By H.G. Reza
Some men are absorbed by combat and experience a mystic rush from pushing the envelope as far as they can on the battlefield. William Forbes "Ike" Eisenbraun was one of them. He fought as a 20-year-old enlisted man in the Korean War, during which he was wounded and later earned a commission. He made the Army a career, volunteering for the nascent Army Special Forces and earning the coveted Green Beret.
Eisenbraun did a four-year combat tour in Vietnam, among the first waves of Americans drawn into that war. He was just 35 when he died in 1967; a plain bronze marker memorializing him sits next to his parents' gravesites at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana. The raised letters on the plaque, oxidized over the years by the elements, gives the basics of his life: a cross signifying he was Christian; his military rank; the word Vietnam; initials indicating he earned a Purple Heart. At the bottom is his birthdate and the date of his death, Sept. 8, 1967.
But Eisenbraun is not buried there.
The nameplate honors a man who died in a Viet Cong (VC) prisoner-of-war camp but has been missing in Vietnam for 47 years. Task Force Omega, a private group that tracks the cases of U.S. servicemen missing in Vietnam, wrote that Eisenbraun "was considered by all who knew and served with him to be an incredible soldier, dedicated, professional and an outstanding leader."
The Pentagon officially lists him as having "died in captivity, remains not returned"; seven other servicemen from Orange County have similar cases. Those cases will draw added scrutiny as the country commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War this year, and Veterans Day ceremonies this month are expected to focus on Vietnam veterans.
Over the years, the U.S. military has done excavations in Vietnam in an effort to find his remains; in 1998, his widow participated in a brief ceremony in Ike's honor, raising the POW/MIA flag at the Tustin Post Office. But save that lonely cenotaph, no memorial exists commemorating Eisenbraun's life–or his sacrifice.
Little is known about Eisenbraun's personal life. Records show he was born in Los Angeles in 1931 but adopted by parents in Orange. He enlisted in the Army after graduating from Orange High School in 1948 and went off to fight in the Korean War, serving with the 17th Infantry Regiment (nicknamed "the Buffalos") of the Seventh Infantry Division. Eisenbraun married Esther Ortiz in 1953. The two had a daughter, but his dedication to the Army was too much for Esther, who told the Orange County Register in a 1997 interview that the strain of being a combat soldier's wife eventually led to an amicable divorce.
A fluent Vietnamese speaker, Eisenbraun volunteered for Vietnam in 1961 as a military adviser when the United States only had about 400 of them in that country. At the time, Americans were prohibited from engaging in combat, but the dismal performance of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops often required them to engage the enemy, if only to avoid getting killed.
He was signing up for a futile effort. Early on, there were ample warnings from Pentagon officials that military intervention in Vietnam would be a sticky endeavor, a quagmire waiting to happen. According to the Pentagon Papers, the once-classified Department of Defense study of America's involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967, the Pentagon brass warned in 1954 that from a "military point of view, the risk was not worth the gamble."
Authorities also questioned the South Vietnamese's "inclination to make the individual and collective sacrifices required to resist communism." President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged that Ho Chi Minh would win about 80 percent of the vote in a national election. President John F. Kennedy also expressed skepticism about getting involved militarily. In 1961, he told an aide that if Vietnam "were ever converted into a white man's war, we would lose it as the French had a decade earlier." Nevertheless, America's elected leaders brushed aside the military's warnings and acted on political considerations, mainly the threat of encroaching communism.
It was against this backdrop of pessimism that Eisenbraun–and hundreds of other U.S. military advisers before and after him–went to Vietnam to train the South Vietnamese army three years before the conflict was officially labeled a war in 1964. The ARVN force that Eisenbraun trained reflected the Saigon government it represented: corrupt, inept and without a broad base of support.
"Corruption in the government and military was a big problem, and [among individual ARVN soldiers] there were deep frustrations, and morale was also a problem," said Robert Brigham, a Vassar College professor who interviewed ARVN veterans in Little Saigon for his book, ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army.
Eisenbraun, who was assigned to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) Advisory Team 39, was captured while fighting with an ARVN unit in a battle that ended as a catastrophic defeat for the South Vietnamese and helped compel President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. Though Eisenbraun's capture was not the reason for the escalation, the die was cast 23 days after he was taken prisoner.
