Trying to decipher a Vietnam mystery: were some American airmen left behind?

Trying to decipher a Vietnam mystery: were some American airmen left behind?

Peter Cary

This week, the family of a Vietnam War flier with the unusual name of Henry Muir Serex will arrive in Washington, D.C., to view an unusual photograph. The photo, taken by an American satellite, shows a prison camp located near Haiphong, Vietnam. Some who have viewed this photograph see, in a field just outside the prison, the following sequence of letters and numbers: 72 TA 88. The numbers and letters are big. Just above the numbers and letters is a word, seemingly etched into the earth. The word, in capital letters, is SEREX. The photo was taken in June 1992.

Was Lieutenant Colonel Serex alive just 19 months ago? The very notion is heart wrenching. “If he’s there,” says Kathryn Serex, “and the government does nothing to get him out, it would be absolute torture.” Kathryn Serex was 10 when her father was shot down in April 1972.

But not everyone agrees that these numbers and letters are there. Officials in the Pentagon’s POW/MIA office say that such apparent “ground signals” are photographic anomalies, or markings that are not man-made.

Many symbols. Members of the Serex family want to see for themselves. Pentagon officials will allow Henry Serex’s former wife, Barbara, and his daughters, Jennifer and Kathryn, to view all the pertinent, still-secret imagery. The Pentagon’s official position: The letters and numbers disappear when the original imagery–that which was broadcast from the satellite–is examined. The Serexes have insisted that they be accompanied by their own experts and by Sen. Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican who has seen the photo and says the SEREX “is very clear.”

Even if the SEREX photo turns out to be unconvincing, however, questions raised by other ground-signal imagery are unlikely to go away. In 1988, huge letters spelling out USA appeared in a field in Laos. Underneath the letters was an image, possibly a K, a signal for “pilot down here.” In 1973, on the Plain of Jars in Laos, the images 1573 or 1973 TH were identified. The numbers and letters appear to have been tramped into deep elephant grass. Pentagon officials concede that these two symbols remain unexplained. Some observers contend that many other photos containing possible signals need to be adequately examined, a point the Pentagon disputes.

Fueling the debate is the obscure nature of ground signaling. During the Vietnam War, every American airman was given a top-secret, four-digit authenticator code of his own choosing. Fliers were also issued two-letter distress symbols periodically. Downed fliers could use these alphanumerics to signal by radio or by ground writing. The signals had to be large enough to be seen from miles overhead, yet so clever or subtle that they would not be noticed by their captors. Fliers might use logs, stomped grass, turned-up soil or stacked brush to make symbols. They might use rice-paddy dikes or existing paths to help form letters or numbers. The fliers were also taught to make their letters distinct by attaching little appendages. The K, the signal for a downed pilot, was to have a little foot added at the bottom of its leg. It was termed a “walking K.” The problem is, the more hurried or subtle the signal, the more expertise is required to see it.

Yet some such signals have been seen and identified. While planning the ill-fated 1970 raid on the Son Tay prison camp in Vietnam, photo analysts spotted a possible K, a 55 and an SAR, for Search and Rescue. In 1981, when human and signals intelligence had indicated prisoners were still being held at Nhommarath prison camp in Laos, photo interpreters were assigned to study it closely. In a garden plot inside the prison walls, they saw what looked like a 52-K, or possibly B-52 K. Pentagon officials approved a raid on the camp, dubbed Operation Pocket Change. The raid was canceled after it was leaked to the press. Over the years, many of the four-digit authenticator codes were lost.

Enter Bob Taylor. An investigator for the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, Taylor was looking into Pocket Change and other POW covert operations, records show. One day in April 1992, while he was at the CIA, Taylor heard about the letters spelling out USA. The image had turned up in CIA aerial surveillance of drug cultivation in Laos. It was what was underneath the USA that galvanized Taylor, however: He was able to make out a walking K. Taylor called Robert Dussault, an expert in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training (or SERE, the Pentagon acronym). Dussault and assistants scanned that and other photos. As Dussault pored over one photo of Dong Mang prison, the word SERE caught his eye, along with some other symbols. To Dussault’s eye, they looked like this: 72 TA 88. SERE might be a signal to his agency, he thought, but then he saw an X at the end. Scanning a list of missing men, he found the name of Henry Serex. The T and A, it turned out, were distress codes in 1972, though not at the time Serex went down. Might he have been moved to the prison in 1988? It’s all highly unlikely, says the Pentagon’s office of POW/MIA affairs. Its best information indicates that Serex died when his EB-66 aircraft was shot down over Vietnam.

Ed Ross, acting director of the POW/MIA office, says that the nation’s best photo analysts have examined all imagery of Southeast Asia, including the new “discoveries,” and the only unexplained images are the USA-K and the 1573 or 1973 TH seen in Laos in 1973. For that reason, Ross says, there is no reason to set up a task force to study imagery, as the Senate select committee recommended. The problem, Ross says, is that all the “discoveries” have been made by persons who are untrained in photo imagery analysis.

One person who has viewed some of these images, though, is a photo expert. Retired Col. Lorenzo W. Burroughs has 40 years of experience in photo interpretation in the Air Force and the CIA; he served as acting director of the National Photographic Interpretation Center. Burroughs developed techniques during the cold war for finding signs of items that were purposefully camouflaged. Burroughs and another analyst, Carroll Lucas, were hired by the Senate select committee in 1992 to review ground signals from Southeast Asia. Lucas disputed all but the USA as a man-made symbol.

More symbols. But Burroughs reported seeing 10 sets of numbers and letters that he deemed worthy of more examination. Near the USA, for instance, he made out the name of another downed pilot. When Burroughs examined photographs of the Dong Mang prison camp, before he even got to the SEREX image, he discovered another set of symbols near the prison: GX 2527. The X was a walking X; the 2527, the authenticator of yet another missing pilot. Burroughs says he has 100 percent confidence the GX 2527 is real. Burroughs’s contract ran out, and he never got to examine the SEREX image.

This week, Burroughs finally will have his chance. The Serex family has requested that Burroughs be with them, as well as Bob Dussault, the escape-and-evasion signals expert. If they see the SEREX, family members say, they will want to know what their government will do next. And if they don’t see it, they will be even more confused. “Who do we trust?” says Barbara Lundeen, Henry Serex’s wife, who has since remarried. “Do we trust the government? Do we trust the politicians? Is there anyone out there we can trust?”

COPYRIGHT 1994 All rights reserved.

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