The Journey Begins
By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday, August 2, 1993
(With additional reporting by Kim Schaye)
Quang Bin Province, Vietnam — They call it the Lao Wind, because it comes singing eastward out of Laos into that thin central neck of Vietnam where the hill people live, in clusters of bamboo and thatch huts, on the sides of the craggy mountains of Annam. And for the moments that this occasional wind bends the high tops of the gum trees and ripples across the sun-creased faces of these tribal people, it takes just enough sting out of their brown, baked world to make life in the primitive hill country bearable.
Such is the environment in the remote border district of Minh Hoa, the farthest, poorest reach of the province of Quang Binh. The May and Khua clans have to carve their highland clearings out of the thick jungle foliage that rules here more than men do — and there is little connection with the outside world. For one thing, the rutted dirt road that barely reaches here is hard enough to negotiate by jeeps and trucks in good weather. In the rainy season, it becomes impassable. A few in this isolated population have battery-operated radios, but there is no electricity and no plumbing, and, for their food, they have only the river for its fish and the stubborn hillsides for mostly corn and sweet potatoes and sometimes a crop of peanuts.
During the war, the American bombing of this area in North Vietnam was fierce, on some days constant, because one branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the man-carved jungle supply route that sustained the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units in the south, originated at this point — on the red laterite clay track that passes through the hamlet of Y Leng. Because of the bombing, the villagers often lived underground in bunkers crudely scooped out of the rocky earth. Another phenomenon of the war in and around Y Leng was that a large number of the men in the area took the name Ho with the permission of, and as a patriotic gesture to, the late father of the country, Ho Chi Minh.
On the afternoon of April 10, 1967, a Monday, one of the American F-105 Thunderchiefs that for hours had been bombing the trail was hit by antiaircraft fire, and the pilot, Maj. John Francis O’Grady, bailed out. His parachute opened well, and he thumped down on the side of a saddleback ridge dense with vines and sawgrass rustling in the Lao Wind — about two miles from Y Leng. He was quickly surrounded by a group of seven rustic local militiamen, many of them named Ho. Two were called Ho Huan and Ho Cam.
It was to this same harsh and aboriginal setting, and to these same two men, that the pilot’s eldest child, Patricia, came 26 years later to try to unravel the mystery of what had happened to him.
Patricia O’Grady Parsels, 40, who has devoted much of her life to this crusade and who had overcome official resistance to her trip, came down that cratered clay track into Y Leng in a dust-enveloped jeep on the last day of March this year.
In her long quest for information about her father, Patricia had come to discover that eyewitness accounts contradict the official story. She also learned that a great deal of evidence is missing and perhaps being withheld – possibly by the Americans as well as the Vietnamese, both of whom, it would appear, want to put an end to the O’Grady case — and to the whole MIA issue.
This is what compelled her to travel to Hanoi and, from there, to undertake the jarring journey of nearly 500 miles — down the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin to the cities of Vinh and Dong Hoi, where she turned westward inland to the district town of Quy Dat and then, over broken road and track, deeper still into the interior until, within sight of the Laotian border, she came to the hamlet of Y Leng and to the men named Ho Huan and Ho Cam.
But before she could get to that mountain hamlet — and become the first family member to visit the site of a relative’s capture and actually interview the captors — Patricia had many hurdles to clear. Washington, which has been sorely embarrassed by the growing evidence that American prisoners were knowingly left behind at war’s end in 1973, never gave its blessing to the O’Grady trip and specifically rejected Patricia’s request for logistical support, namely helicopter transport to the Vietnamese interior. Nonetheless, in late December, Hanoi — apparently seeking to defuse the MIA issue, until now an obstacle to Vietnam’s full return to the world community — gave its approval for the trip.
Much planning remained to be done before Patricia could get on a plane. The trip was going to cost at least $ 20,000, and money was short. She and her husband, John Parsels (himself a former POW in Vietnam), had exhausted the family savings on their constant and costly search for concealed MIA information.
