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

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

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312385385
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/14/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 1,320,744
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About 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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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.

Table of Contents

Preface xv Part I Introduction 3 Chapter 1 The POW Hostage Plan and Its Implementation 11 Chapter 2 Hanoi Bound 19 Chapter 3 American POWs Captured by the Pathet Lao 26 Chapter 4 American POWs in North Vietnam 28 Chapter 5 1972: The War Draws to a Close 46 Part II Chapter 6 January 1973: Peace at a Very High Price 63 Chapter 7 February 1973: A Historic Journey to Hanoi 76 Chapter 8 February-March 1973: The "Most Tortured" Issue, "The Toughest Sale" 82 Chapter 9 Mid- to Late March 1973: The Returnee Debriefs Tell of Hundreds of American POWs Held Back 92 Chapter 10 Spring 1973: "A 'Cancer' on the Presidency" 98 Chapter 11 Spring, Summer, and Fall 1973: The Collapse of the JEC Talks - The Collapse of the Paris Peace Accords 108 Chapter 12 1974: The End of the LIne for Richard Nixon 117 Chapter 13 January-April 1975: The End of the Line for South Vietnam 120 Part III Chapter 14 May-December 1975: "Cuba Suggested to Us to Keep Them Back" - Congress Investigates the Fate of the POWs and MIAs 127 Chapter 15 1976: Montgomery Continues His Investigation - American POWs Seen in Captivity in Both North and South Vietnam 140 Chapter 16 1977: A New President Addresses the Matter of the Unlisted, Unreturned POWs 156 Chapter 17 1978: The Sightings of the Unlisted, Unreturned POWs Continue - The Refugee Exodus Begins 175 Chapter 18 1979: A Prison System in Chaos - Convincing Evidence Finally Reaches Washington 188 Chapter 19 1980: Rescue Plans 206 Part IV Chapter 20 1981: "Gasoline" 215 Chapter 21 1982: "The Principle of Reciprocity" 224 Chapter 22 1983: A Dramatic Change of Course 232 Chapter 23 1984: Tragedy at Arlington - AMissed Opportunity in the Oval Office 248 Chapter 24 1985: "Progress" in the Search for Remains - Freshmen, Stonewalled on POWs, Turn to Perot - McFarlane Drops His Guard 266 Chapter 25 1986: Trench Warfare 287 Chapter 26 1987: Perot to Hanoi - A Bombshell from General Vessey - No Evidence? 323 Chapter 27 1988: "Just Two Bar of Silvers for Each Man" 347 Chapter 28 1989: "...The Statute of Limitations Has Been Reached" 367 Chapter 29 1990: Sabotaging the Helms/Grassley Investigations - The Bush Final Report on POWs - Thach's Historic Visit to Washington 378 Part V Chapter 30 1991: One Last Chance to Save the Unlisted, Unreturned POWs 399 Chapter 31 1992: The Fragging 408 Chapter 32 1993-1995: "The Vietnamese Know How to Count" 465 Chapter 33 1995-2005: "War Legacies" 480 Epilogue: A Proposal for President Bush 483 A Message from the Authors 487 Notes 489 Acknowledgments 565 Index 567

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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


The dramatic history of living American soldiers left in Vietnam, and the first full account of the circumstances that left them there

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, An Enormous Crime brilliantly exposes the reasons why these American soldiers and airmen were held back by the North Vietnamese at Operation Homecoming in 1973 and what these men have endured since.
Despite hundreds of postwar sightings and intelligence reports telling of Americans being held captive throughout Vietnam and Laos, Washington did nothing. And despite numerous secret military signals and codes sent from the desperate POWs themselves, the Pentagon did not act. Even in 1988, a U.S. spy satellite passing over Sam Neua Province, Laos, spotted the twelve-foot-tall letters “USA” and immediately beneath them a huge, highly classified Vietnam War-era USAF/USN Escape & Evasion code in a rice paddy in a narrow mountain valley. The letters “USA” appeared to have been dug out of the ground, while the code appeared to have been fashioned from rice straw (see jacket photograph).
Tragically, the brave men who constructed these codes have not yet come home. Nor have any of the other American POWs who the postwar intelligence shows have laid down similar codes, secret messages, and secret authenticatorsin rice paddies and fields and garden plots and along trails in both Laos and Vietnam.
An Enormous Crime 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. It is a singular work, telling a story unlike any other in our modern history: ugly, harrowing, and true.
From the Bay of Pigs, where John and Robert Kennedy struck a deal with Fidel Castro that led to freedom for the Bay of Pigs prisoners, to the Paris Peace Accords, in which the authors argue Kissinger and Nixon sold American soldiers down the river for political gain, to a continued reluctance to revisit the possibility of reclaiming any men who might still survive, we have a story untold for decades. And with An Enormous Crime we have for the first time a comprehensive history of America’s leaders in their worst hour; of life-and-death decision making based on politics, not intelligence; and of men lost to their families and the country they serve, betrayed by their own leaders. 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 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 an expert on the Vietnamese and Laotian prison systems. He lives in Washington, D.C.
ELIZABETH 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. Elizabeth Stewart 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 central 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!