Finding Aids: Reference Information Paper 90 Part I

Reference Information Paper 90

A Finding Aid to Records Relating to American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from the Vietnam War Era, 1960-1994

Table of Contents


I.1 Since the Vietnam conflict began, there has been continuous interest in information about those persons believed to be prisoners of war or missing in action. This interest in information has led to a series of post-conflict investigations of the possibility that Americans might still be held in southeast Asia, and to consideration of Government policies regarding the tracking, reporting, recovery, and handling of American prisoners of war (POWs) and missing in action (MIAs). The investigations generated some new data - primarily testimony before congressional investigating committees - and resulted in the early declassification and release of a large body of documentation on POW/MIA affairs.

I.2 Three relatively recent Government actions have led to increased accessibility of Vietnam-era POW/MIA documentation. In 1991 the McCain Bill was enacted, requiring the Department of Defense to disclose any record, live-sighting report, or other information in its custody that related to the location, treatment, or condition of any Vietnam-era POW/MIA. The bill also required that the information be placed in a "library-like" facility.

I.3 During the same year the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs was created to address unanswered questions. The committee determined that, "Nothing has done more to fuel suspicion about the Government's handling of the POW/MIA issue than the fact that so many documents related to those efforts have remained classified for so long." The select committee's work involved: 1) obtaining information from relevant witnesses through depositions and testimony at hearings; and, 2) requiring Government agencies to provide the committee with copies of all documents related to the POW/MIA issue. The committee released the collected documents and testimony to the public immediately after it went out of existence in January 1993.

I.4 On July 22, 1992, President Bush signed Executive Order 12812, which expedited the declassification and release of POW/MIA documents. The order broadened the mandate of the McCain Bill to include all Executive branch documents, files, and other materials pertaining to POWs and MIAs lost in Southeast Asia. After his election President Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive NSC-8 that further strengthened the mandate to declassify this documentation and required the task to be completed by November 11, 1993.

I.5 The records declassified under these actions are available to the public in three collections. The papers of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs are available at the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. The records declassified under the McCain Bill and E.O. 12812 are available to the public on two microfilm publications prepared by the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress also has created an automated data base that can facilitate certain types of research in these records. (See section VIII of this paper for a detailed discussion of these collections).

I.6 Supplementing these important collections are records held by the National Archives and other institutions that relate in various ways to POWs and MIAs. This reference information paper provides an overview of the very complex array of documentation both restricted and open that exists in various formats in many institutions. The paper does not describe Vietnam-related records held by Presidential libraries. The holdings of Presidential libraries relating to POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam era will be the subject of a separate reference information paper.

I.7 Several additional points should be noted concerning the coverage of this paper. First, the paper does not describe all the records concerning the Vietnam War; it only describes those records that relate to the POW/MIA issue. Second, some of the records described here are very young in archival terms; the bulk of them range in age from 2 years old to 35 years old. The McCain Bill, Executive Order 12812, and the Senate Select Committee expedited the opening of these records to the public and caused the creation of several collections of sanitized POW/MIA records. The unredacted originals of the records in these sanitized collections are retained in separate series, and this paper attempts to make clear the relationships between such groups of documents. Third, because the records are so recent and archivists are still receiving and processing some of the material, it is likely that some of the descriptions, especially the appendices in this paper, will become outdated as new records are processed.

I.8 Researchers approach the subject of POWs and MIAs from many perspectives. They may be searching for information about friends or relatives; tracing POW/MIA policies and procedures in the executive agencies; examining high level American foreign policy in the light of POW/MIA issues; determining what type of search and rescue efforts were conducted; compiling statistical studies; or searching for personal accounts of captivity. In order to satisfy this variety of research interests, it has been necessary to describe a broad range of documentation on the subject.

I.9 The records discussed here can be divided into three groups according to the type and concentration of POW/MIA-related material in them:

    1) Records that pertain directly to POW/MIA affairs, such as casualty files, live sighting reports, the records of the Army Prisoner of War/Civilian Internee Information Center, and the records collected by the Department of Defense POW/MIA Office.

    2) Records that explain the context in which the POWs or MIAs were lost, and the efforts made to recover them. After action reports, casualty files, military awards case files, and unit histories may provide documentation of events surrounding the loss. Records that document efforts to recover POWs or MIAs include information about the policies and procedures regarding escape and evasion techniques and search and rescue operations; logs of search and rescue operations; and the records of high-level negotiations that affected the treatment and exchange of prisoners of war, such as the State Department records from the Paris Peace Negotiations.

