Leave No Man Behind: An eyewitness account of the Vietnam War from its early stages through the last day of the Republic, 30 April 1975.
A startling new look at the postwar era and the issue of America’s unreturned veterans listed as POW/MIA, an issue that has haunted America since the beginning of American involvement. Shrouded in controversy, a subject of great emotion amid charges of governmental conspiracy and Communist deceit, the possibility of American servicemen being held in secret captivity after the war’s end has influenced U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia for three decades.
Now, the first chief of the U.S. Government’s only official office in postwar Vietnam provides an insider’s account of that effort. The challenges he faced in dealing with U.S. politicians, including Vietnam veterans, Senators John McCain and John Kerry, are an ardent reminder of the many similarities in the bloody wars fought by American troops in both Vietnam and Iraq-Afghanistan.
In an illuminating and deeply personal memoir, the government’s top missing persons investigator in Southeast Asia, who later became a member of the U.S. Congressional Staff, discusses the history of the search for missing Americans, reveals how the Communist Vietnamese stonewalled U.S. efforts to discover the truth, and how the standards for MIA case investigations were gradually lowered while pressure for expanded commercial and economic ties with communist Vietnam increased. Leave No Man Behind is the compelling story of a dedicated group of professionals who, against great odds, were able to uphold the proud military traditions of duty, honor and country.
Every American fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan should read ‘Leave No Man Behind.’ As the US Marine Corps helicopter lifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon at daybreak on April 30, 1975, I thought about the carnage that would result from a heat-seeking missile fired by Vietnamese Communist forces gradually encircling the besieged capital of the dying Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Exhausted by a lack of sleep for the previous several days, I no longer felt fear, only curiosity. Tears welled up in my eyes, perhaps due in part to the anguish of witnessing the tragic events unfolding before me, but also from caustic smoke belched out of rooftop incinerators glowing cherry-red from reams of frantically burned secret US Government documents.
Feeling a sense of relief, I nevertheless harbored an even stronger sense of guilt. On the Republic of Vietnam’s final day, as I looked down into the gradually diminishing compound and into the terrified eyes in the upturned faces of hundreds of Vietnamese nationals and citizens of other countries friendly to the United States, who were being left behind, I knew that I would be haunted for many years to come. As the venerable ‘Sea Stallion’ throbbed its way through the damp morning air toward a helicopter carrier anchored off the coast at Vung Tau, blazing multicolored tracers rising from the dark-canopied jungle below bade farewell to America and to an era known as the Vietnam War. During the more than 30 minute flight into the future I sat angry and confused after some 10 years of involvement with a faraway place called Vietnam. I wondered whether the sacrifices in lives and national treasure made by America had been worthwhile or in vain.
After contemplating the issue for many years, I believe it is now time to take stock of the American War in Vietnam so that Americans, especially those of us who served there, can finally decide whether or not we now have cause for a celebration or the lingering agony of defeat. With the fall of the RVN, as many analysts had predicted, jubilant communist forces quickly invaded and occupied the populated areas. Hundreds of thousands of former military and civilian officials were required to be screened, classified and registered as enemies of the revolution to be detained in remote, isolated concentration camps under horrific conditions.
Thousands died due to disease and malnutrition, many never to be heard from again by family members. At the same time, the communist leadership insisted that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the south be united as one. From that day forward, according to the constitution, only one political party, the Vietnam Communist Party, would be allowed to exist. On official letterheads of government stationery the three previously used terms comprising the national motto of the communist north: ‘Freedom, Independence and Democracy’ were changed forever to read ‘Freedom, Independence and Happiness.’
To the Vietnamese people this change in terminology, especially the reference to happiness, would provide one of the few sources of humor during a desperate time. To add insult to injury, the graves of fallen RVN military personnel were razed by bulldozers in cemeteries across the country. Typewriters, radios, televisions and anything that could be used for propagation or communication were required to be registered with the ‘Military Management Committee’ responsible for political security under the new ‘Socialist Republic of Vietnam.’ As interest began to wane, occasional references to the Vietnam War coined phrases such as ‘a noble cause’ or ‘an unnecessary war.’
The question as to whether the Vietnam War was or was not necessary was just as divisive in postwar debate as it was during the days following the 1968 ‘Tet Offensive.’ In my own assessment of both the necessity for and the outcome of the Vietnam War two primary considerations were the U.S. national interest at the time and the mission of the U.S. Military Forces that fought in Southeast Asia. The overall mission of U.S. military forces for the latter part of the 20th century began to take shape shortly after the conclusion of World War II. At that time the policy of the United States was one of containment of Communism. I believed that this policy was fully justified, because it was obvious that the Communist International, especially Russia and China, sought to ‘liberate’ the entire world. This policy of containment became known as the ‘Cold War.’
