The Phantom Menace

Are American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia?

On a humid March afternoon, U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) found herself in a rather uncomfortable position:squatting in the heat of a mosquito-filled jungle clearing in Cu Chi Province, a rugged, forested area located a few hours northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam's sprawling southern metropolis.

Sanchez hadn't come to Vietnam to visit Cu Chi or to see the province's famous underground network of Viet Cong tunnels that earned it the nickname "Iron Triangle" on U.S. military maps of South Vietnam. She was there to lecture the Vietnamese (whose country the U.S. bombed, napalmed and defoliated) on the importance of "human rights," especially the need for greater religious freedom for Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics.

Another goal: to discuss refugee-resettlement programs the U.S. hopes to wind up by the end of the year—programs aimed at reuniting thousands of Vietnamese with their relatives in America, many of whom live in Sanchez's 46th Congressional District. But Sanchez had yet a third agenda to fulfill, one she is almost obligated to carry out by virtue of the man she defeated in November 1996, Robert K. Dornan: hunting for American soldiers who never came home from the war.

This is what brought Sanchez to the clearing in Cu Chi, for it was there that she could observe a team of U.S. and Vietnamese scientists working side by side to find the remains of two American soldiers. The site had been chosen, Sanchez later announced, because the pair had last been seen there by their comrades as they retreated during a brutal firefight with North Vietnamese army troops. The two soldiers were rumored to have been buried in the clearing by villagers after they perished from their wounds.

In a March 30 press release, Sanchez thanked the Vietnamese government for helping to ensure "that our missing [American] service personnel will never be forgotten." She also met with Vietnamese military officials, who promised her they would hand over a written summary of 559 American MIAs whose cases had been classified by the U.S. military as "no further pursuit," meaning they had been closed for lack of leads.

Back home in the United States, many observers greeted the news as evidence that Vietnam might have been hiding something all along. "The divulgence, days after Sanchez returns from the country, seems to be an act of good faith," The Orange County Register reported on May 5. OCN on-air personality Brooke Robbins was even more excited. In an interview a few weeks after Vietnam made its announcement, Robbins pressed Sanchez about whether the Vietnamese government might finally be ready to admit that it had withheld U.S. prisoners after the end of the war.

Sanchez responded by telling her host—and thousands of viewers—that she knew of no credible evidence that any American prisoners are still alive in Vietnam. "At this point, we're pretty much talking about finding their remains," she said.

Despite Sanchez's skepticism, millions of Americans—fueled by right-wing politicians, silver POW-MIA bracelets, flags, movies, books, countless television programs, congressional hearings, supposed POW "investigations" and even sightings accompanied by photographs—believe that American MIAs are still alive in Southeast Asia. Most Americans are familiar with the POW-MIA crusade through its famous black-and-white banner, which was designed by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

The group's flag features the profile of an abandoned American soldier. Looming over him is a bamboo guard tower; below the dejected prisoner is a menacing line of barbed wire above the defiant motto "You are not forgotten."

President Bill Clinton paid tribute to the POW-MIA flag on April 9 when he officially proclaimed the date to be recognized as National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day. "The somber black-and-white POW-MIA flag serves as a reminder of their sacrifice and symbolizes our nation's deep concern for and steadfast commitment to these brave Americans and their families," Clinton announced.

Clinton might have added that, since 1982, the POW-MIA flag is the only other banner that, by law, has enjoyed the right to flap alongside the American flag atop the White House. Here in Orange County, the POW-MIA flag even graces the lawn in front of Westminster City Hall, which houses the City Council that recently refused to afford the same privilege to the flag of the former Republic of South Vietnam—despite threatened protests by the city's Vietnamese population. The flag also decorates the entrances of thousands of federal, state and local government buildings throughout the U.S., along with countless union halls, veterans buildings, biker bars and militia compounds.

According to the U.S. government, 2,016 Americans who fought in Vietnam are still unaccounted for, a number that has grown smaller each year as more remains are found. A few thousand missing soldiers may sound like a lot, but it's remarkably low for a decade-long conflict that involved millions of U.S. servicemen. By comparison, the Korean War, which lasted only a few years, produced nearly four times the number of MIAs—8,200 in total. And from World War II, 78,000 Americans remain unaccounted for. Bodies from all three wars—along with those from even older conflicts, such as the U.S. Civil War—continue to be discovered every year.

