By Sydney H. Schanberg
First published in New York Newsday, August 3, 1993
(With additional reporting by Kim Schaye)
Quang Binh Province, Vietnam — We awoke in Quy Dat on the morning of March 31 at cock’s crow, literally. The rooster’s call came at 5 a.m. We had noodle soup for breakfast and headed off on the last, and most rugged leg of the journey – the 50 miles to Y Leng. This road was the crudest yet, compelling us to move at tortoise pace as we constantly had to negotiate over rock piles and ford several streams.
One stream actually had a wooden bridge, but it was broken and men stripped to the waist were repairing it in the midday heat. The sun had finally emerged after two comfortable though gray and drizzly days, and the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees.
As we waited for the bridge repairs, we passed the time under a clump of small trees at the roadside where a group of Kamu tribal women were selling pieces of mia — sugar cane — at a little food stand. A work crew not far away was coaxing water buffalo to pull huge hardwood logs up the hill. After a half-hour, the bridge repair crew had laid enough makeshift planks to take the weight of our jeeps and we moved on.
Finally, Y Leng — where it happened. This dusty clearing amid the hills, though surrounded by forest and jungle, has but one tree in its center. We alighted from the jeeps and gathered under it to escape the sun’s full blast as we waited to be greeted by the local leaders. Our Hanoi guides were setting it up.
On one side of the hamlet is a collection of no more than 20 sagging huts with pigs and chickens roaming free around them. On the other side is a long, low, official building made mostly of clay, divided into separate compartments — some of them living quarters, some of them sheds. The floors are packed mud. Hints of old whitewash can be detected on the clay walls. One of the building’s compartments is the party/government office, barren except for the obligatory framed picture of Ho Chi Minh on the wall.
We were led into the office and introduced over tea to 62-year-old Ho Nham, who has been the chief man in the area for more than three decades, in charge of 34 villages. His official titles are general secretary of the area’s Communist Party unit and member of the province’s People’s Congress.
Ho Nham, who lives about five miles away in a village where he grows sweet potatoes on the top of a hill, proceeded to tell us, in Vietnamese, a version of Maj. John Francis O’Grady’s capture that he has told American MIA field teams in the past. It’s a story that is now quite peculiar, for most of it has since been discredited by eyewitnesses — including Ho Huan and Ho Cam, two militiamen who captured O’Grady, both of whom were called “reliable” by the MIA teams. This didn’t seem to perturb Ho Nham. He openly acknowledged that he was not an eyewitness but said he believes the story because he trusts the people who told him — army officers from the unit that had custody of O’Grady when he allegedly expired of his wounds.
U.S. field investigators have deemed Ho Nham “the least credible” of the witnesses they have talked to, referring to him as a bearer of “hearsay” and further stating in a 1992 field report that “Nham’s failure to provide complete and accurate information to the team . . . casts doubt upon his sincerity.” This report was only recently declassified.
Though Nham admitted to us that he never saw the prisoner nor did he see a body after the prisoner was said to have died, he nonetheless reported as fact that O’Grady had died of “major injuries” he had suffered from antiaircraft fire. This, like so much of his story, turned out not to be true.
Nham went on to say that O’Grady had died on the day of his capture, contradicting two other eyewitnesses who have told U.S. investigators that they saw O’Grady alive in Y Leng the day after his capture. One of them, a 50-year-old farmer from a village three miles to the north, told the investigators, as they wrote in their 1991 report, also declassified only recently: “Having never seen an American, he wanted to have a look.” He walked to Y Leng the first evening to see O’Grady, but because it was dark he couldn’t locate where the prisoner was, so he went home and trekked the three miles again in the morning, arriving in Y Leng at about 10 a.m. O’Grady was lying on a stretcher in the open surrounded by soldiers. The farmer, who described O’Grady sketchily but accurately, said the dried blood on his uniform appeared to have come from a flesh wound behind his ear. He said he “heard from onlookers that the pilot’s leg was broken, and he could not walk.” After watching O’Grady for about 15 minutes, from a distance of four or five yards, he went home. He said O’Grady was alive when he left – as did the second witness, who also said he saw the pilot on that same day. The Americans’ report expressed no skepticism about either of these accounts.
Ho Nham said O’Grady’s death had occurred on the day of capture not long after the militia turned him over to the regular army soldiers — a civil engineering unit that repaired roads and bridges and also apparently the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Pointing through the open door toward the hamlet’s yard, Nham said the pilot was buried “three hundred meters from where we are now, at Kilometer Marker 21.” Patricia O’Grady Parsels responded that the American MIA team had come to Y Leng and probed that spot and found nothing. In fact, the team’s report said there was no evidence that anyone had ever been buried there.
