In the dense jungle terrain in Darlac Province, near the provincial capital of Ban Me Thuot, South Vietnam, American doctor Eleanor Ardel Vietti had found her calling to heal.
Yet that same calling led her to became America’s first female prisoner of war in Vietnam. To this day, Vietti remains the only American woman POW whose fate remains unknown.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 1,244 Americans are still unaccounted for in Vietnam. Fifty-nine civilian women were killed during the war.
Called to service, Vietti, alongside the Christian and Missionary Alliance and tribal nurses, worked to treat those afflicted with leprosy within South Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority, the Montagnards — a French phrase for “mountain people.”
Within Montagnards communities the rates of the disease could reach a staggering 30 percent, among the highest in the world.
However, amid escalating tensions between guerrilla factions under Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnamese forces and their foreign advisors, the U.S. State Department cautioned all American expats to leave the country.
Targeted attacks against the Montagnards were also on the rise, but despite that and government warnings, Vietti and four other missionaries – Dan Gerber, a member of the Central Mennonite Committee, and Rev. Archie and Betty Mitchell — believed they were in no inherent danger and continued their work within the Leprosarium compound.
The night of May 20, 1962, was one of the last nights that Vietti and the two men were ever seen alive.
That even 12 armed guerilla fighters descended on the colony, tying up Archie Mitchell and Dan Gerber, and ordered Vietti out of her house. Vietti and the other two captives were bound and taken away by the guerrillas, and it remains unclear why the three prisoners were taken. No ransom demands were ever made.
Mitchell, incidentally, was the lone survivor of the 1945 Japanese fire-bombing attack off the coast of Oregon that killed his first wife, Eloise, and five neighborhood children. The Japanese raid was the only successful enemy attack on mainland America during World War II.
It seems likely that the Viet Cong raid was aimed at obtaining hospital supplies, with Rev. T. Grady Mangham, director of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, telling the New York Times in 1962 that, “I rather think they were in need of medical supplies.”
Since that evening Vietti’s status remains “Unaccounted For,” with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency concluding, “The three missionaries were forced to march south, and were eventually executed while in Viet Cong custody. The exact locations and circumstances surrounding their deaths are unknown.”
Rumors remain about their status, with jungle tribesmen through the years claiming that they spotted a white woman with two white men. These assertions have never been substantiated, however.
Since 1994, the official position within the U.S. government has been that no American captured during the war remains alive.