Moreover, the majority of Vietnam War-era MIA cases involved U.S. pilots known to have been shot down over the South China Sea or whose planes disappeared over the jungles of Laos, Cambodia or North Vietnam. "They were lost over triple-canopy rain forest or the limestone mountains of Laos," said Rutgers University professor H. Bruce Franklin, who wrote about the POW-MIA phenomenon in his 1992 book, M.I.A., or Myth-Making in America.

As Franklin points out, the fate of at least some of those MIAs can be deduced through the following hypothetical scenario: if a plane carrying six people explodes in midair and eyewitnesses see only one parachute, all six crewmen must be listed as MIA, as opposed to KIA (killed in action), until the identity of the single survivor can be ascertained.

If that survivor is never located or if his remains are never identified, then the plane's entire crew will remain categorized as MIA, despite the fact that there was only one potential survivor. "What do people think happens to a high-speed plane loaded with ordnance that gets hit by a missile?" asked Franklin. "You're not going to find a human body."

Nearly three decades after the end of the Vietnam War—and five years after the U.S. and Vietnam began normalizing relations—not one U.S. prisoner has been found in Southeast Asia. However, a CNN/Time poll earlier this decade found that 64 percent of Americans believe that the Vietnamese are still holding American POWs. A subsequent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll put the figure at 69 percent.

Among many Vietnam veterans, who grapple daily with Veterans Affairs cutbacks, chronic unemployment and homelessness, the numbers are even higher: 84 percent, according to the Time poll. Faith in the existence of POWs—especially among veterans—takes on a tragic dimension considering the fact that tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans are locked behind bars not in Southeast Asia, but within the U.S. prison system.

Of course, a majority of Americans also believe quite fervently in the existence of extraterrestrial spaceships and guardian angels, the physical evidence of which is also notably lacking. Yet the near-religious fervor held by "true believers" in the existence of POWs continues to influence U.S. foreign policy, explaining why such politicians as Sanchez still go to such lengths—like a two-hour jeep ride to a clearing in Cu Chi—to appear dedicated to the cause.

"What we're dealing with is a myth of imprisonment that has much more to do with the alienation and feelings of helplessness in American society than it has to do with Vietnam," explained Franklin. "This has become a Frankenstein's monster. If there were live POWs kept by Vietnam after the war, the U.S. government would have to know about it, given all the interrogation of high-level defectors from Vietnam, our satellite technology and our agents there. So the true believers have quite logically come to the conclusion that a U.S. government conspiracy is afoot to conceal the existence of live POWs."

Maintaining the illusion that Americans are still being held prisoner in Southeast Asia has become especially tricky since 1994, when Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. The country that threw out four successive foreign powers—the Chinese, French, Japanese and Americans—has now been open to Western tourists for more than a decade. More to the point, Vietnam has gone to great lengths to cooperate with U.S. efforts to locate the remains of missing American soldiers.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, 523 American servicemen have already been identified since the end of the war, thanks to cooperative efforts with the Vietnamese government, including projects involving both Vietnamese and Laotian authorities. "We continue to recover remains virtually every month," said Larry Greer, a spokesperson for the Defense Department's POW-Missing Personnel Office, which he said was "in almost daily contact" with the Vietnamese Office of Seeking Missing Persons. Greer added that the Defense Department has already received the written summary of cases Vietnam promised Sanchez it would relinquish. "There was new information on two of the cases that we had no information on, which is going to enable us to pursue those cases," Greer said.

But does the Pentagon believe Hanoi may still be holding on to live American prisoners? "Whenever we get reports relating to live Americans, the investigation of those reports gets the highest priority because there may be lives at stake," responded Greer. "But a detailed investigation of all these reports shows that there is no credible evidence that Americans are being held against their will in Southeast Asia or Korea. Most of these reports, and we're talking about a high 99 percent here, are not firsthand. They are that 'so and so' in another village said that an American used to live in the village. If you're not dealing with firsthand reports, the trails are very difficult to follow."

That's not to say the U.S. government hasn't tried. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Defense Department says it has investigated 21,412 reported live sightings of Americans in Southeast Asia. Many of those sightings were hoaxes, as was one that was accompanied by a grainy black-and-white photograph, purportedly of three American POWs being held at a prison camp in Laos.

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.

So much for a smoking gun.

