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Vietnam POWs remain, ex-congressman maintains

Declassified documents give edge to book 'An Enormous Crime,' but officials ridicule author's impassioned claims.

August 31, 2007|Estes Thompson | Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. -- In 1981, rookie Rep. Bill Hendon left a Capitol Hill intelligence briefing convinced that there were American prisoners of war from Vietnam still alive and in captivity in Southeast Asia.

Nearly three decades later, he says, they're still there -- and still alive.

"Absolutely," Hendon said. "No question about it."

It's a position ridiculed by both government officials and former POWs who spent years in captivity during the Vietnam War. After meeting with Hendon in 1986, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary that the two-term congressman from western North Carolina was "off his rocker."

But the 62-year-old Hendon, who left Congress in 1987, remains resolute. He has published "An Enormous Crime," a 587-page book filled with declassified government documents he and co-author Elizabeth Stewart believe prove that living Americans were left behind in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

"The intelligence indicates that about 700 were knowingly left at the end of the war," Hendon said from his home in Washington, D.C. "There have been some losses. They are keeping these men alive . . . in underground prisons northwest of Hanoi."

Since that first intelligence briefing, Hendon has made dozens of trips to Southeast Asia to search for living POWs. During a trip to Hanoi in 1995, Hendon chained himself to the gate of a compound used by American investigators -- a protest against what he called the government's refusal to act on reports of living prisoners.

A few days later, U.S. and Vietnamese officials went to a site where Hendon thought living POWs were being held. None was found.

"In spite of the years of investigations and the overt and covert means we, the government, have used to look at such things to date, there is no credible evidence that any living American is being held against his will in Southeast Asia," said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Department of Defense's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.

The office posts regular updates on the status of the 1,783 Americans officially listed as unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Since 1975, the government has received 22,943 reports on missing Americans, including 1,989 "firsthand live sightings." Of those, only 47 are unexplained.

"No matter how hard you try, you cannot come up with an additional 700 names of POWs who didn't come home," Greer said.

Hendon's suggestion that 700 living POWs were left behind is also dismissed by Mike McGrath, a Navy pilot from Monument, Colo., who was shot down in 1967 and held captive for more than six years. During that time, McGrath said, he and other POWs kept up with one another as best they could as they were shuffled from prison to prison.

McGrath, 67, said he and his fellow POWs compared notes following their release in 1973 after the Paris peace accords.

"In my memory list, I had 350 names," McGrath said, adding that military analysts have studied the released prisoners' recollections. "There were hundreds of us who did that. Everybody was accounted for, either dead or alive."

Stewart, the co-author of Hendon's book, said her father, Col. Peter J. Stewart, was an Air Force F-4C Phantom II pilot who was shot down in 1966. Although the book lists him as missing in action, the military classifies him with a "presumptive finding of death." She left her Florida law practice 20 years ago to work on the issue after getting a briefing on her father's status. She has since resumed law practice in Lake Wales, Fla.

After a yearlong investigation, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs concluded in 1993 that there was hope -- but no hard evidence -- that a few dozen American soldiers may have been alive in Southeast Asia. The committee rejected allegations that Americans were knowingly left behind or that hundreds were still in prison camps.

Former POW Paul Galanti, a director of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, said Hendon's book doesn't have anything new.

"Most family members accepted that their sons, fathers or dads had been killed rather than captured and held captive," said Galanti, who spent seven years as a captive in North Vietnam after his Navy A4-C Skyhawk was shot down in 1966.

Greer said Hendon has been asked for names of people he believes are living today. Hendon can't say for certain the names he cites in the book are POWs who remain alive and in enemy hands. Some may have died, Hendon said, but he feels certain the men weren't killed.

"If you say all the reports are false, then you don't have to act on them," he said. "It's been a vicious circle for years. They say we'll go get them if there's credible evidence, and they make sure there's no credible evidence. It's time to put all that aside.

"Let's end this thing and get these guys home."

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