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Jewish World Review March 24, 1999 /7 Nissan 5759


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Black Ops Mark Vietnam War, Class War & the POW/MIA Issue

MUGGER is on vacation. Filling in for him is NY Press' editor, John Strausbaugh

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The educated classes long ago wrote off the POW/MIA movement as the foolish obsessions of rednecks, bikers and right-wing conspiracy theorists. Academics wrote books arguing that it was a form of modern mythology for the masses, a pottage of Rambo and Bo Gritz revenge fantasies for the patriotic but misguided lower orders who, unlike us educated types, were never able to process their Vietnam War grief and move on. The examples of a few well-placed POW survivors like Sen. John McCain only heightened the sense that those MIA widows and Vietnam vets with their black POW/MIA flags flying over their wheelchairs in every Veteran’s Day parade should just get over it already.

You can see the class rift even within military culture, Timothy N. Castle says. When POWs or MIAs were officers—downed pilots, for example—their cases were handled by fellow officers, their families accorded the respect and dignity the officers’ code demands. The cases of POWs and MIAs of lower rank didn’t necessarily get the same care from the officers handling them. And in one special instance—the 11 missing men of the project code-named Heavy Green—families and survivors were systematically lied to, "isolated and cut off" for 30 years.

It’s enough to make an educated person wonder just how crazy all those other POW/MIA activists have really been all these years. At the very least, you have to consider how much their obsession with learning "the truth" about their loved ones stems from their having lost all faith in their own government to give them straight answers.

When I spoke to Castle by phone last Saturday morning, he was a little jetlagged—he’d just gotten back from a 20-day visit to Southeast Asia, including five days in Vietnam. It’s a trip he’s made many times. Castle is a PhD professor of Asian and military history, and a Vietnam vet, and a retired Air Force officer.

His second book focusing on Laos’ involvement in the Vietnam War has just been published by Columbia University Press. Called One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam (372 pages, $17.47 ) it’s a fascinating study of a military fiasco the details of which have been largely hidden from the public until now. It also raises huge questions about how this government—with the collusion of the postwar governments in Vietnam and Laos—has dealt with the POW/MIA issue over the years.

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson authorized the beginning of sustained aerial bombardments of North Vietnam—project Rolling Thunder. But feeling that the use of heavy bombers like B-52s would be politically provocative, Johnson restricted the program to using smaller fighter-bombers like the F-105 and F-4. These, unfortunately, soon proved to be extremely limited in their ability to discomfit the North’s war machine; as Castle succinctly sums up the situation in his book: "America’s vaunted air power appeared woefully inept against a marginal communist military power." Technological giant 0, little guys in black pajamas 1.

Specifically, the fighter-bombers had to rely on signals from ground-based radar units to drop their bombs with any kind of accuracy at night or in bad weather. These radar units had to be within 200 nautical miles of the target. In an attempt to get bombers to Hanoi, an extremely risky and controversial decision was made to situate one of these units in northeastern Laos, just across the border from North Vietnam—a region known to be crawling with Communist troops, both North Vietnamese troops, called Dac Cong, and their Pathet Lao partners—on a mountaintop location code-named Site 85.

Because Laos and the U.S. were strenuously trying to maintain a facade of Laotian neutrality in the Vietnam conflict, the unit at Site 85, code-named Heavy Green, could not be legally, openly established or manned by U.S. military. So, to give both the Lao and U.S. governments some plausible deniability in the case of discovery, Site 85 became a secret "black" operation, manned by a handful of Air Force volunteers who were covertly recruited and then "sheep-dipped"—mustered out of the military and given civilian jobs as employees of Lockheed for cover.

(Lockheed is well known for cooperating with the military on black ops.)

These men, most of them noncommissioned officers, many career soldiers, signed secrecy agreements; if married, their wives were required to sign as well. After the mission the men could return to the Air Force at full pay, rank and benefits; if they were killed, their families would receive full military death benefits.

In 1967, an Air Force lieutenant colonel named Seitzberg was given the dangerous mission of being air-dropped in to survey the site. His cover story, should he be captured by the enemy, was that he was a civilian employee of the now-infamous CIA-run Air America. He carried no weapon, only a camera, surveying equipment and the equivalent of $10 in Thai currency. All the equipment to be used at Site 85 was similarly "‘sanitized,’ stripped of its military identification and serial numbers," Castle writes. Since they were posing as civilians, the Americans were supposed to carry no arms, but depend on local Hmong and Lao troops, coordinated by CIA on-site officers, for defense.