    3) Records that may contain information relating to POWs and MIAs such as aerial photographs, captured North Vietnamese documents, Rand reports, and a wide variety of intelligence reports. Although these records may contain information on POW/MIA cases, the time and resources required to search for this information likely exceeds the capacity of most researchers.

I.10 Some records relating to enemy POWs and detainees held by American and Republic of South Vietnam forces are described in this paper along with those concerning Americans and South Vietnamese held by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. These two categories of records are mixed in numerous series, and the distinction between them is often blurred in records descriptions.

I.11 Section II of this paper describes textual records in the National Archives related to POWs and MIAs. The section covers records of military and civilian agencies and congressional committees, as well as records captured and otherwise acquired from Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sources. Electronic records, photographs, motion pictures and sound recordings, and cartographic records transferred to the National Archives from Executive branch or congressional sources are described in sections III, IV, V, and VI, respectively. The records described in these five sections are arranged in numbered record groups, where each record group (RG) covers the records of a major Government unit, such as an agency or a bureau. The paper describes the series of records in each record group that contain information related to Vietnam era POWs and MIAs, citing these series with the date span they cover in bold typeface and giving in parentheses an indication of their extent; for example: command histories, 1964-73 (4 ft.). In most cases the descriptions do not go below the series level to indicate which boxes or parts of the series contain relevant material. The table following this introduction identifies sources of additional information about the records described in sections II through VI.

I.12 Section VII describes military personnel records housed at the National Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO, a facility managed by the National Archives and Records Administration.

I.13 Section VIII describes the records that were opened under the McCain Bill and Executive Order 12812. The records discussed in this section were declassified by the Department Of Defense and microfilmed by the Library of Congress. This is the largest and most inclusive collection of POW/MIA material, and the one most accessible to many researchers because rolls of film may be ordered through inter-library loan. The major problem a researcher must overcome is one of locating specific documents on the more than 500 film rolls. Section VIII provides instructions for accessing the film, and describes the finding aids that facilitate research in it.

I.14 Numerous appendices provide details about the records and establish relationships among them. Some appendices illustrate the organizational structures of military forces in Vietnam to assist researchers in sorting through the web of documenta- tion. Others give series titles for the records preserved for various units. Where significant finding aids exist for records series they are mentioned in the descriptive sections, and in some cases printed in accompanying appendices. A complete preliminary inventory for the records of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs is published here for the first time.

I.15 Research in the complex array of documentation on the subject of POWs and MIAs is difficult for even the most experienced professional researcher. It is complicated by several circumstances: the records are relatively recent and many of them are protected by privacy or national security classification; the records reflect the complex relationships between the military and civilian organizational units that collected documentation on POWs and MIAs; and the records have not been collected in one place. In addition, some of the documentation has been lost and some has not yet been located.

I.16 The difficulties inherent in conducting research on this topic are well characterized by the authors of the final report of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. They say:

    Today, after more than a year of diligent searching, certain key groups of documents cannot yet be located. The Committee also learned that many of the individual service files have either been lost or destroyed.

    For example, the U.S. Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (DCINT) has been unable to locate any of his agency's archival POW/MIA intelligence staff records from the Vietnam war era. This includes internal intelligence reports, memoranda, planning documents and similar records documenting what the Army knew or suspected about personnel captured or missing in Southeast Asia. It remains unknown whether the records were destroyed or simply misplaced.

    In another example, the U.S. Marine Corps initially reported to the Committee that it had transferred all of its documents to the Defense Intelligence Agency 11 years ago. When this turned out to be incorrect, the Corps reported that it had shipped the documents to the National Archives in 1990 for secure storage. The documents were turned over to DIA's Central Documentation Office in October 1992 for declassification.

    The U.S. Navy provided a small collection of assorted documents in response to the Committee's request, but advised that nothing further could be located. After repeated prodding from the Committee, the Navy reported that all remaining POW/MIA records had been destroyed in about 1975. Committee investigators then uncovered extensive Navy records at the Naval Historical Center which had been transferred there in 1973, including most of the major files of the Chief of Naval Operations Special Assistant for POW/MIA Affairs. There are indications that certain sensitive Naval intelligence files were shipped to DIA in 1981, while others appear to have been destroyed in 1975 or 1981.

