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By Zalin Grant
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Vietnam War Classics
POWs and MIAs
World Silence


It was the worst prison camp of the Vietnam War. Lodged deep in the jungle west of Da Nang, south Vietnam's second largest city, the prison camp--or camps, for it was a moveable horror--was not easily imagined by a generation that had grown up watching World War II movies.

There were no guard towers, no searchlights, no barbed wire. Instead, the camp consisted of a muddy clearing hacked out of the jungle where sunlight barely penetrated the interlocking layers of branches and vines. A thatched hut served as the prisoner's shelter, a bamboo platform as their communal bed. The young Americans, barefoot, in tatters, and on the verge of starvation, were forced to gather their food, sometimes poisoned by U.S. spray planes, from distant mountainsides. They lived under the constant threat of being bombed by their own forces. A turncoat who carried a rifle, an American Viet Cong, helped their captors keep them in line. Twelve of the thirty-two prisoners of war who entered the camp died--almost 40 percent. Five were freed for propaganda purposes. One defected. The remaining twelve American survivors, plus two German nurses, were probably saved only by the North Vietnamese decision to send them on a forced march up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi.

This is the story of that camp. I have tried, as much as possible, under the constraints imposed by the narrative, to tell it in the words of the survivors. It begins in January 1968 on a killing ground that American soldiers had named, with inverse humor, Happy Valley. There, on successive rainy days, U.S. infantry companies belonging to the American Division were ambushed and outfought by North Vietnamese/Viet Cong regulars who were preparing for the Tet Offensive which took place several weeks later.

Frank Anton and his helicopter crew were shot down while going to the aid of a beleaguered infantry company. Anton, tall and slender, the son of an air force colonel, was to have trouble after his capture because of his eating habits: he hated rice. David Harker, a college dropout from Virginia, passed by Anton's downed helicopter with his company before he was captured three days later. Anton's and Harker's groups were merged and marched to the prison camp.

Willie Watkins and James Daly, two blacks, joined them there. Watkins, soft-spoken and wiry, proved to be the strongest POW. In a jungle world where rank meant nothing and strength everything, he became the camp leader. Daly was the opposite. Big, clumsy, an aspiring Jehovah's Witness, Daly called himself a conscientious objector and claimed--with justification, thought other POWs--that he should have never been inducted into the army.

Watkins and Daly were escorted to the prison camp by Viet Cong soldiers led by an armed white man whom they initially thought to be a Russian. He was Robert Garwood, a young U.S. Marine private from Indiana, one of the first to be captured and held in the camp, who had crossed over to the Viet Cong side. Garwood eventually returned to America in 1979, six years after U.S. POWs were repatriated from North Vietnam, and underwent a court-martial, during which Watkins and survivors of the jungle prison camp testified against him.

Two more blacks, Tom Davis and Ike McMillan, later arrived at the camp. Tom Davis, a serious-minded Alabaman, had been appalled by American acts of brutality he had seen before his capture. He was a hard worker at the prison camp and the best-liked survivor. Ike McMillan puzzled his captors. They wondered why he was so happy and cheerful. McMillan distinguished himself as a talented chicken thief, snatching the Viet Cong's chickens to provide food for the malnourished American POWs.

Why was this prison camp such a horror?

The American POWs point out that their Viet Cong captors were impoverished and poorly supplied. They are as hard on themselves as they are on the Viet Cong. They tell of the errors they made while trying to survive in the jungle, of the disputes and fights among them that may have contributed to the deaths of some of their comrades.

But what emerges, too, from this story are the more subtle forms of brutality as practiced by the Vietnamese communists--of medicine denied, and the Viet Cong's studied indifference to the condition of the starving POWs. Here one finds an explanation for the re-education camps that existed in Vietnam long after the fall of Saigon.

In 1971, when the twelve survivors of the jungle camp walked up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to North Vietnam and Hanoi, they encountered two other American POWs who were to play a role in their lives--Ted Guy and John Young. Ted Guy was an air force colonel who had been shot down on a bombing mission over Laos. Stern and unyielding, Colonel Guy became the secret American commander of the Hanoi prison where the survivors of the jungle camp were held. He ordered them not to cooperate with the North Vietnamese jailers.

