(13) THE AMERICAN POWS CONFINED WITH AUSTRALIAN AND LAO POWS AT A WORK CAMP SSW OF YEN BAI IN NORTHERN VIETNAM IN 1977. CASE #2638.
(Authors’ map "The 1983-84 Cover-up, 15 Selected Cases," point 13).

n early December 1984, the National League of Families forwarded to the Special Office a letter the League had recently received from a Vietnamese refugee living in Denmark who said he had seen two different groups of American POWs in North Vietnam. The refugee explained in his letter that he had seen the first group during the war when the prisoners were being force-marched through the streets of Hanoi. He then went on to describe the second sighting in these terms:
On September 1977, I and two other people and a doctor, Dr. N himself, were at a prison camp holding Americans for 30 minutes; 3 of us waiting in the car, about 20 meters from the barbed-wire fence, and saw very clearly the American prisoners, 10 people in a row sat on the ground. …
When I see you, I will describe the location and layout of the American prison in more detail.
The matter cannot be presented on paper, by letter or on the phone.…
[W]ould you send a representative to see me or create an opportunity for me to come see you.… 141
The refugee’s sightings were logged in as Case #2638 and assigned to Senior Analyst Robert Destatte for investigation.

Destatte began his investigation by directing officials at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen to contact the source and arrange an interview. After several delays, the refugee was interviewed in Copenhagen in mid-April by a language-qualified USAF interrogator.

The refugee identified himself as an ethnic Chinese (Hoa) from Hanoi. He explained that he was a songwriter by profession and that he and his family had fled Vietnam by boat in early 1979 and after spending time in a refugee camp in Hong Kong had all resettled in Denmark. He then went on to describe both of his sightings of American POWs in detail.

Addressing the wartime sighting first, the songwriter repeated his earlier statement to the League that he had seen a procession of American POWs being force-marched through the streets of Hanoi during the war. He said he had personally observed the Americans at about 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. one night as they left the large Hanoi theater in a procession and were marched along Trang Tien Street. He said the Americans were "handcuffed in pairs in number 8 handcuffs" and that the procession "stretched out to between 700 and 1,000 meters." He stated that "many refugees who are former Hanoi residents will recall the day, month, and year of this event," but told the interviewer that he himself could not recall the day, month or even the exact year the sighting had occurred.

The songwriter then went on to describe his postwar sighting, which he repeated had occurred in late September 1977 when he and two friends had visited a prisoner of war camp with a medical doctor who had business there. According to the interviewer’s official report, the songwriter described this sighting as follows:

… MR. [songwriter’s name redacted] STATED THAT IN LATE SEPTEMBER, 1977, HE, TWO FRIENDS, AND A DOCTOR … WENT TO A PRISON CAMP WHICH CONTAINED LAOTIAN, AUSTRALIAN, AND AMERICAN PW’S. ABOUT 20 LAOTIAN AND AUSTRALIAN PW’S HAD JUST RETURNED FROM A WORK DETAIL, POSSIBLY PAINTING AND WORKING ON CAMP FACILITIES, AND WERE STANDING IN PAIRS HOLDING WORK TOOLS SUCH AS PAINT BRUSHES. THE AMERICANS, ABOUT 40 TO 50, WERE SITTING, OFF TO THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE CAMP, ON THE GROUND. THE AMERICANS WERE RECOGNIZABLE BY THEIR DIFFERENT COLORS OF HAIR (BROWN HAIR), AND NONE WORE HATS. THE AMERICANS WERE NOT UNIFORMLY DRESSED. NO OTHER DETAILS OF THE AMERICANS WAS [sic] DISTINGUISHED. MR. [songwriter’s name redacted] COULD RECOGNIZE THE LAOTIANS, AND HIS FRIEND TOLD HIM THE NATIONALITY OF THE AUSTRALIANS. THE AUSTRALIANS ALL HAD BLACK HAIR. THE DOCTOR ENTERED THE CAMP [WHILE] [songwriter’s name redacted] AND HIS TWO FRIENDS WAITED IN THE VEHICLE ABOUT 30 METERS FROM THE CAMP ENTRANCE. THE AMERICANS WERE LOCATED ANOTHER 20 METERS FROM THE FENCE, PLACING THEM ABOUT 50 METERS FROM [songwriter’s name redacted]….
[Songwriter’s name redacted] REFUSED TO PROVIDE THE NAMES OF THE DOCTOR AND TWO FRIENDS WHO WERE WITH HIM AT THE PW CAMP, BECAUSE THESE PEOPLE ARE STILL IN VIETNAM. HE STATED THAT HE … WAS JUST ALONG FOR THE RIDE. HIS GOOD FRIEND WAS DRIVER OF THE VEHICLE. THE OTHER PERSON IN THE CAR WAS THE DAUGHTER OF THE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR … OF THE NGHIA LO HOSPITAL. THE DOCTOR … WAS IN CHARGE OF HOSPITAL(S) FOR THE ENTIRE PROVINCE. APPARENTLY THE DOCTOR WAS KNOWN BY THE GUARDS. WHEN ENTERING THE ROAD TO THE WEST FROM THE BA KHE - PHU YEN ROAD, THERE WAS A LARGE SIGN SAYING ENTRY FORBIDDEN, HOWEVER NO ONE IN THE VEHICLE WAS EVER CHALLENGED OR ASKED FOR IDENTIFICATION EVEN AT THE PW CAMP. IN THE VICINITY OF THE PW CAMP … ALL GUARDS WORE CIVILIAN CLOTHES AND WERE VIETNAMESE ETHNIC THAI AND MUONG PEOPLE. HE SAW NO REGULAR NORTH VIETNAMESE SOLDIERS. 142