They first tried raising funds by appealing to the major corporations who are now lobbying Washington to get the economic embargo against Vietnam lifted so they can start up operations in that country of 70 million people — a largely untapped market. All the corporations turned her down, many not even answering her letters.
“We wish we could help relieve your frustration and sense of loss,” responded Henry Hollings, a vice president of Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria. “It’s our hope that as doors open, many families will be able to gain answers. . . We encourage your efforts, even though we’re unable to offer funds or other sponsorship.”
On the positive side, Northwest Airlines provided two free round-trip tickets to Bangkok. And some individuals helped too. One of O’Grady’s Annapolis classmates, Lester Hewitt, also a combat pilot in Vietnam, gave a sizable contribution. But in the end, the family still had to borrow more than $ 10,000.
Finding interpreters was also crucial. The American MIA search teams in Vietnam don’t have any, relying instead on Vietnamese government translators. Patricia wanted her information to be as independent and unfettered as possible.
Hewitt, through friends, found NgaThuong Van Le, a Vietnamese refugee and now computer expert living in Santa Ana, Calif. Other O’Grady contacts found Chong Xiong, a former officer in Laos’ anti-communist Hmong guerrilla army who is now an owner and manager of rental property in Fresno, Calif., and a leader of the Hmong refugee community in America. The two men, who are now U.S. citizens, fled their countries when the communists won the war and seized power in the 1970s. This was their first time back to Indochina.
With the interpreters joining Patricia, her husband, her two young children and this reporter, the group now numbered seven.
We departed from the West Coast on March 24. After a 36-hour stopover in Bangkok to pick up our visas at the Vietnamese embassy, we flew on to Hanoi.
The plane had been delayed, so we were a bit late for a meeting at the foreign ministry. We dropped our bags at the low-budget but quite clean and adequate Victory Hotel and headed for the ministry, where the meeting was chaired by Deputy Foreign Minister Le Mai. A second ministry official was also there, Nguyen Xuan Phong, head of the Americas Department, along with three men from Hanoi’s MIA office, the VNOSMP (Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons).
The session began with a recitation that was to become standard on our trip. Mai and the others said the following: We understand the feelings of American MIA families because we have 300,000 MIAs of our own whom we cannot account for (compared to about 2,200 on the American side) and so Vietnamese families are suffering too; the MIA issue is a humanitarian issue that should not be linked to political issues such as the ecomomic embargo; “we should work together so that we can put the past behind us”; “we very much admire your effort” in traveling all the way here; “we have nothing to hide.”
Turning to the O’Grady case, they told Patricia that they had worked very hard to get at the truth and that the evidence gathered in three field investigations with their American counterparts “seems to confirm that your father died” a few hours after capture from his “very grave wounds.” Her face stiffened. The officials said that the only thing needed to establish final proof is “to determine where his remains were buried and to recover them.” Noting that they had already dug up two sites and probed another and found nothing, the Hanoi officials said the witnesses who gave them these locations had “forgotten the exact spot, they know only the area. . . it’s a long time ago.”
Phong, of the Americas Department said he hoped that once Patricia got to Minh Hoa district and interviewed the key witnesses to the capture in Y Leng, “this will help you understand what happened and will confirm our information” that he died. “Maybe you don’t believe our reports,” he said. “I can understand that. Maybe in going there directly, you can satisfy yourself.”
Patricia, grim, made it clear that she indeed had little faith in the reports, Vietnamese or American. She cited all the discrepancies and contradictions in them — the witness who said her father’s body was carried lifeless from his crash site when in fact he landed alive in his parachute miles from the plane’s wreckage, the witness who gave a grave location that appeared to be related to another pilot who crashed far away on another day, and so on.
“That’s why I’ve come,” she said coolly. “I want to explore all possibilities.” She posited the theory that the reason no remains have been found is that he is alive and was being held by an “ethnic faction” who “transferred him to another area outside your country,” meaning Laos.
