The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam
Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. This is an expanded version, with primary documents attached, of a story that appears in the October 6, 2008 issue of The Nation.
By Sydney H. Schanberg
John McCain, who has risen to political prominence on his image as a Vietnam POW war hero, has, inexplicably, worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn’t return home. Throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and pushed into federal law a set of prohibitions that keep the most revealing information about these men buried as classified documents. Thus the war hero who people would logically imagine as a determined crusader for the interests of POWs and their families became instead the strange champion of hiding the evidence and closing the books.
Almost as striking is the manner in which the mainstream press has shied from reporting the POW story and McCain’s role in it, even as the Republican Party has made McCain’s military service the focus of his presidential campaign. Reporters who had covered the Vietnam War turned their heads and walked in other directions. McCain doesn’t talk about the missing men, and the press never asks him about them.
The sum of the secrets McCain has sought to hide is not small. There exists a telling mass of official documents, radio intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to airmen, a rescue mission by a special forces unit that was aborted twice by Washington—and even sworn testimony by two Defense secretaries that “men were left behind.” This imposing body of evidence suggests that a large number—the documents indicate probably hundreds—of the US prisoners held by Vietnam were not returned when the peace treaty was signed in January 1973 and Hanoi released 591 men, among them Navy combat pilot John S. McCain.
Mass of Evidence
The Pentagon had been withholding significant information from POW families for years. What’s more, the Pentagon’s POW/MIA operation had been publicly shamed by internal whistleblowers and POW families for holding back documents as part of a policy of “debunking” POW intelligence even when the information was obviously credible.
The pressure from the families and Vietnam veterans finally forced the creation, in late 1991, of a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The chairman was John Kerry. McCain, as a former POW, was its most pivotal member. In the end, the committee became part of the debunking machine.
One of the sharpest critics of the Pentagon’s performance was an insider, Air Force Lieut. Gen. Eugene Tighe, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) during the 1970s. He openly challenged the Pentagon’s position that no live prisoners existed, saying that the evidence proved otherwise. McCain was a bitter opponent of Tighe, who was eventually pushed into retirement.
Included in the evidence that McCain and his government allies suppressed or sought to discredit is a transcript of a senior North Vietnamese general’s briefing of the Hanoi politburo, discovered in Soviet archives by an American scholar in 1993. The briefing took place only four months before the 1973 peace accords. The general, Tran Van Quang, told the politburo members that Hanoi was holding 1,205 American prisoners but would keep many of them at war’s end as leverage to ensure getting war reparations from Washington.
Throughout the Paris negotiations, the North Vietnamese tied the prisoner issue tightly to the issue of reparations. They were adamant in refusing to deal with them separately. Finally, in a February 2, 1973, formal letter to Hanoi’s premier, Pham Van Dong, Nixon pledged $3.25 billion in “postwar reconstruction” aid “without any political conditions.” But he also attached to the letter a codicil that said the aid would be implemented by each party “in accordance with its own constitutional provisions.” That meant Congress would have to approve the appropriation, and Nixon and Kissinger knew well that Congress was in no mood to do so. The North Vietnamese, whether or not they immediately understood the double-talk in the letter, remained skeptical about the reparations promise being honored – and it never was. Hanoi thus appears to have held back prisoners—just as it had done when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and withdrew their forces from Vietnam. In that case, France paid ransoms for prisoners and brought them home.
In a private briefing in 1992, high-level CIA officials told me that as the years passed and the ransom never came, it became more and more difficult for either government to admit that it knew from the start about the unacknowledged prisoners. Those prisoners had not only become useless as bargaining chips but also posed a risk to Hanoi’s desire to be accepted into the international community. The CIA officials said their intelligence indicated strongly that the remaining men—those who had not died from illness or hard labor or torture—were eventually executed.
My own research, detailed below, has convinced me that it is not likely that more than a few—if any—are alive in captivity today. (That CIA briefing at the agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters was conducted “off the record,” but because the evidence from my own reporting since then has brought me to the same conclusion, I felt there was no longer any point in not writing about the meeting.)
For many reasons, including the absence of a political constituency for the missing men other than their families and some veterans’ groups, very few Americans are aware of the POW story and of McCain’s role in keeping it out of public view and denying the existence of abandoned POWs. That is because McCain has hardly been alone in his campaign to hide the scandal.
The Arizona Senator, now the Republican candidate for President, has actually been following the lead of every White House since Richard Nixon’s and thus of every CIA director, Pentagon chief and national security advisor, not to mention Dick Cheney, who was George H. W. Bush’s defense secretary. Their biggest accomplice has been an indolent press, particularly in Washington.