Nham said the reason the team found nothing was that during the war, the grave, like much of the hamlet, had been hit by the heavy American bombing — and obliterated.
Speaking of the bombing, which he said was sometimes round-the-clock, and of captured airmen in general, Nham said these prisoners were often kept initially in caves to protect them from the air attacks. He added: “When they were in the air, they dropped the bombs, but when they were on the ground, they, too, were afraid of the bombs.”
“That was when the war became a very horrible thing,” added Ho Co, the head of Y Leng hamlet, who had been sitting with us. “A lot of people lived underground then,” said Ho Nham.
At this point, Ho Huan and Ho Cam, having been notified of our coming, arrived on foot from their own hamlet, Ban Ba Loc, a couple of miles away over the same steep ridge where O’Grady had landed in his chute. It was midday and the sun was high — and cruel. The Caucasian visitors were sweating through their clothes. Ho Huan, now 70, and Ho Cam, 60, arrived from their trek seemingly cool, their skin nearly dry, except for their bare feet, which were still wet from their passage across the shallow river that borders Y Leng.
Both are small men but sturdy. Both have brown, gapped teeth. Ho Huan wears thick glasses. He smokes a local leaf rolled into a cigar. Ho Cam has a round face and is chunky, where Huan is lithe and slim. Both have spiky hair, which is thinning but, unless they are dyeing it with local roots, is still black.
After a few conversational preliminaries and the presentation to each of them of a carton of Marlboros for their trouble, Patricia began asking specific questions of these two hill farmers who were part of the local militia group that captured her father on April 10, 1967. She asked them to tell her everything they could remember about that day.
And so, seated in a village office that was little more than a shed with a packed mud floor, Ho Huan and Ho Cam proceeded to give their accounts of the capture quite matter-of-factly. And what they told us effectively knocked into a cocked hat the reigning official story — that O’Grady died four hours after his capture “from serious injuries.”
History is mostly oral among these tribal people, so their memories are finely honed and often startling in the clarity of recall even decades after an event. Speaking in Vietnamese through our interpreter NgaThuong Van Le, the two former militiamen said it was midafternoon and they were at different locations, though both were about half a mile away, when they spotted Maj. O’Grady’s parachute descending to a ridge. Separately, they hurried up the hill toward it as fast as they could because, as Ho Huan explained, “we had to get there right away or otherwise he would use his radio and give his position to the rescue planes.”
As it turned out, O’Grady couldn’t use any of his equipment. His hands, they said, were tangled behind him in a snarl of parachute cord.
“Even though he had a gun,” said Ho Cam, “he couldn’t reach it.”
Eventually, seven militiamen surrounded O’Grady. Ho Cam was in the first group, a band of five militiamen, to get to him. Ho Huan and another militiaman showed up a few minutes later.
“He was sitting up,” said Ho Cam. “He didn’t try to resist.” Both men contradicted Ho Nham’s story that O’Grady’s injuries were from antiaircraft fire. Ho Cam said: “He had a wound on the left side of his head. It was not deep. His left leg was broken at the thigh. There was no bullet hole, it was just broken and swollen. He couldn’t stand up.” Both men said O’Grady’s injuries were not serious and that he was in no danger. The flesh wound on the head had bled a lot but had stopped. They said his wounds looked as if they had been caused either when he ejected from his plane or when he whacked into the trees as he landed — or at both moments.
Ho Huan said that O’Grady “started talking, but we don’t understand English. He made motions that he wanted some water. But there was no water to give him. He was tall, with big arms. His hair was mostly black. He hadn’t shaved. He was sweating a lot, his whole suit was wet.”
These dirt-poor hill men went through the many pockets of his flight suit for the booty. Ho Huan, who at the time had been a minor local party and police official, was in charge and seemed to have first dibs. “His watch and helmet were not there,” said Ho Huan. “He must have lost them in the air.” They also looked for a ring and found none.
What they did find, they said, was his gun, his radio, his survival fishing kit, his ID papers and, of course, the quite valuable silk chute. They also found his pack of Winstons, with seven cigarettes left in it. Each man got one.
They then cut him loose from his parachute and tied his hands in front of him. And finally, they put him on a homemade litter — two poles with a straw mat strung between — and began carrying him the two miles down the jungle path, across the shallow Khe Gioi River and up the bank into the hamlet of Y Leng. They said they were moving with as much speed as conditions would allow because rescue planes were buzzing overhead and they wanted to turn O’Grady over to higher authorities as quickly as possible.