Although there were numerous clashes involving air crews during missions involving special operations and reconnaissance, the first major battlefield of that war erupted in 1950 on the Korean Peninsula, where the successful accomplishment of the mission of containing communism there was dubbed by the media as a ‘stalemate.’ At the beginning of the War in Vietnam, the basic mission of American soldier worldwide was to kill, destroy, or capture the enemy, or repel his assault by fire. Over one million men and women answered their nation’s call, and they did their level best to carry out their mission in Southeast Asia. As a result, some 58,000 Americans and some 225,000 allied personnel made the ultimate sacrifice, while by comparison, communist Vietnam suffered the loss of over 1,300,000 personnel, including 150,000 personnel who were killed-in-action but never recovered.
I personally witnessed the strongest blow struck at communist forces by hard-fighting American and South Vietnamese troops that occurred during the January 31, 1968, ‘Tet’ offensive. The bodies of thousands of communist personnel were stacked in piles around installations throughout South Vietnam, and losses were so heavy for the communist side that the entire military rank structure was temporarily abandoned and cadre selected to command and control units were assigned based on position or job title only, rather than actual military rank. The loss of life to the communist side was nothing less than staggering, and any U.S. military commander whose losses approached even a small percentage of actual communist fatalities at that time would most likely have been relieved of command and drummed from the service.
Even though America’s servicemen and women fought valiantly during the 1968 ‘Tet’ offensive, the U.S. and international media nevertheless managed to reshape their hard-earned victory into a political defeat. Vietnamese communist propaganda experts were so skillful that they were able to convince many members of the media and even some military analysts that two separate governments, the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North, existed side by side and that both were involved in a ‘civil war.’ It has since been proven that both the NLF and the DRV were tightly controlled by the Vietnam Communist Party and both governments were actually one and the same. Moreover, personnel of the two purported military organizations of both illusionary governments, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC), were in reality members of the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN).
Admittedly, in terms of national treasure the Vietnam War was not cheap. Depending on which expert’s figures are used, the total cost of the Vietnam War to America was somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 billion dollars. By comparison the overall U.S. defense budget during postwar, peacetime years exceeded that amount annually. In reality one million men could not have been trained at U.S.-based training centers for a 10 year period, even using blank ammunition, for a lesser amount. While the Vietnam War was certainly a drain on the U.S. economy, during the decade of our of engagement there the former Soviet Union also provided significant amounts of financial and material support to communist forces deployed throughout Southeast Asia. Support by the USSR to Vietnam, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and a badly managed, centrally controlled economy all combined to bring the former Soviet Union to its knees and bring about the collapse of the Communist Party.
Ultimately this collapse led to the end of the Cold War. Veterans of the Cold War, especially those who fought in Korea and Vietnam, now enjoy the gratitude of the peoples of many European, East Asian and Southeast Asian nations. It is now clear that as a result of the sacrifices made by American and allied veterans, today the people of Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia are living under freely elected governments. This accounts for one quarter of the earth’s population. Obviously, the true losers of the Vietnam War are the Vietnamese people, not just the people of the former Republic of Vietnam, but citizens from all areas of the country, including the north.
Although millions of Vietnamese ‘voted with their feet’ by escaping on small boats across dangerous ocean currents, resulting in staggering losses to mankind, today millions more freedom-loving Vietnamese still yearn to be free. I believe that the two most important bilateral issues remaining between the U.S. and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are an accounting for the almost 1,800 Americans still missing from the Vietnam War and democracy for the Vietnamese people. Successive administrations in Washington, D.C. have pressed for democracy in many countries around the world, including Russia, Haiti, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. But there has been very little interest shown in gaining democracy for Asians, and this double standard is difficult to understand.
It is almost as though we Americans have a collective mentality whereby we believe that peoples with yellow skin cannot manage freedom, and that tight control is the only option available. The American business community, aggressively buying up cheap products manufactured in Asia for resale on the U.S. market, is blinded by the lack of labor unions, cheap wages and fear of violent reprisals against labor strikes. It is ironic that after some 58,000 fine young Americans died in Vietnam while fighting for democracy the American business community is now steadily developing the economy of communist controlled Vietnam, insuring that the Vietnam Communist Party will not only remain in power, but that it will increasingly have the ability to maintain an even larger and more powerful military force. Concerning the plight of the families of Vietnam War POWs and MIAs, democracy can also go a long way to help in this regard.
