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The Legend of Doc Laporte : One Night, He Parachuted Behind North Vietnamese Lines. The Navy Declared Him Dead, a Hero. The Men Who Served With Him Say He Went Over to the Other Side--and May Still Be Alive.

April 14, 1991|Karen Tumulty | Karen Tumulty is a reporter in The Times' Washington bureau. Times researchers Jill Gottesman in Los Angeles and Doug Conner in Seattle contributed to this story.

The last thing that anyone knows for sure about Doc Laporte is this: Several hours before dawn on Sept. 5, 1967, he was the fifth of nine men who parachuted from a transport plane into a hellish place named Happy Valley.

They were leaping virtually into the enemy's arms; they knew that. Hidden somewhere in the blackness below three canopies of jungle vegetation were two units of the fearsome 2nd North Vietnamese Army Division and an elite North Vietnamese special-forces battalion.

This secret mission was only the second combat parachute drop that the U.S. Marine Corps had ever attempted. The hand-picked commando team had been ordered to find what intelligence identified as a 300-millimeter Soviet-made missile launcher.

But the commandos never got that far. Operation Clubcar was a disaster from the second they plunged into the night from the Caribou tailgate. Thirty-seven hours later, with four Marines wounded and their mission abandoned, the men were hoisted by helicopter out of the jungle.

All of them, that is, except Michael Louis Laporte.

For the next decade, the military classified the young hospital corpsman from Los Angeles as missing in action. In 1977, it finally added him to the official death toll of the nation's longest war. On Veterans Day, 1982, Laporte's was one of 57,939 names unveiled on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the polished black granite monument in Washington that most people know as "the wall."

John Jackson knew none of this. When Jackson returned from Vietnam, he went to work rebuilding his life and lost track of the fate of Doc Laporte. But he could hardly fail to notice last fall when the government put Laporte's name on another wall--one in a corridor of the building where Jackson works, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Jackson glanced at the names, at first casually. Then: "This name jumps off there--goddamn Laporte."

Laporte's photograph is there, too. The muscular, strikingly blond corpsman with the wholesome looks wears a shy smile and a khaki uniform with his jump wings and two rows of decorations across the chest. He is cited along with 11 other hospital corpsmen who vanished during the Vietnam War and whose bodies were never found. "The 12 United States Navy hospital corpsmen that we honor here were not only professionals adhering to the noble ethic," the exhibit informs passersby. "They were patriots as well. We will honor their memory."

But to Jackson and to others who served with him, Michael Laporte was no patriot adhering to any noble ethic. The evidence that piled up in the days, months and years after Laporte disappeared convinced them that he was a traitor--one who abandoned his unit on a difficult mission and who actually may have slipped over to the other side, collaborating with the North Vietnamese Army.

Jackson, as a Navy hospital corpsman attached to the Marines' First Force Reconnaissance Company, had shared a medical locker with Laporte. On the night that Laporte disappeared, Jackson was slated as his backup and would have made the jump if Laporte had been unable to go. These days, some gray has toned down the fiery red hair that everyone kidded Jackson about when he was a 25-year-old in Da Nang. It's been almost six years since Jackson traded in his Navy uniform for a business suit and a civilian job as head of general service for the medical center. But seeing Laporte's name on that wall brought back some old war wounds. "I realized it the other day," Jackson says. "I go out of my way not to go down that hall. I walk down another hall and around."

Now, as word of the new honor is getting around, so are the old, ugly stories about Doc Laporte. "I don't want to dig up old bones," Jackson says. "I want to put this thing to rest. I don't want to see this guy being recognized with good kids."

So the men who served with Doc Laporte have started wondering again--if they ever stopped. Though their lives inevitably took different directions, most made careers in the military; some rose to its highest ranks and won its most coveted honors. But whenever a few manage to get together for a beer, talk turns to the old days in Vietnam when they were all together, and Laporte's name comes up. "What do you really think happened?" someone will ask. "You think he's still out there?"

Several months after Laporte disappeared, Tom Eagles received a chilling official warning to watch out for anyone resembling Laporte because he was believed to be fighting with the enemy. "The bottom line to me is his name cannot stand with honorable people," says Eagles, a Navy master chief who now works at the Marine Corps Research and Development Command in Arlington, Va. "Times change. People forget. People want to forget. People say, 'Why are you worrying about it?' But in some ways, it was yesterday."

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