An early and critical McCain secrecy move involved 1990 legislation that started in the House of Representatives. A brief and simple document, it was called “the Truth Bill” and would have compelled complete transparency about prisoners and missing men. Its core sentence reads: “[The] head of each department or agency which holds or receives any records and information, including live-sighting reports, which have been correlated or possibly correlated to United States personnel listed as prisoner of war or missing in action from World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam conflict, shall make available to the public all such records held or received by that department or agency.”
Bitterly opposed by the Pentagon (and thus McCain), the bill went nowhere. Reintroduced the following year, it again disappeared. But a few months later, a new measure, known as “the McCain Bill,” suddenly appeared. By creating a bureaucratic maze from which only a fraction of the documents could emerge—only records that revealed no POW secrets—it turned the Truth Bill on its head. (See one example, at left, when the Pentagon cited McCain’s bill in rejecting a FOIA request.) The McCain bill became law in 1991 and remains so today. So crushing to transparency are its provisions that it actually spells out for the Pentagon and other agencies several rationales, scenarios and justifications for not releasing any information at all—even about prisoners discovered alive in captivity. Later that year, the Senate Select Committee was created, where Kerry and McCain ultimately worked together to bury evidence.
McCain was also instrumental in amending the Missing Service Personnel Act, which had been strengthened in 1995 by POW advocates to include criminal penalties, saying: “Any government official who knowingly and willfully withholds from the file of a missing person any information relating to the disappearance or whereabouts and status of a missing person shall be fined as provided in Title 18 or imprisoned not more than one year or both.” A year later, in a closed House-Senate conference on an unrelated military bill, McCain, at the behest of the Pentagon, attached a crippling amendment to the act, stripping out its only enforcement teeth, the criminal penalties, and reducing the obligations of commanders in the field to speedily search for missing men and to report the incidents to the Pentagon.
About the relaxation of POW/MIA obligations on commanders in the field, a public McCain memo said: “This transfers the bureaucracy involved out of the [battle] field to Washington.” He wrote that the original legislation, if left intact, “would accomplish nothing but create new jobs for lawyers and turn military commanders into clerks.”
McCain argued that keeping the criminal penalties would have made it impossible for the Pentagon to find staffers willing to work on POW/MIA matters. That’s an odd argument to make. Were staffers only “willing to work” if they were allowed to conceal POW records? By eviscerating the law, McCain gave his stamp of approval to the government policy of debunking the existence of live POWs.
McCain has insisted again and again that all the evidence—documents, witnesses, satellite photos, two Pentagon chiefs’ sworn testimony, aborted rescue missions, ransom offers apparently scorned—has been woven together by unscrupulous deceivers to create an insidious and unpatriotic myth. He calls it the “bizarre rantings of the MIA hobbyists.” He has regularly vilified those who keep trying to pry out classified documents as “hoaxers,” charlatans,” “conspiracy theorists” and “dime-store Rambos.”
Some of McCain’s fellow captives at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi didn’t share his views about prisoners left behind. Before he died of leukemia in 1999, retired Col. Ted Guy, a highly admired POW and one of the most dogged resisters in the camps, wrote an angry open letter to the senator in an MIA newsletter—a response to McCain’s stream of insults hurled at MIA activists. Guy wrote: “John, does this [the insults] include Senator Bob Smith [a New Hampshire Republican and activist on POW issues] and other concerned elected officials? Does this include the families of the missing where there is overwhelming evidence that their loved ones were ‘last known alive’? Does this include some of your fellow POWs?”
It’s not clear whether the taped confession McCain gave to his captors to avoid further torture has played a role in his post-war behavior in the Senate. That confession was played endlessly over the prison loudspeaker system at Hoa Lo—to try to break down other prisoners—and was broadcast over Hanoi’s state radio. Reportedly, he confessed to being a war criminal who had bombed civilian targets. The Pentagon has a copy of the confession but will not release it. Also, no outsider I know of has ever seen a non-redacted copy of the debriefing of McCain when he returned from captivity, which is classified but could be made public by McCain. (See the Pentagon’s rejection of my attempt to obtain records of this debriefing, at left.)
All humans have breaking points. Many men undergoing torture give confessions, often telling huge lies so their fakery will be understood by their comrades and their country. Few will fault them. But it was McCain who apparently felt he had disgraced himself and his military family. His father, John S. McCain II, was a highly regarded rear admiral then serving as commander of all US forces in the Pacific. His grandfather was also a rear admiral.
