Authors: C.R. Ryder
Airman First Class Holly Kennedy
March AFB, California
POW Reception Area
March Air Force Base is an awesome place to go TDY. It was warm and sunny all the time, a short drive from L.A. and not far from the beach either. It was the site chosen for POW reintegration because it was on the west coast and the base had the space. They had just built new enlisted dormitories the year before. It was a two to one set up where each member had a furnished bedroom with a sink with a bathroom between each with a toilet and shower that was shared. There were four hundred rooms available and tents were moved in to provide for more if needed. In the event more POWs were found then arrangements were made to house them at McClellan and Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
The March hospital was vamped up with two hundred extra personnel in anticipation. Training ran from sunup to sundown on how to deal with every classic ailment that returning POWs had showed symptoms of in the seventies.
Robust quarantine areas were prepared to deal with malaria, typhoid and yellow fever.
These guys returning would be the equivalent of finding someone alive in a time capsule. To make them more at home magazines from the seventies were brought in from libraries archives around the country. From small towns to big cities came a flood of reading material from the seventies through the present. The main reception area would have stuff from right around the time they were captured. As they moved through the hospital and the dorms the magazines would bring them closer and closer to present times.
In addition paperbacks poured in from the USO, VFWs, American Legions and other organizations.
There was so much fan mail the first month that we had to pile it in a warehouse. Letters of thank you, care packages with canned food and cookies, paperback books, VHS movies. Kids colored pictures.
I took these out and put them up all over the dorms. There were bulletin boards in all of the common rooms and I covered them with these things. I didn’t run it by the psyches and that may have been a mistake. Maybe seeing them would make one of the returnees freak out because he hadn’t seen his kid in years, but I took the chance. They made me feel good. Maybe it would make them feel good too.
One in particular was done by a 5 year old named Molly Sims from Livingston, Montana. It was a soldier holding hands with a little girl with an American flag in the back ground.
It said We Miss U with Miss misspelled Mizz.
It was the cutest thing.
Senior Airman Khoa Tran
They told me not to get my hair cut and to be ready at any time. Less than forty eight hours later the pager they gave me went off. I called the number and Todd answered the phone.
“We’re a go. Be at the airport at five o’clock.”
We flew into Thailand on tourists passports. The eight guys in Scott’s team weren’t unfriendly entirely. They were tight with each other. I felt like a third wheel.
We were picked up by a civilian named Judge who served as our driver and overall fixer while we were on the Thailand-Vietnam border. He took care of the hotel, cars and everything else we needed. I didn’t know it then, but I had just met my first military contractor.
While we waited for further words we hung out like tourists. We drank beer and ate at some of the local places. I noticed all they ate was meat.
Todd and Scott were meeting with someone constantly. The third time they went to see them they took me along. Judge drove us to the outskirts of town. It was as seedy as I could have imagined. The meet was at a cock fight. It was a very public place and I suspected all parties wanted it that way.
The men we met were skinny Vietnamese smugglers. They made their coin by taking goods into and out of Vietnam. The embargo since the end of V1 had made some men rich. These two were not some of them.
I recognized them as being from the south by their accents. I had spent my entire life among Vietnamese refugees so I knew my way around accents and dialects pretty well.
“Listen to the conversation and let us know if they are trying to fuck us.” Scott told me.
“Is this where the Americans are being held?” Judge asked showing the men a map.
The men spoke to each other in a language I did not recognize. Then they said something to Judge.
“He wants more money.”
“No more money.”
Judge told them.
“He says more money or he is not going to budge.” Judge said.
Todd reached into one of the pockets of his cargo pants and retrieved a stack of American dollars.
The man took it and counted it.
Todd turned to me while the men looked at their funds.
“What are they saying?”
“I don’t know. They are speaking Thai.”
“Goddamn it!” Scott said.
“Told you.” Todd told him with a smirk.
Judge waved for our attention.
“He says more money.” Judge said.
“No more money.” Scott said waving his arms.
The smugglers talked frantically to each other and then to Judge. I could tell they were holding firm.
“More money and he will tell you.”
Todd repeated the exercise.
“He says more money.” Judge said seeing that the whole thing was going south.
Todd and Scott didn’t answer this time. They just looked severe.
“He says more money.” Judge said with a shrug.
They looked like they were ready to kill them both and I wondered what the hell I should do. I took a step backward out of reflex.
“Tell him if his lead works out then there will be more money.” Scott said at last.
Judge passed it along.
“He says okay.”
Everyone relaxed a little bit.