I believe that most Americans, especially Vietnam veterans, will agree that for the most part the Vietnamese people are honest and hardworking. Like our people right here at home, I can’t imagine a situation where the people of Vietnam would be willing to hide the remains of anyone’s loved one in order to extort money from them. Although during the past 30 years the ruling communists have gradually doled out bits and pieces of skeletal remains and personal effects in return for large monetary sums, once the Vietnam Communist Party has collapsed the Vietnamese people will rise to the occasion and provide whatever assistance is necessary to resolve the issue of our missing men. We should all be doing everything we can to make sure that day comes. Garnett ‘Bill’ Bell, a retired GM-!4, DoD, went to Vietnam as an infantryman in 1965 and served four tours there. Bell was awarded 20 individual decorations and numerous unit awards. Bell later served as an instructor in the Department of Exploitation and Counterintelligence, U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School. During his career Bell served in the 327th Airborne Battle Group, 101st Airborne Division, the 1/35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, the 2/506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the 101st MI Company, the 525th Military Intelligence Group, the Defense Language Institute, the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, the 6th Special Forces Group, the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), the Four Party Joint Military Team (FPJMT) and the Joint Task Force Full-Accounting. Bell’s wife and son were killed and a daughter critically injured in April 1975, when the families of U.S. officials assigned to the American Embassy in Saigon were evacuated in conjunction with the ‘Operation Babylift’ program. After being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy on the final day of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) (30 April 1975), Bell returned to postwar Vietnam as the first official U.S. representative after the war ended when he was assigned as the Chief of the U.S. Office for POW/MIA Affairs in Hanoi. He served more than 12 years on the POW/MIA Search Teams. An Airborne-Ranger and Jumpmaster, Bell eventually became a member of the Congressional Staff, U.S. House of Representatives. Fluent in Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian, Bell is a graduate of Chaminade University and the author of ‘Leave No Man Behind.’
Bell is employed as an investigator in the 12th Judicial District, western Arkansas. ‘I knew with your involvement Leave No Man Behind would be first-rate, but Bill Bell too has an obvious gift for storytelling along with his other remarkable qualities. What impressed me was not only the authoritative in-depth reconstruction of events but the facile, very skillful writing. To interweave the family history and bio with the search activities, the anecdotes with the analysis and the pen portraits of Bell’s colleagues and commanders–as any author knows–is a huge challenge, one that you guys bring off brilliantly.
I don’t know how you and Bell divided the writing and the work generally, but the effort deserves high praise. I hope it finds the wider audience it deserves.’ Dr. Stuart Rochester, co-author, ‘Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973’ ‘The most comprehensive study of our government’s efforts to account for our POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War I have read to date. Bill Bell and Jay Veith have done a masterful job with a very personal subject, recounting these efforts in an objective and straight forward manner. I highly recommend this book for anyone wishing a greater understanding of the POW/MIA issue.’ –Rod Utech Producer, POW/MIA Radio Subject: Leave No Man Behind Mr. Veith- I just spoke to Stuart Rochester and he gave me your contact info. I gave a lecture last week at the University of Maryland on POW/MIA issues of the Vietnam War. I have done this several times before and I usually contact Stuart for last minute suggestions or current information I can share with the class. I met with Stuart last week and he let me borrow some video material and his copy of ‘Leave No Man Behind.’
I have read about half of the book and would like to order a copy. Can you let me know how to order the book? I tried Alibris, but they do not have it listed yet. I have been interested in POW/MIA issues for many years and was very involved in the resubmission of the Medal of Honor for Rocky Versace as well as in the building of the Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Alexandria, Va. ‘Code Name Bright Light’ and ‘Leave No Man Behind’ are tremendous contributions to the telling of the Vietnam POW/MIA story. Thank you and Mr. Bell for the great work you have done for our country, and for the memories of many lost in the Vietnam War. Sincerely, Mike Faber Founding Member, The Friends of Rocky Versace Honorary Member, West Point Class of 1959 (703) 764-3300 (w) (703) 898-6389 (cell phone) Editorial Reviews Rod Utech, Producer, POW/MIA Radio ‘The most comprehensive study … to account for our POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War I have read to date.’ About the Author Garnett ‘Bill’ Bell was the first chief of the U.S. POW/MIA office in post-war Vietnam. Since his enlistment in the U.S. Army in 1960 to his retirement in 1993, Bill Bell played a vital role in the history of the American POW/MIA issue.