In his bestselling 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, McCain says he felt bad throughout his captivity because he knew he was being treated more leniently than his fellow POWs, owing to his high-ranking father and thus his propaganda value. Other prisoners at Hoa Lo say his captors considered him a prize catch and called him the “Crown Prince,” something McCain acknowledges in the book.
Also in this memoir, McCain expresses guilt at having broken under torture and given the confession. “I felt faithless and couldn’t control my despair,” he writes, revealing that he made two “feeble” attempts at suicide. (In later years, he said he tried to hang himself with his shirt and guards intervened.) Tellingly, he says he lived in “dread” that his father would find out about the confession. “I still wince,” he writes, “when I recall wondering if my father had heard of my disgrace.”
He says that when he returned home, he told his father about the confession, but “never discussed it at length”—and the Admiral, who died in 1981, didn’t indicate he had heard anything about it before. But he had. In the 1999 memoir, the senator writes: “I only recently learned that the tape…had been broadcast outside the prison and had come to the attention of my father.”
Is McCain haunted by these memories? Does he suppress POW information because its surfacing would rekindle his feelings of shame? On this subject, all I have are questions.
Many stories have been written about McCain’s explosive temper, so volcanic that colleagues are loathe to speak openly about it. One veteran congressman who has observed him over the years asked for confidentiality and made this brief comment: “This is a man not at peace with himself.”
He was certainly far from calm on the Senate POW committee. He browbeat expert witnesses who came with information about unreturned POWs. Family members who have personally faced McCain and pressed him to end the secrecy also have been treated to his legendary temper. He has screamed at them, insulted them, brought women to tears. Mostly his responses to them have been versions of: How dare you question my patriotism? In 1996, he roughly pushed aside a group of POW family members who had waited outside a hearing room to appeal to him, including a mother in a wheelchair.
But even without answers to what may be hidden in the recesses of McCain’s mind, one thing about the POW story is clear: If American prisoners were dishonored by being written off and left to die, that’s something the American public ought to know about.
10 Key Pieces of Evidence That Men Were Left Behind
1. In Paris, where the Vietnam peace treaty was negotiated, the United States asked Hanoi for the list of American prisoners to be returned, fearing that Hanoi would hold some prisoners back. The North Vietnamese refused, saying they would produce the list only after the treaty was signed. Nixon agreed with Kissinger that they had no leverage left, and Kissinger signed the accord on January 27, 1973, without the prisoner list. When Hanoi produced its list of 591 prisoners the next day, US intelligence agencies expressed shock at the low number. Their number was hundreds higher. The New York Times published a long, page-one story on February 2, 1973, about the discrepancy, especially raising questions about the number of prisoners held in Laos, only nine of whom were being returned. The headline read, in part: “Laos POW List Shows 9 from US —Document Disappointing to Washington as 311 Were Believed Missing.” And the story, by John Finney, said that other Washington officials “believe the number of prisoners [in Laos] is probably substantially higher.” The paper never followed up with any serious investigative reporting—nor did any other mainstream news organization.
2. Two defense secretaries who served during the Vietnam War testified to the Senate POW committee in September 1992 that prisoners were not returned. James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, both speaking at a public session and under oath, said they based their conclusions on strong intelligence data—letters, eyewitness reports, even direct radio contacts. Under questioning, Schlesinger chose his words carefully, understanding clearly the volatility of the issue: “I think that as of now that I can come to no other conclusion…some were left behind.” This ran counter to what President Nixon told the public in a nationally televised speech on March 29, 1973, when the repatriation of the 591 was in motion: “Tonight,” Nixon said, “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come. For the first time in twelve years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All our American POWs are on their way home.” Documents unearthed since then show that aides had already briefed Nixon about the contrary evidence.
Schlesinger was asked by the Senate committee for his explanation of why President Nixon would have made such a statement when he knew Hanoi was still holding prisoners. He replied: “One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position of the United States…was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roil the waters…” This testimony struck me as a bombshell. The New York Times appropriately reported it on page one but again there was no sustained follow-up by the Times or any other major paper or national news outlet.
3. Over the years, the DIA received more than 1,600 first-hand sightings of live American prisoners and nearly 14,000 second-hand reports. Many witnesses interrogated by CIA or Pentagon intelligence agents were deemed “credible” in the agents’ reports. Some of the witnesses were given lie-detector tests and passed. Sources provided me with copies of these witness reports, which are impressive in their detail. A lot of the sightings described a secondary tier of prison camps many miles from Hanoi. Yet the DIA, after reviewing all these reports, concluded that they “do not constitute evidence” that men were alive.
4. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, listening stations picked up messages in which Laotian military personnel spoke about moving American prisoners from one labor camp to another. These listening posts were manned by Thai communications officers trained by the National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors signals worldwide. The NSA teams had moved out after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and passed the job to the Thai allies. But when the Thais turned these messages over to Washington, the intelligence community ruled that since the intercepts were made by a “third party”—namely Thailand—they could not be regarded as authentic. That’s some Catch-22: The US trained a third party to take over its role in monitoring signals about POWs, but because that third party did the monitoring, the messages weren’t valid.
Here, from CIA files, is an example that clearly exposes the farce. On December 27, 1980, a Thai military signal team picked up a message saying that prisoners were being moved out of Attopeu (in southern Laos) by aircraft “at 1230 hours.” Three days later a message was sent from the CIA station in Bangkok to the CIA director’s office in Langley. It read, in part: “The prisoners…are now in the valley in permanent location (a prison camp at Nhommarath in Central Laos). They were transferred from Attopeu to work in various places…POWs were formerly kept in caves and are very thin, dark and starving.” Apparently the prisoners were real. But the transmission was declared “invalid” by Washington because the information came from a “third party” and thus could not be deemed credible.
5. A series of what appeared to be distress signals from Vietnam and Laos were captured by the government’s satellite system in the late 1980s and early ’90s. (Before that period, no search for such signals had been put in place.) Not a single one of these markings was ever deemed credible. To the layman’s eye, the satellite photos, some of which I’ve seen, show markings on the ground that are identical to the signals that American pilots had been specifically trained to use in their survival courses—such as certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special way. Other markings were the secret four-digit authenticator numbers given to individual pilots. But time and again, the Pentagon, backed by the CIA, insisted that humans had not made these markings. What were they, then? “Shadows and vegetation,” the government said, insisting that the markings were merely normal topographical contours like saw-grass or rice-paddy divider walls. It was the automatic response—shadows and vegetation. On one occasion, a Pentagon photo expert refused to go along. It was a missing man’s name gouged into a field, he said, not trampled grass or paddy berms. His bosses responded by bringing in an outside contractor who found instead, yes, shadows and vegetation. This refrain led Bob Taylor, a highly regarded investigator on the Senate committee staff who had examined the photographic evidence, to comment to me: “If grass can spell out people’s names and a secret digit codes, then I have a newfound respect for grass.”
6. On November 11, 1992, Dolores Alfond, the sister of missing airman Capt. Victor Apodaca and chair of the National Alliance of Families, an organization of relatives of POW/MIAs, testified at one of the Senate committee’s public hearings. She asked for information about data the government had gathered from electronic devices used in a classified program known as PAVE SPIKE.
The devices were motion sensors, dropped by air, designed to pick up enemy troop movements. Shaped on one end like a spike with an electronic pod and antenna on top, they were designed to stick in the ground as they fell. Air Force planes would drop them along the Ho Chi Minh trail and other supply routes. The devices, though primarily sensors, also had rescue capabilities. Someone on the ground—a downed airman or a prisoner on a labor gang —could manually enter data into the sensor. All data were regularly collected electronically by US planes flying overhead. Alfond stated, without any challenge or contradiction by the committee, that in 1974, a year after the supposedly complete return of prisoners, the gathered data showed that a person or people had manually entered into the sensors—as US pilots had been trained to do—”no less than 20 authenticator numbers that corresponded exactly to the classified authenticator numbers of 20 US POWs who were lost in Laos.” Alfond added, according to the transcript: “This PAVE SPIKE intelligence is seamless, but the committee has not discussed it or released what it knows about PAVE SPIKE.”
McCain attended that committee hearing specifically to confront Alfond because of her criticism of the panel’s work. He bellowed and berated her for quite a while. His face turning anger-pink, he accused her of “denigrating” his “patriotism.” The bullying had its effect—she began to cry.
After a pause Alfond recovered and tried to respond to his scorching tirade, but McCain simply turned away and stormed out of the room. The PAVE SPIKE file has never been declassified. We still don’t know anything about those twenty POWs.
7. As previously mentioned, in April 1993, in a Moscow archive, a researcher from Harvard, Stephen Morris, unearthed and made public the transcript of a briefing that General Tran Van Quang gave to the Hanoi politburo four months before the signing of the Paris peace accords in 1973.
