Time in a Bottle: American POWs Left Behind in Vietnam

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July 3, 2007

It was, I suppose, otherwise a typical overnight for me; listening to Coast To Coast AM in the wee hours of this past May 30th. The subject matter, however, was such as I had not visited since at least the 1980s, when Rambo-type movies were in vogue -- Uncommon Valor (loosely based on true events) is one which comes to mind. It all made for great cinema, though something perhaps to be taken as a means by which hardline right-wingers were able to assimilate the loss of the Vietnam Conflict -- a first, after all, in the American warfare experience.

But as per the aforementioned broadcast, a recent book by former North Carolina congressman Bill Hendon and attorney Elizabeth A. Stewart, An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POW's Abandoned in Southeast Asia now brings forward evidence that some 500 to 600 surviving former U.S. airmen and infantry were in fact marooned by the government for which they went to war, and to this day remain unacknowledged by same, in spite of decades during which they have bravely signaled for help, and in which numerous refugees and visitors from Indochina have in turn corroborated their pleas -- all to no avail.

To begin to understand this travesty, it's important to go back to the beginning: In 1972, as it became apparent to the Nixon administration that the conflict was a failure, negotiations began with the Vietnamese to settle scores. At issue was the return of American POWs. At first, the Vietnamese seemed agreeable enough to releasing all prisoners in their custody, pending a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam . But there was a snag. None other than Fidel Castro, who had sent numerous Cuban "advisors" to Vietnam during the war (many of whom were alleged to have initially been there for the mere purpose of teaching torture techniques to be used on Americans held captive), himself advised a page from his very own playbook. In the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, Castro successfully forced the Kennedy administration into paying the equivalent of a $52 million ransom for the safe return of the 1,200 or so captured insurgents a year later. His counsel was taken seriously by the North Vietnamese (and in turn Castro's men trained Vietnamese troops in effective capture techniques), and as the Paris Peace Accords moved forward during late 1972 and early 1973, a deal was struck whereby half of the approximately 1,400 U.S. POWs held by North Vietnam would be released once military withdrawal began. The other half would then be released upon receipt of $4.75 billion in war reparations by the North Vietnamese government. The initial 700 or so American soldiers held captive were flown out of Hanoi in the so-called "Freedom Birds" during Operation Homecoming later in 1973. The funds were set to be dispersed in accordance with the treaty. All seemed well.

Enter Watergate. With the Nixon administration now both disgraced and besieged, transfer of the funds to North Vietnam was placed on indefinite hold. Nixon & Co. simply couldn't weather another political scandal which would once again raise the specter of the war, accompanied by what, in 1973 Federal Reserve Notes, was a very hefty sum. Thus, in the name of sheer political expedience, Nixon, in the throes of his own presidential demise, told the American public: "All American POWs have been brought home." Yet virtually all Washington insiders knew for certain that this was a boldfaced lie.

In the years that followed, successive presidential administrations, members of Congress, and lower-level agency bureaucrats had their own ever-shifting reasons to continue to ignore and/or outright obfuscate the truth regarding the issue of surviving POWs scattered across Southeast Asia . With Carter, it was the public's desire to put Vietnam behind them, and later, the Iranian hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan began to express interest in an earnest renewal of investigations in the early 1980s, but the "problem" then existing was that the fragile U.S.-backed El Salvadoran government was under serious threat of overthrow by Russian- and Cuban-trained leftist rebels, and Nicaragua didn't look far behind. So menaced by this did the Reaganites feel that presidential advisors opined that it might actually become "necessary" to overtly place U.S. troops into Central America in order to halt the spread of communism. How would it look to the American public if this occurred whilst it was full-well known that U.S. servicemen were still held captive in Vietnam , Laos , Cambodia , and elsewhere? The idea (other than the privately-funded though botched attempt which inspired the aforementioned film) was thus shelved.