Phong responded: “I would like to have your father alive.” But he shook his head in disbelief. “It’s very unlikely. Living in the forest all these years, that’s impossible. It’s very difficult to survive in those conditions.”
The diplomat added: “We have no reason to hide Americans. Politically, it would be very stupid. The same is true of Laos and Cambodia. There is no motive. Our interest now is better relations with the United States.”
Back in our minibus after this meeting, Le asked Patricia: “Did you get what you wanted?”
“I got what I expected I would get,” she replied. But the anger in her voice belied her words.
She was clearly taken aback by the meeting. She had built hopes on the belief that the Vietnamese would never have agreed to the visit and brought her this far if they didn’t have something positive to tell her — or at least hint to her — about her father.
We began the next morning with an appointment, arranged by the Vietnamese, at the American MIA office in Hanoi, headed by Army Lt. Col. Jack Donovan. Officially, these offices — which also exist in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand — are called “detachments” of the JTF-FA (Joint Task Force-Full Accounting). Hanoi is Detachment 2. There is also a forensic laboratory in Hawaii that attempts to identify remains.
On our arrival, Donovan explained that he is barred from providing details about a particular case to anyone but members of the family, so the Parsels went off upstairs with him (Patricia said later that he told her nothing new of any importance about the case), and the rest of us sat down with Air Force Maj. Roger Overturf, the public affairs officer.
Overturf confirmed some things we had already heard — for example, that the MIA search teams have problems in the remote area where we are going because officials there frequently behave as if semi-autonomous and are resistive to the writ of the central government. He also noted the special hostility toward Americans in that region because of the heavy bombing during the war.
Further, the public affairs officer mentioned a few realities of the MIA program that seem to belie the claims by Washington that a “breakthrough” has taken place in the past year because of a sudden surge of cooperation by Hanoi. Overturf said, contrastingly, “We have only closed seven cases in the last year.” Under present procedures, there are three ways an MIA case can be officially closed: 1) the return of a live POW, 2) a positive identification of remains or 3) an “acceptable explanation” for why the first two options are not possible.
Overturf also told us something you don’t hear about in all the “breakthrough” talk by senior officials and U.S. senators pushing for normalization of relations: that the government in Vientiane, which is heavily influenced by Hanoi, will not allow the search teams to go into certain northern areas of Laos, most of which adjoin Vietnam. These are the areas where the majority of the sightings of live POWs and distress signals have been reported over the years.
Later that day, Patricia and her husband decided to pay impromptu visits to the two prisons where Parsels had been held in Hanoi before his release in March, 1973, after the peace accords.
John Parsels, now a retired Army major, had been a helicopter pilot with the rank of captain when his Huey crashed in a contested area of South Vietnam in February, 1970. All four members of the crew were severely injured. They were soon captured, tied up and left for the night at the crash site.
Parsels’ co-pilot was terribly burned and a leg was nearly severed. Parsels could not see him — he was lying on the other side of the wreckage — but he moaned horribly all through the night. Just before dawn the Vietnamese carried the co-pilot off a distance, and then Parsels heard a shot and the moaning stopped. Parsels had no love for his captors, but he considered this act a mercy killing.
Parsels himself had a fractured back and a broken leg. The Vietnamese reset the leg by hand, pulling it and pushing it until it was set. One soldier, watching, laughed as Parsels writhed and cried out in pain.
Parsels was moved about through Laos and then shifted into North Vietnam, where he was held in several camps, and finally to Hanoi. There, he was kept first at 17 Ly Nam De, an address that used to be the military film archives (and has been restored to that purpose) but during the war was made into a prison that the American inmates called “Plantation Gardens” — just as they called the Hoa Lo prison, a few hundred yards away across town, the “Hanoi Hilton.” Parsels was eventually transferred to the “Hilton” in December, 1972, preparatory to the prisoner release in early 1973 that Washington dubbed “Operation Homecoming.”