It was sometime between 4 and 5 p.m., they said, when they reached the center of the hamlet and put the litter down in the dusty clearing. Y Leng was swarming with regular army soldiers. The militiamen swiftly transferred their prisoner to the regulars. They handed over, too, his ID papers, which included his Geneva Convention card listing the international rules for the treatment of POWs.
Ho Huan noticed something unusual when they passed O’Grady to the regulars. All along, the pilot had been talking volubly to the militia, trying to communicate though neither side spoke the other’s language, but when the Vietnamese regulars took custody of him, he stopped talking completely, uttering “not a word.”
Ho Huan, in response to a question from Patricia about whether the hill people had considered keeping O’Grady, said that he had wanted to hold on to the pilot to show him to the people in his hamlet and “to play with him” but that this was not possible because though the pilot was in strong condition, his injuries required treatment and they had no medical facilities.
Both Ho Huan and Ho Cam said they knew absolutely nothing about what happened to O’Grady after they turned him over to the regular army, and they refused to speculate about it. Had they heard anything at all — gossip, rumors, anything? They said no. “We gave him to the army, that’s all we know,” said Ho Huan.
Then they were told that the central government says O’Grady died four hours after his capture from his wounds. Ho Huan’s response was immediate and firm. “I don’t see,” he said, “how he could have died of those wounds on that day or the day after or the day after that.”
The sun was beginning to go down when the meeting with Ho Huan and Ho Cam ended. Patricia thanked them and asked if they would take her the next day to the place where they captured her father. Ho Huan said yes, he’d be back at 6 in the morning, and he and Ho Cam then headed for home, barefoot, into the hills.
Some of us decided that a bath was becoming olfactorily necessary, so we went down to the little river, soap in hand. We stripped to our shorts and slid into the clear, moving water. On the bank above us, the village children gathered for the entertainment, giggling at the bizarre Americans.
Later, in the hamlet, there was other entertainment. A new Sony 21-inch television set had been delivered to the village in the last few days, along with a Sharp VCR and a generator to run them. Apparently these were gifts from the central government to build goodwill in this independent-minded corner of the country and to show appreciation for the hamlet’s cooperation on this MIA mission.
Surrounded by the hills, the people here are unable to receive television signals, so they can watch only videotapes, not regular programs. On this night, at the unveiling of Y Leng’s new 20th-Century toys, a feature-length, Saigon-made music video was shown, starring a popular Vietnamese chanteuse. The TV set sat on a table in the barren yard, hooked up to the generator that growled in the distance by the government office.
Nearly 100 people of the May and Khua hill tribes had gathered round, their faces bathed in the TV’s light — as if at a campfire listening to a venerable storyteller. Many were smoking the local, rolled cigar leaf, including little girls and boys of 6 and 7.
Over at the “restaurant,” others were diverting themselves with jungle wine drunk communally from a large clay urn. Fermented from roots and leaves, it is sipped through bamboo straws.
Deciding to retire, I headed for my quarters in one of the sheds and hit the straw-mat bed. I was exhausted from the heat and fading fast, so I told myself to heck with putting up the mosquito net. But Tran Van Tu, a senior Hanoi MIA official and our guide and liaison, passed by with a flashlight and, like a mother hen, made me go get it. “One mosquito bite, and you’ll have malaria,” he admonished. “Get the net.”
I went and got it from the jeep. There was no proper bed frame to hang it on, so Tu produced some straw twine, enough to attach to nails on the walls and hold up three of the corners. My belt held up the fourth.
Exactly at 6 a.m., Ho Huan returned, as promised, to take us to the capture site and to his own hamlet of Ban Ba Loc. Across the riverbed and up the steep hill we went. Ho Huan climbed effortlessly, a 70-year-old human mountain goat. The two children, both recovered from their bouts of illness, were also moving easily up the hill. But for an out-of-shape journalist, it was something less than a piece of cake. Le had a fever and was also moving slowly, so we kept each other company on the climb.
Part-way up, the limber Ho Huan was joined by some of his neighbors, including Ho May, another of the militiamen who captured Maj. O’Grady. As we stopped to rest, they talked animatedly about how well they carried O’Grady on the stretcher, never slipping as they descended the rocky trail and holding him high as they crossed the tricky, boulder-strewn riverbed into Y Leng.
Ho Huan added a footnote to the O’Grady story. He said that when they got halfway down the hill with the pilot, a regular army soldier showed up — one of the many trying to reach the downed airman. The soldier demanded a share of the bounty, and Ho Huan said he had to hand over some of O’Grady’s belongings, though he managed to hang onto the prize articles, the gun and the parachute.
