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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.

Webb recalls Laporte telling him that he had signed up for a six-month extension in Vietnam on the expectation that he could be transferred to Saigon, where his wife and child were living. At the end of April, 1967, about four months before Operation Clubcar, "he found out that his transfer was canceled, and his personality changed," Webb says. "He got give-up-itis." Still, Webb was confident enough of Laporte to choose him for the jump.

The existence of a wife is only one of many contradictions between what the official records say and what those who knew Laporte remember. The Pentagon says that its records show no dependents, and his family says he never informed them of a marriage. However, several of the men who served with Laporte say that he mentioned his wife often; Webb and others were also under the impression that the couple had a child.

It could have been a marriage only in the informal sense--except that John Cole recalls filling out the paperwork for a dependent identification card, which Laporte's wife would need to receive free health care and to shop at the commissary. A copy of that form should have been in Laporte's service record, he says. "It was there. I know it was there because I \o7 put \f7 it there."

Two days after Laporte's colleagues returned from the jungle, a Marine sergeant came around the First Force Recon command post to record their recollections on the reel-to-reel audio tape that is now part of the corps' official oral history archives.

Webb described on the tape how one chutist inexplicably moved away from the others--into the wind, instead of with it. "The person who was drifting in this direction I assumed was Doc Laporte," Webb said. "The man is still missing at present in the vicinity of Happy Valley, and they are sending out a team to try to locate him."

It had seemed a miracle that anyone survived what Webb told the interviewer was "the hairiest and the biggest nightmare of my life." After freeing themselves from the trees, seven members of Clubcar found each other on the ground; they could account for everyone except Laporte and Webb. They tried to patch each other up, but two were hurt so seriously that they had to call a medical evacuation helicopter. Those who remained searched for their missing comrades, at one point engaging three Viet Cong in a firefight.

Webb, meanwhile, had been having problems of his own. Dangling from a limb at least 60 feet in the air, he was losing feeling where his harness cut into his legs. One of his kidneys hurt. With the first light, he struggled down the slick, mossy tree to a trail and heard what he thought was his radioman. "Hager, Hager," he whispered. James Hager heard him, but so did three Viet Cong. Webb figures they chased him about 200 yards, away from the others, before he lost them in the underbrush. It was not until early evening that a medevac found him.

The next day, a spotter plane directed the five remaining Marines to something that appeared to be Laporte's parachute, but it turned out to be a crashed Navy drone aircraft. For two hours that same day, military aircraft flew over Happy Valley, calling through loudspeakers: "Doc Laporte. Doc Laporte. If you are able, pop your smoke." Finally, the five were hoisted out by helicopters.

Over the next few days, the Marines and Air Force scoured the jungle for Laporte but found no trace of him.

"They should have been able to find his helmet. They should have been able to find his parachute. They found nothing," John Cole says. "If he'd have been injured, we'd have found him."

About the time that Webb and the others were giving their interviews, another company in the battalion sent over a major to conduct what everyone assumed would be a routine investigation into Laporte's disappearance. No one interviewed for this story can recall that investigator's name. As administrative chief, however, then-Staff Sgt. Cole was assigned to accompany the officer to Laporte's hooch--the tent where he lived with a dozen or so men--to start going through his personal effects.

When Cole turned back the covers on Laporte's cot, he was stunned. Everything Laporte owned had been packed up and inventoried. "There were a lot of packages . . . one to his mom, one to his sister, I believe," Cole says. "It was as if he knew he wasn't coming back." Other accounts, including some that are in government files made available to The Times, corroborate Cole's recollection.

And then there was the letter he left for his buddies. No copy is known to exist today, but Cole insists that he remembers it clearly. "It made us all mad. It said something to the effect that Ho Chi Minh was right, and we shouldn't be there," he recounts. "That letter bothered us a lot. It said, 'I love all of you like brothers. You are good guys, but what you are doing is wrong.' It wasn't abrasive or strident. It was a very calm letter."

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