Our unscheduled visits to the prisons did not go all that well.
Plantation Gardens was first, and it looked very little like a former prison and very much like a peeling, low-security government stucco building with its gate casually open on a Sunday afternoon. Children were playing with wooden tops in the large courtyard. Others could be seen playing cards in an open-windowed room on the first floor of the main building. The sides of the compound were lined with one-story wooden sheds; these sheds had been the cells.
We had been in the yard less than five minutes, looking around and taking pictures, when from the rear of the compound a man in uniform emerged waving his arms and shouting at us that we had no permission to be there and we had to leave. I interpreted his over-excited behavior as that of a government official who stood to get reprimanded or worse if his superiors found out that he had allowed unauthorized foreigners into the compound.
However, back in our minibus, Patricia offered another possible explanation. She said the man’s reaction would also make sense if prisoners were still being held somewhere on that property. Others in the party, including her husband, disagreed, finding it extremely unlikely that the government would be keeping anyone in a location that was so central and so vulnerable to the chance of discovery. “It’s just the kind of thing they would do,” she countered. “What more ingenious place could they pick? Right under everyone’s noses, where it would never be suspected.”
Our stop at the Hanoi Hilton was even briefer. As the Parsels family stood in front of the green, castle-like double doors and we took their pictures, guards from the now civilian prison emerged and shooed us away. Again, no permits.
John Parsels’ memories of his imprisonment are strong, but he articulated his feelings only obliquely, such as by making sardonic cracks during our meals about the “wonderful” cabbage soup he used to live on and about how history is repeating itself for him. “I’m a guest of the government again,” he said with a sour laugh.
The next morning at 7:30, our luggage reduced to backpacks stuffed with canned foods, medicines and candy and cigarettes for villagers, and of course toilet paper, we pulled away from the Victory Hotel in three battered government jeeps and started the 470-mile journey to the hill country and the hamlet of Y Leng. We were accompanied by Tran Van Tu, a senior official from Hanoi’s MIA office, which also provided the jeeps and drivers.
The two children were not in great shape. Amanda, who is about to be 9 and has a lively personality, had been sick with fever since Bangkok, though as our caravan departed Hanoi she seemed to be on the mend. It was Eamonn, 10, the more private of the two, who was now feverish and weak. As we headed south in the Russian-made jeeps toward Quang Binh province, we used the coastal road, Route One, and got some vivid snapshops of Vietnam’s poverty.
Trucks run this route carrying the soft coal that is sold for cooking fires. Every time they hit one of the constant ruts, the jolt spills handfuls of coal dust through the cracks and over the side. Immediately, ragged villagers rush onto the road carrying short brooms and something to serve as a dustpan, like a piece of cardboard. As vehicles swerve around them, they barely look up as they hurry to save these meager yet crucial droppings.
Further along, there’s a stretch where beggars, old and young, hold out their conical straw hats to catch the occasional small change tossed by a passing driver. And still later, we came upon road-repair crews working for roughly $1 a day; they were patching the pocked macadam by hand, rolling patties of tar in their palms and slapping them into the holes.
Yet, all is not depressing. The natural beauty is frequently stunning. Limestone ridges thrust upward into coronas of mist. Terraced hillsides present themselves as postcards, decorated with flowering trees and clusters of bamboo huts on stilts. On the ocean side, people and water buffalo roam together on alabaster beaches, and then, as one moves inland, deep riverine gorges are suddenly glimpsed snaking through rattan forests far below the mountain roads that are little more than cart tracks carved out of the rocks and red clay.