Ho Huan, who was wearing a straw pith helmet and olive-colored backpack for this trek, also told us that during the course of the war, a number of pilots were shot down in the immediate area, but O’Grady was the only one captured. All the others, he said, were rescued.
The former militiaman said he got no reward from the government for the capture, only a cerificate that he hung on the wall of his hut. It has since been eaten by mice, he said.
By this time, we were quite high on the thickly forested hillside, and Ho Huan stopped the column for another rest break. We folded ourselves down amidst the bamboo clumps. Then, without drama, Ho Huan said: “It all happened near this spot.”
Patricia asked: “Where is the tree that was near where he fell?”
“It was chopped down,” said Ho Huan.
In a few minutes, Patricia and her family rose and walked to a spot a little farther up the trail for a private moment. She described it for me later:
“I told the kids that we were going to say a prayer for him. They asked why here. I said it was because this was the last place we know where he was.”
She took out the rosary her late grandmother had given her more than two decades before — the grandmother whose only child had gone down in this forest and who had entreated Patricia, “You must promise me that you will not forget your father” — and Patricia and her two children began to say the Hail Mary and then the Our Father, as her husband, John, filmed the scene on videotape.
“I began crying, and the prayer trailed off,” said Patricia. “I couldn’t remember the end of the Our Father.”
She placed the rosary on the ground, and John covered it with some leaves and dirt so that it would not be in the open where someone might see it and take it as a trinket.
They composed themselves and returned to the rest of the group and said they were heading onward into Ho Huan’s hamlet, Ban Ba Loc. John stayed behind, together with Le and myself. We said we’d catch up with them in a few minutes. John wanted to perform one more act of observance.
We took out the incense sticks we were carrying (provided by Tran Van Tu, our Hanoi escort) and pushed them into the earth and lit them. As the pungent smoke wisped upward, John knelt and said a silent prayer. He was weeping. He wasn’t the only one.
Before rising, he placed a handful of cigarettes beside the incense sticks. “He was a heavy smoker,” John said softly.
As we descended, the hamlet of Ho Huan and Ho Cam came into view, seen through the trees that bower the track. From a distance, the cluster of huts that constitute Ban Ba Loc dot the hillside in the distance in a seductive, jungle-movie haze. Up close, 15 minutes later, the romantic look is replaced by the feeling of a sere, arduous place. This hamlet turns out to be a hardscrabble collection of less than a dozen shanties on stilts clinging to the hillside. A spot like this one can at the same time be lush in natural terms and barren in human ones. The hill people live on this meager patch of earth at a level only slightly above that of refugees.
In the hamlet, we sat under a large shade tree, chatted with Ho Huan and several other adults and passed out food and candy and cigarettes. The children seemed to be seeing Caucasians for the first time (the American MIA field teams have never come to this hamlet) and were at first quite wary, peering at us from behind trees or from the corners of their huts. Eventually they came close enough to extend their hands for lollipops, Tootsie Rolls and balloons. They had to be shown how to blow up the balloons, but went into paroxysms of giggling and shrieking when they caught on, especially to the trick of releasing a balloon and watching it whiz and whistle around the compound.
Most of the conversation with the hamlet dwellers was small talk, but at one juncture Ho Huan related that after the capture he had trekked to the site where the plane had come down, a few miles from O’Grady’s parachute landing, and had retrieved the fuel tank. He said he had fashioned it into a bucket. He asked Patricia if she wanted to buy it. “No,” she said with an edge. “I didn’t come here for a fuel tank.”
A few minutes later, we asked Ho Huan if we could see the inside of his hut, and he agreed. His wife, who has borne him 11 children, was sitting on one side of the main room with the four youngest of them beside her, none of them over the age of 10. Two of them were smoking the local cigar. Facing them, on the other side of the room, was an open-bedded cooking fire.
And over in a dark corner sat the bucket. It was large and filled with ears of maize.
At first Patricia agreed to pose alongside the bucket for us. But after the click of a couple of shutters, she abruptly stopped the process and, walking away, said, “I don’t want my picture taken with a bucket.”
In this hamlet, as she had throughout the trip, Patricia held on to the possibility that her father might still be alive. From the start, she had directed the interpreters to ask no questions about remains — only about a live person.
Sometimes, outside her presence, they did raise with local people the issue of possible remains, telling them there would be a generous reward for either remains or the return of a living prisoner. The locals invariably turned their heads away at these questions, obviously fearing possible government punishment if they were to discuss such things. Though these conversations took place away from our Hanoi guides, the villagers nevertheless could see that we were accompanied on our trip and were uneasy.
