By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday, August 4, 1993
(With additional reporting by Kim Schaye)
Quang Binh Province, Vietnam – “I leave here still not knowing what happened,” said Patricia O’Grady Parsels as she departed Vietnam in April.
It’s been 26 years since her father, Maj. John Francis O’Grady, parachuted from his stricken plane into the jungle fastness of Quang Binh province – years spent by his parents, now dead, and then his eldest child constantly pushing for information. But even after Patricia’s recent journey into the remotest forests of Vietnam to visit the very spot where her father was captured and to interview some of the very militiamen who took him prisoner while he lay tangled in his parachute, the fate of this Air Force pilot remains a mystery.
The evidence gathered on the Vietnam trip suggests compellingly that the mystery is manufactured. Unlike those missing men whose bodies have never been found but who, from all available information, clearly did not survive their crash or ambush, O’Grady’s case is quite different in that we know from eyewitnesses and documents that he not only survived the shoot-down of his plane — with injuries that were apparently not life-threatening, a broken leg and a flesh wound on the head — but almost immediately was taken prisoner. And prisoners do not vanish without the knowledge of the authorities.
What may be most disturbing about the O’Grady case is its lack of uniqueness. Rather than being an exception to the overall story of American prisoners in Vietnam, it is, from all available information, the rule. During the years since the war, a mass of evidence has emerged that shows Hanoi held on to large numbers of prisoners after the war’s end – and that people at the highest levels in Washington knew this. Radio intercepts, satellite photos, testimony from former high-ranking communist officials in a position to know and other intelligence data establish the following:
That Vietnam moved prisoners to China and the Soviet Union, that many prisoners were also kept hidden in Laos and moved around to various sites as labor details, and that distress signals, radio messages and other legitimate indications of live prisoners were not pursued by the American intelligence community.
In the O’Grady case itself, the evidence strongly indicates that both governments know much more than they are telling. Hanoi’s official story — that O’Grady died from “serious injuries” four hours after his capture — stretches logic beyond all possible belief. For one thing, two solid eyewitnesses have told American investigators that they saw O’Grady alive on the day after the capture. Despite this, Washington does not publicly challenge Hanoi’s story, apparently not wanting to lay bare its own 20 years of knowledge about missing prisoners, and worse, the failure to get them out and bring them home.
O’Grady may indeed have died after the rustic militiamen turned him over to the regular army, but the militiamen told us that death would not have come from the kind of injuries he had at the time of capture — which, of course, raises questions about execution or death by torture during interrogation.
There are always witnesses to a prisoner’s death, at the very least someone who saw the body after death. But at no time during our stay in Hanoi or on our 500-mile trek into the interior did the government produce a single such witness. At no time did the government produce any eyewitness member of the regular-army engineering unit it says took control of O’Grady after the militiamen captured him. And at no time was there produced any eyewitness member of the 280th Air Defense Regiment, the antiaircraft unit whose guns brought down O’Grady’s F-105 and whose record books record his death. In this regard, Hanoi treated us just as it has treated the American MIA investigating field teams; it has never produced any witness of this kind for them either.
Most telling of all, the militiamen who captured O’Grady (whom the American teams have described as the most credible of all the people they have talked to about the case) say that a regular-army medic named Dinh Van Chieu treated O’Grady’s injuries. It’s reasonable to think that he would be a very good witness to tell us about the seriousness of those injuries. He too has never been produced.
The Americans don’t appear too exercised by this failure to produce evidence and indeed seem to accept it without protest. In fact, just last month, Patricia and other family members received a letter from the Pentagon that effectively endorsed Hanoi’s story, saying: “During a recent review, the sum of information contained in your father’s case file was sufficient to confirm that death had occurred.” No cause of death was given in the letter, nor did it divulge the nature of the “convincing evidence.”
This letter is one more affirmation of how woeful the detective work by both governments has been — and it goes far beyond the O’Grady case. The pattern of investigative deficiences is so common in the handling of the entire MIA list of more 2,200 unaccounted-for men that any serious researcher into the subject is forced to entertain the likelihood that this is deliberate policy and not happenstance.
As demonstrated during our journey to get to the bottom of the O’Grady case, virtually everything done by the MIA field teams, both American and Vietnamese, seems aimed not at finding out what happened to a missing man but instead at finding “proof” that he is dead so that another name can be scratched off the list and stamped “Resolved.”
One revealing document is the North Vietnamese report on the downing of O’Grady’s plane on April 10, 1967. It is an account as seen from the ground by the 280th Air Defense Regiment. The report is interesting for the precise and elaborate detail it provides of the action — until it comes to O’Grady’s fate.
Here, for example, is one small excerpt: “[At] 1500 hours four F105s came in from the southwest and passed over the strategic position toward the north-northwest. Two F105s circled back . . . Each aircraft swept down once from the northeast making a feigned strike, but we didn’t fire on them. . .
