My POW/MIA Conversion: From Skeptic to Believer

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

A book by former U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon (R-NC) and Elizabeth A. Stewart

Book review by Christian Nelson, VietNow National Editor

Bill Hendon, An Enormous Crime POW/MIA

My POW/MIA conversion: From skeptic to true believer in five hundred and eighty-seven pages.

An Enormous Crime – Available at Amazon.

OK, I’ll admit it. I never believed that there were hundreds (or maybe thousands) of captured U.S. servicemen left behind after the Vietnam War. It just didn’t make sense to me. Yes, of course even back then I knew that our government had no qualms about lying to us – but why would they lie about something as crazy as leaving POWs behind when we pulled out of the war?

And yes, I’ll admit that I thought, from Day One, that Billy Hendon was at worst a criminal, at least a charlatan, or at best just sadly delusional.

Every time I heard about Hendon, he was saying things like, “We’re this close to bringing out a live POW!” One wild story and one more wild speculation after another.

And I’m not the only one. Even our military-friendly President Ronald Reagan said, in The Reagan Diaries, that Hendon was “off his rocker.”

Every time I heard about Hendon, he was saying things like, “We’re this close to bringing out a live POW!” One wild story and one more wild speculation after another. And always with the constant drumbeat that there were still hundreds of POWs stuck in Southeast Asia, our government knew where they were being held, and no one was going to do anything about it. It all sounded crazy to me, and I believed that at the most there might be just a handful of POWs secretly held in Laos, and by the late 1980s or early 1990s they were sure to have died from what were probably horrible prison conditions.

But I had read only a few pages when I felt the first, faint tingling of a lightbulb turning on in the darkest corner of my skeptical brain.

And when I picked up Hendon’s book, An Enormous Crime, co-written with attorney and POW/MIA family member Elizabeth Stewart, I was expecting to waste a few hours skimming my way through a poorly written hodgepodge of obviously crazy stories, phony “facts,” twisted logic, and outright lies. Just another crummy UFO book written strictly for the true believers.

The path to enlightenment leads through Bahía de Cochinos

This is a big book, weighing in at almost 600 pages – and it’s not set in big type – so there’s a lot to read here. But I had read only a few pages when I felt the first, faint tingling of a light bulb turning on in the darkest corner of my skeptical brain.

Castro picked up as many as 1,200 captives from the U.S.-trained and sponsored Brigade 2506 – and he wasted little time figuring out how to get more than just a propaganda victory in exchange for these prisoners.

Part of the genius of this book – did I say genius? – yes I did – is the way Hendon and Stewart start the book. Rather than diving into exciting and interesting “sighting” reports, or other things we’ve already heard about the POW/MIA issue, Hendon and Stewart immediately launch into a clearly stated description of the chicanery surrounding the eventual release of the prisoners taken by Cuban leader Fidel Castro during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961.

When the invasion at Bahía de Cochinos failed, because the promised U.S. air support did not materialize, Castro picked up as many as 1,200 captives from the U.S.-trained and sponsored Brigade 2506 – and he wasted little time figuring out how to get more than just a propaganda victory in exchange for these prisoners.

Castro was not about to just send the prisoners to the U.S. without getting something in return, and it wasn’t long until he was proposing to swap the prisoners in exchange for millions of dollars worth of U.S.-made bulldozers.

Negotiations began, the Cuban missile crisis intervened, followed by more negotiations, and finally the prisoners came “home” to the U.S., with Castro receiving millions of dollars worth of medical supplies, canned goods, baby food, etc. in exchange.

Quietly sitting in the audience that day, the North Vietnamese delegation (already in the early stages of their own war against the U.S.) almost certainly paid very close attention to Castro’s words concerning “ransom” and “indemnification.”

Not long after the exchange (amounting to the U.S. paying a huge ransom for repatriation of POWs) Communist leaders from around the world gathered in Cuba to celebrate Castro’s fourth anniversary as ruler of Cuba.

During one of Castro’s trademarked marathon speeches, he crowed about his victory at the Bay of Pigs, and boasted that, “For the first time in history, imperialism has paid war indemnification. They call it ransom. We don’t care what they call it. They had to agree to pay indemnification.”

