BANGKOK, Thailand — Early last year, the U.S. State Department forwarded to the Vietnamese government a handwritten letter purporting to be from a former U.S. serviceman saying he was alive in Vietnam. Accompanying the letter was a blurry photo apparently showing the American writing at a table.
According to Dang Nghiem Bai, head of the American department at the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry in Hanoi, a long investigation carried out by U.S. and Vietnamese authorities revealed that the letter was a crude hoax.
The man at the table was presumed to be American because he was black, Bai said in an interview, but in reality he was the offspring of a liaison between a Vietnamese woman and a black American soldier during the Vietnam War era.
The letter was written in perfect American idiom, learned by the mother from her long relationship with GIs. The personal details were accurate, down to a home address. The giveaway was a request for money.
"It said: 'If you want to see me, you have to send money,' " Bai recalled. "The point was not to help the GI but to get money."
The release in Washington of a new photo purporting to show Americans still held prisoner in Indochina has renewed a debate in the United States about the POWs. Officials in Southeast Asia say the latest photo is only a tiny part of a cottage industry in purported "live sightings" of Americans that continues to leak out of the impoverished countries of Indochina.
Bangkok, which for many years has served as a Western listening post directed at Communist Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, has repeatedly been the scene of transactions involving cash payments for dubious evidence of missing Americans being held captive.
"While live sighting reports are still reaching us with amazing regularity, it has to be a matter of serious concern that not one of these reports has ever stood the test of scientific, credible inquiry," said one official familiar with the POW issue. "Not one report in 16 years has ever panned out to the satisfaction of authorities who are hoping against hope that it is true. That to me is fairly damaging."
As Bai noted in an interview with The Times in Hanoi in April, up to $1 million has been offered at various times as a reward for information on POWs. "Given the terrible state of our economy, it is unlikely that no one would come forward if such evidence exists," he said.
Officials note that in all three Indochina countries, artifacts of the Vietnam War are readily available and could be used for the raw material to fabricate sightings.
A walk down Dong Khoi Street in Ho Chi Minh City, which during the war was Tu Do Street in the city then known as Saigon, reveals a veritable bazaar of American mementos--from strings of dog tags to GI letters home, American library books with original nameplates, and even Zippo lighters engraved with favored nicknames.
While the Pentagon said it was conducting a scientific analysis of the latest photo--purported to show three downed American pilots holding a sign dated May 25, 1990--the photo raised some immediate questions.
For example, it appeared from the sign in the photo that the handwriting, especially the numbers, was not American but of the kind taught in Vietnamese and Cambodian schools to non-native speakers of English. The date was written "25.5.1990" in the French style of putting the day before the month, while most Americans write the month first and use hyphens or slash marks instead of periods to separate the numbers.
Other such evidence has also proved unverifiable. A Japanese monk who was imprisoned in Vietnam, Iwanobu Yoshida, claimed on his release that he had seen American POWs in prison camps with him. On interrogation, it was disclosed that he does not speak English and never spoke to the purported prisoners, whom he described only as large and blond.
Sets of remains of alleged former prisoners were carried to Malaysia by Vietnamese "boat people." On examination, the remains turned out to be skeletons of Asian women.
Many photographs of Europeans in jungle prison settings have been offered for sale, but none showed enough detail to prove authenticity.
Another factor complicating the search for living POWs is a political one. Vietnam and Cambodia are now seeking acceptance into the international community, and a revelation that prisoners of war were being held would destroy those efforts, Western diplomats said.
"It militates against everything Vietnam is trying to do," said one Western diplomat. "If they were holding them early on in the 1970s, they certainly know now that it was a huge mistake, and they would have found some way out of it."
Prisoners either would have been quietly released long ago, the diplomat said, or allowed to perish in captivity.
"No one has ever offered a rational explanation for why the Vietnamese would continue to keep prisoners of war when they stand to gain nothing from it and in fact stand to lose substantially if it was ever proven," said another diplomat.