“At 1527 hours the enemy sent in two F105s in a stepped formation from the north-northwest. One aircraft swept down on the 10th Battery’s battle position and released two bombs; but they struck 10 meters from the foot of the position. They threw four canisters of ‘B1′ bombs around there. . . [Then] another F105 swept down and as it prepared to go up, we fired two heavy volleys. Hit, and burning furiously, the aircraft went straight down. The pilot parachuted from the aircraft about 5 kilometers away. (Later this major was captured alive. Four hours later he died from serious injuries.)”
It strikes this reader as quite extraordinary that the regiment would go into such painstaking minutiae to describe every pass and feint of an air attack and then dismiss the capture and death of one of the pilots in a parenthetical note of 14 words.
On the other hand, it might be exactly the way you would record the death if you were trying to disguise how the pilot had really died.
The Americans, too, have done some very strange — and inexplicable — things with their records on missing men.
Take for example O’Grady’s “authenticator” number. During the war, most pilots were given their own, four-digit authenticator number to use as a distress signal that would identify them individually, in the event of shoot-down or capture. It could be conveyed either immediately by radio or later by drawing it on the ground.
However, the O’Grady family was told in answer to one of their inquiries, that their missing man didn’t have an authenticator number. One form the family received said on the line for the authenticator number: “Not Maintained.”
On another form first received by Patricia’s grandparents in 1978, the box at the top of the page marked “Authenticator No.” was blank. It was still blank when Patricia requested her own set of documents on her father in 1985.
But then, a year later, Patricia received another copy of the same form, a personal data sheet kept on all missing airmen. This one she had not requested. It arrived anonymously – apparently from someone with access to the original document who was sympathetic to Patricia’s cause.
This time the authenticator-number box was not blank. Instead, there was a rectangular hole cut out of the document where the number would have been, indicating that the original had been doctored to obscure the information. But beside the hole, Patricia’s anonymous benefactor had written in her father’s four-digit number. Two knowledgeable goverment sources have since confirmed that the number does, in fact, belong to John O’Grady.
Then why was the O’Grady family told that their missing man had no authenticator number? Since the Pentagon will not answer such questions from the press, one is led to the speculation – borne out by the experiences of other MIA families — that the harder a family pushes for information they might use to carry out their own investigation and independently verify evidence, the further the Pentagon will go to suppress it.
Worse, the O’Grady experience with the authenticator number is merely a hint of a much larger failure — one that some intelligence officials and many MIA families believe is deliberate.
Authenticator numbers were only one of several kinds of distress signals that pilots were trained in, and the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, in its report in January, reached the damning conclusion that neither the Defense Intelligence Agency (part of the Pentagon) nor the Central Intelligence Agency ever told the analysts who examine satellite and reconnaissance photos to look for any of these distress signals after the war. As it ticked off a list of deficiencies, the report said: “Another indicator that DIA has done little to address the possibility of distress symbols appearing on photography is its inability to account for the Army’s, Navy’s or Marine Corps’ pilot authenticator numbers . . . This is a significant failure . . . it supports the theory that DIA has never taken the possibility of symbols seriously. . . ”
Other evidence was also ignored. For one thing, well into the 1980s, U.S. and allied intelligence services periodically intercepted radio communications sent by the Laotian military that talked of transferring American prisoners from one camp to another. One former government intelligence analyst who has seen these intercepts recently told this reporter that since Operation Homecoming (Hanoi’s final release of American POWs in 1973), “there have been maybe fifteen to twenty good, interesting, provocative intercepts that refer to things you just can’t dismiss or say it could be something else — cases where they specifically refer to Americans being held at camps.” A typical message, he said, would contain mundane transfer instructions such as, “Have the prisoners ready to be moved at 0800 hours.” He said that one such message, in December, 1979, referred to a large group of Thai prisoners with three American POWs among them being moved from a detention camp in northern Laos to work in the mines of Attopeu, a province in the south. A year later, another intercepted message reported that the men were being moved back to their camp.
The source said that serious follow-up on this intelligence was never carried out because all the intercepts were “debunked” as unreliable or inconclusive by both the DIA and the National Security Agency, the entity responsible for monitoring radio traffic. One method of debunking, apparently, was to erase the computer records. The source said he had seen a paper copy someone had saved of the December, 1979, intercept about the three American prisoners and that on this copy, the NSA chief in Southeast Asia, John Odell, had written: “Purge all traffic on this subject from the files.”