The battle that sealed his fate actually began about six weeks earlier, on May 26, 1965, and was fought in two stages. Eisenbraun was with an ARVN infantry unit near Ba Gia, a government outpost in coastal Quang Ngai Province. For four days, the ARVN battled against the Viet Cong; on the first day of battle, a South Vietnamese battalion was wiped out in less than 20 minutes. Before the end of the fight, the ARVN would lose an entire regiment and two more battalions.
The VC claimed it killed or wounded 1,185 ARVN soldiers and captured 270 more in the May battle and, after the war, erected a Ba Gia victory monument at the site that still stands. In The Rise & Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973, author Shelby Stanton described South Vietnamese soldiers "tossing away weapons in dazed discouragement" at Ba Gia as they broke and ran in panic. U.S. advisers were unable to rally them. The Pentagon Papers said that "ARVN senior commanders on the scene had displayed tactical stupidity and cowardice," contributing to the defeat.
The battle downgraded into a series of skirmishes after May 30. Eisenbraun was awarded a Bronze Star for valor during a fight on June 1; according to the citation issued with the decoration, ARVN troops were reluctant to cross a rice paddy to attack the VC, who were dug in along a tree line on the other side. In many cases, an American adviser was "depended on to provide cool-headed advice," and "it fell upon his shoulders personally to rally units on the brink of panic," said Stanton.
Eisenbraun's citation spoke to this: "Captain Eisenbraun, armed only with a .45 caliber pistol, ran to the front shouting, 'Mau len!' (Let's go!)." The South Vietnamese made three unsuccessful assaults and were forced to withdraw. The citation added that Eisenbraun covered the withdrawal "staying in position until he emptied the weapons of three wounded men."
Eisenbraun and other U.S. advisers accompanied the ARVN when it returned to Ba Gia a few weeks later. On July 5, 1965, the VC attacked the outpost and routed the ARVN again. Eisenbraun was taken prisoner during the fight; another adviser and an Army helicopter pilot were killed. After the VC attack waned, Marine helicopters swooped in to evacuate the remaining Americans and South Vietnamese.
The humiliating defeat made headlines across the United States. "Ringed Ba Gia Hangs On; Toll High" blared the July 7, 1965, front page of Pacific Stars and Stripes. A Marine told the Los Angeles Times, "We could see the dead and wounded lying in the open" battlefield. An Associated Press story said the South Vietnamese had suffered 200 killed and wounded and mentioned Eisenbraun's capture without naming him: "In addition to the heavy Vietnamese casualties in the defending battalion, there was one U.S. adviser killed and another missing and presumed captured."
It was after this second battle at Ba Gia that American war planners decided to augment the number of U.S. ground troops to back the flailing ARVN. On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced he was sending 175,000 troops to South Vietnam by the end of the year. In reality, U.S. troop strength grew from 23,300 in 1964 to about 184,000 by December 1965, five months after Eisenbraun's capture. Along with the troop surge, Johnson also ordered an increase in the number of men drafted into the armed forces. The Vietnam quagmire had begun in earnest.
One week after Eisenbraun's capture, another Special Forces trooper became the first American prisoner to escape from a VC prison camp. Isaac Camacho, a Tejano also nicknamed Ike, had been taken prisoner in November 1963 but escaped his captors by prying open a bar in his cage, then running into the jungle. He had previously served with Eisenbraun in Germany and Vietnam.
"Ike was my squad leader when we were with the 11th Airborne Division in Germany," said the now-77-year-old Camacho in an interview from his home in El Paso. (The Special Forces Association Chapter IX in the city is named in his honor.) "He was a good leader and disciplined NCO [non-commissioned officer]. He became an officer somewhere along the way. The last time I saw him was in a Special Forces safe house in Saigon in 1962 or 1963."
The Army Special Forces in Vietnam was a close-knit unit in the early 1960s, not as large as today's sprawling crew. The closeness extended to families of the individual soldiers. Camacho's mother was celebrating the news of her son's escape to freedom when she received a letter from Betty Eisenbraun saying her son had become a prisoner of war.
"It was a happy time for my mom, but then she received the letter from Ike's mom," recalls Camacho, who was on his second combat tour when he became a POW.
