The Phantom Menace

Are American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia?

The trio in question, who later became known as the "Three Amigos," turned out to be three deceased Soviet workers whose faces had been removed from an archival photograph taken in the 1920s. On other occasions, reported sightings of live Americans have been the product of either wishful thinking or honest confusion on the part of the witness. "In many cases, witnesses were actually talking about Caucasians who were not Americans, like a French truck driver, a Swedish tourist or whatever," Greer said.

Perhaps the most bizarre reports of Americans held captive in Vietnam centered on an enigmatic character named Robert Garwood, a U.S. Army private who was captured by the Viet Cong after deserting his post in 1965. Two years later, Garwood decided to join his captors, even working as a guard at POW camps. He thus turned up in a number of eyewitness accounts by American soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Viet Cong and who were later released and interviewed by U.S. intelligence officers.

By 1979, however, Garwood's romance with Vietnam had soured, and he begged for permission to return home. U.S. officials complied and then court-martialed Garwood the next year for collaborating with the enemy. Shortly thereafter, Garwood's career took a final, unexpected turn when he became a hero to the POW-MIA lobby by telling Time, Newsweek and anyone else who would listen that he knew of hundreds of Americans who were still being held prisoner on state-run rice plantations in Vietnam and Laos.

Most Americans—even those who believed in the existence of POWs—immediately dismissed Garwood's story as the ravings of a proven opportunist. But to Bob Dornan, the turncoat's outlandish claims were proof that "the past three administrations had carried out a charade to cover up the fact that American servicemen remained alive in Vietnam."

If ever there was an individual who personified the cynical—and at times comical—nature of the crusade to bring the MIAs back home from Vietnam, it was Dornan. During his 18 years in Congress, Dornan delivered countless hours of rambling, conspiratorial sermons about the fate of missing American servicemen. It was a pastime Dornan first took public when he worked as an LA-based talk-show host in the late 1960s. That's when Dornan actually invented—and then furiously began marketing—the famous metal POW-MIA bracelets worn by relatives and supporters of missing U.S. servicemen. He will proudly tell you today that he still wears one such bracelet, as do thousands if not millions of other Americans.

Dornan said he joined the crusade when his "best friend in the Air Force," pilot David Hrdlicka, was shot down over Laos in 1965. Although he was initially listed as missing, U.S. intelligence reports later revealed that Pathet Lao guerrillas had captured Hrdlicka. To Dornan, the fact that Hrdlicka never came home was proof either that the Pathet Lao had killed him or that he was still alive somewhere in captivity.

As recently as December 1995, a year after Clinton normalized trade relations with Vietnam, Dornan highlighted his friend's case in his opening remarks for the Hearing on U.S. and Vietnamese Government Accountability for POW-MIAs. Dornan used the hearing to accuse Vietnam of withholding information on the same 559 servicemen whose files Vietnam recently gave the Pentagon.

"The fate of those captured by communist forces is known only to God and the Vietnamese communists and their Pathet Lao surrogates," railed Dornan. "We must not give any further economic aid or political recognition to those criminal regimes until they unilaterally and truthfully resolve the cases of heroes such as my best friend David Hrdlicka, whose fates are known only by God and the communists who captured or killed them."

According to the Defense Department's POW-Missing Persons Office, however, Hrdlicka's case appears to have been more mundane. "Hrdlicka was captured," acknowledged Greer. "But the investigation of Hrdlicka's case—and it has been investigated dozens of times—shows that he died in captivity. The latest analysis is that he was buried at a certain location near some caves in Laos and that this area was obliterated by B-52 bombing at some point during the war. That's the end of the trail for him."

During his last term in Congress, Dornan chaired the Military Personnel Subcommittee, which was responsible for a publicity stunt highly reminiscent of Geraldo Rivera's disaster at Al Capone's vault. With Dornan at the helm, the subcommittee delved into recently declassified reports from the former Soviet Union's intelligence agency, the KGB. Predictably, the much-vaunted Soviet documents showed no evidence that the Vietnamese or anyone else had held on to American POWs after the war.

The reports revealed only that Vietnamese intelligence officers had interrogated hundreds of U.S. servicemen captured in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and had shared the results of those interrogations with the Soviet Union. Among other things, the Vietnamese identified a total of 368 American prisoners as having "progressive" views and 372 whose views were "neutral." The Vietnamese also described 465 prisoners as "reactionary." The information was evidently used to determine which prisoners to release in what order; those deemed the most "progressive" were put in the front of the line for Operation Homecoming.

« Previous Page
Next Page »