The songwriter went on to explain that the camp was located in a valley to the west of the main Phu Yen-Ba Khe highway at a point some 10 kilometers (approximately six statute miles) north of Phu Yen district town. He drew a rough sketch of the camp and the valley, and pointed out that there were a number of South Vietnamese reeducation camps in the area. He said he believed these camps had been placed in the open to draw interest away from the camp that held the Americans.*

The interviewer concluded his report by stating that the songwriter had requested total confidentiality in his dealings with the U.S. government and "does fear for his safety because of the presence in Denmark of other Vietnamese and Chinese who he fears might not approve of his cooperation with Americans should this fact become known." He dispatched his completed report to the Special Office on 18 April. 143

A week passed, and then the interviewer sent the Special Office a supplemental, five-page report containing his personal "observations/recollections" of his interviews with the songwriter. 144

Background: The valley where the songwriter said he saw the American, Australian and Lao prisoners in September 1977 is located approximately 50 kilometers (approximately 32 statute miles) by air south southwest of Yen Bai; approximately 80 kilometers (approximately 50 statute miles) due west of the "H in the River" - the stylized "H" formed by the confluence of the Red, Black and Lo rivers that had been a familiar landmark to U.S. pilots flying wartime missions over the North - and just north of Phu Yen, the small Son La Province district town also known as "Quang Huy." Running south to north and called "Muong Thai" by the Vietnamese, the valley is some five kilometers (approximately three statute miles) long and "fenced" on each side by towering karst formations that form a natural barrier along most of its length. (Authors’ annotated color map of region entitled "Muong Thai Valley NE Phu Yen (Quang Huy), SRV").

MUONG THAI VALLEY NE PHU YEN (QUANG HUY), SRV (DMA, with authors' annotations) [click to enlarge]

Early in the war, U.S. intelligence analysts had discovered the North Vietnamese were operating a munitions factory and depot in the valley. U.S. targeting personnel had labeled that facility the "Ban Nuoc Chieu Ammo Depot" after a village at the head of the valley and had assigned the depot the official target designation "JCS 47.19." Wartime records and postwar intelligence reports show that American strike aircraft bombed this facility on an unknown number of occasions. 145

After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, the North Vietnamese had converted the bombed-out remains of the munitions depot into a small prison camp for South Vietnamese POWs who had not qualified for release under the Paris agreements. Then, following the fall of the South in 1975 and the subsequent relocation of hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese prisoners to northern Vietnam for long-term reeducation (See An Enormous Crime, Chapter 15), the Communists had expanded this small camp and forced newly-arrived ARVNs to construct from the ground up a half dozen other stockade-type camps in the nearby Muong Coi area along Route 13A.** These camps and two old French prisons near Phu Yen comprised the Son La Reeducation Camp Group, which the Communists officially designated "Lien Trai II," i.e., "Camp Group II." 146 (Authors’ annotated color 1:50,000 map entitled "Muong Thai Valley and Selected Camps of Lien Trai (Camp Group) II").