 

To understand the "mystery" at the heart of the MIA question, one need look no further than a series of meetings that began 31 years ago in Paris, when a harried group of U.S. and Vietnamese officials met for United Nations-sponsored peace talks. The meetings dragged on for five years as delegates argued, among other things, over the shape of the table they would use.

The talks were stalled mainly because then-President Richard Nixon hoped to use the delay to rebuild popular support for America's least popular war—in part by making the return of U.S. POWs the major issue of the peace negotiations. One of Nixon's demands was that Vietnam would return all American prisoners as a precondition to any agreement that the U.S. would withraw from the war.

In 1973, Nixon broke the stalemate. Without informing his South Vietnamese ally, he finally agreed to withdraw all American troops from the conflict and order a permanent bombing halt of North Vietnam in exchange for the safe return of all U.S. prisoners of war.

By the end of the year, North Vietnam had kept its end of the bargain: it had released hundreds of American POWs in Operation Homecoming, a repatriation effort that was subject to intense U.S. and international scrutiny and that featured gaunt but exhilarated American soldiers being greeted with open arms by their miniskirted wives—one of the few endearing images of the entire war.

Along with committing to withdraw his troops, Nixon had also promised that the U.S. "will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction throughout the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and throughout Indochina." In a secret letter to Hanoi, Nixon went a step further, estimating that "the United States contribution to postwar reconstruction will fall in the range of $3.25 billion of grant aid over five years." Nixon also promised to pay "$1 billion to $1.5 billion depending on food and other commodity needs of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam." The cash was to arrive in Hanoi free of political strings.

As Franklin argues convincingly in his book, Nixon never had any intention of keeping those promises. He sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a 1973 meeting with the Vietnamese armed not just with the secret letter promising to help Vietnam rebuild, but also with a list of 80 "discrepancy" cases—MIAs who were not included in Operation Homecoming but who were still officially listed in U.S. war records as having been captured.

Nixon's message: Vietnam needed to help find or otherwise account for the 80 missing American servicemen if it wanted any money. The only problem was that North Vietnam had actually released more American prisoners during Operation Homecoming than U.S. intelligence sources even knew it possessed. That left the Pentagon with only 56 so-called "discrepancy" cases. Yet Kissinger's list included a total of 80 names.

In 1976, Roger Shields, the Pentagon chief for MIA programs during the Paris peace talks, admitted under oath before a Senate select committee hearing that U.S. officials had included on that list several servicemen who had been killed in action and whose identities North Vietnam therefore could never have known.

To this day, the U.S. has yet to pay a penny in war reparations to Vietnam, with the official justification that Vietnam has failed to provide adequate accounting for Nixon's missing U.S. service personnel—thus making the country ineligible for American aid on humanitarian grounds. "These were cases that the U.S. government knew the Vietnamese had no information for," Franklin asserted. "This was a list of cases that could never be resolved. It was designed to do exactly that."

After Nixon's shenanigans, the notion that American prisoners were held in tiger cages after the war received its greatest boost from the administration of President Ronald Reagan—whose policy stated "it would be irresponsible to rule out the possibility that live Americans are being held"—and a simultaneous series of Hollywood action films. Throughout the 1980s, American audiences were treated to a barrage of images of heroic U.S. POWs enslaved at the hands of leering Vietnamese thugs in such patriotic, spine-tingling bloodbaths as Uncommon Valor, Rambo and Missing in Action. The conclusion of each movie involved the hero—either Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris—returning from Vietnam with a chopper full of grizzled POWs.

By contrast, actual efforts to locate alleged POW camps in Southeast Asia have failed to turn up a single American prisoner. By far the most colorful of these missions took place in the 1980s, when a former U.S. Green Beret lieutenant colonel named James "Bo" Gritz led a series of U.S.-sponsored raids into Laos, beginning in 1982. A true believer in the POW cause, Gritz wrote in his 1991 book Called to Serve that he received U.S. National Security Council (NSC) backing for an ill-fated POW hunt that took place in 1987 in Burma's heroin-rich Golden Triangle.

According to Gritz, the POW mission originated in the Reagan administration. In a 1996 interview with the Weekly, Gritz said he received a tip from an NSC official that a Burmese warlord named Khun Sa had information on the whereabouts of at least one POW camp that held live Americans. Gritz spent weeks roaming the Burmese jungle before deciding that his team was being used by the U.S. government as a propaganda tool to harass Khun Sa, who, Gritz quickly discovered, had no knowledge of any American POWs.

