The Odd, Pat Story of Col. Pham Duc Dai

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday December 18, 1992

Sen.John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the special Senate committee on POWs and MIAs, is currently in Vietnam on another of his scripted visits to further the cause of normalizing relations with Hanoi.

On his last visit, in November, Kerry produced the miracle discovery that the Vietnamese hard-liners had stopped lying to us about our missing men. He said, at photo op after photo op, that Hanoi was now making available to us every last scrap of information and artifact, right down to the flight helmet once worn by committee colleague Sen. John McCain, formerly a prisoner himself and now another charter member of the let’s-close-the-books club on the issue of missing men. Some of these men could still be alive.

As part of what Kerry called the “breakthrough,” a man named Col. Pham Duc Dai, director of Vietnamese military museums, came forward and presented to the senator his wartime diary, which purported to tell the story of how four American soldiers were killed in an ambush on April 21, 1967.

“I saw the ambush and all four soldiers were killed right then,” the colonel told Kerry in Hanoi in November, according to the account in The New York Times. “Fifteen minutes after, American helicopters were flying very near, trying to find them. So the children came out and they laid on the bodies of the dead soldiers — covered the bodies of the soldiers with their own bodies — so that the helicopter pilots could not find them.”

Why were the bodies never found? Col. Dai’s explanation was that the four dead men were placed in a nearby river and weighted down with rocks.

This is all very curious, because a declassified Central Intelligence Agency document contains reports from the agency’s informants, as yet unrefuted, that these same four men were captured alive and were being readied for movement “soon to a western area.” The same document mentions a Vietcong detention camp located to the west of the capture area, where “two or three” other Americans were already being held.

The report of the capture of the four men came from two separate informants. The CIA document is dated “Early June 1967.” It was declassified and released on March 31, 1978. According to Pentagon files, this was the only MIA incident involving four men in all of Vietnam on April 21, 1967.

Another CIA document describes a 1969 interrogation of a Vietnamese informant who had been at a POW camp in some capacity. He was shown photos of missing men. He identified several as prisoners in the camp. One of his “possible identifications” was a soldier from the April 21 incident.

I don’t know if Sen. Kerry has seen these intelligence documents. But I do find it strange that the senator announced on the spot, when Col. Dai told him the story last month, that he now considered the case of the four men resolved. “At least in our judgment,” Kerry said, “we believe we can say we know what happened. We believe they died… ”

A spokeswoman for the senator in Washington said yesterday that his meeting with Col. Dai was “a very compelling moment emotionally. ” She said that Kerry “is not playing God” and that others, including the families of the men, have to make the final judgment. But she acknowledged that after Kerry heard Col. Dai’s story, he said that “in his mind, this resolves the fate of the four and maybe their families can accept that.”

Other sources seeking to defend Kerry suggested that the senator had been in possession of other information that corroborated the colonel’s diary. But why, then, has he never mentioned this alleged evidence? Why does he keep saying, as recently as a committee hearing on Dec. 4, that it was the colonel’s diary – and the diary alone – that formed his opinion? “I got accountability on four people,” he said at the hearing, “when we were sitting there listening to Colonel Dai.”

I am not using the names of the four men here because I don’t know how much their families have been told, either about Col. Dai’s account or about the contrasting CIA reports. Also, nothing I have written here should be construed as evidence or information that the four are still alive. However, the CIA documents suggest that if they did die, it didn’t happen on April 21, 1967.

It should be noted that when Kerry’s staff director, Frances Zwenig, was making preparations for committee visits to Vietnam, she met with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi and instructed them in the various ways they could resolve the cases of unaccounted-for men. According to a State Department memo, she told them that “Senator Kerry believes that…cases can be resolved by the recovery and identification of remains, through records, from witnesses of deaths, or some combination of these.”

Could Col. Dai’s story be the result of simply following Zwenig’s instructions? I don’t know; much more investigation is needed. What I do know is that, days before Kerry left for his November visit, credible sources told me that one of the press events on his itinerary would be some discolsure about four soldiers who were killed in one place. And suddenly Col. Dai appears. Scripted? You decide.

Kerry’s own public hearings have established that many captives were left behind in 1973 in Washington’s rush to close out the Vietnam war. Why is Kerry in such a hurry to bring to an end the search for the truth about what happened to them?

And why is Washington so eager to respond to the business community’s heavy lobbying to end the economic embargo on Vietnam?

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