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The Joint Personnel Recovery Center conducted a host of daring missions to locate and rescue American POWs.

By Colonel Stuart A. Herrington, U.S. Army

Of all the lingering issues left by our ill-fated attempt to defeat the Vietnamese Communists, no single subject is more painful, more controversial, more emotional or more frustrating than the POW/MIA question. I have twice served in military units devoted to accounting for our POW/MIA personnel, and in both cases the duty was stressful, plagued by marginal success and characterized by bureaucratic head-butting. Thus, when George Veith’s book Code Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War (The Free Press, New York, 1998, $25) crossed my desk with a request for a review, my initial inclination was to seek a place to hide.

Then I recalled the family members with whom we military men had dealt over the years, how much they counted on us to assist them in their quests, and how grateful they were if we merely treated them with respect. There was no way around it; I would have to give the Veith book some time, even if it meant rekindling my personal frustrations with the war’s saddest legacy.

Veith has attempted to draw back the cloak of secrecy that has enveloped the many unheralded attempts to locate American POWs and rescue them from their Communist captors. To most Americans, the unsuccessful 1970 raid of the vacant Son Tay camp in North Vietnam is the only known episode in which our forces moved positively to rescue POWs. In fact, Veith’s work reveals a host of daring operations conducted as the U.S. military attempted to keep faith with missing comrades.

Veith’s book is primarily the story of an unheralded unit known as the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC). Veith reconstructs the supersecret JPRC’s efforts, using declassified documents and interviews with its members, and readers learn much of what went on behind the scenes as dedicated American military personnel tried in vain to locate and liberate missing comrades. It is a story that needs to be told.

As Veith learned, you simply cannot revisit the POW/MIA legacy without being sucked into a history of the U.S. government’s intelligence programs, interagency and bureaucratic rivalries, amateurism, failed rescue attempts and ineptitude. Veith parades case after case of missing personnel, intelligence tips, bureaucratic delays and failed operations, all of which make fascinating reading, and most of which are sure to generate a mixture of admiration, anger and bewilderment among his readers.

It is here that the book displays its major flaw–one that was perhaps inevitable by virtue of the daunting task that the subject matter involves. Any researcher tackling the POW/MIA issue is confronted with a mountain of declassified information–CIA reports, analysts’ observations, SIGINT (signal intelligence) summaries, recollections of the key participants and operational reports. Putting all that together in a form that is readable and methodologically sound is all but a mission impossible. Veith’s solution seems to be to err on the side of completeness, with extensive (more than 740) footnotes. Much of the information that has found its way into print is probably deeply flawed, but the fact that it is now in print will make it ample grist for the mill of POW/MIA conspiracy kooks–of whom, sadly, there are many.

Veith has done a service to readers and future researchers who may wish to further explore such hot-button topics as the “black hole” of Laos, where hundreds of U.S. aviators crashed, almost all of whom were never heard of again. His source materials and notes will surely be plumbed by others, although a word of caution is in order. Of necessity, Veith has made extensive use of agent reports–CIA or other. Human intelligence reporting was the most unreliable source of information during the war. Readers unfamiliar with the realities of intelligence collection are at risk of attaching undue credibility to such reports, which were all too often exaggerated, fabricated or otherwise tainted. Southeast Asia was not fertile ground for this type of intelligence, largely because of the linguistic and cultural challenges faced by our intelligence personnel.

By taking on this elusive subject and providing a wealth of new detail on our attempts to keep faith with missing comrades, Veith has produced an important contribution.