Upon his return to the U.S., Gritz, who recently survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest—apparently the result of a suicide attempt—became a major embarrassment to the Reagan administration. Instead of coming home with American prisoners, he showed up with a series of videotaped interviews with Sa and other Burmese sources asserting that the CIA played an integral role in the Golden Triangle's international heroin trade. Gritz's misadventures in Burma seem to confirm what only makes sense:there's no reason to believe that any U.S. POWs are being held in Vietnam.

Sanchez agrees. "It's hard to hide people [in Vietnam]," she said. "It's pretty open. The likelihood that the Viet Cong still has POWs 30 years later holed up somewhere is probably zero. They'd have to be 55 or 60 years old by now. The reality is the VC, if they had these prisoners alive, would probably have done away with them by now rather than face the liability."

Unlike Dornan—or Rambo, Chuck Norris or Bo Gritz, for that matter—Sanchez has actually come to the aid of POWs in Vietnam, only the prisoners didn't happen to be American. Shortly after she beat Dornan in the November 1996 election, Sanchez spearheaded a legislative effort to recognize and provide reparations to dozens of former South Vietnamese commandos who had been captured by the North Vietnamese, in some cases after parachuting directly into their hands.

For years, the Vietnamese commandos had slowly perished of disease and semistarvation in political prisons in Vietnam. All the while, the U.S. government—especially the CIA, which had sent the commandos to their doom—refused to do anything to help the survivors, perhaps fearing the public embarrassment that would follow. It was not until years after they were released from Vietnamese prisons that—thanks mainly to Sanchez—the commandos finally got their paychecks from Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, the POW-MIA lobby in the U.S. doesn't seem to like Sanchez one bit, which is understandable given that she unceremoniously ended the political career of its greatest ally, Dornan. A Web site called the Advocacy and Intelligence Index for Prisoners of War-Missing in Action (www.aiipowmia.com), an electronic library of POW-related matters, posted a March 16 letter written by Sanchez to the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Douglass "Pete"Peterson, who is also a Vietnam veteran and former POW.

The letter asked for Peterson's help in pressuring the Vietnamese to speed up the resettlement of refugees seeking entry into the U.S. "For those of you not familiar with Ms. Sanchez," the Web site noted, "she is the House candidate who took Bob Dornan's congressional seat amidst allegations of massive voter fraud. Nice letter, but the words POW-MIA are glaringly absent."

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people, who suffered the lion's share of the carnage wrought by the war—including more than 1 million dead and hundreds of thousands missing—seem to have put the past behind them. According to countless books and articles—Christopher Hunt's Sparring With Charlie and Charles Rappleye's May 6 OCWeekly article, "Everyone Hustles Now"—American tourists are greeted with warmth and affection by the Vietnamese.

One of the more famous witnesses to this friendly display is U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who spent six years in Vietnam's infamous wartime prison, the Hanoi Hilton, after being shot down over Hanoi's central lake. Long considered a hero because of his status as a war veteran and former POW, McCain conducted his own investigation into reported sightings of POWs in Southeast Asia, which he concluded were groundless. McCain also bucked the Republican Party—and particularly Dornan—to support Clinton's 1994 decision to normalize trade relations with Vietnam, thus prompting an outraged Dornan, who avoided combat in Korea by enrolling in Los Angeles acting classes, to publicly brand McCain a "traitor."

Although Sanchez seems sincere in her effort to convince Americans that there is virtually no chance that any American POWs are still alive in Vietnam, it is a testament to the power of the MIA myth that she refuses to officially rule out the possibility. A day after her high-level March 29 meeting with officials in Vietnam, Sanchez told reporters: "Actions to investigate live-sighting reports must be considered a high priority, and resources must be committed to find any Americans still held captive in Vietnam."

In an interview with the Weekly, Sanchez revealed that two more reports of live sightings of American POWs had already surfaced since her return from Vietnam. She could provide no further details, saying only that the Pentagon, which also refused to comment, was investigating the reported sightings.

"We make a commitment to our soldiers that we'll do everything we can to bring them back. It's very comforting for people to know that," Sanchez said. "But for the families, it may be more than they can accept to say that, at this point . . . it's pretty much done and finished."

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