The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam
MISSING IN ACTION

The thought preys on the mind: there may still be some Americans there. Did we commit the soldier's cardinal sin—did we leave comrades on the battlefield? Two recent movies, Uncommon Valor and Missing in Action, have played upon that nagging doubt and, in bursts of satisfying action, sent their heroes in to save American POWs and, belatedly, our honor. The voice of Charlton Heston is on the phone across the country raising money for Operation Skyhook II, an organization dedicated to bringing home American POWs. When an admiral representing the White House spoke at a candlelight ceremony at the Washington Monument on the eve of Veterans Day, he was shouted down by a crowd of veterans yelling, "Bring them home!"

In Bangkok, before I entered Vietnam, l arranged an appointment with the men running the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), which since 1973 has been in charge of investigating whether any American POWs are still held by Vietnam. I spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Mather, an Air Force officer who has been negotiating with the Vietnamese off and on for more than ten years.

"We get down to work every morning, open our case files, and the war's on again," Mather told me. "I really don't know if there is anyone still there. There's so much mythology about this, but we have no proof that would stand up in court. We hear hundreds of secondhand accounts. We're always traveling up to the refugee camps to check the stories out. But we never seem to be able to find the guy who'll say, 'I'm the one who saw them.' The possibility is there; we operate on the assumption that it could be. And we're not just keeping a vigil here. We're getting results, particularly on returning the remains of our dead."

As I left the office of the JCRC, it came to me that the vast American war effort had been reduced to a few small offices, with copying machines and some computer printouts, where a handful of men come to work, open some files, and try to tie up nagging loose ends while everyone else goes on with his ambition and his career. There is something almost religious about their work, the attempt each day to raise Lazarus from the dead. But their operation is a backwater, one of those emotional, symbolic issues like the fate of the Kurds or the Baltic nations, that cool diplomats would just as soon have go away.

In Hanoi I met a Canadian named Michel Amiot, who has traveled all over Vietnam setting up family-planning clinics for the UN. He believes he has seen two Americans in postwar Vietnam. The first, a black woman, was in my opinion most likely a metis from the French war, not unlike women I saw outside Saigon. But the second fascinated me. "I was in a boat in the delta," Michel said, "when I saw this blond-haired white man in shorts walking along the bank. At first I thought he was a Russian, but he was muttering to himself, and as I came closer I could hear that he was muttering in English."

I was on the edge of my chain He took a sip of his coffee. "So what happened?" I asked.

He smiled. "When he saw me watching," he said, "he ducked into some bushes and was gone."

I heard several other stories like this: of a black man wandering about near the Swedish paper mill in Bao Bang, also muttering to himself in English; of the UNICEF man digging water wells in the delta who has seen "a few" Americans in hamlets. But as intriguing. as these stories are, they might all concern men who simply stayed behind. There are many Gls who never left Thailand; it is not unlikely that of the almost three million Americans who served in Vietnam a handful might have decided to stay. During the war there were Americans living in the back alleys of Saigon, junkies and hustlers and black-market kings acting out some Conrad fantasy; others may have fallen in love and moved into hamlets with their new families, disappearing beneath the opaque surface of Asia.

In Hue the vice-president of the provincial People's Committee told me an astonishing story. "We had young women who worked as prostitutes who opened up lines of communications with Americans. I would send them pamphlets and letters. After many months I had persuaded seven to join us. They left their posts and were traveling with us to the North, but we were caught by B-52s, and six were killed. The seventh fled back to the American lines. I heard he was severely punished, but I never saw him again."

Like the case of Bobby Garwood, this story nags at the imagination. Garwood was a Marine private who disappeared outside Da Nang in 1965 and then turned up again at a hotel in Hanoi in 1979. He became the only American POW tried for aiding the enemy. Garwood himself recently told The Wall Street Journal that he knew of at least 70 Americans still held captive—a claim he chose to make five years after his return. When Garwood was negotiating his departure from Vietnam, he said he knew of other captive Americans, but he later recanted that story, saying he had offered it only to make the Americans want to get him out. When I was talking to Vo Thi Lien, a survivor of My Lai, in Da Nang, one of her co-workers, Major Nguven Be, casually mentioned that he had led a scout unit near Da Nang and that he had spent a good deal of time with POWs. "Garwood was with me for a year," he said. "He was with us as a liberation fighter. He lived better than my other men, but he was always sick. We kept trying to send him to the North, but he refused."

