Mac's Facts no. 22: 1-29-2004. Challenging a POW Claim.
From time to time we receive requests to confirm details of a story told by some person who claims to have been a prisoner of war (POW) during the conflict in Southeast Asia. False POW stories are not uncommon. Armed with the following information, most persons should be able to determine whether a POW story is true or false.
If pressed for time, go directly to the BOTTOM LINE of this document.
The Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) is the custodian of the official list of Americans who were prisoners of war or otherwise unaccounted for during the conflict in Southeast Asia. The formal title of the list is: "U.S. Personnel Missing, Southeast Asia (and Selected Foreign Nationals)." It (the PMSEA), was last updated in May 2001. The PMSEA contains the names of every American serviceman (and U.S. civilian) who was a prisoner of war in Southeast Asia (Jan 1961 to Oct 1988). As well, it contains the names of all 3,755 men and women who were ever listed as missing...or a POW for even one day. Only 802 of those 3,755 are known to have come out alive--through escape, early release from enemy control, or through negotiated repatriation (Feb-Apr 1973) at the end of the Vietnam War. 661 who came out alive were U.S. military personnel. 141 were civilians or foreign nationals. These categories for MIA/POWs who came out alive are known as "RR" (returnee) and "EE" (escapee).
We believe DPMO's official list is a complete and accurate list of all Americans who were POWs in Southeast Asia. If a person who claims to have been a POW, but is not listed, believes the DPMO's list is incomplete, you might wish to invite the claimant to answer the following questions so you can substantiate his claim to having been a POW and help him gain official DOD recognition of his POW status. Our experience consistently shows that pretenders will give fuzzy, incomplete and dishonest answers. Also, not one of the hundreds of claimants have ever proven the DOD records wrong. Not a single POW was left off the official POW/MIA casualty lists at the end of the Vietnam War (Note: A few spelling errors, duplicate names, non-existent names, etc. have been corrected since the first lists came out in early 1973). Do you really believe that your claimant will be the first of thousands of wanna be POW claimants to convince DOD to change their records and include them after 30 years? Phony POW claimants will refuse to give details that can be verified. They will equivocate and feign anger that you don’t believe them. They will claim CIA affiliation and claim that their mission is still classified, therefore they "are unable to give you details." That’s stuff for James Bond movies, not for the truth.
All bona-fide POWs can easily answer the following questions. Here goes:
Specific date he entered the service. Specific date he was released or retired from active duty. Military service number. The Army and USAF switched to SSN 7-1-69. Then the Navy and Marine Corps switched to SSN in July 1972. The claimant should provide you with his full name, date of birth and social security number. You should look at his drivers license or other legal document to verify the information. You will need this for any request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). All individual service records of veterans discharged, and who have no current service obligations, are at: National Personnel Records Center, Military Records, 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. Your chances of getting an answer to a Freedom of Information request will be much better if you submit the person’s complete name, SSN and/or service number, date of birth and branch of service. Expect a wait of 60 to 90 days. For service inquiries, you might wish to contact USN LT Mike Gallant, BUPERS-621, at fax number (901) 874-6654, to inquire whether or not a man served in the military.
Military rank and occupational specialty when captured, and when released or retired from active duty.
Date and location/circumstances of capture. Date, location, circumstances of rescue, escape, or release.
Specific unit he was serving with when he was captured. The full name and rank of at least one member
of his unit at the time he was captured. The "I don't remember. It was a long time ago," ploy is weak and unacceptable. Most veterans still have copies of Special Orders--promotions, reassignments, citations for awards, etc. Also, orders issued by their unit that will contain names of other persons in the unit.
If your man claims to have been an aviator, ask him the name and location of the unit and air base or aircraft carrier from which he flew. If a carrier, date of departure for the cruise. The specific type of aircraft he was flying when he went down and was captured. Important: The names of other aviators who were in his unit or wing who were (1) killed and (2) captured at any time during the war. Name, rank and fate of other crew members of his aircraft. The names of wingmen/crew members of other aircraft that took part in the mission--as well as their current addresses. The names and squadron designation of all other squadrons in his airwing. And for good measure, ask him the type of engine his aircraft had!