John Young, an enlisted man in the U.S. Special Forces, found his position on the war changing after his capture. He began to sympathize with the North Vietnamese and to consider himself a Marxist. With several other enlisted POWs, Young helped form a Peace Committee at his Hanoi prison. The Peace Committee was given special privileges by the North Vietnamese. Two survivors from the jungle camp--one of them, James Daly, the conscientious objector--joined Young and the committee. After American POWs were repatriated in 1973, Colonel Guy brought charges of collaborating with the enemy against Young, Daly, and the rest of the Peace Committee. The Pentagon dropped the charges after one of the accused committed suicide.

This book ends with the return of the survivors to the United States during Operation Homecoming in 1973. Some of them chose to remain in the military service--Davis, Watkins, Anton, McMillan among them. David Harker finished college and became a probation officer in Virginia. They had, as one of them said, known each other better than their wives ever would, but after the war was over they drifted apart, staying in occasional contact.

They were reunited by the return of Robert Garwood from Hanoi to the United States. At the legal proceedings which began at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1979, they testified that Garwood was a turncoat who had lived with their Viet Cong guards, that he carried a rifle and had free run of the camp, the he sometimes left and returned alone. A key charge was that he had punched David Harker in the ribs.

The attitude of the survivors toward Garwood was complicated. They believed he was an opportunist who had crossed over to the Viet Cong side to save his skin. But they acknowledged that on a few occasions he had secretly helped them obtain additional food, although not through unselfish motives, they added. David Harker's quiet testimony sounded as though it was given not in a spirit of revenge, but out of respect for the Americans who had died in the prison camp.

From my early days in Vietnam I had heard about Garwood. I was in Da Nang when he was captured in 1965, and I recalled the details of his case quite clearly. In 1968, Susan Harrigan, later a Newsday reporter, and I interviewed a U.S. Marine reconnaissance team who had encountered an armed white man leading a Viet Cong patrol. Four of the recon team members, under a controlled procedure, identified the white man from a photo file of missing Americans as Robert Garwood. They thought they had killed him during the fire fight described in this book. Garwood returned home with gunshot scars on his left arm, shrapnel in his upper back, and other scars that could be interpreted as battle wounds. He said he got them when he was captured. But he disappeared in a densely populated area on the outskirts of Da Nang, and there were, I remembered, no reports of a shootout.

I went to Camp Lejeune, the sprawling marine base, to cover Garwood's trial, and wrote an article for The New Republic. He was tall, a little over six feet, and well built. He spoke English with a Vietnamese accent. His dark hair was thinning, making him appear older than thirty-three, but his shoes were spit-shined, his uniform neatly pressed, and he looked more like a marine than anyone else in the courtroom.

The Marine Corps seemed embarrassed by the whole affair, by the fact that one of their own had defected, and I got the impression the marines wished he had never come back from North Vietnam. The case was complex, filled with what many considered moral ambiguities, and a lot of people seemed to think a former POW was being punished unfairly. The investigation and court-martial dragged on for months. Garwood's lawyers, having not much to work with, fell back on a psychiatric defense and tried to pick apart the testimony against him with legalities.

Robert Garwood was found guilty of five specifications under two charges. He had, the jury determined, served as a guard, interpreter, informer, and indoctrinator at the jungle prison camp. He was also found guilty of simple assault, of hitting David Harker. Before sentencing, Garwood's lawyer raised the question of why none of the U.S. POWs repatriated in 1973 had been prosecuted when, in fact, some of them had violated the Code of Conduct. Why Garwood? he asked.

The jury took note and gave him a light sentence. Garwood was reduced to the lowest rank and dishonorably discharged from the marines, with a small forfeiture of pay. Years later, Garwood had become something of a cult figure among MIA activists, who believe he knew of the existence of American POWs still being held in Vietnam. In 1993, he was accompanied to Hanoi by a U.S. senator and met at the airport by his old communist mentor, Ho Van Dich. When Mr. Ho tried to greet Garwood as a friend, the former defector snatched his hand away and snarled, "I was never a friend of yours."

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