As the '80s gave way to the '90s, and the collapse of western communism took the world stage ("officially" anyway), re-engagement of Vietnam by the U.S. government became a priority. Thus George H.W. Bush helped maintain the coverup of mounting evidence that hundreds of POWs still survived in Indochina, as did Bill Clinton, who himself struck down all sanctions and embargoes against Vietnam in 1995. Just three years earlier, U.S. spy satellite photos (like the one accompanying this article, taken in 1988) revealed formerly classified USAF and USN "escape and evasion" codes from the 1960s and early '70s (the "Walking K" is featured under the letters " USA " in the accompanying photo). Some even included airman-specific 4-digit authenticator codes proving almost conclusively that as of 1992, U.S. airmen downed in Vietnam during the war remained alive and were signaling for help. Yet, as Hendon and Stewart's meticulous research indicates, bureaucrats at the Defense Intelligence Agency ( DIA ), and within the Clinton administration actively sought (as had prior U.S. governments) to close investigations in all of these cases. They had help. Nancy Kassebaum and Tom Daschle, even John Kerry and John McCain -- both Vietnam veterans, McCain a former POW himself -- were vigorous participants in "debunking" and even destroying documentation, intelligence reports, and satellite photography (often referring to the visible markings in such photos as the accompanying one as "shading" or "anomalies"). Indeed, now under George W. Bush's watch, these atrocious examples of disregard for the desperate pleas of these living POWs continues. As does the flood of eyewitness accounts from Indochinese immigrants and visitors to the West, and satellite images containing '60s-era "E & E" codes. All are officially ignored.

During any Coast To Coast AM broadcast, there is, both before and after commercial breaks, what's called "bumper music." Usually the music and/or lyrics will go along with the subject matter. For American POWs still held over in Southeast Asia from the Vietnam Conflict, it must've been a tough call. A couple of patent '60s tunes were played, like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." But the one which truly moved me the most, the one which nigh well brought me to tears about three-quarters of the way through the night, was "Time In A Bottle" from the late, great Jim Croce. Something about that haunting, sad melody; something about "never seems to be enough time to do the things you wanna do . . . ."

According to Elizabeth A. Stewart's research, the average age of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam was 19. For the 500 or 600 of them estimated to still be alive, they have spent 35 to 40 years or more in captivity, under some of the harshest conditions imaginable. And the U.S. government, knowing this, has simply disregarded them as though they don't exist.

For these men, all of these long years have indeed been time spent in a bottle. Cut off from the outside world for decades; their last memories of friends and family but dim, sepia-toned recollections from a time when Lyndon Johnson and hippies and mini-skirts still walked the earth, they have remained in dirty, dingy cells. They have been forced to perform backbreaking manual labor in jungles and rice fields as if they were little more than cattle. They have been marched from secret prison to secret prison, shuffled around like so many tin soldiers in some sadistic child's game. They have been beaten, underfed, confined underground, and forbidden even the most meager of comforts. And still, in a 21st Century world which has long since moved on, they signal for help. And still, no one comes.

Governments, we know, are capable of the most heinous and hideous atrocities possible -- whether as the result of bureaucratic bungling, or through deliberate mendacity. Here, in the case of these few hundred brave and extraordinary men, the State has provided us with an example par excellence of its hideous malevolence. Given its history -- in general as well as to this specific matter -- I hold little hope those responsible will reverse course, or ever even be made to answer for leaving these poor souls behind to die in cages, broken and old.

That leaves you and I. I've done what I can do; what I do least badly, at any rate. What about you?

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Alex R. Knight III's picture
Columns on STR: 113

Alex R. Knight III is the author of numerous horror, science-fiction, and fantasy tales, including Tales from Dark 7.  He has also written and published poetry; non-fiction articles, reviews, and essays for a variety of venues; and is former Communications Director for the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire.  In 1998, he was awarded Activist of the Year for that organization.  He now lives and writes in rural southern Vermont where he holds a B.A. in Literature & Writing from Union Institute & University, and looks forward to living in a governmentless society of liberty.