Only nine prisoners were returned from Laos at the end of the war in 1973, though U.S. military intelligence publicly listed 311 men as missing in that Hanoi-dominated country and said that most of these men were believed to be living prisoners. Additional prisoner information came from intelligence contacts inside the Vietnamese hierarchy and revealed prisoner movement to China. One such American intelligence report that I have obtained describes its source as “a special liaison cadre” at a major Viet Cong headquarters who “has provided usually reliable information for over three years.” The report revealed that this contact told U.S. military intelligence in Saigon in September, 1972, that North Vietnam had covertly moved a number of American POWs across the border into two of China’s southern provinces to be used for bargaining purposes later.
Another strong piece of evidence on prisoner transfers was the testimony before the Senate Select Committee by Jan Sejna, a former major general in the Czechoslovak Army who defected to the United States in 1968. Sejna testified last year that American prisoners were transported from Indochina to the Soviet Union and said he had personal knowledge of up to 90 prisoners having been shipped through Prague, in three groups.
Several things make Sejna particularly credible. One is that he held a very senior military position in Prague, serving as chief of staff to the Czech defense minister. In that post, said the Senate Committee’s report, “he would have had access to such [POW] information.”
Beyond that, Sejna is a longtime employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the lead U.S. agency on POW/MIA affairs. The DIA hired him only after satisfying itself as to his truthfulness by giving him several polygraph tests. His Senate testimony, however, baldly contradicted the DIA, which has repeatedly told Congress that it had “no credible evidence” that U.S. POWs were transferred to the Soviet Union.
The explosiveness of this contradiction may explain why the Senate Select Committee, which was unusually deferential to the DIA throughout its inquiry, did not have Sejna give his testimony at a public hearing in front of television cameras. Instead it had staff investigators take a deposition from him in private — meaning the press and public were barred.
The most recent piece of evidence to surface, a document from Soviet military archives that has been deemed authentic by the Russians, has stirred a great deal of attention because it would appear to provide detailed affirmation of what all the other evidence had indicated: That prisoners, possibly several hundred, had been intentionally held back in 1973.
The document – brought to light in April by a Harvard researcher, Stephen Morris — is a Russian translation of a Vietnamese report dated September 12, 1972, that says Hanoi was holding 1,205 American prisoners at that time. Add to this the fact that between the September date of that report and the end of January, 1973, when the peace accords were signed, nearly 200 more men went missing, more than half of whom were officially acknowledged by Hanoi to be prisoners. This would have brought the prisoner total to more than 1,300.
Hanoi returned only 591 men. If the 1,300-plus figure is precise or nearly so, then 700 or so prisoners were not returned.
The document’s heading described it as a top-secret report written by a senior North Vietnamese general, Tran Van Quang, and delivered to the Communist Party Politburo in Hanoi.
It said many things that run counter to long-held Pentagon positions about POWs. For instance, about Hanoi’s holding many more prisoners than it was officially acknowledging, the report says: “The government of the USA knows well about this, but does not know the exact number . . . and is able only to surmise approximately . . . on the basis of its losses.” The Pentagon has always denied that it knew about additional prisoners.
The report also described a system of separate prisons in which prisoners were classified according to their degree of sympathy for North Vietnam — with “progressives” dominating the list of prisoners officially acknowledged by Hanoi. The Pentagon insists there was only one prison system, denying the existence of a “second-tier” system where certain prisoners could have been hidden. Possibly the most telling assertion in the Quang report was that only some of the prisoners would be returned “at this time.” Others, said the document, would not be freed until Washington made political concessions and granted economic aid. “Nixon must compensate North Vietnam for those enormous losses which the destructive war caused,” it said, adding: “These are the principles on the basis of which we are able to resolve the question of the American prisoners of war.”
Hanoi immediately said the document was a fake, and Gen. Quang said he had never written such a report. The Russians, under pressure not to further humiliate their embarrassed Vietnamese allies, were somewhat ambiguous. Archives director Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, who is also a historian, said the document was “completely authentic” but he also said: “Whether the information is accurate I cannot say.”
In Washington, an alarmed military and intelligence community immediately put its debunking machine into frenetic motion, and many Washington reporters accepted the government’s position that the document was so full of inaccuracies, such as misspelled names and overstated numbers of high-ranking officers captured, as to be fatally flawed.
But the central issue was the number of prisoners given in the Quang document and on this the government’s efforts at denial were less than persuasive. A Pentagon statement said: “The number 1,205 grossly overstates the number of Americans who survived their incidents, let alone were captured by the North Vietnamese and survived captivity until late 1972.”
This statement, however, does not jibe with the figures the Pentagon gave on March 29, 1973, after Hanoi had returned the 591 prisoners. At that time, the Pentagon said there were still 1,328 Americans missing in action and unaccounted for, plus the additional 1,100 “killed in action/body not recovered.”
If this is what the Pentagon was saying at the end of the war — 1,328 men still missing (and that number has not changed very much since) — then what is so unthinkable about the figure of 1,205 prisoners in the 1972 Quang document?