In the transcript, General Quang told the Hanoi politburo that 1,205 US prisoners were being held. Quang said that many of the prisoners would be held back from Washington after the accords as bargaining chips for war reparations. General Quang’s report added: “This is a big number. Officially, until now, we published a list of only 368 prisoners of war. The rest we have not revealed. The government of the USA knows this well, but it does not know the exact number…and can only make guesses based on its losses. That is why we are keeping the number of prisoners of war secret, in accordance with the politburo’s instructions.” The report then went on to explain in clear and specific language that a large number would be kept back to ensure reparations.
The reaction to the document was immediate. After two decades of denying it had kept any prisoners, Hanoi responded to the revelation by calling the transcript a fabrication.
Similarly, Washington—which had over the same two decades refused to recant Nixon’s declaration that all the prisoners had been returned—also shifted into denial mode. The Pentagon issued a statement saying the document “is replete with errors, omissions and propaganda that seriously damage its credibility,” and that the numbers were “inconsistent with our own accounting.”
Neither American nor Vietnamese officials offered any rationale for who would plant a forged document in the Soviet archives and why they would do so. Certainly neither Washington nor Moscow—closely allied with Hanoi—would have any motive, since the contents were embarrassing to all parties, and since both the United States and Vietnam had consistently denied the existence of unreturned prisoners. The Russian archivists simply said the document was “authentic.”
8. In his 2002 book, Inside Delta Force, Retired Command Sgt. Major Eric Haney described how in 1981 his special forces unit, after rigorous training for a POW rescue mission, had the mission suddenly aborted, revived a year later and again abruptly aborted. Haney writes that this abandonment of captured soldiers ate at him for years and left him disillusioned about his government’s vows to leave no men behind.
“Years later, I spoke at length with a former highly placed member of the North Vietnamese diplomatic corps, and this person asked me point-blank: ‘Why did the Americans never attempt to recover their remaining POWs after the conclusion of the war?'” Haney writes. He continued, saying that he came to believe senior government officials had called off those missions in 1981 and 1982. (His account is on pages 314 to 321 of my paperback copy of the book.)
9. There is also evidence that in the first months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981, the White House received a ransom proposal for a number of POWs being held by Hanoi in Indochina. The offer, which was passed to Washington from an official of a third country, was apparently discussed at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room attended by Reagan, Vice-President Bush, CIA director William Casey and National Security Advisor Richard Allen. Allen confirmed the offer in sworn testimony to the Senate POW committee on June 23, 1992.
Allen was allowed to testify behind closed doors and no information was released. But a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, Robert Caldwell, obtained the portion relating to the ransom offer and reported on it. The ransom request was for $4 billion, Allen testified. He said he told Reagan that “it would be worth the president’s going along and let’s have the negotiation.” When his testimony appeared in the Union Tribune, Allen quickly wrote a letter to the panel, this time not under oath, recanting the ransom story and claiming his memory had played tricks on him. His new version was that some POW activists had asked him about such an offer in a meeting that took place in 1986, when he was no longer in government. “It appears,” he said in the letter, “that there never was a 1981 meeting about the return of POW/MIAs for $4 billion.”
But the episode didn’t end there. A Treasury agent on Secret Service duty in the White House, John Syphrit, came forward to say he had overheard part of the ransom conversation in the Roosevelt Room in 1981, when the offer was discussed by Reagan, Bush, Casey, Allen and other cabinet officials.
Syphrit, a veteran of the Vietnam War, told the committee he was willing to testify but they would have to subpoena him. Treasury opposed his appearance, arguing that voluntary testimony would violate the trust between the Secret Service and those it protects. It was clear that coming in on his own could cost Syphrit his career. The committee voted 7 to 4 not to subpoena him.
In the committee’s final report, dated January 13, 1993 (on page 284), the panel not only chastised Syphrit for his failure to testify without a subpoena (“The committee regrets that the Secret Service agent was unwilling…”), but noted that since Allen had recanted his testimony about the Roosevelt Room briefing, Syphrit’s testimony would have been “at best, uncorroborated by the testimony of any other witness.” The committee omitted any mention that it had made a decision not to ask the other two surviving witnesses, Bush and Reagan, to give testimony under oath. (Casey had died.)
10. In 1990, Colonel Millard Peck, a decorated infantry veteran of Vietnam then working at the DIA as chief of the Asia Division for Current Intelligence, asked for the job of chief of the DIA’s Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. His reason for seeking the transfer, which was not a promotion, was that he had heard from officials throughout the Pentagon that the POW/MIA office had been turned into a waste-disposal unit for getting rid of unwanted evidence about live prisoners—a “black hole,” these officials called it.