Pretty soon an area of the mountaintop Seitzberg had surveyed had been dynamited flat to act as a rough helipad, and helicopters were buzzing in and out, dropping off men, equipment, shelter and supplies. As Castle notes in his book, it was "the height of American arrogance" to think that all this "secret" activity would go unnoticed by the Dac Cong and Pathet Lao in their own backyard. "Within weeks far more Lao and Vietnamese knew about Site 85 than did Americans."

Going operational in November 1967, the unit was doomed from the start.

It would only survive for 18 weeks. Immediately, several thousand Communist troops began filtering into the area to surround the site. By early 1968 they were shelling it from the ground and actually dropping bombs on it from biplanes—the only air strikes the North Vietnamese conducted against U.S. troops in the entire war. Ironically, as the Communists tightened the noose, Site 85’s radar was increasingly used not to lead bombers toward Hanoi, but in defending Site 85 itself. The facility was clearly going to go down; it was only a matter of when. Castle writes that it was "criminal" to leave the crew "stranded" there once it became clear they were doomed.

Using the memories of survivors from both sides, Castle describes the actual battle, which took place on the night of March 10/11, in vivid detail. It was a classic NVA siege: After softening up the site with mortar and rocket fire, they simply flooded it with troops, overrunning the area and overwhelming the small crew of American technicians:

Jarred awake by the initial commando attack, Jack Starling recalls that he was soon joined by Willis Hall and both attempted to conceal themselves behind the larger boulder on the western cliff. According to Starling, within minutes Bill Blanton, Mel Holland, Pat Shannon, and David Price were also seeking safety in the small flat depression some "20 to 30 feet" from Starling and Hall’s location. Many of the technicians had weapons and were firing at the pursuing Vietnamese.

Starling was also shooting, but his M-16 soon jammed. Trapping the men in a small area with no escape route, the Dac Cong pressed the assault with automatic weapons fire and grenades. The results, according to Starling, were devastating. "Holland’s arm was blown off and he was on the ground, moaning with pain. Price was lying next to Holland, dead.

Blanton and Shannon were lying together on the ground, neither was moving." During the barrage Starling was struck by bullets in the right thigh and his right big toe, while Hall also received undetermined wounds. Starling recalls hearing shouts from the Vietnamese and then the commandos rushed toward the men, firing their weapons. Defenseless, Starling played dead as he heard the Dac Cong sweep over the area.

"In less than an hour," Castle writes, "Hanoi had annihilated project Heavy Green." The morning of March 11, under heavy enemy fire, rescue helicopters managed to evacuate Starling and a few other survivors—7 in all, one of whom died when the rescue copter itself was fired on—but the rest of the crew, 11 men, were left behind. Two were presumed killed, based on the survivors’ testimony, but the other nine were—and remain to this day—unaccounted for. While it’s likely that most were killed in the attack, the only people who would know for sure are the North Vietnamese. And in the 30 years since the destruction of Site 85, the Vietnamese have proven to be, as in most POW/MIA affairs, shifty in the extreme.

On the U.S. side, the cover-up began that same morning. Convinced that any of the 11 Americans still at Site 85 were dead, U.S. forces spent the next few days bombing and napalming the site with the intention of destroying the lost equipment and obliterating all evidence—including the identities of any corpses. The families of the 11 men left behind were privately informed, in dispatches that were cruelly vague and noncommittal, that the men were "missing," and told very little else (certainly not that the Air Force hoped it had blown up their corpses).

Wives were reminded of the secrecy oaths they’d signed, and then, Castle says, callously forgotten about in the desire to hush up the potentially highly embarrassing fiasco. For years, what little was publicly known about the destruction of Site 85 was government fabrication.

This is where Castle becomes part of the story.

Castle, 46 years old, grew up in Hawaii, entered the Air Force when he was 17 and completed two tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, flying 38 helicopter missions, "mostly rescue and special operations," out of Nakhon Phanom on the Thai-Laos border, 1971-’73. Back in the U.S., he would get his BA, MA and doctorate in Asian history and military affairs, and complete ROTC to get his Air Force second lieutenancy in 1980. He has taught Asian and military history at the University of San Diego, at the Air War College and currently at the Air Force’s Air University in Montgomery, AL.

His first book, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam (also published by Columbia, ’95), was the result of his doctoral dissertation work in the late 80s. As part of that research, the Bush administration arranged for him to be the first U.S. military representative allowed back into Laos since the war. He was "pretty much the first person since the war to go up into the Plain of Jars and look at the bombing there," for example.