Garwood has consistently claimed that he did not collaborate with the Viet Cong, that he was a prisoner like all the other Americans, but that his ability to speak Vietnamese forced him into a no-man's-land, where he was not trusted by the guards or the prisoners. But I had just been told casually that he had actively worked with the Viet Cong. Were there others like him. What had happened to them? Are there any left? I had dozens of questions, but I got no more answers. It was as if the curtain had been raised for an instant and I had seen a shadow of what lay behind it—but no more.

Co Dinh Ba is in charge of North American affairs at the Foreign Ministry. The MIA issue is his responsibility. Nor surprisingly, he dismissed the possibility that America, POWs were still in Southeast Asia. "They have all been released. There may be a handful who chose to stay here; the local authorities would know about them. But no one is being held here against his will."

"Finding information about the remains of MlAs is very difficult," he went on to say. "More than seventy-eight thousand Americans missing in the Second World War were never found. That's more than twenty-two percent of all the American dead. In Vietnam you say you have twenty-five hundred MIAs. That's only five percent of your dead. Still, we want to help. It is the humanitarian thing to do."

I asked why none of the remains of Americans on the original died-in-captivity list in the South had been returned, while all the names on the list in the North had been accounted for. "The fighting was very fierce there. The people are still bitter. And, listen, have you seen all those cemeteries of our heroes, all over Vietnam? Most of the bodies aren't buried there. Many thousands of our own dead were never found. Do we tell the people that the bodies of Americans are more important than the bodies of their own husbands and sons who died because of the Americans? We will keep looking, but frankly, it would help if we had better relations, if the people did not believe you were helping the Chinese in their—"

"Multifaceted war of aggression?" I said, echoing the phrase I had heard wherever I went.

"Exactly," he replied, with the air of a man congratulating a good pupil. Irony is an underdeveloped trait here.

Just off the Street of Victory Over the B-52s, in Hanoi, is a walled compound that holds the offices of FaFim, the agency that markets Vietnamese newsreels and documentaries. Inside are graceful one-story buildings of blue-green stucco and red tile roofs. Well-kept rosebushes surround a large pool. In one doorway a chicken strutted back and forth; in another two men in shorts were sharing a bamboo pipe, puffing contentedly. A young woman in high heels and jeans took me into a large room where I was shown movies about the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, including some brief clips of American POWs looking unrepentant. My interest in the films was genuine, but I was even more interested in where I was seeing them—in what had been the main room of the infamous POW prison known as "the Zoo."

Whenever I brought up the POWs, I invariably heard how well they had been treated. Bui Tin told me that on Christmas he would take ox or a turkey and a guitar and sit around singing folk songs. Pham Tuan, a jet pilot, said that he had visited POWs and shared informal talk about flying. Co Dinh Ba insisted that they got better rations than their guards. "Go and ask them yourself," said Pham Tuan. "They will tell you they were treated fairly."

Well, not exactly. The POWs have given eloquent and depressing accounts of their treatment in the Zoo and the "Hanoi Hilton"—the isolation, the interrogations, the torture, the forced confessions, the prisoners beaten to death. It is not a record that makes one feel comfortable about the fate of any Americans who might still be in Vietnam.

I returned from my trip believing that even if POWs were once there, they probably aren't there now. Live American POWs have long since lost any value to the Vietnamese, would in fact be an embarrassment—how, after all these years, would the Vietnamese explain them? Despite their ingrained inability to throw anything away, their determination to hang on to everything until, someday, it has a use, even the Vietnamese recognize when something has out-lived all possible value. And when they realize that, they, like anyone else, get rid of it. This is my rational conclusion. But just as I was leaving Saigon, I learned that the Vietnamese had "discovered" a tourist from Hong Gong whom they had captured in 1975, and who—unknown to the world—had been lost in their prisons for almost ten years. Who else, comes the nagging thought, is in there?

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