Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia
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Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia

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by Bill Hendon, Elizabeth A. Stewart

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An Enormous Crime is nothing less than shocking. Based on thousands of pages of public and previously classified documents, it makes an utterly convincing case that when the American government withdrew its forces from Vietnam, it knowingly abandoned hundreds of POWs to their fate. The product of


An Enormous Crime is nothing less than shocking. Based on thousands of pages of public and previously classified documents, it makes an utterly convincing case that when the American government withdrew its forces from Vietnam, it knowingly abandoned hundreds of POWs to their fate. The product of twenty-five years of research by former Congressman Bill Hendon and attorney Elizabeth A. Stewart, this book brilliantly reveals the reasons why these American soldiers and airmen were held back by the North Vietnamese at Operation Homecoming in 1973, what these brave men have endured, and how administration after administration of their own government has turned its back on them.
This authoritative exposé is based on open-source documents and reports, and thousands of declassified intelligence reports and satellite imagery, as well as author interviews and personal experience. An Enormous Crime is a singular work, telling a story unlike any other in our history: ugly, harrowing, and true.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A sprawling indictment of eight U.S. administrations. A convincing, urgent argument.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The descriptions of Hendon's. . . personal mission provide an intriguing story--and carry the ring of truth.” —Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews
A sprawling indictment of eight U.S. administrations. The charge: sacrificing American war prisoners in the interest of focusing, as Bush aides have said, "not on Vietnam's past but on its future."Beginning in 1966, write former Rep. Hendon (R-NC) and attorney Stewart, GIs captured in South Vietnam were moved north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other routes. Cataloguing sightings with the diligence of Vincent Bugliosi-whose Reclaiming History (2007), on the JFK assassination, is something of a companion piece-Hendon and Stewart reckon that hundreds of POWs had crossed the Demilitarized Zone by the time of the Tet Offensive, their numbers swelled by pilots downed over North Vietnam. Many of these soldiers, Hendon and Stewart charge, were used as human shields against American bombing attacks on power plants, military headquarters and other strategically important venues. North Vietnam and its allies in Laos and Cambodia weren't particularly forthcoming on all these things, but the U.S. played a dirty hand, too; by the authors' account, the prisoners' ultimate release was bound up in negotiations conducted by Henry Kissinger, "the surrogate president," who reneged on promises of U.S. aid owing to supposed violations of previous accords, thus closing off a diplomatic channel for repatriation. Fast forward to 1987, when Ross Perot traveled to Vietnam and told the foreign minister, who insisted that there were no POWs there, "Don't embarrass yourselves, I know too much." Fruitful negotiations ensued, the authors report, only to be brushed aside by the Reagan administration-even though, they claim, at least 100 U.S. prisoners were still alive in Vietnam. Hendon and Stewart, who appearnonpartisan in their disdain for governmental inaction and double-dealing, close by offering advice to President Bush to send an army of former presidents and their staffs to negotiate the release of the remaining captives. Much of the authors' evidence is circumstantial, but there's an awful lot of it. A convincing, urgent argument.

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St. Martin's Press
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An Enormous Crime







After months of training at secret bases in Guatemala, twelve hundred Cuban freedom fighters departed in ships from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, in mid-April 1961 bound for the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of Cuba. Their primary mission: Land, establish a beachhead, and hold it long enough to allow a provisional government to be put ashore—a government that would then receive recognition and overt aid from the United States and from anticommunist nations throughout Latin America, and whose forces, if all went as planned, would quickly drive Fidel Castro from power. The U.S. government had trained and equipped the brigade, planned, approved, and financed the invasion, and assured the freedom fighters that U.S. air strikes would destroy the handful of planes comprising Castro's air force on the ground before the invasion was launched. Secure in this assurance that the skies above the beachhead would be theirs, the men of Brigade 2506 went ashore at 2:30 A.M. on Monday, April 17, with high hopes that the overthrow of Fidel Castro was at hand.

