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Soldier of Fortune Loses Love, Freedom in Vietnam

August 24, 1986|David DeVoss | David DeVoss, a Los Angeles Times Magazine writer, was a correspondent in Saigon and has made seven trips to Vietnam since the end of the war

Robert Schwab, an American who was released this month from a Vietnamese prison, may have been suffering from what old Indochina hands once called "le mal jaune "--the yellow sickness. The affliction strikes only those who have lived in Southeast Asia, and in most cases is benign. But prolonged exposure to the exotic culture of Vietnam, the French believed, could turn Paris boulevardiers into confirmed expatriates. Americans proved susceptible: 9,000 remained behind when Washington withdrew its combat forces from South Vietnam in 1973.

Temptations of the yellow sickness did not end with the collapse of Saigon. Some U.S. veterans, uneasy at home, pulled up stakes and emigrated to Thailand. Others came for shorter intervals, to work in refugee camps along the dusty Cambodian border. In places where Hmong tribesmen took shelter, after fighting for the CIA, U.S. veterans could be found squatting in the shade and discussing counterinsurgency with men awaiting resettlement to Montana. And then there were those who made their break with civilization and filtered back into the jungle.

Schwab is of this group. His most recent exploit began in April, 1985, when he sailed alone across the South China Sea to central Vietnam. His goal was to locate a girl left behind in America's chaotic exodus from Saigon a decade before. Schwab's plan, if it can be called that, was to present himself to the Marxist authorities who, touched by his affair of the heart, would reunite him with his former lover.

Alas, this made-for-television scenario did not play well with the Nghia Binh Province Peoples Committee, which arrested him before he had the chance to surrender, stonewalled all queries regarding the girl and denounced him as yet another spying Rambo run amok.

When Schwab, 44, was finally freed Aug. 13 after 16 months in prison, he defended his noble, if inept, foray. "There are people like me who just can't pass up something like this," he said, adding that success would have achieved "something no other American ever had in Vietnam--victory."

My first meeting with Schwab was in a Bangkok tavern frequented by Western spies who wore safari suits and drank their beer from quart-sized bottles. With the exception of a mama-san planting joss sticks in a spirit house above the bar, I was the only person present when he entered. But Schwab, just returned from a fortnight with anti-communist guerrillas inside Laos, took no chances. "I'll sit facing the door, if you don't mind," he said by way of introduction.

Schwab used a pseudonym in those days and described his profession as "adventurer." He changed hotels with irritating frequency and refused to talk on the telephone. Some regarded this behavior as a bit squirrelly for a Williams College graduate who had an advanced degree in international management. But Schwab knew the region well and had even worked briefly for the U.S. Embassy, until he earned its displeasure by suggesting that the most economical way to stop the flow of opium from the Golden Triangle was to buy the entire crop at prevailing market prices.

Schwab's favorite place to reconnoiter was Laos, which had a largely unpatrolled 1,100-mile border with Thailand. He roamed about with insurgents, looked for evidence of "yellow rain" and later began to search for remains of U.S. airmen--557 of the 2,400 Americans listed as missing during the Vietnam War were shot down in Laos. Only a handful were actually classified as MIAs--the majority were "presumed dead" since they had crashed in the impenetrable jungles or in the South China Sea. A congressional investigation in 1976 concluded that there were no American prisoners still alive.

The MIA situation became an issue with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, who ordered the Pentagon to subsidize the National League of Families, a support group for Americans missing in action or taken prisoner. Adventuring Vietnam veterans were invited to swap information at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. But as the number of vacationing commandos increased, so did the level of concern. "We don't think there are any American prisoners in Indochina," one second secretary said, "but if this keeps up there very soon will be."

By 1982 the hunt for MIAs had become a growth industry in Thailand. At one point early in the year, 30 separate missions into Laos were being organized, mostly out of the Grand Prix bar on Patpong Road. Soldier of Fortune magazine established an overseas bureau in the penthouse of an apartment tower on Sukhumvit Road to track the various incursions. A large banner reading "Death to Tyrants" hung on the dining-room wall. After buying their camouflage gear, Vietnam vets heading for Laos would borrow the banner, since a picture of it unfurled in Laos ensured generous coverage in the magazine.

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