Location and circumstances of capture. As a minimum, the country in which captured (NVN, SVN, Laos or Cambodia). Names and ranks or position of other Americans who were killed or captured in the same
incident. Name of at least one other American who was held captive with him, and that person's fate (dead, escaped, released). He should give specific circumstances of his own rescue, escape, or release. These details are the heart of any true POW story. Name and rank of the officer who debriefed him after he returned to American control (every returnee was debriefed). Location where the debriefing took place.
Copy of DD Form 214 (Discharge Certificate) which lists decorations and awards. (You might wish to remember that DD-214s are not accepted as legal proof of many of the qualifications which are written thereon. There have been so many DD-214s stolen and forged that they in and of themselves are not considered valid legal proof for much of anything. Discharged veterans may be asked to provide corroborating proof if they are using the DD-214 to attempt to establish a claim of some sort.)
Ask him to describe the medical follow up program for former POWs. (All the POWs, whether Air Force,
Navy, Army or Marines have been attending the same joint services medical follow up program at the Naval Operational Medical Institute at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL. If he claims that he is receiving military retirement salary, ask him to show you a copy of his most recent W2 Form for that pay, or bank statements showing a record of the monthly deposits of military retirement pay. If he is medically retired, then a portion of his retirement check is considered tax free on his IRS annual filing (Form 1040). He should be able to show you medical retirement papers, the IRS exclusion statement, Form-1040s, his DD-214, and a ton of other papers verifying regular or disability retirement.
Persons who falsely claim to be former POWs typically try to avoid providing specific details about their claimed captivity by hiding behind claims that they were captured while on a mission that is still classified. The "I can't compromise classified information," ploy is phony. There are no classified missions or details. The war has been over for 27 years. CIA cover stories always fall apart when examined. We are free to talk about any mission or experience that happened. The "fire at St. Louis destroyed my records," ploy is not valid, either. The fire destroyed records of many Korean War veterans and some WW II veterans, but not the records of Vietnam War veterans. Many Phony POW claimants say they have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and they use this as an excuse as to why they can’t remember the details to the questions you are asking. Don’t believe them. It is a common ruse. A real PTSD diagnosis is rare. Ask to see his VA medical record, which documents his claim to PTSD. While you are at it, ask to see his VA medical identity card. POWs have the following statement stamped on the front, directly under the ID photo: "Service Connected POW." This statement applies to all POWS from WW II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts. If it’s not there, he is not considered a POW.
Some phonies have claimed to have been negotiated out of prison by Dr. Henry Kissinger who they claim paid a ransom in gold. Another common feature of false POW stories is a claim to have been freed in a dramatic rescue by US Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Forces, or other elite units. US forces made many heroic rescues of downed airmen and other Americans in desperate situations. They also carried out several operations aimed at rescuing American POWs from suspected prison camps; however, the only rescue operation that freed an American POW from captivity was a July 1969 operation by Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) troops from a Regional Forces unit, a Provincial Reconnaissance Unit, and the Reconnaissance Company of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 5th Regiment. Unfortunately, the freed American, Larry Aiken, died a short time later at Walter Reed Hospital from head injuries a guard inflicted on him before rescuers could reach him. US forces carried out several operations that led to the rescue of the crews and passengers of downed American aircraft who were evading capture. The movie " BAT 21" is based on one such incident. US forces also took part in several operations that led to the rescue of RVNAF prisoners from POW camps. For example, Operation Cranberry Bog in August 1968 led to the rescue of 45 ARVN POWs. In yet another example, a US Navy SEAL, Richard G. Couch, led a successful rescue of 19 ARVN prisoners. In another incident, a helicopter crew rescued Army Sgt. Wm. Taylor on May 6, 1968. A force of armed helicopters attacked a guerrilla camp with machine guns and rockets, unaware that Sgt Taylor was in the camp. Sgt Taylor, who was still recovering from a compound fracture to one leg, a shattered knee, and numerous abrasions and burns he suffered in an air crash on 20 March 1968, received additional wounds from one of the rockets; yet he still managed to take advantage of the confusion during the air attack to crawl out of the camp and into a clearing where he signaled the crew of one of the helicopters. He was rescued with the leg irons of his captors still clamped to his ankles. Sgt Taylor is alive and well today.
