She Went to Vietnam to Heal. She Became America's First Female POW There.

 Eleanor Ardel Vietti
Eleanor Ardel Vietti

Dr. Eleanor Ardel Vietti, known as Ardel, joined the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1957 and was sent to the Ban Me Thuot Leprosarium in the midst of tiger-infested jungles. Among the Montagnards or mountain people of this region, leprosy could reach rates of 30% in tribes. Working with missionary and tribal nurses, Vietti treated the afflicted and tried to prevent the healthy from contracting the disease.

From the 1954 division of Vietnam, the anti-government guerrilla factions under Ho Chi Minh harassed the South Vietnamese countryside, where millions of refugees from the north had fled. The minority Montagnards were one of their special targets. Vietti knew this, and knew that working at Ban Me Thuot entailed the risk of capture or even death. However, she accepted patients of all political affiliations, even after the situation in Vietnam worsened and military operations increased.

In 1962, new hostilities became evident in Ban Me Thuot. Visiting missionaries were encouraged to leave, but the existing staff -- including Vietti, Dan Gerber, and Archie and Betty Mitchell -- were not believed to be in danger. But at 7:45 p.m. on May 30, 12 armed men arrived, tied up Archie Mitchell and Gerber, and ordered Vietti out of her house. They took the three with them. Although U.S. and South Vietnamese military authorities spotted the three prisoners the next day, a rescue attempt was deemed inadvisable.

It is not conclusively known what became of Vietti, Mitchell and Gerber as POWs, where or when or how they may have died. In the 38 years since their capture, rumors that they remain alive have been reported. Stories from jungle tribesmen who claimed they spotted a white woman with two white men have never been substantiated. But since 1994, the official position of the U.S. government has been that no Americans who were captured by the Vietnamese or who went missing in action during the war remain alive.

The Vietti family requests that no one contact them concerning Ardel, the only American female POW from the Vietnam era whose fate remains unknown.

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