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U.S. POWs in Vietnam an Enduring Riddle : Postwar releases: Hanoi denies holding Americans. But there are doubts, some prompted by past deceptions.

May 02, 1992|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — One of the most enduring riddles of the Vietnam War is: Did the Vietnamese release all their American prisoners, and if not, why not?

The question of whether American POWs remained behind has become the source of a vast body of literature and popular legend, ranging from books such as "The Bamboo Cage" to movie dramas such as "Rambo." The Atlantic Monthly devoted its cover story last December to an essay entitled "The POW/MIA Myth."

Officially, the 591 POWs released in "Operation Homecoming" in February and March, 1973, represented the only living Americans held in Indochina.

The Vietnamese government has repeatedly denied holding any American prisoners since Operation Homecoming. The official U.S. position, while "predicated on the assumption that some are still alive," nonetheless lists just one "symbolic" American POW in captivity in Laos and notes that intelligence indicates that he died two decades ago.

One reason for the lingering doubts is the American conviction that Vietnamese denials are simply not credible. The denials fall apart on the case of one prisoner: Marine Pfc. Robert Garwood.

Garwood, a motor pool specialist, was captured in Da Nang in 1965. He was not released in 1973 and did not appear on any prisoner-of-war lists. The Vietnamese government insisted that all American prisoners of war had been released.

But in 1979, Garwood passed a note to a World Bank official in Hanoi pleading for help. After a public outcry, Garwood was sent back to the United States, where he was promptly court-martialed.

The Vietnamese explained their earlier denials by making the distinction that Garwood was a collaborator and said Garwood himself had asked that his existence not be made known to Washington. But the Vietnamese had earlier insisted to visiting American officials that there were no living Americans of any kind in Vietnam.

The Garwood episode was an echo of what had occurred after the end of the Vietnamese war against the French in 1954. After the Vietnamese announcement that all French prisoners had been released, it was disclosed two years later that about 200 Frenchmen whom the Vietnamese termed "rallyers" had actually stayed on after the war, but their existence was not acknowledged.

In a way, the French rallyers have come back to plague the Vietnamese, because the Foreign Legionnaires who had defected included a number of North Africans. Their children are now nearing their 40s and, with their black complexions, have been repeatedly mistaken for American prisoners living in the Vietnamese countryside near Hanoi.

The official record also shows that, despite Vietnam's denials that it held any Americans after the end of the war, a procession of Americans ranging from spies to drug dealers and from seekers of missing relatives to hunters of Capt. Kidd's treasure have passed through Vietnamese jails.

Robert Schwab, a former military intelligence specialist, sailed a boat from the Philippines in April, 1985, and was listed as lost at sea.

In fact, Schwab had been arrested for violating Vietnam's territorial waters. But the first the U.S. government heard of his arrest came in 1986, when then-Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach told the White House that Schwab would be released.

Similarly, a CIA agent named Tucker Gougleman returned to Vietnam after Saigon fell in April, 1975, reportedly in hopes of rescuing his Vietnamese children. Gougleman died in captivity in June, 1976, but the Vietnamese have never publicly acknowledged holding him, even though Gougleman's remains were later shipped home for burial.

Gougleman is believed by many U.S. officials to be the American agent that Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, a former head of Soviet intelligence, referred to last year when he said Soviet agents had met a captive CIA officer in Hanoi after 1975. Strictly speaking, Gougleman would not qualify as a POW.

The Vietnamese denied Kalugin's charges but said Soviet agents had interviewed a CIA agent named Eugene A. Weaver in 1972. Weaver, never previously identified as a CIA agent, was said by the Vietnamese to have rebuffed the Soviet efforts to turn him into a double agent. He was released as part of Operation Homecoming.

U.S. officials said two American drug dealers known as Cotton and Ingram were known to have been imprisoned in Vietnam for several years in the late 1970s. But as with Garwood, the Vietnamese explained that the pair had asked the Hanoi government not to let the Americans know about them.

Even today, Western officials based in Bangkok, Thailand, believe that an American named Thomas Schooley is in jail in Vietnam on unspecified drug charges, while Vietnamese officials concerned with the search for missing Americans deny categorically that any Americans are in jail in Vietnam for any reason.

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