Deserters Among the Missing
Summary. One of the many enduring questions that surrounds the MIA issue is that of deserters and their presence on the list of the missing from Vietnam. This article lays out what I know about the MIA-deserter questions. I do not present myself as an expert on the topic nor do I claim that this article is the definitive word on the topic. This article is my recollections, supplemented with material that I have picked up from FOIA requests that I have submitted, press articles from sources that I trust, and material passed to me by qualified, reliable researchers. Frankly, there is nothing in here that will set the world on its ear.
In my view, the fundamental questions are:
The first two questions are policy matters, bordering on the philosophical and I will not attempt a response. The final question is easy enough to answer and here is my answer: Over the years, a small number of deserters who were listed among the missing have popped up in various places and returned to the US. Their stories are listed below. If one or more others were to show up, I would be the least surprised person on earth.
How Many Deserters?
In the late 1980s, when I was Chief of the DIA Special Office for POWs and MIAs, we did a thorough scrub of the deserter records. First, we went to each of the military services and asked for their records of men who were classified as deserters from Vietnam. Then, we scrubbed those records, one by one, to determine as best we could what really happened to each of these men. The answer was interesting. But first, you will have to wade through some boring stuff.
Boring Stuff: How the military services account for people
To understand what we encountered with our deserter analysis project, you first need to understand how the military services account for people. Because I am a retired Army guy, my terminology will be that of the Army. The other services operate the same way, but some use different terms. Every military member must be accounted for by being either present for duty; sick and not on duty; temporarily separated from his/her unit for training or some other special requirement; enroute to another unit; on leave or pass; missing in action; prisoner of war; prisoner of the US military; incarcerated in a civilian prison; or absent without leave (AWOL; the Marines call it "UA,' unauthorized absence).
When an individual leaves one unit with orders to report to another unit, there must be a date when accountability shifts from the losing unit to the gaining unit. Consider this common occurrence. An individual is stationed in the States and receives orders reassigning him to Europe. Enroute to Europe, he will take some leave, go to a school in the States for a few weeks, take more leave, then report to his new unit. On whose personnel strength report does this individual appear for the period that he is on leave or in school? What happens if he does not report to the school or to the new unit?
Reassignment orders, for both temporary and permanent reassignment, have a reporting date, the date on which you must be standing tall, duffel bag in hand, shoes shined, hair cut, brass polished, in front of your new first sergeant. If an individual does not report on his reporting date, he is carried on the rolls of the gaining unit as AWOL. After thirty days, he is DFR -- Dropped From the Rolls -- and reported as a deserter. DFR is a manpower accounting practice that does two things. First, it allows the gaining unit, which is now short one person, to request a replacement from personnel channels and, second, it allows legal action to be started against the now deserter.
What We Found
When our analysts completed work with the services, we had a list of -- and this is from my memory -- close to 4,000 individuals who had deserted from units in Vietnam. We were shocked at this number because the official list of missing men carried -- again, this is my memory at work -- either 42 or 44 in the status of deserter. Upon further examination, we found that what we were looking at was a function of the way the military services account for their people.
As we tracked individual cases, we found that practically everyone of the 4,000 or so were men who were in the States (a few were in other assignments such as Germany, Japan, etc.). They received orders to go to Vietnam, complete with a unit of assignment in Vietnam and a reporting date. They never showed up in Vietnam. But, because they were on orders to units in Vietnam, they were picked up on those rolls, carried as AWOL, then, after thirty days, DFR and reported. Because they were reported as DFR by a unit in Vietnam, they showed up as being a deserter from Vietnam.
Our analysts, working with the services, scrubbed and scrubbed and the result was that, after we culled all the cases not in Vietnam, we were down to 40-something individuals who appeared, based on the information available, to have gone over the hill while still in Vietnam.
Stories of Deserters
In the beginning of this article, I stated that some of the men carried as deserters had returned to the US in the years after the war. Let me tell here stories of some of the men listed as deserters to illustrate the complex factors that lie behind many of these cases.
