BY: JAMES WEBB
Many of you may be familiar with the name “Bobby Garwood”: Garwood’s story has received a lot of press coverage and he is despised by many as a Vietnam-era collaborator. I want to introduce a fresh perspective on the Garwood matter, a way of looking at his story that most people do not focus on, or may not have even considered. Keep an open mind about what I have to say until you have read the whole article, and then come to your own conclusions.
Was Robert “Bobby” Garwood a collaborator? I believe the right answer is “No.” He was a survivor caught up in a political game.
When Bobby Garwood enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), he was a high-school dropout. Following basic-type training, he was sent to Vietnam. On 28 September 1965, while he was a staff driver stationed at Danang City, he was ordered to drive to Marble Mountain to pick up a lieutenant and then deliver the officer back to headquarters. While on this assignment Bobby was stopped and captured at a Viet Cong (VC) roadblock. Now, he had no Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) training. (Even today the majority of U.S. soldiers are not trained in SERE techniques. This training is mostly reserved for special units and pilots.) After his capture Bobby was roughly transported to a jungle prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. (For those of you unfamiliar with what life as a prisoner of the VC entails, I recommend several books including Nick Rowe’s Five Years to Freedom and Frank Anton’s Why Didn't You Get Me Out?) Needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience…
Bobby was initially imprisoned with a captured U.S. Army Special Forces captain named William "Ike" Eisenbraun. Ike taught Garwood how to speak Vietnamese, what wild plants can be eaten, and how to survive in the VC camp system. When Iked died in that same prison, Bobby’s hope for rescue dwindled.
Having learned Vietnamese became a double-edged sword for Bobby. First of all, other Americans who do not understand Vietnamese will always question an interpreter’s truthfulness and read more into what is being said than actually exists. The Vietnamese are excellent at interrogation, torture, and prisoner manipulation. You do what they want and do not even know that you’re doing it.
When I was working the POW/MIA Issue, my Vietnamese counterparts took meetings and fieldwork as opportunities to play a game with me: They would wait until I had some more senior American officials around me and then walk up and spend ten minutes chatting about the weather, making wild hand gestures to accompany the small talk. After the Vietnamese departed the senior U.S. officials would question me extensively about what was said. When I answered that we were talking about the weather, the officials’ raised eyebrows would make it clear that they did not believe me. I would then see my counterparts smirking at me from across the room.
Vietnamese interrogators were highly trained by the Soviet KGB and by the Chinese. They were also highly educated: Most spoke English and had traveled the world, or had even been educated abroad. They were not bound by the dictates of the Geneva Convention; their use of torture was routine, their brainwashing extreme. After Ike died they separated Bobby from the other American prisoners and singled him out. In The Art of War Sun Tzu states that the best techniques for victory are to divide and conquer, and to know your enemy.
After “Operation Homecoming” in 1973, officials from both the U.S. and the Vietnamese governments affirmed that there were no more live American prisoners in Southeast Asia. This must have devastated Bobby, for now his captors could taunt, “Do you see how your government has abandoned you?” Did Bobby collaborate with the enemy? No, and no charges were ever proved by a court martial. But he did live as would any person who was just trying to survive in a terrible, no-win situation. After a large exodus of refugees from Vietnam to the U.S., former South Vietnamese (ARVN) officers came forth and signed documents stating that Bobby was at Camp 776 with them after 1975, and that he was as much a prisoner as they were.
In 1979, Bobby was allowed to leave Vietnam. He was permitted exit because he employed a con game on his Vietnamese guards and managed to pass a message to a Finnish man, who later relayed it to U.S. officials. These sound like the actions of a man who was trying to escape, not a collaborator. However, when he took a French flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, Thailand, he was met by U.S. officials ready to arrest him. At this point he could barely speak English; Vietnamese had become his primary language.
The first thing Bobby wanted to talk about with the American officials was his sightings of other live American prisoners. Remember, the Vietnamese prior to and after this had insisted that there were no remaining live American POWs.