In ’92, while his family lived in Bangkok, he did another year of "field investigations" in Laos, "all up and down the country, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, again in the north."

He retired from the Air Force in ’94 and was teaching at San Diego when he was contacted by NBC to consult on a report they were developing on Site 85. The story of Heavy Green, vague and inaccurate as it then was, had intrigued an independent producer. The trip Castle and the NBC crew made in ’94 changed everything. As he puts it to me, "We knew virtually nothing from 1968 until 1994. And then in March of 1994 when we got up there it just exponentially increased, in terms of actually being able to see the site, talking to people."

In 1995, Castle accepted the position of chief of Southeast Asia archival research for the Defense Dept.’s Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Office (DPMO). Extremely dissatisfied with how the Site 85 story was still being treated even at that late date, he wrote a highly critical internal memo in ’97 that (he writes in the book) "was somehow leaked, circulated throughout the POW-MIA community, and placed on a number of web sites." He then left the DPMO and returned to teach at the Air Force’s Air University and complete this book.

Castle’s research into Heavy Green was exhaustive. He interviewed survivors, including one of the on-site CIA men; survivors’ families; the commanding general and then-ambassador to Laos, who were intimately involved in the program; and Communist officers in Vietnam and Laos. He pored over voluminous documentation, both here and over there, much of which wouldn’t have been accessible without his military connections. As recently as the trip that just ended last week, he’s visited Vietnamese air force bases and seen museum displays proudly documenting the aerial bombardment of Site 85.

("I was just blown away," he tells me. So, one hopes, were some of the 20 other Americans he had with him on this trip: three faculty members of the Air War College and 17 of their students, who included officers from all branches of the military—some of whom had last seen Vietnam during the war.)

"I’ve talked to every living person there is to talk to," Castle says to me. "Unfortunately, because of all the secrecy, people have been able to spin any number of tales. I wanted the book to be the comprehensive story. The only part that’s still missing is what the Vietnamese know that they haven’t told us yet."

Castle’s research led him to some rather glum conclusions. A prepublication review in Kirkus noted that there’s a point in the book where Castle "deserts his objectivity...for impassioned advocacy" for the Site 85 families. He doesn’t deny it—though he insists that the integrity of his scholarly research is uncompromised.

Still, he does tell me that he originally thought of titling the book Betrayal of Trust, signifying what he says is the "continuing betrayal" of those 11 men’s families "to this day" by the Air Force—his Air Force, mind you—lying to them and stonewalling them. Powers within the Air Force "really want to get the thing off the books," he says. "The problem always was and still is that they can’t explain what happened." Even at the DPMO, he says, the agenda is more "to bring closure" to such lingering POW/MIA cases than to answer the families’ unresolved questions and doubts.

He further accuses this government of having a "wink and a nod" arrangement with the Vietnamese, who have always found it both politically and financially advantageous to string along and stonewall American inquiries into POWs and MIAs. The Vietnamese, he’s sure, know exactly what happened to those 11 Americans in March 1968.

"The Vietnamese are such meticulous record-keepers. They documented every bit of [captured] American equipment, down to cigarette lighters. The idea that not even a button can be turned over" from Site 85 "is crazy... My point is there’s 150 tons of equipment and 11 bodies in an area that has been controlled by the Vietnamese and/or the Lao military since 1968. This is different than almost any other [Vietnam War] loss. It didn’t happen in a remote jungle they didn’t have control of. It is very much explainable.

"The other thing that makes it explainable is that it was totally unique. It was the only time the Vietnamese attacked anyplace by air during the entire war. It was a constant movement of their forces, tens of thousands of forces. Yet the initial Vietnamese reaction was ‘We have no records of this...’"

What does Castle think happened to those 11 men? While he admits there’s evidence "that many of the men were killed," he writes, there’s also "strong evidence to suggest some [of them] could have hidden themselves in the darkness and survived the attack." And if they did, "the North Vietnamese may have captured men at Site 85."

Obviously speculation—but it comes from the one person outside Vietnam probably best able to consider all the evidence. That no one in the U.S. government seems to have seriously explored these possibilities, not the morning after the attack and not for 30 more years, Castle considers the biggest betrayal of all.

At this stage, Castle does not seriously believe there are any surviving American POWs or MIAs in Southeast Asia. "But what has happened to the families in many cases is that they’ve been lied to so many times for so long that they’ve built up this inability to believe anything the government tells them," he says. "And that’s a very sad thing."

John Strausbaugh is the editor of NY Press and covers the publishing industry for the paper. Send your comments on this article by clicking here.


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©1999, Russ Smith