Stories of POW/MIA 'distress symbols' unsupported by facts...Gen. Wold
This responds to an Aug. 5 News With a View story about the prisoner of war/missing in action (POW /MIA) issue. It was based on an interview with MIA advocate Bob Thompson.

I am concerned with charges made by Thompson regarding alleged pilot distress symbols associated with American servicemen unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. These symbols have been thoroughly investigated by top government imagery experts as well as members of the Senate who conducted an independent investigation. In no instance did investigators find evidence that the symbols were, in fact, pilot distress symbols or that they were rendered by unaccounted-for Americans.

Concerning the alleged "GX2527" symbol associated with Air Force Maj. Peter R. Matthes, evidence indicates there never was such a symbol on the ground in Vietnam nor is there a correlation between the symbol and Matthes' fate. The combination of letters and numbers in the so-called "GX2527" symbol is not a valid evader symbol.

In autumn 1993, a joint U.S.-Laos investigation team excavated the crash site associated with Matthes' 1969 loss incident in southern Laos. Besides aircraft wreckage and personal effects, the investigation team recovered 649 bone fragments, including five teeth, which are at present undergoing identification analyses by the Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI).

With regard to the purported "SEREX" symbol associated with Air Force Lt. Col. Henry M. Serex, no member of the Defense Department has ever observed the word "SEREX" on any satellite imagery or photography maintained by the U.S. government. Moreover, the symbol "72 TA 88" has no correlation to any Americans missing in Southeast Asia. To our knowledge, the letters "TA" were never used as an official evasion and escape or distress symbol during the war in Southeast Asia.

In September 1993, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese field team investigated the 1972 crash of Serex's aircraft in South Vietnam. Investigators produced one witness who provided wreckage associated with an American aircraft; however, they were unable to positively correlate this material to Serex's plane. Although his case is pending until further leads develop, it should be noted that the single crewman who survived the crash - there were five on board - reported that a surface- to-air missile hit the center of the aircraft where Serex served as the electronic warfare officer. At no time after the survivor's ejection or during the 12 days he was on the ground evading capture did he have any visual or radio contact with the other crew members. Additionally, pilots of two other aircraft observed the explosion of Serex's plane; one watched it impact the ground in four pieces. Neither pilot observed other parachutes and heard only the beeper belonging to the surviving crewman.

Regarding symbols possibly related to the loss of Air Force Col. Blair C. Wrye, a Defense Department analytic team concluded these were not intentionally prepared manmade markings. More importantly, Wrye is not unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. On Sept. 13, 1990, his were among 20 remains returned by the Vietnamese and subsequently positively identified by CILHI.

The "USA" and "KO" symbols referred to in the Star Tribune article were created by two Lao village youths who shaped the letters out of rice straw they set ablaze. The brothers copied the letters from the return address on an envelope received from relatives in the United States. In the vicinity of the "USA" letters, one of the youths also made a plane and a dragon's head in the same manner he and his brother created the "USA" symbol. Defense Department analysts believe the airplane explains the so-called "Walking4 K" symbol.

Regrettably, public perceptions about controversial aspects of the POW/MIA issue such as the alleged pilot distress symbols and Robert Garwood, the former Marine mentioned by Thompson in the Star Tribune story, are often based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

In the interest of truth, the public needs to be aware that virtually all POW/MIA information from the Vietnam era has been declassified and released to the Library of Congress. This material is available to the public upon request.
James W. Wold, Washington, D.C. Assistant Secretary of defense (POW/MIA).