However, after a very brief initial debriefing, Bobby was assigned an attorney and subsequently court-martialed. He wasn’t fully debriefed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) until years later. The numerous charges against him included desertion, striking another prisoner, and collaborating with the enemy. Witnesses came forth to testify that Bobby was not a deserter, and that he did not really strike another prisoner. After a long trial he was left with a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances ($150,000, which was a lot for 1980), and demotion to the rank of private (E-1). All other returned prisoners were given full back pay and promotions. Bobby returned home disgraced.
My take is that the war was over and the U.S. government needed a scapegoat to be brought forth and humiliated. Bobby Garwood fit the bill and was used. If we admitted he was a prisoner then it would have change the whole political climate, for the U.S. government wanted badly to renew relations with Vietnam and was making friendly overtures. When the Vietnamese said Bobby was not a prisoner, but lived freely among them and was one of them, the Americans were conveniently relieved of any duty to take adverse actions on his behalf.
Following “Operation Homecoming” numerous debriefings and such revealed that there was a group of American prisoners known as the “PC” or “Peace Committee” kept at the POW camp referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton.” The thirty-some members of this group actually did collaborate with the enemy, and tried to convince others to do the same. Other prisoners came forth and accused them and wanted them brought up on charges. The members of the PC were educated, professional soldiers (primarily officers) with SERE training. For political reasons it was decided to sweep the Peace Committee debacle under the table; the PC’s members walked away considered heroes.
On 19 January 1977, President Ford, in an effort to put the war behind us, ordered honorable discharges for approximately 700 deserters who had served in Vietnam. Then on 21 January 1977, a newly inaugurated President Carter ordered a “full, complete and unconditional” blanket pardon for Vietnam draft dodgers. To me it seems these deserters and draft dodgers should have been prosecuted and held accountable for their actions. At least Bobby went into the service, went to Vietnam, and tried to do his duty. He then suffered as a POW of the Vietnamese; even today the Vietnamese are guilty of human rights abuses, sometimes against their own people.
In Hanoi, I worked with a senior-level Vietnamese official who was one of Bobby’s case officers while Bobby was residing in that city. He took me to the apartment Bobby temporarily lived in (which was very small, even by Vietnamese standards) and even bragged that Bobby had had a Vietnamese girlfriend. I asked if this meant that Bobby could go to the market and walk around. The official was adamant that Bobby had escorts with him at all times, including when he was in the apartment complex; the Vietnamese government watched and controlled him tightly even after 1975. The official went so far as to note that Bobby had a bad attitude, and that he was difficult to control. This doesn’t sound like freedom of movement or thought to me; it sounds like being a prisoner.
After Bobby’s trial, Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTF-FA) and a specially commissioned group brought Bobby back to Vietnam to guide a team to the sites where he suspected American prisoners were still being held. JTF-FA had to obtain permission for the visit from the Vietnamese government, so they provided the Vietnamese with every detail of the mission; no deviation from the plan was allowed. The Vietnamese had plenty of time to construct, reconstruct, or demolish anything they wanted prior to Bobby’s visit with the team. It’s no surprise then that no POWs were recovered.
General Eugene Tighe (former Director of the DIA) always maintained he had intelligence about where and when Bobby was being held a prisoner, and about other live American POWs. We should also consider Special Forces colonel Millard “Mike” Peck’s letter of resignation from his post as the commander of the DIA POW/MIA Office. In this letter Peck lays out the reasons for which the Pentagon collaborated with the Communists to destroy all material on Bobby Garwood, and consequently on other American POWs whose whereabouts are unknown.
Back in States, Bobby eventually married a woman named Cathi and lived with her until her death. He then married Mary Lou, with whom he now lives in Mississippi. He should have undergone and should still be undergoing counseling after his experiences at the hands of the VC. However, even after all he has been through, Bobby still is adamant about his having seen other American POWs in Vietnam after 1975.
For this column I want your feedback and comments. Send me any comment at [email protected] and check out my web site at www.powmiainsider.com . I don’t have all the answers, but I will do my best to find them for you.
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