We spent the first night in Dong Hoi, capital of Quang Binh, in a hotel that is spartan but did have hot water and mosquito nets. This is a city that was largely destroyed by bombing and naval shelling and was rebuilt bit by bit after the war. In the morning, we headed westward inland toward hill-tribe country and the border with Laos. Our stopover was Quy Dat, central town of Minh Hoa district. It is little more than 500 yards of dirt road lined by whitewashed clay houses, a military compound and the spartan district headquarters. This headquarters, where we spent the night, has electricity three hours a day, produced by a generator from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Actually, the real confirmation that we had reached the undeveloped interior came from the discovery that this was the first town on our route where no Coca-Cola was available.
Soon after arrival in Quy Dat, Patricia sat down to a meeting with district officials, one of whom said, in seemingly contradictory language: “I wish that you find your dead father.” In sum, the officials told her that they had no independent information, because all of it was held by the U.S. and Vietnamese MIA teams.
This disclaimer was essentially in response to Patricia’s request to meet with a man named Dinh Van Chieu, a former district medical assistant based in Quy Dat who was in Y Leng when John O’Grady was captured. Chieu treated O’Grady for his injuries — this according to Ho Cam, the eyewitness who was deemed by the U.S. team to be the most credible of all the evidence-givers.
Somehow the Vietnamese government has never been able to find and produce Dinh Van Chieu. Hanoi says in so many words that it cannot even vouch for his existence, because district officials have claimed there is “no record of this individual at the district medical office.” Yet no one has ever said they doubt Ho Cam’s memory or evidence.
This time, the district vice chairman, Dinh Ngoc Hue, said vaguely to Patricia that “I’m not sure we can find this man.”
Upon leaving the meeting, Patricia was quickly surrounded by a crowd of children with adults at the edges as she attempted to distribute candy and balloons as gifts. She quickly grew nervous and a little frightened over the pushing throng, whose attitude she perceived not merely as aggressive curiosity but in part as anti-American hostility.
Some of that carryover anger from the war was indeed in evidence in Quy Dat — not from the children though, whose curiosity was boundless since many had never before seen an American and others had seen only the American MIA team perhaps once from a distance. The anti-U.S. bitterness came, rather, from a few of the older adults. One man said to some children: “Don’t eat the candies. They are poison. You will all die.” The advice didn’t seem to deter the youngsters.
More significantly, several people in Quy Dat approached our interpreters, Le and Xiong, to tell them that, as one man put it, “there are a number of remains in this district, but you will not find them, because they have been dug up and kept secretly in houses.”
This information was conveyed to Le and Xiong when they were outside the earshot of the Vietnamese officials traveling with us. Sometimes it was whispered. All the people who talked about hidden remains said the problem was that neither American nor Vietnamese officials will pay a reward for remains, because both governments forbid it. Instead, these people said, even if an unofficial American party, such as ours, comes and pays a lot of money for remains, the district police will immediately arrive and arrest the seller.
Xiong was approached twice by a man who whispered to him that he himself possessed the remains of two American airmen. The second time, I was walking with Xiong on the town street when this Lao-speaking man came up on a bicycle. He was immediately confronted by a local policeman who ordered him off and said he would deal with him later.
Thus, we were never in a position to check out anything said either by this man or the other informants. In fact, that night, as we ate in a little local restaurant with our drivers and our accompanying Hanoi officials, that policemen sat and ate with us. It was not exactly an open atmosphere for information-gathering.
Chong Xiong: Still Leading His Troops
Chong Xiong emits an unworldly aura so childlike at times that on the trip we came to call him, affectionately, “the man-boy.” But that sweetness and detachment belies the history of this unusual 51-year-old Laotian.
During the Indochina War, when CIA special forces organized an army of 30,000 fighters from the Hmong ethnic group to fight against the communist Pathet Lao, Xiong rose quickly in the ranks to become a senior officer, a major in command of 2,000 of these hill-tribe soldiers. He also became a key adviser to the overall commander, Gen. Vang Pao, with whom he occasionally had differences.