These hopes were dashed when the promised preinvasion bombing raids were first cut back and then canceled altogether on orders from Washington. With Castro's air force still intact, the invaders were doomed. By Tuesday, the trapped rebels were pleading by radio for U.S. air cover, telling of government tanks sending merciless crossfire into their ranks and of MiGs diving again and again to strafe men armed only with rifles, machine guns, and bazookas. No assistance was dispatched, however, and the rebels were overwhelmed.

At 5:30 Wednesday afternoon, all organized resistance ceased when the final rebel position at Playa Girón fell. Within hours, the Cuban government announced that its troops had "destroyed in less than seventy-two hours the Army which was organized during many months by the imperialist government of the United States. All the mercenaries," Havana radio declared, " ... are either dead or prisoners awaiting action by revolutionary tribunals."

The surviving prisoners were taken to Havana that Friday and paraded before the nation's television cameras. Premier Castro then took to the airwaves and delivered a four-and-a-half-hour report to the nation on the invasion. Clearly elated by the rout at Bahía de Cochinos, the victorious Castro charged that President Kennedy was personally to blame for the invasion and ridiculed the American president as an "international bully" who should be likened to Adolf Hitler. Noting that the American government was already calling for clemency for theprisoners, Castro mocked the U.S. gesture, declaring, "They should have asked clemency for the children who were killed by their bombs." All prisoners captured during the invasion, the Cuban leader declared, were considered counterrevolutionaries who "must be shot."

Operation Pluto, the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba, had ended in total disaster.


Mid-May 1961


John Kennedy knew that Brigade 2506 was no band of cutthroats. Many of the freedom fighters, in fact, were not unlike the president himself—charismatic, brave, patriotic, from wealthy Catholic families. Among them were Cuba's finest, grandsons of the old Spanish aristocracy and scions of assorted fortunes. As one observer noted, in capturing them it was as if Castro had captured "the entire Havana Yacht Club." But now here they were—herded around on television like cattle, charged with treason and facing possible execution—and, in the minds of many, all because the American president, acting as mediator between quarreling advisors rather than as a forceful commander in chief, had personally ordered the rebels' air cover withdrawn in the critical early hours of the invasion. The fact that all this weighed heavily on the young president may explain why he moved so quickly when he heard of Castro's offer.

The Cuban premier had been addressing a farmers' rally in Havana on May 17 when he told his audience that a good way to increase agricultural output might be for Cuba to trade the approximately twelve hundred prisoners captured during the invasion to the United States in return for five hundred bulldozers or farm tractors. Within hours of being advised of Castro's remarks, Kennedy was on the phone to Eleanor Roosevelt, asking the former first lady to chair a committee to raise funds to purchase five hundred tractors for Cuba if Castro would free the twelve hundred imprisoned rebels. Mrs. Roosevelt agreed to serve, as did Walter P. Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers Union, and Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, president of Johns Hopkins University and brother of the former president. On May 19, only two days after Castro made his offer, committee members wired the Cuban leader to advise him of the formation of the Tractors for Freedom Committee and of their intention to undertake a nationwide drive in the United States to raise the funds necessary to purchase the tractors. "We do this," they told Castro, "as proof that free men will not desert those who risked all for what they thought was right." The three signers concluded by inviting the Cuban leader to immediately send representatives to the United States to work out details for the proposed swap.

Within hours of receiving the committee's offer, Castro paroled ten of the Bay of Pigs prisoners and dispatched them to Washington with his demand: five hundred Caterpillar Tractor Company Super D-8 bulldozers, two hundred equipped with disks for plowing and three hundred with bulldozer blades. Castro estimated that the five hundred bulldozers would cost approximately $28 million. He further informed the committee that the swap was neither an exchange nor a ransom; rather, he said, the bulldozers were to be considered as "indemnification" for war damage caused during the invasion.