Quietly sitting in the audience that day, the North Vietnamese delegation (already in the early stages of their own war against the U.S.) almost certainly paid very close attention to Castro’s words concerning “ransom” and “indemnification.”

A skillful laying out of the case

After laying this very important groundwork related to events either unknown or long forgotten by most of us, Hendon and Stewart began the careful, objective, and unemotional statement of their case.

They provide detailed accounts of the negotiations, conversations, and letters between U.S. President Richard Nixon, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and North Vietnam’s chief negotiator Le Duc Tho (and others).

They present strong evidence to support the basic fact that the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao were holding many more U.S. prisoners than they had publicly announced. They provide detailed accounts of the negotiations, conversations, and letters between U.S. President Richard Nixon, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and North Vietnam’s chief negotiator Le Duc Tho (and others).

This would not be the much-heralded “peace with honor.” This would be a secret back-room deal – “peace at a very high price.”

And a big (very big) part of the negotiations, letters, and conversations revolved around how many prisoners would be released, the names of those prisoners, and (most germane to our discussion) what the North Vietnamese wanted in exchange for the prisoners.

This would not be the much-heralded “peace with honor.” This would be a secret back-room deal – “peace at a very high price.” The U.S. would pay war reparations to the North Vietnamese in exchange for the return of our captured servicemen. That was the deal, and the amount demanded by the North Vietnamese was measured not in millions, but in billions of dollars. It would be the largest ransom in history.

A ransom lost

But things don’t always work out as planned, and there was huge resistance to the ransom plan. The book includes a long list of items on the North Vietnamese ransom “wish list” – a list that would be viewed by the U.S. Congress and most other Americans (if they had seen it) as outrageous and ridiculous. The list included factories, shipyards, railways, ships, and cash – it’s a long, long list. But who would agree to paying off this list?

As Hendon says in the book, “After all the torture, pain, and deprivation that came with years of captivity – and the billions of dollars spent and the thousands of aircraft lost and hundreds of their fellow pilots and servicemen killed and missing trying to destroy North Vietnam – Uncle Sam was going to rebuild it with U.S. dollars? No way in hell!”

Ho Chi Minh’s revenge

If you believe most of the heavily referenced (75 pages of footnotes in small type) facts presented by Hendon and Stewart – (and I do now) – you will believe that the North Vietamese did hold back hundreds of our servicemen as “insurance” that Nixon and Kissinger would pay off on the secret part of the deal. And, as you read through page after page of this gripping account, you will come to believe that the U.S. did refuse to pay the ransom for those hundreds of men secretly left behind.

You will believe that the North Vietnamese did hold back hundreds of our servicemen as “insurance” that Nixon and Kissinger would pay off on the secret part of the deal.

And as you continue to read, your anger will rise as you realize that our government (including all the U.S. Presidents since Nixon) have knowingly continued the coverup. And your outrage will grow as Hendon and Stewart refresh our memories with full details of the shameful conduct of the 1992 Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The list of Senators on this committee includes such notables as Vietnam veteran John Kerry, former POW John McCain, and Vietnam veteran Bob Kerrey.

What was lost is now found

Now that I know the truth and see the light, it still feels like there’s not much I can do about it. POW/MIA activists and families, Vietnam veterans, VietNow members, and many others have proved that point by pushing the issue as far as it can be pushed, with no result other than frustration. But even the wiliest criminals eventually have to pay, and every dog must have its day.

Reading this great book will restore our lost hopes – guiding us to the bottom of this mess by shining bright and powerful lights on those people who have perpetrated and continued this outrage – this most monstrous and enormous crime.

Realistic hope for those brave men left to rot in Southeast Asia may be lost, but it will never be too late for the rest of us to find our hopes again and renew our efforts. Reading this great book will restore our lost hopes – guiding us to the bottom of this mess by shining bright and powerful lights on those people who have perpetrated and continued this outrage – this most monstrous and enormous crime.

An Enormous Crime – Available at Amazon.