 

MUONG THAI VALLEY AND SELECTED CAMPS OF LIEN TRAI (CAMP GROUP) II (DMA, with authors' annotations) [click to enlarge]

In April 1983, U.S. officials had learned from a former Vietnamese political prisoner who had escaped from Vietnam that he had been imprisoned in the area during the war and that in the summer of 1971 a group of American prisoners had been moved into a "large mountain cave" located nearby. The former inmate explained that sometime after the Americans had arrived, the commander of his prison had ordered him and another inmate to go to the cave and bury one of the Americans who had died. The former inmate said that he and the other inmate had gone to the cave and carried out the burial as ordered. He told U.S. officials the American he and the other inmate had buried was tall and had very wide shoulders and was unusually thin, a fact he surmised was related to the cause of death. The former inmate further said that the American was so tall that the coffin used for his burial had to be enlarged.

This former inmate went on to say that while on the burial detail he had been able to observe the American prisoners in the cave. He said all were wearing "big shackles" and that he had tried to count how many were in the group but had been unable to do so. He said that later, however, he had learned from one of the prison cooks that 50 daily rations were prepared for the Americans, which had led him to believe there were 50 American prisoners being held in the cave. He added that the Americans had been transferred out of the cave to an unknown location in late 1971 in what he described as a "routine movement by Communist prison authorities." 147 ***

The ink on the former inmate’s April 1983 report about the 50 American POWs detained in the large cave during the war had barely dried when, in June 1983, the Special Office had received two letters from a Vietnamese source living in the Peoples’ Republic of China who reported that only weeks before he had on two occasions seen 45 American POWs and several Australian POWs being held in a cave prison located just north of Phu Yen district town. 148

In the two letters, the PRC source, a former Hanoi policeman, stated the following:

After providing the above information, the former policeman had proposed that the U.S. government either send an airborne strike force to the cave to rescue the prisoners or work with him and his brother-in-law and with the government of the Peoples’ Republic of China in a joint effort to spirit the prisoners out of the SRV and into southern China. In discussing the viability of the two options, the former policeman stated his opinion that a U.S. rescue effort would probably not work unless U.S. officials decided to "attack the whole country and win." Saying that he did not believe this would occur, he proposed that he and his brother-in-law and the guards take the prisoners across the border into the southern PRC by truck, where they would then turn them over to U.S. and Chinese authorities. A far less desirable option, he said, would be for he and his associates to attempt to fly the prisoners out of the country from a civilian airstrip located at Nghia Lo, some 40 kilometers (approximately 25 statute miles) northwest of the cave.

The former policeman proposed that he be advanced $3,000 by the U.S. government so he could begin making immediate preparations and complete the operation before the upcoming monsoon rains made roads in the area impassable. He also asked that if the mission proved successful that he and his three children be granted asylum in the U.S. In a postscript, he wrote, "I have made all the necessary arrangements together with my brother-in-law, and we are now waiting for an answer from the United States." 149

Senate investigators found that Senior Vietnam Desk Analyst Robert Destatte had handled the "PRC" case for the Special Office, and that less than six weeks after he had received the last of the two letters from the former policeman, had declared the policeman a liar and had ended the investigation of his sighting. The U.S. "will not pay rewards or grant special favors to obtain information," Destatte had written, adding that "contradictory information from other sources indicate [sic] that [the former policeman in the PRC] and his account are not very credible." Destatte’s official ruling, handed down on 25 August 1984: "Fabrication." 150

Then, as noted at the beginning of this section, just over 90 days later, in early December 1984, the songwriter had declared by letter and subsequently during interviews conducted in Copenhagen that he had seen 40-50 American POWs being held along with approximately 20 Australian and Lao prisoners in the Muong Thai Valley in September 1977 - which, Destatte knew well, was the exact same area where the former policeman in the PRC had twice seen the 45 American POWs and several Australian POWs in the huge cave prison in March and again in April 1983.

Disposition of the case: Given the fact that the songwriter’s sighting represented the second eyewitness account received at the Special Office that told of the detention of a group of approximately 40-50 American POWs and a small number of Australian POWs in the area of the Muong Thai Valley, a trained intelligence investigator unfamiliar with the workings of the Special Office would have read the songwriter’s report and said, "perhaps we were a little hasty in declaring the policeman in the PRC a liar and his report a fabrication," and would have then undertaken a start-from-scratch, no-holds-barred joint investigation of both of the Muong Thai sightings. Destatte, who had handled the investigation of the policeman’s sighting and was now handling the investigation of the songwriter’s as well, chose a different course.