Since arriving in the United States in 1976, Xiong has emerged as a leading voice in the widely scattered community of 60,000 Hmong refugees and a challenger to the emigre leadership of Vang Pao, who Xiong says has been exacting money from the Hmong as a condition for receiving government resettlement aid that they should be getting free.
Xiong began his American life in Kansas City but now lives in Fresno, Calif., where he owns and manages rental property in what he describes as a “bad neighborhood.” A frugal man, he and other family members saved carefully and bought a timeworn, low-rise apartment complex of 54 units that they now live in. Nearly all his tenants are other Hmong families, whom he charges below-market rents.
Because of break-ins and car thefts in and around his building, Xiong patrols the area late at night carrying a .38-cal. pistol. Talking about this one day on our Vietnam trip, he recalled the pistol he had carried in the Hmong army.
“When I had to send my men into battle,” he said, “some would naturally be frightened, and I would point my pistol at them and say, ‘If you don’t go, I’ll kill you.’ Later, after the battle, when the soldiers came back, I would make ‘soft’ with them. I would say I was sorry, that I had to do it for our success.”
Xiong bemoans his lack of formal schooling, saying, “All I have is a natural education.” This taught him, he says, to “push” his seven children to education and better lives. He ticks off their achievements with burning pride. “One son is a policeman. One son manages a supermarket. One daughter is married to a doctor. A daughter-in-law is a social service worker.”
“I want them to succeed,” he laughs impishly, giving us another peek at the man-boy, “so that they can support me and my wife.”
Ngathuong Van Le
Ngathuong Van Le was 11 years old when the communist army swept into Nha Trang, a coastal city in South Vietnam, in the spring of 1975. His father put the family (wife, three daughters and four sons) in a truck and tried to flee south along the coast to imagined safety, but they got only as far as nearby Cam Ranh Bay, where thousands like themselves had congealed into a giant people jam. They had no choice but to turn around and head home.
In the ensuing years, at their parents’ urging and by the payment of bribes, all but one of the children escaped to the United States. Le escaped at the age of 15, on a small boat to the Philippines. “I lost my wonder years,” he says now, remembering a teenage life of duress and tension.
Arriving in Long Beach, Calif., with but a few words of English, he did nothing but work and study. It was high school during the early part of the day, a part-time waiter’s job in the afternoon and then community college courses at night. He lived warren-like, in a one-bedroom apartment with 10 other Vietnamese refugees.
Le graduated high school with honors and went on to California State University at Long Beach, where he majored in computer science. He completed only three years at Cal State and now plans to go back for his degree. It wasn’t the workload that stopped his college progress but a street mugger, who took the few dollars Le had on him and then shot him point-blank. Le dodged instinctively, and the bullet smashed his right shoulder. It took a year of intensive rehabilitative therapy before he got back his strength and the full use of his arm.
Le’s hardships have clearly not stopped his momentum. At 29, he has become a computer expert and is the controller for a company that manages motels and mobile home parks. He married another Vietnamese refugee, whom he met in the United States; they have three sons, aged 4, 3 and 1, and live in a condominium in Santa Ana, Calif.
Not only was Le’s journey to his homeland on the O’Grady mission his first trip back since he escaped in 1979, but it was his first time in North Vietnam. Nervous on arrival, he said he was worried that he might be arrested for fleeing Vietnam illegally. He soon lost his fears as he dived into the culture and became buoyed by the reconnection with his origins.
In this upbeat mood, he placed a call from our Hanoi hotel to his parents in Nha Trang, 700 miles to the south. They weren’t home, so he talked to his sister and left his phone number. A few hours later, after dinner, some of us were ascending the hotel staircase to go to bed when the phone rang below in the lobby, and suddenly Le was bounding up the steps past us to take the call in his room – a 29-year-old man bubbling and chortling like a child of 7.
“Can you believe it?” he whooped. “My mother’s on the phone! My mother! She’s on the phone!”
For more: The Search for John O’Grady, Part 3