post felt like a betrayal.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is the U.S. governmental body charged with recovering the remains of American service members from past wars. Today, DPAA lists over 1,500 service members as Missing in Action from the Vietnam Conflict.