    The U.S. Air Force provided no response to the Committee's original request for records. Finally, in September 1992, the Committee was provided a printout of a small portion of the archives of the Joint Services SERE (Search, Evasion, Rescue, Escape) Agency (JSSA) in Ft. Belvoir, VA. A Committee staff survey of a small portion of the JSSA files uncovered wartime Air Force Intelligence staff files. It appears that the wartime air intelligence files were transferred to JSSA in 1974, put on microfiche (where they have become largely illegible when printed out) and the original documents destroyed. Documents recovered from partially readable JSSA archives have filled in important gaps in understanding joint service activities, particularly after Operation Homecoming.

    The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) located in permanent storage its collection of POW/MIA related memoranda. These documents have been made available to the Committee through the Central Documentation Office (CDO). The Committee also located a monumental study of the history of covert operations in Southeast Asia, the MACVSOG Document Study, together with other appropriate special operations annual histories. At publication time, these documents had been declassified or soon would be.

    Sources indicate that there were some intelligence reports on POW/MIAs collected through MACVSOG during the war, especially in Laos. Unfortunately, the Committee was not able to locate these reports.

    The Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTF-FA) has yet to provide the wartime permanent records of the principal organization responsible for monitoring the POW/MIA problem on the ground in Southeast Asia, the special operations related Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC). JPRC was transformed into the Joint Casualty Resolution Center in January 1973; the committee has requested, but at publication time yet to receive, an index of its archival files. The Pacific Command has reported it has no documents, even though it was one of the most major command players throughout the Vietnam war.

    Finally, the committee was hindered in judging the accuracy of servicemen accounted for and not accounted for during the war by the fact that Search and Rescue (SAR) reports had been destroyed following the war....

    The archival POW/MIA intelligence files from the Department of State are also undergoing declassification. However, the Committee has been advised informally by the Department that these files are poorly organized and never have been indexed.1

I.17 The paragraphs quoted above illustrate, in part, the scope of documentation that exists, and the problems encountered even by congressionally mandated researchers. Some of the problems noted above have been corrected during the year since the committee's report was written, but Vietnam-era POW/MIA research is still a complex and demanding procedure.

I.18 It would have been impossible to compile this guide without the assistance of the archivists, librarians, historians, and military officers who, as the custodians of the records, are the experts upon whom all researchers must rely. I would like, in particular, to thank the following employees of the National Archives and Records Administration: Rich Boylan, Charles Shaughnessy, and Cliff Snyder, all of whom work with textual military records; Anne McMahon, who wrote the section on electronic records (Section III); Dale Connelly of the Still Picture Branch; Les Waffen and Charles DeArman of the Motion Picture, Sound & Video Branch; Bob Richardson of the Cartographic and Architectural Branch; and Eric Voelz of the National Personnel Records Center. I would also like to thank Dennis McNew and David Osborne from the Library of Congress, and Lt. Col. Brown, Lt. Col. Matthews, and Mr. Sprague from the Defense POW/MIA Office, for their invaluable assistance in compiling information and reviewing parts of the text.

Charles E. Schamel
Washington, DC
October 1994

Sources of Additional Information About Records Described in this Paper

Records in the National Archives Source of Additional Information
[Contact information updated as of February 1999]

Parts IIA and IIB:
Textual Records of Military and
Civilian Organizations

Textual Archives Services Division
National Archives and Records
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
Telephone: 301-837-3510
Email: Contact NARA
Part IIC:
Textual Records of Congressional Investigations of POW/MIA Affairs
Center for Legislative Archives
National Archives and Records
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408
Telephone: 202-357-5350
Part III:
Electronic Records
Center for Electronic Records
National Archives and Records
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
Telephone: 301-837-0470
Part IV:

Special Media Archives Services Division, Still Picture Unit
National Archives and Records
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
Telephone: 301-837-0561
Part V:
Motion Pictures, Sound Recordings, and Video Recordings
Special Media Archives Services Division, Motion Picture, Sound & Video Unit
National Archives and Records
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
Telephone: 301-837-0526
Part VI:
Maps and Aerial Photographs
Special Media Archives Services Division, Cartographic and Architectural Unit
National Archives and Records
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
Telephone: 301-837-3200


1. Senate Report 103-1, Final Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, pp. 129-131.

Note: Compiled by Charles E. Schamel. Published by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, 1996.

Web version prepared 1999. Additions and changes incorporated in the Web version are between brackets [] and in italics.