Although the committee would have preferred giving Castro only light farm tractors, and found the matter of "indemnity" to be a flagrant effort to direct world attention to America's losing role in the invasion, members chose not to quibble over specifications or semantics. Instead, following their session with the paroled prisoner-representatives, the committee announced it was prepared to meet Castro's demands. Walter Reuther, committee cochair, told a news conference that the committee had given a "firm commitment" to the prisoner delegation that the specified equipment would be sent to Cuba. He also said a similar pledge had been sent to Castro. The committee estimated the cost to be as high as $20 million depending on whether or not the Cuban president continued to insist on the top-of-the-line Super D-8 Caterpillars.

As the Cuban prisoner-negotiators departed for Cuba with the deal, President Kennedy issued a direct personal appeal to all Americans to contribute toward the purchase of the tractors. Calling the prisoners "our brothers," the president expressed confidence that "every American would want to help." He stated that all contributions to the Tractors for Freedom Committee would be tax deductible, and he let it be known that he, as a private citizen, would likely make a contribution to the tractor fund himself. He further declared that the State Department would move quickly to issue previously outlawed export licenses for the tractor shipments and stated emphatically that the Logan Act, a law prohibiting private individuals from negotiating with foreign governments, would not be invoked against the Tractors for Freedom Committee.

The American people responded to the president's appeal by sending thousands upon thousands of contributions to the Tractor Committee's "Post Office Box Freedom" near UAW headquarters in Detroit. Volunteers in cities all across the country moved quickly to form local subsidiary committees to raise funds for the effort. Similar committees also sprang up in a dozen countries throughout Central and South America. In Rio de Janeiro, the president of the Roman Catholic Youth Association opened a drive to buy five tractors to be sent to Cuba in exchange for the prisoners, while in nearby São Paulo, students dressed in prison garb paraded through the streets collecting funds.

The reaction was markedly different, however, on Capitol Hill, where, according to Time magazine, a "large part of hell broke loose" over the president's remarks on the tractor swap. Members of both houses of Congress, already angry over Castro's repeated insistence that the tractors be considered reparations for damages caused during the invasion, took to the floor threatening to strip the Tractor Committee of its tax-exempt status and make committee members subject to all provisions of the Logan Act. Still others demanded the State Department halt its issuance of export licenses for the tractors. The attacks were broad-based and bipartisan, with the most serious concern being voiced over the precedent the payments would set. Eloquently addressing the matter of precedent, Democratic Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut warned, "Our national concern for the plight of the Cubans ... should have been evidenced by effective help on the beachhead to enable their just revolution to succeed. By paying Castro's price for a thousand good men, we give him the means to strengthen his enslavement of 6,000,000 others. The American people will, for the first time to my knowledge, be making use of ransom and tribute as an instrument of policy.If we start to pay tribute now for 1,000 of the one billion communist hostages, where will it stop?"

Former Vice President Richard Nixon, speaking at the Oklahoma State Republican Convention in Oklahoma City, declared the Kennedy plan "morally wrong" and urged his former rival to withdraw his support of the transaction. Nixon declared that America had "decided 100 years ago that human lives are not something to be considered as material or to be bartered on the slave block." To continue with the trade, the former vice president said, "would encourage every tinhorn dictator around the world to try to take advantage of America."

As the political controversy mushroomed, opponents of the plan seized upon the possibility that Castro might use the bulldozers for purposes other than those envisioned by the committee. They began asking, Why such big bulldozers? Did Castro plan to build military installations and missile sites, instead of using them to help his people grow more food? Critics and editorial writers began to liken the proposal to the infamous 1944 offer by Nazi Adolf Eichmann to trade Hungarian Jews for winterized military trucks, one hundred Jews for every truck.