Todd brought out a map. The man looked at the map and found his bearings. He pointed at a location.
“He says there is a prison there. He says that they had Americans there once. He says the facility is still open.”
On the drive back to the hotel it started to rain.
“I thought you were going to kill those two.”
“Looks like we are going to the ‘Nam.”
“What are we going to do?”
“People have been tracing these rumors about surviving POWs for years. They always fizzle out somewhere down the line. We are going to penetrate the country and go as deep as we have to in order to follow these clues to their very source.”
“How are we going to get there?” I asked picturing black helicopters spiriting us in and out in the night.
“We are going to walk.”
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Adams
The Secretary of State’s work at the United Nations was not in vain. The evidence was pronounced overwhelming. The U.N. Security Council announced on 29 November 1990 that Vietnam would have until 15 January 1991 to return the POWs. If they did not comply the resolution authorized “all necessary means to secure the American Prisoners of War.” The final verbiage of the resolution authorized the use of force if Vietnam failed to comply.
I was in Russia when the word came. I caught the highlights on BBC news before we left the hotel. We had a full day visiting various statesmen, military leaders and other dignitaries. It seemed like one side of their government did not know what the other side was up to and we needed to smooth things over with everyone in order to proceed. The old Soviet system was dissolving and the mobster mentality that would dominate that country for the next twenty years was already taking over.
Russia was still a real issue. They may have lost the Cold War, but they still had remnants of the Red Army and nuclear weapons. America might be coming to their doorstep. It was important for both countries to define their roles.
If they put up a fight the whole thing would be off. Johnson and Nixon had hesitated to escalate the first Vietnam War due to fear of Soviet intervention. Whether the President would be willing to poke the bear, even to decimate his former enemies, was an open question.
“What about Cam Ranh?” The Russian delegation asked.
This was tricky. Former Cam Ranh Air Force Base in South Vietnam had been given to the Soviet Air Force on a twenty five year lease. Its taxiways contained squadrons of Mig-23 Floggers and Tupolev Tu-95 reconnaissance aircraft and Tupolev Tu-160 bombers where F-4s and Huey’s used to be stationed.”
Everyone from the American delegation was looking at me since it was a military issue. I thought fast and answered faster.
“We can avoid it. We will build a flight path that will not bring our planes near your base. The last thing we want is conflict with you.” I told them. I did not know if we could do it, but it sounded possible.
There was a long pause. This guy wasn’t the decider. You can bet though that whatever he said next Moscow would go with. If it was no then the whole thing could be in jeopardy.
Lieutenant Colonel Carol Madison
U.S. Air Force Intelligence Officer
Pacific Command Operations Center
Watching the Secretary of State address the UN was about as much fun as watching paint dry. He had the Thailand Box and he showed it to the members. Then he spoke of atrocities that the Vietnamese had committed in their extended war with Cambodia. I don’t even know what that had to do with anything. What I realized later was that the State Department was painting Vietnam to be a rogue state.
The Vietnamese did themselves no favors when they kicked the inspectors out on the first week of December.
Even though they could not prove it, the Vietnamese accused them of espionage.
One of the things the US had against Vietnam was the way they blatantly ignored the Geneva Convention in the past. Their track record of human rights abuses were examined in detail. If they had a better history record then the whole thing might not have moved forward. As it was they looked very guilty to begin with. They put men in tiger cages, committed torture and other atrocities. It was all coming back to haunt them now.
In addition there was the Vietnamese Dac Cong. The Dac Cong were direct descendants of commando killing units from V1. They were the ones running around the jungle setting up punji stick traps or sniping Americans. Out of work after the war they put their show on the road. The Dac Cong did well for themselves training members of Marxist guerrilla groups including El Salvadoran FMLN, the Chilean MIR and Colombian FARC came up. They had even gone to Afghanistan adversely to train Soviet forces on how to fight against a guerrilla war there. They were masters of fighting big army tactics with guerrilla warfare. If this became a ground war they would be our toughest opponents.
Finally, the Secretary of State brought up evidence that the Vietnamese armed forces had shipped all the captured American-made weapons from the fall of South Vietnam, including M-16s, to Latin American insurgents, through Cuban intermediaries, during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It looked like the State Department was throwing everything except the kitchen sink at Vietnam.
I thought the whole thing had to do with the POWs.
I guess there was a bigger picture.
Senior Airman Khoa Tran
We crossed the border into Vietnam on November third. I was excited and scared in equal measures. I kept bugging the operators about it as we got close like a kid asking his parents if we are there yet on a holiday trip.
