Friday, 15 March 2013

Uncommon Valour and the fate of Missing USA servicemen

The final film about war is another work of the imagination centring on the widespread belief in the USA and beyond that the government failed to ensure that all GI Prisoners of War were returned from Vietnam or those countries where prison camps were created. The film  Uncommon Valour was made in 1983 with Gene Hackman  as retired marine Colonel Jason Rhodes whose son was reported missing in action back in 1972 and who  spends the next decade searching Asia for evidence that his son is alive and being held captive.


After getting photographic evidence of a prison camp he brings together members of his son’s platoon who remain guilt ridden about having left some of their comrades when they were airlifted by helicopter and added to this group are two helicopter pilots with the participants each having their own story and reasons for joining the mission.


They are taken to a construction of the discovered camp in Texas with the mission funded by the wealthy father of another missing son played by Robert Stack. Organising the training is a young recently serving officer, too young to have been a veteran and this bugs the others until they find that he has joined because his father is among those listed as missing. Understandably their activities are monitored and every effort made to dissuade them from making the trip with their helicopters and weapons. The CIA then arrange with Thailand authorities in Bangkok  to impound all their equipment and the men are left with limited resources, mainly the money which the businessman had given them for participating in the mission. This enables them to purchase some basic weapons and ancient ordinance and to arrange with a former drugs baron to get them across the border to Laos where the camp is located. Having already lost sons he brings with him his two attractive daughters both trained fighters. At the border they encounter guards and in the fight one of the daughters is killed.


The group divide with one party going to the nearest helicopter base to steals the escape transport which involves a fight while the others approach the camp which appears deserted until they see that the prisoners  mostly locals but with a handful of Americans return from their work party. There is a great battle to rescue the men who after decades of imprisonment have become institutionalised to the situation. Several of the party are killed in heroic circumstances, one blowing himself up as he  blows up a bridge preventing troops coming in pursuit while another is also killed enabling  the son of the expedition’s financier to be rescued. Sadly Hackman’s son is not among those rescued.


Those rescued return to their families and Hackman learns that his son had become ill and died shortly after capture. This provides some closure for himself and his wife. Patrick Swayze plays Kevin Scott the young man searching for his missing father.


Now to the truth? Following the agreement reached in Paris in 1973  fewer than 600 USA prisoners of War were returned. The government had previous listed  1200 killed  whose bodies were not recovered and another 1350 missing in action with the majority  airman shot down over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Over the subsequent two decades the governments negotiated to ensure that as far as possible the remains of men killed were identified and the cooperation of the governments in Vietnam and Laos led to the “normalization “of relations between the countries. Organisations representing the missing men, service organisations and others groups were formed supporting the belief that men had been kept as prisoners for a variety of reasons and that the governments  including  successive USA governments had covered up this fact as part of the progress to normalization relationships


Several congressional investigations took place and between 1991 and 1993 of which John Kerry and John McCain were members concluded that there was no compelling evidence proving that Americans remained alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.


The problem had first arisen because the Nixon Administration had argued that there were at least 1500 prisoners so when 600 were only returned the belief commenced of many others continuing to be held. Only one soldier was subsequently returned in 1979 and about whom there remains controversy.


The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in South East Asia was formed by wives of men who continued to press for information and action after the Paris agreement. A national Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s missing Service Men was founded as late as 1990. This group took a more active and radical stance from its predecessor and played an active role in the Kerry Committee disagreeing strongly with its findings. The business Ross Perot who stood for the Presidency at one point was an active supporter of this cause. It could be argued that this effort did result in the Vietnamese and Laotian government allowing the USA to excavate known crash sites and bring home remains that were found although the number was comparatively small at the time.


 A retired Air force officer solicited funds for expeditions based on a boat docked in Thailand but never produced any prisoners. Another special forces member also undertook a number of privately funded trips to South east Asia and a mission was  commenced in 1982  but the 15 Laotians and 3 USA POW’s were ambushed at the border and the mission failed. His activities are considered by many to have been counter productive. Another figure whose military record is said to have been a largely concocted claimed that he had identified POWs in Laos and ordered by the CIA to assassinate them.


Uncommon Valour is only one of several film attempts to argue that there were POW’s and they were deliberately abandoned by USA governments. Good Guys Wear Black and Missing in Action were two other films appearing at the same time as Uncommon Valour. There was Sylvester Stallone in a Rambo film in 1985 together with POW the Escape 1986 and Dog Tags 1990. There was even an episode of the X Files.


The claims and counter claims have continued with accusations of evidence shredded testimony suppressed and one has only to considered what the authorities did here in the UK in covering up the truth of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland or the police and political covering up of the truth of Hillsborough to appreciate what can be done. I also have the direct knowledge of two significant cover ups in my later life.


The remains of over 700 of the missing men have now been returned although I do not know if the time of death has been fixed to when it is said they went missing or to much later. The list of what happened to unknown was officially reduced to 300 with the Defence department stating that 190 of these are believed to be dead.











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