There were instances in which American forces accidentally happened upon Americans who were trying to escape from captivity and rescued them. The most famous of these incidents was the rescue of US Army 1st Lieutenant James N. Rowe on 31 December 1968 (see book entitled "Five Years to Freedom," by James N. Rowe, Ballantine Books, paperback edition 1984, available on line from Barnes and Noble). Another well documented rescue occurred Laos July 20, 1966. Lt. Dieter Dengler was able to escape after 5 ½ months in captivity. An Army helicopter crew found him wandering through Laos near death from starvation. His story is told in his book, "Escape From Laos." These are the only two cases we know of.
The only rescue from captivity in North Vietnam was for Lt. Frank Prendergast on March 9, 1967. Two soldiers captured Frank in the surf. When Frank saw a rescue helicopter bearing down on them, he shot one soldier with a survival pistol from his vest, knocked the other guard down in the surf, and ran for the helo, which then picked him up. Because of the short duration of captivity, Frank was never listed as a POW/MIA on government records. He did receive various service awards for bravery.
While there were many heroic rescues of downed airmen and other Americans from difficult situations, there were no other dramatic rescues of Americans from POW camps. A total of 30 military men escaped. Their names are well known and are probably not the name of the man you are challenging.
Also, the following web site contains a list of all 3,755 persons who were listed as prisoners or missing as a result of the Vietnam War. (NOTE: This web site is maintained by a 501-C organization, POW Network.)
firstname.lastname@example.org at their web page, http://www.pownetwork.org
DPMO's web page is at:
Larry.Greer@osd.milor write to: OASD International Security Affairs, Defense POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, 2400 Defense Pentagon, Washington, DC 20301-2400.
The following information about the PMSEA database is provided by DPMO: "The official U.S. government database of all POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War, repeat DOES, contain the names of individuals who served with and for the CIA during the war. It also includes personnel who were held captive for very, very short periods of time. It includes personnel who wore the military uniform, and those who did not. It includes those who worked so-called classified missions, covert missions, and "black missions." It includes missionaries as well as foreign nationals whose cases are related to those of missing Americans. It includes personnel captured or lost in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China. It includes those missing or lost at sea. It includes persons whose loss or capture incidents range from 1952 to 1988. This database was constructed during the war and refined throughout the years from reports by appropriate military or civilian authorities. It has been in existence for more than 30 years, and has been challenged dozens of times for "accuracy." It has never proven to have omitted a name that should be listed. "
Here is an additional statement from Mr. Greer, DPMO: : "The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office is the single U.S. Government agency, by law, charged with worldwide policy control and oversight of the Government's mission to provide the fullest possible accounting of our POWs and MIAs. Given that broad mission, the DPMO is required to maintain accurate databases to aid in that accounting effort. The PMSEA (Personnel Missing SEA) contains the names and other pertinent data on all personnel
(military, civilian, non-governmental) who were, or are, missing in action. It also contains names and pertinent data on those who were POWs during the Vietnam War. The data contained on these databases is provided by the military services, through normal personnel reporting (morning reports, etc) during wartime. DPMO's maintenance of this database includes actions necessary to reflect a change in status, for example, from MIA (or unaccounted-for) to "accounted-for" when remains are recovered and identified. The Department of Veterans Affairs has from time to time sought the assistance of DPMO to verify information regarding VA claims. Sincerely, Larry Greer, Director of Public Affairs, Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office." (Source date: 1 May 2003)
You can obtain a serviceman’s records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), Military Personnel Records (MPR). The NPRC-MPR is the repository of millions of military personnel, health, and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the 20th century. NPRC (MPR) also stores medical treatment records of retirees from all services, as well as records for dependent and other persons treated at Naval medical facilities. Information from the records is made available upon written request (with signature and date) to the extent allowed by law. The NPRC-MPR does not accept e-mail or telephone requests for military personnel records or information from those records. The Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. 552a) and Department of Defense directives require a written request, signed and dated, to access information from military personnel records.