Roger Cyawr, USMC
Following our review of the deserter question, we went back to the services and asked if they had changed the status of any of the men on the list. The Marines had recently done exactly that.
One of the approximately 40 deserters that the records indicated had
deserted in Vietnam was a Marine PFC, Roger A. Cyawr. Here is his story. Not
too long after arriving in country Cyawr was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor; he must
have been a pretty solid rifleman. At some point he returned home on emergency
leave. While on emergency leave he applied for a hardship discharge. The
Marine Corps permitted him to remain home while waiting a decision. Eventually, the
USMC declined to approve the petition and mailed Cyawr a new port call date - - as I
recall at Camp Pendleton, CA - - and a reporting date at his unit in Vietnam.
Douglas Beane, USMC
Beane, too, was a USMC Private and the best records available on him indicated that he had deserted while in Vietnam. I do not recall all his details, except that he had a record of getting in trouble; he spent a lot of time in the brig. After his return to the US, one of our interviewers spent a lot of time interviewing Beane and here is his story as I recall it.
Beane was in the brig in Saigon and decided that he needed to escape for good (I recall that this was in 1969 but I may be wrong about that date.). He ate something like pieces of a coathanger or some pieces of cement or something that caused him to be admitted to the hospital. He escaped from the hospital, which he said was easier than escaping from the brig, got phony R&R orders, went to Australia, lived there until 1986(?) when he turned himself in to the US Embassy, Australia, and came home. Beane had maintained some occasional contact with his family in the US and, when he learned that his father was dying, he turned himself in.
While we were interviewing him, he was housed at the USMC base at Quantico. I do not recall if charges were preferred against him but I do recall that he was given a general discharge and released. Beane was asked if he knew of any other Americans living in Australia. He recalled having heard stories of an American deserter named "Tex" living somewhere in northern Australia but that was the extent of his information.
Earl Clyde Weatherman, USMC
USMC Pvt Earl Clyde Weatherman is an example of a serviceman who went over
He apparently disliked the Communist POW camp as much as he disapproved of
the USMC brig. One day he jumped a guard while on a work detail outside the POW camp
and together with another POW tried to escape. The whole story is that POWs from
this camp were taken to a nearby village from time to time to dig manioc from village
fields for food. Two PAVN guards took Weatherman and another US POW, Dennis Hammond,
to dig manioc. One of the guards went to visit a village lady. Weatherman and
Hammond overpowered the other guard, took his weapon, and beat feet. (NOTE: US POWs held in this camp reported after their return that
they heard artillery fire and helicopters far in the distance and they assumed that some
sort of US base camp was in that direction. Hammond and Weatherman reportedly headed
in that direction.)
Update on Weatherman
In the early-to-mid 1990s a US field team searching for the grave sites of Hammond and Weatherman interviewed the guy who led the militia group - - by then in his 70s. He said they shot Weatherman because he was armed and they feared he might shoot them rather than surrender. (Weatherman was carrying an SKS rifle he took from the guard he attacked).
I have heard from at least one member of the field team that they really believed that they were very close to Weatherman's grave and that if they could ever "dig a hole big enough," they would find him. I do not know the current status (January 1999) of plans to excavate for Weatherman. US teams have searched equally diligently for Hammond's grave site but, as of this writing, have not located him.
Mythology About Weatherman
There is a large amount of mythology about Weatherman, all of it bogus. The principal proponents of the stories about Weatherman are Garwood and Major (Ret) Mark Smith. These two continue to claim that Weatherman was a deserter and that he is still living in Vietnam.
There is one story that Garwood claims to have seen Weatherman in a jeep in Hanoi. We questioned Garwood at length about that story and it clearly is bogus. Then, there is my favorite. I am not certain of the origin of this tale but the claim is that a montagnard from the local village was seen wearing Weatherman's shirt and, because Montagnards will not touch the possessions of the dead (that's what the story claims, I just repeat this stuff, I don't make it up), that means Weatherman is still alive. Smith has claimed that Weatherman was in the States. None of these claims have any merit. Weatherman died in an escape attempt.
