“MIA” stands for missing in action, a term used to refer to members of the armed forces who have not returned from military service and whose whereabouts are unknown. Since ancient times, soldiers have gone to war and never returned, their fate unknown. In the wake of the Vietnam War, families of American MIAs began organizing to demand an accounting. The hunt continues. As of May 2020, 1,587 American service members were still missing in Southeast Asia.
How Many Americans Are Still Missing In Action?
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the agency within the Department of Defense responsible for tracking down MIAs, reported in May 2020 that 81,900 Americans were still considered MIA: 72,598 from World War II, 7,580 from the Korean War, 1,587 from Vietnam, 126 from the Cold War, and six from conflicts since 1991. Advances in DNA technology, increased access to crash sites or battlegrounds in territory once hostile to Americans and ongoing international negotiations have helped bring more and more open cases to a close.
Still, the issue of MIAs remains a controversial one, with accusations of government cover-ups continuing to foster distrust among families of the missing, particularly surrounding repatriation efforts in Korea and Vietnam.
Korean War MIAs
Because the Korean War never officially ended—no peace treaty was ever formally signed—the recovery of American remains is complicated. Ongoing tensions between the United States and North Korea further impede the process.
In Korea, advancing American forces buried their dead in temporary cemeteries, assuming they could go back and claim the bodies once the war was won, as they had in World War II. When victory in Korea did not materialize, access to these burial sites didn’t, either. Then there were the battles Americans lost that precluded the recording and burial of fallen American soldiers—like the Battle of Chosin, where 1,200 Marines were lost.
Unrecorded deaths in prison camps also contributed to the high number of MIAs in Korea: The RAND Corporation maintains that a third of captured Americans died in captivity in the first year of the war, and the New York Times reports that about 1,500 Americans are believed to be buried in poorly marked graves beneath former POW camps.
Did You Know? Army Pfc. Wayne A. "Johnnie" Johnson, a prisoner of war in North Korea, risked his life to secretly record the names of 496 fellow prisoners who had died during their captivity. He was later awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third highest military combat decoration for valor.
Vietnam War MIAs
The Paris Peace Accords marking the end of the Vietnam War were signed on January 27, 1973. The U.S. agreed to withdraw all of its troops and dismantle American bases in exchange for the release all U.S. prisoners of war held by the North Vietnamese. That February, Operation Homecoming aired on American television showing the release of American POWs from North Vietnamese prison camps. By March 29, 1973, 591 soldiers would be returned and President Richard Nixon announced, “For the first time in 12 years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All of our American POWs are on their way home.” At the time, 1,303 Americans were still unaccounted for.
Over the years, rumors about men left behind and discrepancies in the number of missing vs. the number of returned outraged MIA families—as did reports of the mishandling and misidentification of American remains. Action films like 1983’s Uncommon Valor and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) fictionalized attempts at rescuing living soldiers from captivity in Vietnam. In 1991, a Wall Street Journal poll found that 69 percent of Americans believed there were living MIAs still being held captive in Southeast Asia.
The National League of POW/MIA Families
Sybil Stockdale was determined to bring her husband, Vice Adm. James Stockdale, home from the infamous Hoa Lo Prison—also known as the "Hanoi Hilton" where Senator John McCain was held. She joined with other families of MIAs to form The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, a non-profit incorporated in May of 1970 with the mission “to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War.”
“The greatest motivation for all of these families is uncertainty,” says Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the board & CEO of the National League of POW/MIA Families. “Uncertainty is a killer. It is a great motivator to get you engaged…It’s better to find out what happened to the missing than to endlessly stay in a state of uncertainty and frustration that you can’t do anything about it,” she said. “The families were desperate, there was so much misinformation going around. Nobody wanted to talk about the veterans who had been ignored.”
The POW/MIA Flag and POW/MIA Recognition Day
The symbol of the POW/MIA movement is the POW/MIA flag, the brainchild of Mary Hoff, whose husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff, was missing in action in Laos. WWII veteran Newton Heisley, a former pilot in the Army Air Corps, designed the flag in 1972 using his Marine son as the model for the black and white flag’s famous silhouette.
In 1979, Congress declared that the third Friday in September would be National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Starting in 1982, it became the day the POW/MIA flag was flown over the White House just below the American flag–the only other flag to do so.
In 1998, Congress mandated that the POW/MIA flag also be flown on holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day. In November 2018, it became mandatory to fly the flag at select federal sites year-round including the White House and memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and WWII Memorial.
For the families of MIAs, the flag and these memorials serve as places to remember. “The whole theory was that we need—the Vietnam veterans need—a place they would be recognized,” says Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Recovery of MIAs
Under the George H. W. Bush administration, the Senate convened a Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs chaired by Vietnam veteran John Kerry to investigate whether or not American prisoners were left behind in Southeast Asia. After testimony from high-profile officials like Henry Kissinger, the committee concluded: “While the Committee has some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present, and while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”
Efforts to recover the bodies of American MIAs are ongoing. For years, recovery efforts in Southeast Asia were hampered by lack of resources, governments wary of letting Americans back in and locals who remember the conflict all too well, says Sompatana “Tommy” Phisayavong, a research analyst at the Department of Defense who works with teams recovering remains from the C.I.A.’s “Secret War” in Laos.
Phisayavong has found that with the passage of time, locals are more willing to help in recovery efforts: “I feel that now when I go to missions, people openly cooperate…The first time, villagers did not fully cooperate. Ten years later, we try again…and lo and behold, it’s there, and they tell us, ‘At the time we couldn’t tell you.’”
Phisayavong says he understands how conditions change over time. He fled the war as a child in the 1970s and has since been back to Laos over 100 times as part of the Joint Casualty Resolution Center, translating for the archaeologists who exhume American remains. As he says, “It’s still so rewarding once you recover someone and return them to the family.”