Eisenbraun was held in a prison camp with other U.S. prisoners. Various POW memoirs and interviews published in the past 30 years attest to Eisenbraun's leadership even in captivity. His knowledge of Vietnamese helped them resist their captors. Using his Special Forces training, he taught his fellow prisoners which insects they could eat to augment their limited rations. To lighten the mood, Eisenbraun joked about writing a cookbook after the war, titling it 100 Ways to Cook a Rat.
But captivity took a toll on him. The VC took his glasses, forcing him to squint at all times. Wracked by malnutrition and dysentery, Eisenbraun eventually relied on a cane to move around. And the American government seemingly forgot him and his fellow soldiers.
In June 1966, Radio Hanoi read a letter allegedly written by Eisenbraun expressing opposition to the war. U.S. prisoners at times made anti-war statements and denounced their own government, often as a result of torture or duress or simply to let their families know they were alive. According to the communist broadcast, Eisenbraun urged Americans to write to their elected officials to bring an end to the war. "Do you realize the war would be over tomorrow if the U.S. and other foreign powers left today?" the letter said.
Eisenbraun's story took a strange and disturbing twist a year later. Rudy Enders, who worked as a CIA field officer in Vietnam, wrote in a 2010 manuscript titled With the CIA in Vietnam that a VC defector gave the agency the location of the prison camp where Eisenbraun and other U.S. and South Vietnamese prisoners were being held in August 1967.
The defector surrendered to U.S. officials weeks or days before Eisenbraun's reported death on Sept. 8, 1967. "The defector could not provide the names of any American prisoners, but from his description, we concluded one was Special Forces Captain William Forbs [sic] Eisenbraun, captured in July 1965 when the Ba Gia SF [Special Forces] camp was overrun," Enders wrote.
"We immediately flew over the area [described by the defector]," Enders continued, and "his description of the terrain features, trails, etc. all checked out."
A rescue operation was quickly planned with III MAF (Marine Amphibious Force), but Enders claims it was struck down by Marine General Robert E. Cushman Jr., who commanded III MAF from June to Decemeber 1967 and served as deputy director of the CIA from 1969 to 1971. Enders wrote that Cushman feared the defector's information "might be a VC provocation to upset the coming [South Vietnamese presidential] election."
Enders' account of the rescue plan is in a manuscript posted on air-america.org, a website for veterans of the CIA-owned airline that operated throughout Vietnam, Laos and Thailand from the 1950s to the end of the Vietnam War. The manuscript details Enders' experience as a CIA field officer in Vietnam. (An attempt to reach him through the website was unsuccessful, and the CIA declined to comment.)
Eisenbraun made an unsuccessful escape attempt in August 1967 with Edwin Russell Grissett Jr., a Marine from Texas who had been captured a year earlier. The VC punished the two, beating Eisenbraun unmercifully. Based on accounts from other U.S. prisoners, Task Force Omega reported that Eisenbraun was beaten in part "as an example to the other POWs of what would happen to them should they be foolish enough to try to escape themselves." While recovering from the beating, one fellow POW said Eisenbraun fell from his hammock onto a pile of logs, breaking his ribs and puncturing a lung. After complaining of severe pain for about a week, Grissett found him dead in his hammock at 1 a.m.
"Unfortunately for the other prisoners, after Captain Eisenbraun died, no strong leadership surfaced within the remaining prisoners to take charge and bring a military-style chain of command," said the Task Force Omega report.
One of the eyewitnesses to Eisenbraun's demise was Robert Garwood, a Marine who became a controversial figure accused of collaborating with the VC by other U.S. prisoners. He was given a dishonorable discharge after returning home in 1979, with a court-martial convicting him of "knowingly communicating and holding intercourse with the enemy."
Garwood claims he was friends with Eisenbraun and recounted their life in the POW camp in the 1983 book Conversations With the Enemy by Winston Groom and Duncan Spencer. He maintains he helped bury Eisenbraun and marked his grave with a rock inscribed with his name. (Garwood didn't respond to a Weekly request for comment.)
If the military refused to launch a rescue of Eisenbraun and other U.S. POWs in 1967, as alleged by Enders, the CIA unwittingly made a clandestine attempt to get him released in a prisoner exchange in early 1968, after his death. According to declassified CIA records, the agency launched a secret operation, code name Buttercup, to exchange American POWs for VC prisoners. In January 1968, four months after Eisenbraun's death, a Department of Defense official traveled to Saigon with government letters addressed to five U.S. POWs, including Eisenbraun. It appears the plan was to give the letters to VC operatives who would then deliver them to the American captives. The CIA document doesn't mention the letters' content or purpose nor whether they were ever given to the VC for delivery.