Though this document has caused much more of a stir than many earlier, revealing intelligence reports, it is not the first time information has emerged about the North Vietnamese having a policy of understating by several hundred the number of prisoners they were holding.
In 1971 the American Embassy in Saigon brought forth a defector, Dr. Dang Tan, a North Vietnamese army doctor who had been active in commmunist party affairs, was close to several senior Hanoi military and security officials directly involved with POWs and had himself treated American prisoners. In remarks prepared for a press conference, Dr. Tan said that when he left North Vietnam four years earlier in 1967, he had personal knowledge from official briefings that Hanoi was holding more than 800 American POWs while declaring only around 300. Of the 500 not named in 1967, Dr. Tan said, “It is possible some may never be released. . . These unnamed American POWs will continue to be exploited by NVN and will serve as the tool for NVN in blackmailing the USA.” However, at the last minute, Tan’s prepared statement was altered by the American Embassy, at Washington’s direction, to remove all references to numbers of prisoners so as not to stir up MIA families. After the press conference, the embassy cabled Washington that “by fast scrambling and appropriate prodding. . . we succeeded in altering Tan’s handout statements in time. . . ” Nonetheless, the original statement did surface and was eventually declassified.
Another defector whom the Americans regarded as credible brought out information in the late 1970s that directly parallels the Quang report in many respects, such as the number of American prisoners not returned in 1973 (about 700), the political classification of prisoners, the existence of a network of prisons unknown to Washington and the motive for holding back prisoners. This defector, Le Dinh, was interviewed in Paris in 1979 and 1980 by U.S. intelligence officials, whose reports were recently declassified. In one of those Defense Intelligence Agency reports, Le Dinh — who had worked for four years in Hanoi’s military intelligence apparatus and had seen and met with U.S. POWs — is quoted as saying that Vietnam had “retained a ‘strategic asset’ of over 700 American prisoners that could be used to force the U.S. to pay reparations.”
Given this telling pattern of events and evidence, contradicting as it does Washington’s version of the POW/MIA story, it is not surprising that any relative of an MIA who tries to find out what really happened runs smack into an official stone wall. It explains why those MIA families who have refused to be quiet and go away have been manipulated, denied information and flat-out lied to for the past two decades.
It also helps us understand why both governments, not just Washington, seem unable to tell the truth.
The Vietnamese, desperate for legitimacy and economic aid, are truly scared that if they were to admit they held back prisoners for ransom, some of whom may still be alive, their chances of winning that legitimacy and aid would be set back many years. What they dearly want, I inferred from many oblique conversations with anguished Hanoi officials during my recent trip there, is for the American people to silently grant them absolution and wreak no reprisals, on the ground that this sort of thing happens in war and now, after the passage of so much time, has to be put behind us.
And the American side, quite simply, cannot bring itself to tell the truth about prisoners left behind, because this would expose the fact that Washington knew all along what Hanoi was doing but, in its haste to extricate itself from this losing and draining war, let it happen — perhaps with the hope that the prisoners could be repatriated quietly by negotiation later.
On this broad and troubling canvas, the case of Maj. John Francis O’Grady emerges in a fundamental sense as emblematic. He may not have survived long enough to become one of the prisoners who was left behind after Operation Homecoming, but what he shares with those men is that he was a prisoner — and prisoners don’t disappear without a trace.
Yet John O’Grady, in the official accounts of both countries, did disappear. Up to a certain point, he was alive and in captivity and not fatally injured. And then, just like that, he was gone. The two governments say he died, but there are no witnesses to his death. And no remains.
That was why Patricia O’Grady Parsels went to Vietnam. When Hanoi approved her request to travel to the site of her father’s capture, she thought this meant the Vietnamese were going to give her the truth. She reasoned, not illogically, that since Hanoi was in wretched economic condition and therefore frantic to get Washington to lift its crippling embargo, it had decided to make a conciliatory gesture. In her mind, this meant either that they would lead her to information that her father was being held alive somewhere, possibly in another country, or that they would provide her with clear proof that he was dead.
The Vietnamese, however, were apparently hoping that the gesture of helping her reach the remote and forbidding area where her father went down would be enough, and that by allowing her to see the usually restricted site for herself and talk to witnesses, she would come to the conclusion that he could no longer be alive – and be satisfied with that.
But Patricia would only have been satisfied if one or the other government had finally presented her with the truth. Instead they kept their walls of secrecy intact. And walling off the truth is no way to bring about closure.
Some time before her trip to Vietnam, Patricia was talking about the anguish felt by all MIA families who are still pushing for the truth. “We’re not haunted so much by the loss as the lie,” she said.
To read about the recovery of John O’Grady’s remains, visit Patricia’s website here.