The following paragraphs about McKinley Nolan were contributed by Mr. Bob Destatte and quoted here. Begin quote of Bob Destatte's comment re: McKinley Nolan:
McKinley Nolan was a young enlisted US Army soldier who worked in Saigon.
Veto Baker, US Army
Baker absented himself form his unit in Vietnam in October 1972 and was DFR. He was living with his common-law Vietnamese wife (I do not recall if there were any children) and remained there after the US withdrawal. In their consolidation that followed their takeover of the South in 1975, the Communists started checking up on and carefully monitoring the activities of foreigners in Vietnam. They were especially suspicious of Americans, whom they suspected of working for the CIA as stay-behinds, and of Chinese, whom they suspected of being a potential fifth column in the event of Chinese designs on Vietnam.
Baker and his wife were arrested and released a couple of times. Then, in 1976, the Communist began deporting foreigners in an effort to "cleanse" Vietnam of foreign elements. Baker was arrested, taken to Saigon, turned over to the Red Cross, and sent to Thailand. He eventually returned to the US. I do not recall if he was subjected to any military legal actions but I do know that, in the late 1980s, the DIA office had some contact with him about his experiences while in Vietnam, 1973 - 75. Baker had no information on other Americans in Vietnam.
I do not recall McDonald's service. His father was American and his mother a Filipina. As I recall, McDonald deserted or went AWOL in Vietnam and somehow made his way back to the States. After a few months, he turned himself in and was discharged. He then returned to Vietnam as a private citizen and moved in with the lady he had been living with while he was in Vietnam on active duty.
McDonald suffered the same fate as Veto Baker. When the Commies took over in 1975, he was arrested then released. Then, in 1976, he was picked up, sent to Saigon, turned over to the Red Cross, went to Thailand then on to the US.
Mr. McDonald's story did not have such a happy ending. He was living in San Antonio as I recall and apparently he had a real way with the ladies. He had a common-law wife and at least one girl friend. The wife learned of one of the girl friends. According to the story I have heard, she met McDonald one evening at the front door with her two friends, Smith and Wesson, and they did the talking. Herman McDonald is now at rest. In the late 1980s, his wife showed up in a refugee camp in Thailand. I do not recall if she was approved for movement on to the US. DIA questioned McDonald before his death; he had no information on other Americans in Vietnam.
The case of Army Master Sergeant Mateo Sabog is a strange one, and one that is being substantially misrepresented by the "MIA activists." Here are the facts.
Sabog was in Vietnam, 1969 to 1970 and was scheduled to end his tour there in February 1970. He received orders for Fort Bragg, North Carolina and never showed up at his new unit. I am not certain if there was or was not evidence that he made his flight out of Vietnam. Either way, he never made it to Bragg. His new unit reported him AWOL and he was DFR.
His family protested. They argued that it is unreasonable to conclude that a Master Sergeant with more than 20 years service (i.e., eligible to retire) would desert. If he wanted out of the service he would simply retire and take his pension. The next of kin (siblings) lived in Hawaii and asked Congresswoman Pasty Mink for assistance. With her help, they convinced the Army to change Sabog's status to MIA. Eventually (I don't recall the precise time sequences), the Army issued a presumptive finding of death.
This is important: In 1994, a US field team was shown, by the Vietnamese, a grave that they (Vietnamese) claimed may be the grave of Sabog. The grave was excavated and human remains were recovered. Department of Defense policy is that any information that pertains to or may pertain to a missing man must be passed to his family without delay. In accordance with this policy, the Sabog family was notified that remains, which the Vietnamese stated may be Sabog, had been recovered and were undergoing identification. (NOTE: This is important. On several of the MIA activist web sites you will read the claim that the US Army Central Identification Lab -- CILHI -- identified remains as Sabog. Not so. The Vietnamese associated the grave with Sabog and the DoD so notified the family. There was never a US identification of these remains as Sabog. In fact, when the CILHI started working on the remains, it became clear that they were not Sabog.)
Then, in early 1996, an old man walked into a Social Security Administration office in Georgia and applied for Social Security benefits under the name of Mateo Sabog. In an attempt to validate who he was, he referred the office to his family in Hawaii. Imagine their surprise to learn that their long lost brother, reported as dead in Vietnam, was in Georgia trying to get a Social Security check.
