Daring Mission, Dashed Hopes

Daring Mission, Dashed Hopes
CIA finds no P.O.W.s in Laos, but M.I.A. families keep hoping The Viet Nam War is long over, and for most Americans, best forgotten.
But there remains a nagging concern—and for many families a daily
grief—that, when the U.S. got out of Southeast Asia, it may have left
dozens, even hundreds of P.O.W.s behind. Past Administrations have
tacitly assumed that there may be some survivors among the 2,528 men
missing, including 560 lost in Laos.
The anguished families believe that as many as 300 of them are still
alive. Neither Viet Nam nor Laos admits holding any prisoners, and no
one has ever found solid proof. But the U.S. Government has tried.
According to a front-page story in the Washington Post last week,
Defense Intelligence Agency analysts studying satellite photographs had
spotted seemingly persuasive evidence of an American prisoner-of-war
camp in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency then trained and
organized a group of Laotian mercenaries—many of them Hmong hill
tribesmen—who crossed the border from Thailand and got close enough
to take more definitive photos on the ground. The sad conclusion,
according to Defense Department Spokesman Henry Catto: “There is
no evidence that would lead us to believe there are Americans being
held in Laos.” The Hmong tribesmen were apparently the first secret reconnaissance
force to enter Laos on behalf of the soldiers missing in action but not
the first ones to try. Angered by the refusal of the Carter
Administration to accept and act on the uncertain proof that Americans
are being held in Southeast Asia, families of the missing raised a
dozen-man commando squad of their own—an underfinanced and overaged
group of veterans from the Green Berets. Their improbable training
center for an operation code-named “Velvet Hammer” was an
academy for cheerleaders in Leesburg, Fla., near Orlando.
Their leader was retired Lieut. Colonel James Gritz,
42, a former Army public affairs officer who served in Viet Nam and who
now works for Hughes Helicopter in Culver City, Calif. Gritz may not have been the ideal choice to run the secret
operation: he showed up at the training camp with a psychic, a
hypnotherapist, an ABC News crew and a Washington Post reporter to
serve as “historical record keeper.” After spending about
$40,000 of the P.O.W. families' rescue money, Gritz's squad
disbanded—according to Gritz, at the request of the Government. Enter the CIA, which decided to organize its own mission on the basis of
reconnaissance photographs that suggested the presence of a P.O.W. camp
in Laos, near the former Ho Chi Minh Trail. The photographs appeared to show people taller than native Laotians,
using tools too big for natives, sometimes sitting cross-legged on the
ground, instead of squatting Oriental-style. Surrounding them, it
appeared, was a stockade with towers. Perhaps most persuasive, an
aerial photograph showed the numerals 52 outlined on the ground. No one
is sure what that number might signify: 52 prisoners in the camp,
perhaps, or that the captives were the crew of one of the B-52s that
had been shot down over the region. Because the numerals were first
observed after Jan. 20, one theory was that they represented the 52
American hostages released from Iran.