On June 19, unable to defuse the explosive question of possible military use of the bulldozers, the embarrassed committee withdrew its pledge to supply the five hundred Super D-8s. In a telegram to Castro, the members bluntly informed the Cuban premier, "We are prepared to ship [five hundred] agricultural tractors and no other type." The committee then gave the Cuban leader seventy-two hours to accept their offer. Castro replied that he would be willing to forgo the bulldozers and accept the smaller tractors, but because his government considered the U.S. contribution to be indemnity for war damages, the total value of the tractors must approximate the value of the bulldozers, i.e., $28 million. Committee members rejected Castro's proposal out of hand, and when the seventy-two-hour deadline passed at noon on Friday, June 23, announced that the committee was ceasing all operations and returning all contributions received.

For the second time in as many months, John Kennedy had retreated in his high-stakes dealings with Fidel Castro.


Spring 1962


Fidel Castro put the Bay of Pigs prisoners on trial for treason in the spring of 1962. The mass trial, held in early May in the courtyard of Havana's Principe Prison, lasted only four days and resulted in guilty verdicts for all 1,179 defendants. Their punishment: thirty years' imprisonment or payment of fines ranging from $25,000 to $500,000 each, the higher amount for each of the three invasion leaders. Casting an eye toward Washington, the military tribunal ruled that payment of the fine would release the individual prisoner from having to serve his thirty-year sentence. Total fines levied: $62 million.

Within hours of the reading of the verdicts in Havana, John Kennedy jumped at this unexpected second chance to free the Bay of Pigs captives. Thistime he turned to his brother Robert, the attorney general, to raise the money and get the prisoners home.

Using a Cuban refugee organization as a front, Robert Kennedy immediately dispatched the organization's "counsel," famed New York attorney James Donovan, to Havana to negotiate a deal with Castro. Following several months of talks, Donovan, who had negotiated the release of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets, struck a deal with the Cuban leader: $53 million payable in medicines, powdered milk, and baby food in return for all the prisoners.

Before the deal could be consummated, the Cuban missile crisis intervened and contact between the two sides was suspended. But when the missile crisis subsided in November, Castro sent word that he was still interested and contact was reestablished. With that, Robert Kennedy and a group of trusted advisors went to work raising the money, with the goal of getting the prisoners home by Christmas. Operating out of offices in the Justice Department, the group made hundreds of calls to executives of pharmaceutical, medical, surgical supply, and food products companies seeking donations for the prisoner deal. On dozens of occasions, Robert Kennedy met personally at the Justice Department with company executives to seek their assistance. At one such meeting, the attorney general reportedly told pharmaceutical executives "my brother made a mistake" at the Bay of Pigs and implied that the prisoner exchange would help rectify that. He followed his remarks with a strong appeal for donations of medicines. Similar appeals for assistance were made to executives of the nation's airline, railroad, and steamship companies. Sometimes the persuasion was less than gentle. The Minneapolis Tribune reported that a spokesman for one large corporation facing a government lawsuit said his company received a call from the Department of Justice directing it to supply specific items, plus a specific amount of cash. "We knew we were being blackjacked," the spokesman said, "but there was nothing we could do about it."

Though some of his tactics may have been open to question, the results of Robert Kennedy's efforts were nothing short of astounding. As described in U.S. News & World Report at the time:

The first shipment of the Castro ransom, 32,000 pounds of medicines, was flown from New York to Miami during the night of December 17 ... . After that first shipment, the floodgates were down. By air, truck, and railroad, hundreds of thousands of pounds of baby food, canned goods, medicine [and] medical supplies poured into Florida from every corner of the U.S ... . Eight domestic airlines began flying 600,000 pounds of supplies to Florida; 19 railroads soon had 80 boxcars on this special run; eight trucking firms were moving 420,000 pounds of supplies from distant points, and 15 shipping companies had put up a ship and the money to move its cargo to Havana ... . It was a logistical operation almost without parallel except in wartime.