Apparently, the CIA was unaware Eisenbraun had already died. "Eisenbraun and [Foreign Service Officer Douglas K.] Ramsey are confirmed prisoners. . . . Families unaware letters being sent by this route," read the CIA document.
A month after sending the letters, the CIA followed up with a list of 10 American POWs it wanted to exchange for VC prisoners. The plan was to pass the list to Tran Bach Dang, a central committee member of the Viet Cong's political wing, the National Liberation Front, and a key planner of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Eisenbraun's and Garwood's names were on the list. Picking names for the prisoner exchange was a delicate matter, so the CIA decided to choose men who had been held captive two years or more.
"The longer a man is held, the more likely he is to be seriously ill," said the memo, which does not say if the list was ever given to the VC.
Those words proved prophetic. The American government finally listed Eisenbraun as one of the Vietnam War's casualties on Feb. 24, 1968–five months after he had died. A Los Angeles Times brief described Eisenbraun as "having been killed in Vietnam" and that his daughter lived in Glendale, but no other stories made the newspapers. He posthumously received a Silver Star, the citation praising Eisenbraun's "gallantry and intrepidity in action in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force while a Prisoner of War."
The Pentagon began actively investigating Eisenbraun's case in 1989, 22 years after his death, according to Major Jamie Dobson of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the unit responsible for recovering the remains of American servicemen who died on foreign battlefields. In an email from the command's Hawaii base, Dobson said the group has been unable to find Eisenbraun's remains despite information provided by Garwood and others. Excavations in 1994, 1995, 1997, 2004 and 2009 have been unsuccessful, and the command is now investigating the possibility that Eisenbraun's remains were moved.
Despite the attention given to Vietnam POW/MIA issues during the 1970s and after, Eisenbraun's story never quite made it into the mainstream. In 1993, a television movie called The Last P.O.W.?: The Bobby Garwood Story, featuring Martin Sheen as Eisenbraun, aired on ABC, but it was quickly dismissed as an alleged turncoat's attempt to salvage his reputation–in one scene, Sheen's Eisenbraun tells Ralph Macchio's Garwood, "Give in long enough for them to stop what they're doing. I am ordering you to survive."
Even in Orange County, long a hotbed for veterans' causes, little attention was given to Eisenbraun. In 1997, the Orange County chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) finally asked its parent organization's POW/MIA committee to press the American and Vietnamese governments on Eisenbraun's remains. "We're going to request to go out to that cemetery and see for ourselves," a VVA spokesperson told the Orange County Register at the time. "Then we'll start the ball rolling about getting these remains excavated and get the remains home."
Nothing came from those promises.
The Army's casualty office is responsible for keeping families of missing servicemen informed about developments in their loved ones' cases. Greg Gardner, chief of the casualty office's past conflict repatriations branch at Fort Knox, Kentucky, said his staff is in contact with Eisenbraun's family. But because of privacy laws and the open status of this particular case, he couldn't discuss what information his office has passed on to the family.
Dobson said his staff is as transparent as possible, giving graphic and detailed information, including pictures of the remains, to a family if they ask. "We're very clear with the family of what happened," he said. "We try to provide everything the family wants, but there are some documents that are classified and have to be redacted."
Gardner's staff doesn't classify documents, but it's a testament to the secretive nature of the government that families are not allowed to know every detail of their loved ones' cases 40 or more years after they went missing.
The frequency of the casualty office's contact with such families varies, Gardner said. Some demand frequent updates, while others are contacted on a monthly basis, even if there is nothing new to report. There are also families who only want to be contacted after remains have been identified. "Others request that we not contact them at all," he said.
"Sometimes, there just aren't any answers, and there are times when families don't like the answers we give them," Gardner added. "We owe it to them to tell them those details."
The staff from the casualty office is ready for the day when it can send a uniformed officer to knock on Eisenbraun's family's door and tell them he has finally come home.
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H.G. Reza served with MACV Advisory Team 3 from May 1967 to May 1968. The six-man team of U.S. Army and Australian Army advisers trained, lived and fought with a South Vietnamese Popular Forces militia company in northern Thua Thien Province in I Corps.