Laporte was one of 2,383 servicemen left unaccounted for after 591 prisoners of war returned to this country in February, March and April of 1973. After that, the U.S. government declared that it had no evidence of any more American prisoners left in Southeast Asia. But since then, according to investigators for the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there have been 1,400 reports of first-hand sightings of live POWs in that region. About 1,200 are said to have been "resolved"--that is, dismissed as false.
Last September, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and several staff members spent 38 hours poring over about one-third of those still-classified reports and concluded that many merited further investigation. The dismissal of so many accounts is "typical of a bureaucracy defending a policy even if it's ignoring the obvious," Grassley says.
The politics of the Vietnam POW-MIA movement are complicated and fueled by the thinnest of hopes. Grassley is trying to stir up enough interest on Capitol Hill to reopen some of these cases--a drive that runs counter to the efforts of others in Congress who favor restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam. At a minimum, Grassley says, the information from these reports should be made available to the families, who have never stopped believing that their missing loved ones may still be alive.
It was June 5, 1966, and Becky Boling's mother was rushing around to finish preparations for her daughter's 11th birthday when the phone rang. Uncle Mike was passing through San Diego on his way back to Vietnam for his second hitch; Becky's party was suddenly a homecoming celebration.
"He landed at the airport and called. My mom just about came unglued," recalls Becky Pulizzi, who now lives in Modesto. "We were so glad to see him. Out of the clear blue, there was Uncle Mike."
That may have been the last time any of Michael Laporte's relatives saw him.
Laporte had gotten to know his half-sister Geraldine Boling only after he entered his teens. She had been the product of their father's first marriage. Michael was born in Seattle in 1944, the only child of the unhappy union of Navy Lt. Thaddeus Laporte and his second wife, Evelyn Swanson. They were living in North Hollywood when they divorced a few years later, and Michael stayed with Evelyn in an apartment on Harcourt Avenue. Thaddeus Laporte continued to try to get custody of Michael. At one point, he heard that his ex-wife, an alcoholic, was not feeding Michael properly, says Sally Laporte, the woman Thaddeus married in the early 1950s.
Evelyn died of cancer when Michael was about 9, and another fight for custody erupted--this time between his mother's relatives and his father. For a while, Michael lived in Beverly Hills with his Aunt Margaret and Uncle Willard, who sent him to California Military Academy in Los Angeles. "We loved him like a son. We have no children, so he was like a son to us," Willard Swanson says.
Finally, after Thaddeus hired a lawyer to get his son back, 11-year-old Michael moved to Miami to live with his father and new stepmother, who was only 10 years older than he. Relations there were sometimes strained, and before his senior year, his aunt and uncle persuaded him to move back to Los Angeles and attend Dorsey High School. Sally Laporte says she does not believe that arrangement worked out well, either, and "by the time he graduated, he was living with friends."
When Laporte enlisted and went through training at Camp Pendleton, he stayed with his sister's family in San Diego for a while. Rebecca Pulizzi and Rosslyn Eavenson recall these as happy times spent watching television with their uncle as he ate peanut butter by the spoonful directly from the jar. "He was always laughing, joking," Eavenson says. "He was like a big brother."
But not much about Laporte's life had been jolly or carefree. "Michael went through some very unhappy periods," his stepmother says.
In Vietnam, most of the men in Force Recon talked endlessly about their families and what they would do when they got home, but Andrew Finlayson recalls that Laporte avoided the topic. "He said, yeah, he liked his family, but he didn't feel particularly comfortable with them any more."
His aunt and stepmother say they received letters written the day before he disappeared. And after his last visit, a new television arrived at the Boling house to replace a broken black-and-white set.
Looking back on that last reunion, Pulizzi sees Laporte's unexpected visit in a different light: "It's as if he knew he wasn't coming back."
"He didn't have a whole lot to come home to," adds Eavenson.