Peck explained all this in his telling resignation letter of February 12, 1991, eight months after he had taken the job. He said he viewed it as “sort of a holy crusade” to restore the integrity of the office but was defeated by the Pentagon machine. The four-page, single-spaced letter was scathing, describing the putative search for missing men as “a cover-up.”
Peck charged that, at its top echelons, the Pentagon had embraced a “mind-set to debunk” all evidence of prisoners left behind. “That national leaders continue to address the prisoner of war and missing in action issue as the ‘highest national priority,’ is a travesty,” he wrote. “The entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort, and may never have been….Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow through on any of the sightings, nor is there a responsive ‘action arm’ to routinely and aggressively pursue leads.”
“I became painfully aware,” his letter continued, “that I was not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of players outside of DIA…I feel strongly that this issue is being manipulated and controlled at a higher level, not with the goal of resolving it, but more to obfuscate the question of live prisoners and give the illusion of progress through hyperactivity.” He named no names but said these players are “unscrupulous people in the Government or associated with the Government” who “have maintained their distance and remained hidden in the shadows, while using the [POW] Office as a ‘toxic waste dump’ to bury the whole ‘mess’ out of sight.” Peck added that “military officers…who in some manner have ‘rocked the boat’ [have] quickly come to grief.”
Peck concluded: “From what I have witnessed, it appears that any soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was, in fact, abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is no more than political legerdemain done with ‘smoke and mirrors’ to stall the issue until it dies a natural death.”
The disillusioned Colonel not only resigned but asked to be retired immediately from active military service. The press never followed up.
Hat tip to: http://stevemdfp.blogspot.com/
AFP & others have said it for years; now proof emerges U.S. soldiers still held in Southeast Asian camps
By Christopher J. Petherick
There is new evidence that American GIs are being held against their will in Southeast Asia more than three decades after the Vietnam War officially ended. A letter recently received by the father of a U.S. pilot, who went missing in action in 1971, could provide a key piece of information that proves American prisoners of war are alive and imprisoned in remote areas of South Vietnam.
Over the years, historians, researchers and independent journalists have made a compelling case that, during the Cold War, thousands of U.S. POWs were moved among Soviet, Chinese and North Korean labor camps, where they toiled and died under the worst conditions.
Families of POWs and MIAs say the U.S. government has turned a blind eye to the plight of these men, even going so far as to sabotage their efforts at finding out what exactly happened to their loved ones.*
But Joe Milliner’s incredible story of his son, told at the June 20 meeting of the National Alliance of POW/MIA Families in Crystal City, Va., could change all of that. Documentation compiled by Milliner could finally force the country to come to terms with the fact that thousands of Americans were abandoned by the U.S.
There is confusion over what happened to Milliner’s son, U.S. Army Warrant Officer William P. Milliner, when the helicopter he was co-piloting disappeared on March 6, 1971. What is known is that William, who was 20 years old at the time, was the co-pilot on an AH1G Cobra helicopter gunship. He was returning from a combat support mission over Laos when he disappeared in cloudy weather.
The military reportedly dispatched a search-and-rescue team to locate William and the pilot of the helicopter, John F. Hummel. Tragically, the two were never located, and the Army eventually gave up looking for them. Over the years, the Milliner family has never given up hope that their son would be found. As with many families of missing soldiers, the U.S. military has been unhelpful, some would even say willfully obstructing honest inquiries into what happened to lost loved ones.
However, recent events have renewed the Milliner’s faith that William is alive and is being held in Southeast Asia against his will, possibly as a slave laborer. The first occasion came as a result of a classified document, which was given to Milliner by a source inside the Pentagon who is sympathetic to MIA-POW families.
The official document was dated Oct. 4, 1989, and reports of a Thai businessman who said U.S. citizens, including a “William P. Milliner,” are being held in a dangerous “no-man’s land” controlled by thugs and warlords in a mountainous region in Laos.
A Thai businessman said he could secure William’s release if the U.S. government were willing to pay a ransom. According to Milliner, U.S. officials shot down any discussion of a reward, effectively killing off any hopes of freeing the American.
Were it not for his friend at the Pentagon, Milliner said the classified account of the exchange between U.S. officials in Thailand and the unnamed businessman was slated to be archived for 50 years and would not be released—even to family members—until 2039.
Since that time, Milliner says that there have been sporadic sightings of his son, including another U.S. document that claims warlords were seeking only $1,800 for the release of his son.
