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Code Name Bright Light
The Untold Story of
U.S. POW Rescue Efforts
by George J. Veith
The Free Press
A Division of Simon & Shuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Copyright © 1998 by George J. Veith/ All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in=Publication
The image and quotations from the book reprinted with permission
J. Veith contacted me prior to the printing of this book and asked me if I would review the book. I had previously heard him discuss the book at the annual forum of the National Alliance of Families and I was prepared not to like this book. I was prepared to be very critical of this book. I was not prepared for it to change my thinking the way that it has.
First of all I owe Heinie Aderholt an apology. In the years of my own involvement in this issue, I believed that Aderholt was inept and easily fooled. Both of which is the furthest thing from the truth. The truth is that Aderholt tried and he was zealous in his attempts at rescuing American Prisoners of War as well as in his post war position on the POW issue.
When we think of rescue attempts, we think of the raid at Son Tay where US Forces entered a Prisoner of War camp to find it empty. What we didn't know until now is that there were many such attempts to rescue American Prisoners during the Vietnam War. Because these attempts were classified until recently and then buried in the National Archives.
Veith unearthed the information contained in his book through researching the National Archives and by interviewing members of various rescue missions. He has put together a presentation of decalssified NSA intercepts, wartime interrogation reports and NSA intercepts that show that the US military did whatever it could to identify, locate and even rescue American Prisoners of War.
He begins his book with a search conducted by Aderholt who was with the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, (JPRC), a highly classified unit in South Vietnam, responsible for rescuing American POWs.
He takes us through MACV-SOG, the JPRC and Search and Rescue and the roles that each played in the many rescue attempts that actually freed hundreds of South Vietnamese military, but failed-not for lack of trying-in rescuing Americans.
The book discloses the fact that there was a communication system set up between Americans held in captivity and the military which provided intelligence on the identities of Americans in captivity as well as the locations, which the North Vietnamese had vowed would never happen. This explains why many in a position to do something about the POW/MIA issue at the onset did nothing; because through the communication system they thought that all the POWs that were returned were the ones that survived their brutal captivity.
If there is a villian in this book, then it is the political system. It is two US Ambassadors to Laos who stonewalled permission to mount rescue missions in an effort to keep the "Secret War in Laos" a secret. Military operations in Laos had to be cleared by civilian authorities because officially there were no military operations going on in Laos. And they actually believed that as long as they denied this fact, it would not be found out.
William Sullivan was the Ambassador to Laos until June, 1969. Sullivan's stance of stonewalling permission to conduct Search and Rescue attempts in Laos was legendary. Sullivan regarded Laos as his own personal turf.
On January 14, 1968, an electronic surveillance plane was shot down over North Vietnam close to the Laotian border. Several crewmembers had ejected and SAR had requested JPRC permission to cross the border into North Vietnam. In order to reach the crash site, the helicopters would have to use the Lima Site airstrips in Laos. This required prior permission from the Ambassador.
LtCol. Horace J. Reisner, the JPRC commander, tried to reach Sullivan to obtain permission but the secure phone was not working and so Reisner ordered SAR in under his [Reisner's] authority. Over the next several days Jolly Greens flown by SAR pilots were able to recover some of the crewmembers, but it was soon realized that any hope of effecting the rescue of the remaining crewmembers would require sending in a Bright Light Team.
An attempt was made to insert a Bright Light Team but a suitable landing zone could not be found and, running low on fuel, the SAR commander called off the mission. On January 22 a strong beeper signal was received and a SAR helicopter was vectored back into the area. The helicopter was hit several times by enemy fire and it became apparent that the beeper was being used to lure SAR into a trap. Luckily, the remaining crewmembers were returned to US Control during Operation Homecoming.
But Sullivan was enraged that an "unauthorized rescue" had been effected.
From the book: "Reisner remembers that Sullivan was furious at his decision to send in SAR forces without his [Sullivan's] approval. 'I received several nasty messages from Sullivan over treading on his turf. Even today I can recall almost the exact wording of one message. 'I don't work for MACV, CINCPAC, or the JCS, I work for the President and I want all of you to remember that.'
"The incident sparked the creation of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the JPRC and the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane for the insertion of Bright Light teams."
Sullivan did not appear to be concerned over the growing losses of American personnel in Laos. He was consumed with perpetuating the facade that America was not involved in laos and that facade was costing American lives due to Sullivan's indecision over allowing Bright Light teams into Laos for the purpose of rescuing Americans who supposedly were not there! This indecision, stonewalling or delay was felt at the highest levels of those tasked with prosecuting the war.