In 1973, Bell was chosen as the American interpreter-translator for ‘Operation Homecoming,’ the release of U.S. POWs in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. During the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Bell helped clandestinely evacuate American and South Vietnamese nationals from Saigon, and was one of the last American officials to leave by helicopter. In 1988, he became the U.S. Government’s field investigator for the first POW/MIA search and recover operations undertaken in post-war Vietnam. George J. Veith has written countless pages about the Vietnam War, including ‘Code Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts during the Vietnam War’ (Military Book Club’s Book of the Month for January, 1998). He has testified before the U.S. House of Representatives on the POW/MIA issue and has been interviewed on radio and TV on behalf of the families of POW/MIAs.
Product Description: ‘Leave No Man Behind’ is the powerful story of Garnett ‘Bill’ Bell’s quest, at great personal cost, to find and bring home the POWs and MIAs of the Vietnam War. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the Vietnamese Communists and his fluency in various regional dialects, he penetrated the system the Communists had created to exploit American POWs for diplomatic concessions, or their remains and personal effects for financial rewards. In this book, Bell shares his perspective as a witness to history as it unfolded. The Author Is A Hero!, December 19, 2004 Reviewer: Mcgivern Owen L (NY, NY USA) – ‘Leave No Man Behind’ is the true guidepost to the painful saga of resolving the search for POWs and MIAs in Indochina. It should be required for anyone interested in the details and history of the quest.! The author, a genuine hero, spent most of 20 years, 1973-1993, interviewing refugees, battling U.S. bureaucrats (military and civilian) and wrestling with Communist officials in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
He was also this country’s senior field investigator, searching remote crash and burial sites for remains of U.S. military. Along the way he was actively involved in the final evacuation from Saigon in 1975. He learned several distinct Vietnamese dialects, the better to communicate/negotiate with the adversary. Few Americans would be that conscientious. Those of us who have followed and supported the search for POWs/MIAs all these years know how venally, dishonestly and even cruelly the Vietnamese have acted. They deny storing remains and then repatriate bodies with obvious evidence of chemical storage. They allow us to ‘investigate’ crash sites that have been clearly sanitized in advance. Bodies are dug up, moved and re-interred. After payment of search fees, permits, excavation fees and other ‘costs’, remains are found! And so it goes, on and on, year after frustrating year. But when Vietnamese act that way, they are being themselves! How can we explain or describe American officials, civilian and military, who descend to the same level?
Mr. Bell makes it perfectly clear that a POW assignment was all too often a just soft ‘REMF’ job. These guys did not want too many POWs being repatriated all at once. How would that look? The longer the searches went on, the longer the comfortable gigs. In the words of a previous reviewer, the whole deal was nothing more than a meal ticket. This reviewer has always suspected that we were own worst enemy and the list of ‘usual suspects’ is long and sickening. There is no doubt in this quarter that these quislings would never want any American MIA found alive. They would be too frightened to explain the reappearance! One specific suspect on the list of lowlife Americans is President Carter, who tried very hard to underfund the original search efforts and nip them in the very bud.
Another is not President Clinton but John Kerry. He was so in love with normalizing relations with North Vietnam that his so-called Senate Select Committee swept whitewashed the entire POW/MIA effort. All so his family owned company received exclusive American rights to real estate deals in North Vietnam. How Mr. Bell kept his calm and perspective dealing with so man cowardly and selfish Americans is a mystery. This review could continue at great length, but I’m sure my amazon friends have the picture clearly. In a review of Bernard Fall’s ‘Street Without Joy’, this observer closed by writing that the author would be ‘a great guy to have a few beers with’. I feel the same about Mr. Bell except that he would not have to pay for a round. The author is a true American hero. I’ll conclude this review by restating that ‘Leave No Man Behind’ is required reading for anyone concerned with the resolution of the 1,845 men still missing in Indochina. A cause, a vocation, a career?,
July 3, 2004 Reviewer: R. ARANT ‘toun’ (Lanesville, Indiana USA) Whether or not a reader has the same take on the history of the POW-MIA issue as Bill Bell, most will be able to acknowledge that he took the issue to heart in a very active way. His commitment to the study of the languages of the region set him head and shoulders above the vast majority of NCOs and certainly all of the officers who were assigned to work the issue, and those linguistic skills for the most part served him very very well. Unfortunately, by the time Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began to open up and the many years of almost hopeless interviews in refugee camps came to an end, the ‘issue’ had devolved into a series of highly-publicized scams and silly bureaucratic turf struggles between bureaucracies with no missions, and inevitably was exploited by the odd politician or three. We ended up not serving the missing or their families as well as the naive among us would have expected. What was once a sacred cause degenerated into a comfortable meal ticket for many of those ‘involved,’ but in spite of all that, Bill often took stances which he knew would bring him his fair share of abuse.