Castro released the prisoners just in time for Christmas. The first four planeloads of freedom fighters arrived to a tumultuous welcome at Homestead Air Force Base outside Miami on the evening of December 23, and by late Christmas Eve all surviving prisoners from Brigade 2506 were back in America. Two days after Christmas, the president and Jacqueline Kennedy met privately with the leadership of the brigade at the winter White House in Palm Beach. Then, on December 28, the Kennedys joined the entire brigade and forty thousand wildly cheering Cuban exiles at a welcome home rally at Miami's Orange Bowl. Thunderous cheers rocked the stadium as first the president and then his wife praised the men for their bravery and commitment to freedom. The crowd repeatedly interrupted the president with shouts of "Viva Kennedy" and "Libertad por Cuba," especially when he pledged to see the rebels return to liberate their homeland. Mrs. Kennedy's remarks, delivered in Spanish, evoked equal enthusiasm, with the crowd shouting "Viva Jackie, viva Jackie" and "Jack-k-leen, Jack-k-leen, Jack-k-leen."

After personally greeting many of the freed prisoners who were in formation near the podium, the president and first lady got into their open-topped limousine to depart. As they rode slowly along the sidelines, standing in the back of the open car and shaking the outstretched hands of the exiles, few doubted that John Kennedy had fulfilled his responsibility to those he sent to the Bay of Pigs. The ransomed men of Brigade 2506 were finally home.

Within a week of the Orange Bowl rally, Communist leaders from throughout the world gathered in Havana for ceremonies marking the fourth anniversary of Fidel Castro's rise to power. Following a two-hour parade of military might before a reviewing stand containing some four hundred notables in the Communist world, Castro delivered the keynote address. The Cuban premier, clearly angered by Kennedy's remarks at the Orange Bowl the previous week, derided Kennedy as a "vulgar pirate chief" and openly mocked his decision to pay what Castro insisted was "indemnification" to Cuba for damages the United States caused during the Bay of Pigs invasion. "For the first time in history," Castro boasted, "imperialism has paid war indemnification. They call it ransom. We don't care what they call it. They had to agree to pay indemnification." 1

The delegation from North Vietnam listened attentively.

AN ENORMOUS CRIME. Copyright © 2007 by William M. Hendon and Elizabeth A. Stewart. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“A sprawling indictment of eight U.S. administrations. A convincing, urgent argument.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The descriptions of Hendon’s. . . personal mission provide an intriguing story—and carry the ring of truth.” —Publishers Weekly

Meet the Author

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon (R-NC) served two terms on the U.S. House POW/MIA Task Force (1981–1982 and 1985–1986), as a consultant on POW/MIA affairs with an office in the Pentagon (1983), and as a full-time intelligence investigator assigned to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs (1991–1992). He has traveled to South and Southeast Asia thirty-three times on behalf of America's POWs and MIAs. Hendon is considered the nation's foremost authority on intelligence relating to American POWs held after Operation Homecoming and is an expert on the Vietnamese and Laotian prison systems. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth A. Stewart's father, Col. Peter J. Stewart (USAF), is missing in action in North Vietnam. His name appears on Panel 6E, Line 12, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. She has spent more than two decades researching intelligence relating to American POWs and MIAs. Her efforts have taken her from Capitol Hill to Cambodia, from the South China Sea to the presidential palace in Hanoi, and to the most remote regions of northern Vietnam. An attorney, she lives in Winter Haven, Florida.

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Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
reading this book was very disturbing to think the u.s. government could actually do this. the book was easy to read and should be read by anyone interested in the vietnam war and its so called ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Long suppressed and rumored story literally continuing to stink to the ends of the firmament. Under told for obvious reasons. Ignored in all relevant quarters by tacit collusion toward burying this odious pile of human defecation for decades. Ignored by a fetid MSM that doesn't even possess a curious brain or bent or even exist for the public good. Something that should forever sully and stain the honor of American politicos of all stripes. This should be a "national read and retch," but it won't! Why? It's better to bury it and forget we could commit such a crime! God Help US. Oh I forgot! We no longer have the freedom to credibly utter such pious things!