General Westmoreland had even noted his own dismay over Sullivan's lack of cooperation respective to search and rescue operations inside Laos.
From the book: " Westmoreland was outraged at Sullivan's dithering. He [Westmoreland] sent a cable to Vientiane expressing dismay at the lenght of time needed to authorize the JPRC Bright Light team. Sullivan, trying to justify his actions, smoothly wrote back that 'I am puzzled by your statement that there was 'misunderstanding' concerning proposed Bright Light rescue effort....All information which we received here concerneing Navy crash indicated that seven crew members bailed out and that two remaining (both wounded) were trapped in forward compartment....I have received distinct impression that chances of their having successfully bailed out were very slim. While it is true that SAR personnel reported seeing somebody on the ground near the crash site, there was never any confirmation that this person was a crew member....Nevertheless, because of that sighting and the slim chance that it could have been a crew member, I authorized the Bright Light mission.
"'The authorization was delayed because of confusion resulting from MAC-SOG failure to follow procedures prescrived in JPRC Memorandum of Agreement... In my view, the mission might have been able to move into crashsite on same day if proper coordination procedure had been followed....From a policial point of view...SAR rescue forces are USAF personnel....th which RLG has given its consent. JPRC forces are Vietnamese Special Forces teams whose introduction into Laos is always a matter of utmost political senstivity...because of fact that there exists no rpt no understanding with RLG that they can be used in Laos. Hence: it is categorically not possible to permit them carte blanche to oerate in Laos where a crash occurs.'
"Westmoreland fired back, 'I regret to say that we may have missed the opportunity to pick up a survivor through procedure problems, in spite of our exchange of messages...voice, radio and visual contact established with an eighth man. Eighth man was able to fire flare on command and vector overhead by radio, when contact was lost because of hoist problems, impending darkness, and possibly broken radio. JSARC and 7th AF authorities believed excellent chance of recovery with a ground team working closely with SAR Forces.'"
This exchange only deepens my belief that when diplomacy fails and our civilian authorities call upon the US Military to intervene, then those same civilian authorities should be prohibited from interfering with military operations.
Here was General Westmoreland, the man responsible for the prosecution of the war effort, taking time from that effort to exchange several messages expressing his dissatisfaction to the Ambassador of Laos. It is clear that Westmoreland was feeling the frustration. If General Westmoreland felt the frustration what do you suppose the JPRC felt?
These exerpts are just a measure of what you will find in Code Name Bright Light. Veith details escapes like that of Nick Rowe and Ike Camacho. He takes us through the early releases and the information that came with those releases. He shows the role that the Anti-War movement played in several of these early releases. Most of all, Veith clearly shows that the US military did everything that it could possibly do, during the war, to effect the rescue of American Prisoners of War.
Veith's book gives you an understanding of how the military thought that all those returned during Operation Homecoming were the only survivors of captivity from the war. It can be argued that they should have relied on the intelligence respective to Cambodia and especially Laos, but because of the highly classified communication system in place between US PWs and the US Military, it is understandable how the military could have thought they were all home or dead.
This does not clear the indictment of those tasked with the responsibility for attaining the fullest possible accounting of those left behind. When it became clear that we did leave men behind, the military should have taken every measure to secure the liberty of those left behind. They took the road of apathy instead and disclaimed any possibility that there were more survivors.
Code Name Bright Light is the beginning of a tale of the politicalization of the POW/MIA issue that has grown to a full blown coverup today. It is well written and keeps your interest. It is the opinion of the PoW/MIA Forum that this important work should be on the "must read" list of every family member-activist that is working toward resolving this issue.
I began this review by advising you that I was prepared not to like this book, and I don't. I don't like finding out that US policy so consumed an Ambassador of the United States of America that it lead to the abandonment of American soldiers whose only transgression, if you will, was to answer the call to duty to defend their nation, by defending democracy. The priority of any Ambassador of the United States of America should be to protect the citizens of the United States first.
When diplomacy fails and military intervention is called for, then the diplomats should allow the military to prosecute that intervention to the fullest ability of the military without tying its hands. That is a lesson learned from that damned war and aptly portrayed in Code Name Bright Light.
This book is available at Amazon.com and we urge you to get your copy today!
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