NAKHON PHANOM, Thailand — Relatives of missing U.S. servicemen Thursday dropped hundreds of leaflets into the Mekong River on the Thai border with Laos, offering a $2.4-million reward for the return of any living American held prisoner in Indochina.
"We hope and trust that it (the river) will take the news of the reward to the men holding our fathers, brothers and loved ones," said Elizabeth Stewart of Washington, D.C., the daughter of Air Force Col. Peter J. Stewart, listed as missing in action March 15, 1966.
"It is very important we get news of this reward on the streets of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam," she said on the banks of theMekong as about 1,000 plastic bags containing the leaflets were dumped into the river.
Police had warned the eight-member group against their original plan to launch 2,500 helium balloons carrying the leaflets, but after discussion with the group, officers allowed them to be placed in the river, which forms the border with Laos at Nakhon Phanom, 400 miles northeast of Bangkok.
In Bangkok, a spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry said the balloon release would be "a use of Thai territory for a psychological operation against Laos, with which we have diplomatic relations. We cannot allow it."
Laos earlier protested the plans, charging that such activities bring about "nothing but mutual misunderstanding and instability along the Lao-Thai border."
One member of the group, Jefferson Donahue, however, slipped away from police and later said he had successfully launched some of the balloons.
"We've already sent a few up and it works like a charm," said Donahue, brother of Morgan Donahue, an Air Force officer lost over Laos about 19 years ago.
Police kept watch over the group at the river, but did not interfere as the bags were released into the water by three members of the group--Bobby Bishoff, a pharmacist from Wilson, N.C.; Michael Clark, a behavioral therapist from Santa Barbara, Calif., and Bruce Adams, a dentist from Laramie, Wyo. All three have fathers or brothers missing in Indochina.
When northeast winds and currents kept the bags close to shore, the three waded into the river to try to push them toward the Laotian side, about a mile away.
Included in the group was Bill Hendon, a former congressman from North Carolina who has charged that the U.S. government is not doing enough to investigate information that some Americans might still be alive in Indochina.
Told that the State Department had issued a statement saying the balloon launch could hurt official efforts to account for the missing, Hendon responded, "Well, we frown on the State Department's progress (on MIAs) over the last 14 years."
Hendon said the group would try to buy air time on Thai television stations whose broadcasts can be received in Laos.
Hendon and Donahue were among contributors to the reward. The group said it was willing to pay the reward only to a Vietnamese, Laotian or Cambodian who defected and turned over a live American prisoner.
U.S. records indicate that 549 U.S. servicemen were lost over Laos and that the Laotians never returned any prisoners at the end of the war. Laos has officially promised to help in the accounting of MIAs and has allowed two joint U.S.-Laotian excavations of U.S. warplane crash sites.