As we prepared to leave Ban Ba Loc and return to Y Leng, Ho Huan was standing in the center of the compound divvying up with his people the things we had left behind – including the empty tins and other detritus from our lunch, which they will turn to practical use (as Ho Huan had done with the fuel tank).
I wanted to leave a gift for the people of the hamlet, so I walked up to Ho Huan to say goodbye and handed him a $ 20 bill. He looked at it oddly, turned it over from front to back, then showed it to the others, who looked equally puzzled. They clearly didn’t know what it was. Our interpreters had already started up the trail, so I tried to explain with basic Vietnamese words and hand gestures. They muttered among themselves, but still no comprehension. I gave up. I pulled out all the Vietnamese money I had in my pocket — notes totaling 25,000 dong, value $ 2.50 — and this started them cooing in delight. “Ooooh, ooooh” was the sound of their elation. They had lost $ 17.50 to the language barrier. I felt bad. They seemed quite happy.
We were back in Y Leng by noon. There was nothing more we could do here. We felt we had drawn out all the information that was going to be told to us. Around 1 p.m., we started off on our return journey to Hanoi.
Patricia was frustrated by the amount of information still missing. She kept talking, for instance, about how many witnesses — such as the medic who treated her father and the two men who separately saw O’Grady alive on the day after his capture — were not produced for her to interview and maybe were not even searched for.
Though we did establish what happened to her father up to a point, everything after that still remained a void. The government account — that O’Grady died of his injuries four hours after capture — does not stand up. Many of the other pieces of government information also do not stand scrutiny. The Americans know this: Their own reports demonstrate their knowledge, by characterizing some central witnesses as untrustworthy. Yet, inexplicably, they have not seriously or publicly challenged Hanoi’s story. All of this weighed heavily on Patricia and by the time we reached Dong Hoi, the province capital, 10 hours later, she was churning and bitter. At a tense meeting with province officials, she said to them bluntly that the official story does not jibe with the eyewitness evidence.
Their response was indirect, almost opaque. The vice chairman of the province’s People’s Committee, Dinh Huu Cuong, said, “We have no new information about Mr. O’Grady’s fate.” He went on at some length to talk of the Vietnamese missing, thousands in Quang Binh province alone; of his own two nephews killed in battle whose remains have not been found; of Vietnam’s limited resources for searching out information; of eight people who took refuge in a cave in Quang Binh during the war but were killed by bombs and so pulverized that their relatives found no remains and could only burn incense.
As he talked on, Patricia grew angry and emotional. Flushed, she leaned over to me and whispered: “I’ve stood up to my own president and told him not to lie to me and I’ll stand up to them as well. My determination before this is nothing compared to my determination when I get home. I need to know what happened to my father. I’ve had it up to here.”
Cuong, seemingly unaware of her reaction, continued with his recitation: “War is very fierce and complicated. And our climate is rough. The land changes over time. This is why we meet with difficulties finding the missing. A lot of military units moved back and forth through this province. They possibly might know something, but we don’t have records.”
Patricia was almost crying when it was again her turn to speak. Her voice breaking, she said: “The Vietnamese army is one of the best and most disciplined in the world. I do not believe for one moment that the Vietnamese army lost track of someone as important as my father.”
Back on the road, Tran Van Tu, our Hanoi liaison and guide, turned to me in the jeep and expressed exasperation with Patricia, an emotion he had apparently been holding in. “I saw she was upset,” he said, “so I would say nothing to hurt her. But I tell you the truth, sometimes she makes me very angry. She has no idea how much effort we have made to help her.”
The next five days took us back to Hanoi and through a series of meetings with Vietnamese groups and officials right up to Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, all of whom were by now aware of Patricia’s dissatisfaction and were in return annoyed with her. Still, they offered placating remarks and promises of cooperation in an effort to salvage something of public relations value from her visit.
The meeting with the prime minister on April 6, the day before our departure, was restrained. Civility and politesse masked the tension. Looking at Patricia, the silver-haired Vo Van Kiet said softly, through his interpreter: “I am completely sympathetic with your family’s concerns. I promise I will do everything I can to search for more information.” But then he requested that if she found any new information, would she please send it to him.
She responded pointedly: “I have done all that I can do. Only the people of Vietnam can provide the rest of the answers.”
For all the meetings and all the assurances (from the Americans as well as the Vietnamese), what most fittingly defined the outcome of the journey was what a disheartened Patricia had said at that stormy meeting in Dong Hoi.
Tears of frustration welling in her eyes, she said to the Vietnamese officials: “I cannot understand why you won’t tell me what happened to my father. If you told me, no matter how bad it was, I would accept it and forgive it, just as you have forgiven us. But now I leave here still not knowing what happened.”