If anyone made an honest effort for an extended period of years, Bill did. Those that have hung on for decades sitting idle at the trough have much to answer for. Bill Bell was active in the pursuit of his life-defining mission, and that alone makes his writing worth our time and our respect. From: Amorosi Sent: Tuesday, November 16, 2004 7:44 PM Subject: please, read I am finally finishing Bill Bell’s book. For a comprehensive look at the POW/MIA issue, you owe it to yourself to read Leave No Man Behind by Bill Bell with George J. Veith. Buy it, borrow it, or check it out at the library. But, please, read it. The struggles of the past are alive and well now. Ask Keith Maupin’s family. Don Amorosi VVA 79 I enjoyed the book. There are certain happenings in the book that I was personally involved in. As example, during TET, when the missionaries were captured and or killed, I photographed the graves and the houses. I knew them and of course am still in contact with my friend Mike Benge.
The unit I was assigned to performed many searches for them but to no avail. Also have many pictures during TET in the Banmethuot area. Take care and thanks again, Jack Jarnigan, Hilltop Lakes, Texas Bill: I just finished the book you sent me, ‘Leave No Man Behind’. Thank you for writing it and for so kindly sending me an autographed copy. I will treasure it always and request that my son read it upon his return from Afghanistan this April. I hope all is well with you and your family out there in Arkansas and that you have a blessed Christmas. Your book is chock full of facts and information, much of which I have read nowhere else, obviously because so much of it came from your professional work and personal life. With your permission, I will quote the book from time to time in what I write. It is apparent to me that your perspective is one that can be found nowhere else and that you are the one American who, as an instrument of our gov’t, did more to resolve this issue than anyone else. That is not to say that you did not have some very good men working with you, as you so aptly pointed out. Bill, I salute you, and I want to thank you for doing the best you could possibly do to find our missing men.
It is a hard thing to admit that our nation’s leaders are more concerned with power, politics, personal legacies, and money, than in doing the right thing. That is why I got involved in this issue and made it a mission to personally educate as many as will listen to what I have to relate. This is a travesty the likes of which parallel the murders of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pot, and all the rest in my humble opinion. Why do we do it? Why do we continue to serve knowing that our sons could be the next Matt Maupin, Scott Speicher, William P. Milliner, or Roger Dumas? It is amazing that our spirit is not completely crushed. I mean it when I say you are a Great American Bill and I salute you. It isn’t often that a man has an opportunity to do something as important and necessary as what you did and it isn’t often that when confronted with that opportunity a man of integrity steps up to the plate. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Jeff ‘Mario’ Smith Guerilla Reporter Task Force Omega of KY [email protected] 859-433-9694c 2 Chronicles 7:14 (KJV) ‘Your American dreams come purchased by the nightmares of a few.’ –David Scott >From a press release by the publisher. Goblin Fern Press is pleased to announce that our book ‘Leave No Man Behind’ has been selected as a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s National Book of the Year award in Biography.
This is a very prestigious award as it comes from the one of the most respected pre-publication publicity and review magazines in the book industry. Congrats to Bill Bell and Jay Veith co-authors of the book. For those of you who haven’t read the book it’s about Bell’s over 30 years as a soldier and civilian looking for live soldiers in Vietnam, and repatriating the remains of those who died. In the book the authors reveal the myriad ways in which Bell tried to systematize the investigation of lost planes and loss incidents, only to be thwarted in his efforts by the government of North Vietnam and sadly, our own government. In order to conduct his investigations, Bell learned several Asian languages ! and dialects so as not to rely on a translator/interpreter.
This is a fascinating, detailed, life of a courageous man who truly lived the motto ‘Leave No Man Behind.’ This book isn’t just for the soldier, student, or history buff. It’s also for the average American who should know more about the Vietnam War, how people in our CURRENT government felt and behaved then, and how the war in Iraq really is similar. A very compelling story. 474 pages, semi-hardback; ISBN 096476634