Code-Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts during the Vietnam War

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CODE-NAME BRIGHT LIGHT: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War by George J. Veith. 320 pages. Free Press, New York. 1998. $25.00.

Code-Name Bright Light addresses the history of the US prisoners of war/missing in action (POW/ MIA) intelligence and wartime rescue operations that have remained concealed under the shroud of national security. George J. Veith covers the earliest rescue attempts and the formation of the supposedly centralized Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC), a small clandestine detachment organized in 1966 to collect and analyze intelligence reports on captured Americans in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and, if possible, to organize raids to rescue them.

The Bright Light story is tragic. Although the JPRC remained in existence for 6 years, it never recovered a single American POW. Veith cites the difficulty in acquiring and acting on timely intelligence; the amorphous nature of the "target," which was essentially a group of prison camps on the move in South Vietnam and Laos; the impediments of weather and terrain; and the reluctance of some commanders to undertake what they viewed as high-risk operations with limited prospects of success. In addition, bureaucratic jealousies, interservice rivalries and limited resources delayed missions that depended on quick response. Consistent ill fortune and "fog and friction" repeatedly doomed operations that to succeed required almost everything to go exactly right. Thus, despite heroic efforts, none of the more than 125 rescue attempts succeeded.

Veith also addresses how the secrecy dictated by the effort to recover POWs led to agonizing conflicts with families of those carried as missing or imprisoned. The families perceived that little or nothing was being done to help their loved ones. Unable to reveal the extensive operations under way, the government was confronted by an increasingly organized, activist and ultimately, hostile group of families, even though the situation weighed heavily on military leaders like General Harold K. …