Since 1973, the remains of more than 900 Americans killed in the Vietnam War have been identified and returned to their families for burial with full military honors.
For more than a decade the United States has conducted joint field activities with the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to recover the remains of missing Americans. Throughout those countries, teams continue to investigate crash and burial sites, as well as interview locals to gain additional knowledge. The United States also continues to obtain access to historical wartime records and archives that provide information relevant to the fates of missing Americans.
Today, more than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for from the conflict.
Immediately after the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, Operation Homecoming returned 591 prisoners of war who had been captured in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (two POWs from Vietnam and a Cold War POW were released from China). Some families and government officials expected a greater number of returnees, which gave rise to the urgency of the accounting mission. Although Article Eight of the Accord called for mutual assistance among the parties in accounting for the missing, immediate postwar hostilities limited access to many sites. In 1973, the United States listed 2,646 Americans as unaccounted for from the war, with roughly equal numbers of those missing in action, or killed in action/body not recovered.
From February 1973 to March 1975, teams from the United States and the Republic of Vietnam conducted joint, but restricted, searches for Americans missing in South Vietnam. These met with limited success, recovering and identifying 63 servicemen, 23 of whom had died in captivity in North Vietnam, and five of whom had been killed in Laos. On Dec. 15, 1973, U.S. Army Capt. Richard M. Rees was killed by guerrilla fighters, which caused restrictions of the ongoing recovery work. On April 30, 1975, searches ended completely when the Communists took over Vietnam.
In the 1980s the United States resumed its recovery efforts with high-level policy and technical meetings. Then in August 1987, President Ronald Reagan dispatched Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr. as a Special Presidential Emissary on POW issues, to find ways to resolve the issue. As a result of the Vessey meetings, the Vietnamese permitted American teams to search throughout the country, starting in September 1988. Parallel arrangements were reached in Laos and Cambodia around the same time, and occasional targeted investigations were done in China. Continuous joint searches began in April 1988 in Laos, and in October 1991 in Cambodia.
In February 1992, the United States organized its accounting efforts into the large-scale field operations which continue today. Teams work during several periods each year in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, alongside their foreign counterparts. They have interviewed thousands of witnesses and conducted archival research in multiple countries regarding the fate of missing Americans, resulting in the continuous location of crash and burial sites across the region. Archeologists and anthropologists use meticulous site exploitation to find remains and material evidence, followed by a forensic process that leads to an identification of missing service members.