I believe that a full name and Social Security Account Number are sufficient information to locate a former service member's military records; however, it might be helpful to also include the person's correct date of birth if you know it. To obtain a Form 180 to request information on an individual, go to:
You can also obtain useful information and download request forms at the NPRC-MPR's Internet web site at the following URL:
This site contains useful information regarding military personnel, health and medical records stored at NPRC (MPR). It also contains complete instructions for preparing and submitting requests. If you prefer to use regular mail, you can request copies of Veteran Records by writing to:
National Personnel Records Center
Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR)
9700 Page Ave.
St Louis, MO 63132-5100
Ask the NPRC-MPR to send you appropriate forms and instructions for preparing and submitting requests for information fro m a former service member's military records. By the internet, here is how to Obtain Copies of Military Records: You can get a copy of information stored in your (or someone else's) military records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. Here's how: http://usmilitary.about.com/library/weekly/aa052301a.htm
False claims to having been a POW are not uncommon. Here are internet addresses which describe two recently exposed false claims to having been a POW in Southeast Asia. The Cincinnati Enquirer described one such claim (Ref: Donald Nicholson) in an article you can find at:
When you hit the wall, you might consider using outside help from organizations who are equipped to handle personnel investigations. One such group is headed by LtCol Dick Bielen, USA (Ret) at U.S. Locator Service. This Private firm specializes in locating former members of the military as well as obtaining copies of their service records. They will also conduct a background check on a person’s military service and claims. Fees will be charged, but they are reasonable. Contact Dick at: email@example.com or at (314) 423-0860.
* POW returnee (includes all who escaped) lists are available online for Vietnam.
http://www.pownetwork.org/and Defense Dept, DPMO, www.dtic.mil/dpmo
* POW Network has two paper lists for Korean War returnees, none are available on the Internet.
* Only WWII Navy and Marines casualties are on the Internet. There is NO KNOWN site for WWII Army, Army Air Force, Air Corps.
* NAM POWS (org of Vietnam returnees): NAM-POW Historian (ex-POW), Mike McGrath
* Korean War ex-POWs: Lloyd Pate (Ex-POW), Korean War ex-POWs
and American Ex-POWs, Clydie J Morgan
* ALL Medal of Honor can be found at 100's of sites on the internet. Great site is:
* The ONLY lists of Purple Heart on the internet are "self submit" sites and they do NOT verify eligibility. Purple Heart Society tells you "how to" file for military records. The ONLY place we know to verify PH is the records center. There were MILLIONS - with no public list.
* Pearl Harbor survivors - no clue as to lists.
Hopefully the foregoing information will prove useful. It is probably only useful in regard to solidifying in your mind that your man was never a real POW in the Vietnam War, not even for a day. None of the Phony POWs will be able to prove a single specific point detailed above. Wishy-washy obfuscation should not confuse you. In fact, it should convince you that your man is leading you on a wild goose chase. Lastly, be aware that con artists often use the "POW Sob Story" as a means to win your confidence and trust. When the con artist is gone (with your money), you’ll be asking yourself how you could have been so naive. Lots of phony POWs also con unsuspecting women of their " love." They make hits on women as they try to impress them with their tales of honor, bravery, capture, torture and escapes. Some have even married unsuspecting women while still clinging to the POW sob story. Don’t be conned by a phony POW claimant. Cut your losses now. Dump him. Report him to the police if he has perpetrated a fraud. When you get frustrated trying to prove the improvable about an acquaintance who’s story is suspect, contact us at
THE BOTTOM LINE: You can skip all the qualification stuff above and get right to the truth. If a person claims to have been a Vietnam era POW (SEA), and his name is not in the DOD PMSEA reference document, he is a liar and a "Phony POW." He doesn’t warrant your trust or friendship. Dump him! (Authentic POWs/MIAs -- all 3,792 of them -- are listed by Department of Defense on the internet at: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/pmsea/files.htm)