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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.

But the work had a lot of appeal for another type of military man. "Most of the people in that outfit were professionals. They were a little crazy or they wouldn't have been in that outfit," one former member recalls. "A lot of them would have gone looking for a war."

The Marines had no medical specialists of their own, so the Navy assigned hospital corpsmen to units like Force Recon. Laporte was starting his second yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam when he joined the company in July, 1966. After a year working in a hospital in Saigon, he had complained to his family that he had done little more than shuffle paper. He wanted a taste of the real war.

In Force Recon, Laporte got it--and relished it. Never one to hang back in a firefight, he won a Purple Heart near Dong Ha, when a piece of shrapnel caught him behind one ear and left a distinctive, crescent-shaped scar visible through his regulation haircut. In a show of bravado, he sent his father and stepmother the cap he was wearing that day, so they could see and touch the holes.

Webb figures he went on at least a dozen patrols with Laporte. "As soon as it hit the fan, he was right up front, returning fire," he says.

One fight, Webb recalls, was a "prisoner snatch" near Chu Lai. There had been 160 enemy sightings in the area; Force Recon was to ambush a few of them for interrogation. But the Marines were surprised on a trail by two Viet Cong, and the covert operation turned into a gun battle.

When it was over, "one of the (Viet Cong) was still alive. I saw Doc go up to him and kick the guy in the neck, break his neck. It was pretty brutal. He crunched his throat," Webb says. "He said the guy was going to die anyway."

That was the warrior. But there was another side of Laporte. He had grown deeply attached to Vietnam and its people; he sought them out, spoke to them in Vietnamese, studied Buddhism.

His attachment to them mystified some of his comrades. "Talk was, he loved the Vietnamese," says Charles N. Owens, another member of Clubcar. "The word was he went Asiatic."

This was a war where, to an American, friend looked just like foe; everyone knew the stories about the innocent-looking child who turned out to be carrying a grenade or the old woman hiding a machine gun in a basket of vegetables.

"Mike took a loving interest in the Vietnamese families," Jackson says. "A lot of us couldn't do that. How could you love the Vietnamese one day and the next day go out and shoot them?"

Laporte ached when he saw the hopelessness of Asian poverty. Once, he gave a schoolteacher a year-old Reader's Digest that he had planned to toss out. Whenever Laporte saw the man again, the teacher was carrying that battered old magazine as if it were a prized Bible. He even taught his students from it.

"He said they were such friendly people, eager to learn. But they had nothing, none of the things that we take for granted," Laporte's stepmother recalls. Sally Laporte says he also cajoled her into sending Campho-Phenique medication by the case because he found it relieved the hideous gum and mouth sores of the Vietnamese children he was treating.

At the same time, recalls one of the men who shared a tent with him, "the questioning was there." Laporte was beginning to have quiet misgivings about whether the United States was doing more harm than good in Vietnam. His hero, John F. Kennedy, had said we would support any friend, oppose any foe for liberty. But maybe in Vietnam, we were the enemy.

Some of those feelings came through in letters and clippings that Laporte sent to his half-sister, Geraldine Boling, who was living in San Diego with her husband and two daughters. Boling died in 1972, but her daughter Rebecca Pulizzi, 35, recalls that her uncle "was very angry about how the (South Vietnamese officials) were brainwashing our men. He was angry about how the Vietnamese people were being treated."

Laporte also wrote that he had fallen in love with a rich Vietnamese woman and that they planned to be married. He posed for a snapshot with the pretty young woman on what seemed to be the lawn of her house, which "looked like one of the old Southern plantations with all the columns in front," Rosslyn Eavenson says. Eavenson, Pulizzi's 37-year-old sister, cannot find that photograph today, but she says it stands out in her memory. "He really liked her parents, and they liked him," she says. "He said that when the war was over, they might stay there."

Sally Laporte tells a different story. Far from being wealthy, the woman's family had turned to Laporte for financial support. When he went home on leave, the woman vanished. "He went back and tried to find her, and she was gone," Sally Laporte says.

After he transferred to Da Nang to join Force Recon, his stepmother recalls, Laporte began a romance with another Vietnamese woman. "I don't know if he married this one, or if (his wife) was someone else," she says.

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