Searching for clues of American prisoners of war (POWs) and soldiers missing in actions (MIAs) in Laos is not only arduous but dangerous. Robert W. Schwab III knows first hand.
But accompanied by some 50 members of the Laotian resistance, Schwab, as a private citizen, recently managed to reach a known crash site of an American military plane downed in Laos during the Vietnam conflict. Villagers there knew exactly where the crew had been buried and some of the resistance members knew of another crash site.
The result: remains of possibly eight Americans were turned over to the US embassy in Bangkok in July and August.
Schwab's secret treks with the resistance forces in Laos have provided one of the few penetrations of a bamboo curtain of silence surrounding the fate of the 2,500 Americans listed as Prisoner of War or Missing In Action at the end of the US involvement in Vietnam.
This was the fifth time since 1978 he has entered Laos with various resistance units. He was financed for a while by the National League of families of POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia. But on his most recent trip he ran out of funds.Some Laotians living outside of Laos pitched in to pay for rice and supplies for the mission. He declines to be specific about how he made contact with the Laotian unit that led him to the crash site.
The unit was made up mostly of guerrilla fighters about 18 to 25 years of age. All the officers, formerly with the Laotian Army, were over 30. Their main food, sticky rice eaten in a ball with fish sauce and ground-up red peppers , was given to them along the way by sympathizers of the resistance.
About half the trip to the crash site was at night; all of it on foot. It was the rainy season.
The group wrapped their light loads into plastic ponchos and swam across the muddy, still waters with them. Crossing rice paddies, "your legs are being sucked in at every step . . . mud is half way up to your knees."
Several times the group passed through villages in daylight. "They [ villagers] couldn't believe an American was there." He wore no disguise, only a hat. At 5 foot 7 seven and thin, Schwab blends in fairly easily with the Laotians.
In a tense moment, his group found itself in a populated area with two government patrols nearby. There may have been a shootout, but a government soldier friendly to the resistance led them by both government patrols.
After finally reaching the crash site, Schwab did not accompany villagers to the nearby burial site for fear it would be too obvious to any informant why he was there. The remains of what were said to be four Americans were brought to him at another location before he left the country.
Why did he risk his life in such ventures? Schwab answers: "Historical interest, sympathy for families who lost people . . . and a craving for excitement and adventure."