Sabog returned to Army control and his identity was confirmed. After some deliberation as to what to do with him, he was, I believe, permitted to retire (he had over 20 years of service). I am not certain where he is living now.
Here is a quoted Associated Press article on Sabog.
QUOTE FROM ASSOCIATED PRESS ARTICLE
END QUOTE OF ASSOCIATED PRESS ARTICLE ON
The MIA "activists" have had a field day with the Sabog story. In their view, Sabog was a returned or released or escaped POW who was spirited off by the Army into a military hospital so he could not tell his story. The various "activist" web sites carry a long story about Sabog that is filled with misinformation and misrepresentations too long to repeat here.
The Sabog case is straightforward, albeit a bit
weird. He was a
Master Sergeant with more than 20 years service when he departed VN for his next
assignment in the U.S. When he didn't show up, his new unit reported him AWOL and
later dropped him from the roles as a deserter in accordance with Army regulations.
That's it, folks. (NOTE: The material on MSG Sabog comes from documents that I received as a result of a FOIA request that I submitted to DoD. Most of the information is from a couple of press briefings in the FOIA material.)
Salt and Pepper
Another of the unsolved stories of the Vietnam War has to do with persistent reports that two Americans, one Caucasian and one dark-complexioned -- nicknamed Salt and Pepper -- were seen on many occasions operating with PAVN forces in I Corps.
Reports of Salt and Pepper span several years, are focused in a fairly small area of I Corps, and all reports are quite similar. The consistency of these reports is enough to convince US intelligence that something was going on there. I was never part of any of the work done on Salt and Pepper. Most of that was done during the war and, when I arrived in DIA, there was only the file (a large file) and we were not working on it, though I did read through it.
The bottom line is that there was never any firm identification
established of Salt and Pepper. Most reports come from members of US combat units
who report that, in the midst of a firefight, they observed a "black guy and a white
guy" with the PAVN. Others report seeing only the white guy, others only the
black guy. Some reports claim that one or the other of Salt and Pepper called out.
People who claimed to have seen Salt and Pepper were shown photographs of missing
Americans. While many guys picked out photos, there was no consistency to the
selected photos sufficient to identify one guy as Salt or Pepper. (Remember this: If the Department of Defense says "We believe that
this guy is working with PAVN forces," then that's a serious charge. From my
reading of the file, there just was never sufficiently consistent identification to finger
The reports consistently identified:
So, who were Salt and Pepper?
(NOTE: In late 1998, I submitted a FOIA request to the Pentagon for the Salt and Pepper file. Have not heard from them so I have just re-submitted. When I get the file, I will study it and revise this posting accordingly.)
Another of the persistent stories is that of "Soul City." This was supposedly an area of Saigon-Cholon where a lot of African-American servicemen, many of them deserters, lived. The stories about Soul City are all over the place, some saying that the Military Police -- US and ARVN -- did not dare enter the area; other stories tell of rampant drug dealing and usage, black marketeering, and the like. While I was on active duty and speaking publicly on the MIA issue, I was often asked if we believed that some of the MIAs were guys in "Soul City" who just stayed there. Answer: Could be.
Let me relate one story. In 1986, LTG Leonard Perroots, USAF, Director of DIA, asked a group of retired general officers to come into DIA and review some claims being made by LTG Eugene Tighe, USAF, himself a former Director of DIA. One of these officers was LTG John Murray, US Army, who had been the next-to-last US Defense Attaché in Saigon. Murray was an interesting gentleman; he lived in the D.C. area and he came into our office frequently because we had asked him to help us locate and work through some Attaché Office records. Murray told this story.
So, what does this have to do with "Soul City" and the possibility of American deserters living in Vietnam to this day? Only that I would not be surprised to see one turn up one day.
My friend Bob Destatte put it well when he stated:
We have enough solid information on the circumstances of loss for most of
Thanks for patiently reading this long article. Go have a cold one, you earned it.