After reading the report of the songwriter’s sighting, Destatte immediately issued his official "interim assessment" of the songwriter and the information he had provided. Destatte began the assessment by listing reasons the songwriter should not be believed. Among those reasons listed in his surreal assessment were the following:

Then, Destatte, obviously mindful of the attacks that were being leveled against him and the other analysts by Members of Congress, the activist POW/MIA families, the activist Vietnam vets, members of the Vietnamese refugee community and a growing number of mainstream journalists, went on to declare that though he would be justified in doing so, if he were to declare the songwriter a fabricator at this point in the investigation, such a declaration "…could be exploited by potential opertunists [sic] as failure to follow up …on [the songwriter’s] sighting information." Therefore, Destatte wrote, "[a]lthough DC-2 (the Special Office) has sufficient information to judge [the songwriter’s] story as told at this point is a fabrication, [a] re-interview and polygraph of this source should be accomplished to insure that we do not leave any stone unturned that might provide additional confirmatory information as to the nature of his claims, whether true or fabricated…." The source should be brought to Washington forthwith, Destatte declared, "where use of a trained and knowledgeable DC-2 interviewer [Destatte himself] will greatly enhance our ability to respond immediately to any possible questions [the source] may have." 151

Arrangements for the songwriter’s visit to Washington were well underway when, on 7 August 1985, the Special Office received a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen that enabled Destatte to cancel the songwriter’s trip and declare without any fear of "exploitation by opertunists" [sic] that his sighting was a fabrication. In the cable, embassy personnel reported that on 6 August the songwriter had attacked and seriously injured four of his Copenhagen neighbors with a knife and an axe, reportedly in retaliation for the neighbors’ harassment of his children, and that he had been arrested and was in jail in Copenhagen pending trial for attempted murder. One newspaper account of the attacks dispatched to the Special Office by embassy personnel included an artist’s rendering of the Vietnamese "axe maniac" attacking a terrified, bloodied woman with a butcher knife and a meat cleaver as she lay screaming and helpless on the ground before him. 152

DIA Source file 2638


Knowing that by western standards the songwriter’s credibility as a witness had now been destroyed, Destatte quickly, definitively and officially declared the man’s sighting of the 40–50 American POWs being held with Australian and Lao prisoners in a camp in the Muong Thai Valley in late September 1977 a fabrication.

On 3 September 1985, DIA management approved the finding and the sighting was entered into the official DIA roster as follows:

CASENO SIGHT INFORMATION DOS CNTRY IAC COMMENTS
02638 POW-F/H 40-50 PWS UNK PRISON 77 7709 VN 850903 EVAL APP’D FABRICATION 153

Word was then passed to media outlets and Capitol Hill offices about the "axe-maniac" and what he had done and how he was just another example of the type of scum who were coming forward with all these made-up stories about living POWs. Who in their right mind, the question went, would believe someone who had attacked his neighbors with a meat cleaver, for Christ’s sake? 

Well, the policeman in the PRC, for one.

And how about the returnees who marched in the "Hanoi parade?" What would they say of this madman’s credibility as a witness to long-ago events in northern Vietnam?

(National Archives)


* This sketch cannot be found in the declassified case files. Map tracking the information provided by the songwriter, however, clearly establishes that the camp was located in the Muong Thai Valley north of Phu Yen district town.

** These camps had been named after nearby villages, landmarks, etc.; e.g., Camp 1, which was located in the Muong Thai valley proper, had been named "Muong Thai camp," Camp 2, located several kilometers east of the valley on Route 13A, had been named "Muong Coi camp" after the mountainous locale and road junction located nearby, etc..

*** None of the American POWs returned at Operation Homecoming reported they had been held with other Americans in a cave or any other facility in the Phu Yen area. (See "PLACES AND DATES OF CONFINEMENT OF AIR FORCE, NAVY AND MARINE CORPS PRISONERS OF WAR HELD IN NORTH VIETNAM 1964 – 1973, A Technical Report," HEADQUARTERS USAF ANALYSIS PROGRAM, SOUTHEAST ASIA PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE, Report No. Series: 800-2, Dated: June 1975, op. cit., and multiple declassified U.S. government documents, all from files of Former U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon, (R-NC), Intelligence Investigator assigned to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs 1991-1992 from the Office of Committee Vice-Chairman Sen. Robert Smith (R-NH).

**** In truth, DIA files contained volumes of intelligence showing that Garwood had never been housed in the Son La Camp Group (Lien Trai II) as Destatte claimed, but had lived in one of the Lien Trai I camps near Yen Bai, some 65 kilometers (approximately 40 statute miles) by road north of where the songwriter reported he had seen the American, Australian and Laotian prisoners. This intelligence is discussed in detail in the analysis of Garwood’s postwar sightings of American POWs which follows this section.

***** In truth, the songwriter, being ethnic Chinese (Hoa), had been exempt from military service (See An Enormous Crime, Chapter 17).


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