But the most compelling piece of evidence arrived just last year in the form of a letter from a doctor who had been working in Cambodia. According to Milliner, the physician’s account proves to him that his son is still alive somewhere in the jungle.
In September 2007, Milliner says, he received an unsigned letter from someone claiming to be a physician working in Cambodia and Laos.
The doctor wrote that, in early September 2007, he had treated an American man with certain tell-tale wounds. The doctor said that the patient was suffering from a poor amputation of his arm. He also described certain scars that matched other sightings of William that the Milliners have collected over the years.
The doctor said he was unnerved by the extent of secrecy surrounding this patient. He had been driven through the jungle for what he described as a long time, and he was allowed to bring just a few medical instruments and medicine—but no assistants.
The doctor wrote that the guards kept a close watch over this patient. However, in a free moment, the man said in perfect English, punctuated by some Vietnamese, that he is an American being held against his will.
Milliner received that letter in September of last year. Since then, Milliner says he believes the doctor now fears for his life and has gone into hiding. Over the years, he says, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have both undermined efforts to help Americans who are still being held against their will. McCain and Kerry have both weighed in against offering reward money for the release of U.S. citizens who may still be in captivity in Laos, Vietnam, China and North Korea, said Milliner.
Tuesday, 17 June 2008
by Chris Floyd
We don’t say too much about John McCain around here, for the same basic reason that we don’t talk a lot about Osama bin Laden: a dislike of wasting people’s time by belaboring the obvious.
Bin Laden is a murderous, pompous rich boy with a third-rate mind — which, of course, made him excellent front-man fodder first for the CIA and then for the extremists created by the torture factories of American-backed tyrannies. (Those personal qualities would have also made bin Laden an excellent candidate for President of the United States, as we saw in his Texas doppelganger’s races in 2000 and 2004.) There seems little point in continually denouncing the self-evident malignity of this wretch and his cronies — who have been inflated into world-historical figures by the desperate need of the American militarists to justify their own world-encircling agenda of loot and domination.
Similarly, it seems a bit redundant to point out that John McCain is an obviously crazed and dazed third-rater who is quite willing to walk over endless mounds of the innocent dead in order to grasp — for the briefest time, at the faltering, burnt-out end of his life — the filthy rag of power. Anyone who hasn’t already realized this glaring fact is certainly not going to be convinced otherwise by anything I say. And anyone who already knows it needs no further illumination on this point.
Still, there are times when an examination of the pathology of these malevolent characters can prove enlightenting. Douglas Valentine provides an example of this in his new piece at CounterPunch. In delving into the past of the would-be “warrior President,” the “new Teddy Roosevelt” of media myth, Valentine first gives us a bellyful of what war is really like, telling the story of his father, who served in the Pacific theater during the last “good war” — World War II. He draws a sharp contrast between the experience of the grunts on the ground and the “glory boys” like John McCain who sail high above the fray to “drop bombs on cities, on civilians, maybe on enemy forces, maybe on your own troops.” He then explores the still-mysterious record of what really happened to John McCain during the period that is the sine qua non of his entire public life: his years as a POW in Vietnam.
The whole piece is worth reading, but below are some choice excerpts:
A little further toward the front line, my father and Charlie came upon Master Sergeant Harry Blackman, an adult man in his forties, regular army, a grizzled combat veteran. A few days earlier in a fight with the Japanese, a young lieutenant, a “90-Day Wonder,” had curled up in a fetal position when he should have been directing mortar fire. As a result, US mortar rounds landed on several US soldiers. Blackman, in front of everyone, took the lieutenant behind a tree and blew his brains out.
As my father and Charlie waked through the jungle they saw Harry Blackman perched on the lower limb of a huge tropical tree, babbling incoherently among the butterflies and flowering vines, driven stark raving mad by sorrow and jungle war with the Japanese.
Several days later my father was sent on a patrol into Japanese held territory. He was the last man in a formation moving single file through the jungle. Plagued by malaria and exhaustion, he kept falling behind. Around noon, a group of Japanese soldiers sitting high up in trees dropped concussion grenades on the patrol. As he lay on the ground, unable to move, my father watched the Japanese slide down the trees. Starting with the point man on patrol, they pulled down the pants and castrated each man, before clubbing him to death with their rifle butts or running a bayonet into his gut.
War. If you’re a Glory Boy like John Sidney McCain III, you really have no idea what it is. You drop bombs on cities, on civilians, maybe on enemy forces, maybe on your own troops. Glory Boys like John McCain rarely get a taste of the horror they inflict on others. Their suffering rarely extends beyond the high anxiety that they might get shot down and that some bombarded mob on the ground might take its revenge.
