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January 21, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

July, 1973.

It is several months after President Nixon officially welcomed home presumably the last of America's POWs from the Indochina conflict. However, an aerial reconnaissance photo over northern Laos reveals a puzzling message stamped out in tall grass. In 20-foot characters, it says: "1973 TH."

In December, 1972, an American C-130 transport carrying Capt. Thomas T. Hart III and 15 others took a direct hit and crashed near the Laotian village of Pakse along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Army said two of the crew parachuted to safety and that the rest, including Hart, were presumed dead.

Was it possible, though, that Hart survived and was captured, and that the message in the elephant grass was from him?

"Can you imagine any other circumstances for '1973 TH,' being stamped out, that it would be done by a Laotian?" Greg Olgiati asked in London last November while working on "We Can Keep You Forever."

Olgiati is producer/writer/director for this important and fascinating 90-minute documentary airing at 8:30 tonight on KHJ-TV Channel 9.

Created by the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) and Landreth Productions in Los Angeles, the syndicated "We Can Keep You Forever" compellingly tells a tragic and revealing story of apparent abandonment and deception.

It wasn't until 1982--and only then by accident--that Hart's wife, Anne, learned of the reconnaissance photo and an Army intelligence report that concluded that "1973 TH" was from her husband. Later, the Army reportedly changed its mind and has insisted over the years that Hart is dead.

The photo on the screen is a small strand of evidence supporting the program's thesis: Hanoi ignored its 1973 agreement to return all American POWs, and successive administrations knew--but wouldn't admit--that perhaps 300 Americans remained in Southeast Asia.

Did those administrations fear that military morale would suffer if it were known that Americans had been left behind? Did they naively think they could effectively negotiate with the Vietnamese after the war? Were they afraid of political embarrassment?

Intrigues. Charges. Political considerations over people considerations. ABC's "20/20" and "60 Minutes" on CBS have made fleeting passes at this story. But Olgiati believes this is the most complete report of its kind ever televised.

After years of simplistically focusing on Vietnam through Rambo eyes, the entertainment industry is having its head turned by Oliver Stone's brilliant and enigmatic "Platoon." No sharp blacks and whites, only grim grays.

Despite its emphasis on MIAs, though, "We Can Keep You Forever" is no recall of "Rambo."

"It's a helluva television program," co-executive producer Ted Landreth, former head of international coverage for CBS News, said in Los Angeles recently. Well, what else would Landreth say? As it turns out, though, he's right.

The idea for a program on American MIAs originated in late 1985 with Landreth and co-producer Edward Tivnan, a former Time magazine and "20/20" writer. The Americans teamed with the BBC's esteemed documentary division, which already had produced some MIA programs. That brought in George Carey, an executive producer for BBC documentaries, as co-executive producer, and also Olgiati.

Hence, "We Can Keep You Forever" becomes virtually yet another British telling of an American story, one that American TV should be telling itself. But the networks have all but abandoned documentaries of this scope.

"That's a reflection of the way network TV news operates these days," Landreth charged. "There's no dedication to the complicated, sophisticated documentary. And there's still a tremendous hangover at the networks concerning Southeast Asia. Once the war ended, they declared that part of the world off limits."

"We Can Keep You Forever" is the sum of a year's research. "I came to it as a complete skeptic," Olgiati said. "I felt it was sort of pathetic that people believed in all this stuff about MIAs being held after the war." Now he's a convert.

Many people are interviewed on the program, including past and present government officials, former POWs, MIA families and witnesses claiming to have seen American prisoners.

"There are literally hundreds of eyewitnesses from Vietnam who claim sightings of Americans over the '70s and '80s," Olgiati said. "Some of these people are scoundrels and charlatans. There's a whole genre of people who are not to be trusted. They sell lurid stories about ex-POWs to families and sell them bones and promise to bring people out. But there are other people who are credible, and those are the ones we put on the air."

One is a man claiming to have lived across from a barracks where Americans were held. "I saw they are very tired," another man says about sighting Americans. "They don't have enough food to eat." Another man recalls seeing a dead American in a Pathet Lao prison. "The rats eat his eye and ear."

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