After we were in I was smiling like an asshole. To my knowledge we were the first American military unit to enter Vietnam since we pulled out in the seventies. I hoped that one day I could tell my dad about this.
“What are you so happy about?” Todd asked.
“We’re the first! In Vietnam. We are making history.”
Todd shook his head. I could not tell if it was a negative or just frustration with me.
Todd did not answer.
“We’re not the only team dumbass.” Jeff told me.
“Oh,” It had not occurred to me. In fact there were more than a dozen teams from three services as well as CIA agents operating in the country. We were one of the last teams to mobilize. Of course I did not discover this until after I was back home.
Oddly enough none of us had been here before. Other than me I guess, but I had been a child. Operators were in and out of Indochina throughout the mid-seventies, but this kind of work is a young man’s game and even the NCOIC Scott is less than thirty. We brought the contractor along with us though. Judge was pushing fifty if he wasn’t already past it. None of them seemed impressed with him, but after getting in here I was glad he was there.
He speaks the language and can carry his own pack and mine sometimes when I can’t walk anymore.
The second day after crossing the border we found the camp. It was a little plot of land with ramshackle buildings. They all looked unfit for human habitation.
An hour after we found it, the camp was ours.
Unfortunately, the camp was empty.
The operators went in with their rifles ready with me and the Judge guy right behind them. My blood was up. I felt like I was Special Forces.
There were eight guys in the unit. They all went by their first names and I could guess they were all enlisted. Other than the three that recruited me there was Mike, Bill, John, Parker, and Chris. None of them talked to me much, but like I said they were a tight group.
Watching them take the camp I could see why. They charged in and covered every angle like they had been there before and practiced it a hundred times.
We found a couple of army guys. They weren’t anything formidable. Just a couple of guys to keep the lights on. They didn’t even keep their AK-47s loaded.
Todd and Jeff started leaning on them. They wouldn’t talk.
The two captives were both enlisted guys. They looked scared as shit.
“You're from south? Ho Chi Minh City? Maybe Nha Trang?”
They heard my accent and looked at each other.
“Your family is from the south?”
“I’m American.” I said realizing with two words I had said too much. I didn’t feel so special.
Todd came up and when I looked his way his expression changed. I must have had a guilty look on my face.
“Giving away all our secrets?”
“I told them I was American.”
“Well I don’t think that is a big stretch to figure that out. Keep your fucking mouth shut in the future though.” Todd said.
“Ask them where the POWs were taken.” Scott ordered.
“I already did.” I told him.
“Ask them again. Look menacing.” Jeff said.
“They are gone. Long ago.”
“Use your war face!” Jeff yelled. “Look like we’re going to smoke them because we are.”
“Where are they? Speak up? They’re going to kill you.” I said trying to sound tough.
“Gone. Everyone gone. They left us here to keep the snakes out.”
“That’s no war face. You look like you’re trying to squeeze out a growler.” Jeff interrupted.
I looked at the other one to see if he would have a different story.
“He’s telling the truth. The jungle will eat buildings if they are unkempt. I have seen whole villages that were left to rot during the American War. After a few years people could not find them again.”
“Are they going to break?” Scott asked.
“I don’t think they know anything.” I told them.
“Oh I bet they know something. Tell them that the first one to talk gets to live.”
“What?” I said not wanting to lie.
“Is he serious?” The big guard asks me like we are all friends and the white guys are the enemy.
“I wouldn’t mess with him.” I told him honestly.
“Did they tell you anything?”
“Mike. The little one.”
Mike grabs the smaller guy by his feet and drags him away. They both start screaming.
“There are no prisoners.”
Mike took the other one behind a shed. As soon as they were out of sight a gunshot rang out.
I just about shit myself. I am thinking Geneva Convention. I am thinking that if I start making a fit about this I might be next. I am thinking I might be next anyway. I really didn’t know who the fuck these guys were to begin with.
Scott turns to the remaining guard and gives him a hard look.
“Kilo Site. They took everything to the Kilo Site.” The guard told me.
“What did he say?” Scott demanded.
“He said they are gone. Something about Kilo Site.”
“Do you want to kill this one?” Scott asked me in broken Vietnamese.
I ran over to the shed. I needed to see what happened. I needed to know.
When I round the corner I find Mike, Judge and Jeff all crouched in a corner. Billy is gagging the not dead guard with his hands.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Mike said.
They all laughed at me.
“You’re an asshole!”
“Now that’s a war face!” Jeff said.