Magically, my father was spared that day when his patrol was slaughtered. Against regulations, he had stolen a cross-swords patch and sewn it on his shirt sleeve. At the age of 16, he thought it looked cool. On the morning of the patrol, when the new “90-Day Wonder” told him to take it off, my father said “Sure.” He and the lieutenant stared at each other for a while and then the lieutenant moved away. Insubordination was the least of anyone’s worries. No one expected to survive the patrol, anyway.
When the Japanese who had ambushed the patrol got to my father, they stood poised to mutilate and kill him. Then they saw the cross-swords patch. They apparently felt that dear old dad was an important person with inside information about American forces. Instead of killing him, they took him prisoner. When they realized he was just a stupid kid, the Japanese sent him to a POW camp in the Philippines.
McCain’s treatment at the hands of his captors in a later Asian war was somewhat different:
In the fall of 1967, Navy pilot John McCain was routinely bombing Hanoi from an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. On October 26, he was trying to level a power plant in a heavily populated area when a surface-to-air missile knocked a wing off his jet. Banged-up John McCain and what was left of plane splashed into Truc Bach Lake.
A compassionate Vietnamese civilian left his air raid shelter and swam out to McCain. McCain’s arm and leg were fractured and he was tangled up in his parachute underwater. He was drowning. The Vietnamese man saved McCain’s sorry ass, and yet McCain has nothing but hatred for “the gooks” who allegedly tortured him. As he told reporters on his campaign bus (The Straight Talk Express) in 2000, “I will hate them as long as I live.”
… The Vietnamese had good reason to hate McCain. On his previous 22 missions, he had dropped God knows how many bombs killing God knows how many innocent civilians. “I am a war criminal,” he confessed on “60 Minutes” in 1997. “I bombed innocent women and children.”
If he is sincere when he says that, why isn’t he being tried for war crimes by the U.S .Government?
…McCain was in pain, but suffering no mortal wounds. He was, however, in enough pain to break down and start collaborating with the Vietnamese after three days in a hospital receiving treatment from qualified doctors – something no other POW ever enjoyed….
In the forced-labor camp where my father was tortured by the Japanese, the POWs killed anyone who collaborated. Indeed, the ranking POW in my father’s camp, an English Major, made a deal with the Japanese guaranteeing that no one would attempt to escape. When four prisoners escaped, the Major reported it. The Japanese sent out a search party, which found the POWs and brought them back to camp, where they were beheaded on Christmas morning 1943.
The POWs held a war council that night. They drew straws, and the three who got short were given a mission. A few hours later, under cover of darkness, they crept to the major’s hut. My father had gotten one of the short straws and kept watch while the other two POWs strangled the Major in his sleep.
That’s how it happens in real life….
McCain had a unique POW experience. Initially, he was taken to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp, where he was interrogated. By McCain’s own account, after three or four days, he cracked. He promised his Vietnamese captors, “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital.”
His Vietnamese capturers soon realized their POW, John Sidney McCain III, came from a well-bred line of American military elites. McCain’s father, John Jr., and grandfather, John Sr., were both full Admirals. A destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, is named after both of them….
However, two weeks into his stay at the Vietnamese hospital, the Hanoi press began quoting him. It was not “name rank and serial number, or kill me,” as specified by the military code of conduct. McCain divulged specific military information: he gave the name of the aircraft carrier on which he was based, the number of US pilots that had been lost, the number of aircraft in his flight formation, as well as information about the location of rescue ships…
Not content with divulging military information, McCain provided his voice in radio broadcasts used by the North Vietnamese to demoralize American soldiers. Vietnamese radio propagandists made good use out of McCain…
[A 1969 wire service story] reported that McCain collaborated in psywar offensives aimed at American servicemen. “The broadcast was beamed to American servicemen in South Vietnam as a part of a propaganda series attempting to counter charges by U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird that American prisoners are being mistreated in North Vietnam.”
On one occasion, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the top Vietnamese commander and a nationalist celebrity of the time, personally interviewed McCain. His compliance during this command performance was a moment of affirmation for the Vietnamese. His Vietnamese handlers thereafter used him regularly as prop at meetings with foreign delegations.
…McCain learned his lesson well from the Vietnamese propagandists who used him for their psywar projects. But it’s not the collaboration that makes John McCain unfit for office; it’s the fact that he has managed to rewrite his collaboration into political capital. “He’s a war hero, respect him, or die.”