Charles Duke and Kit Mark:
A Serious Analysis
Summary. In May 1970, two US civilian employees of Dynalectron
Corporation disappeared in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The US Embassy,
US forces, and ARVN forces immediately launched search operations to find these men or to
determine what happened to them. Within a few days, information was received from
several sources making it clear that both men were killed in a surprise encounter with
Communist guerrillas and buried west of Pleiku on or about 30 May 1970. The
Duke-Mark case has become one of the bits of mythology used by the MIA
"activist" cult -- the incident is misrepresented, and, inaccurate and untrue
information is spread about this incident.
Former MIA investigator Bill Bell wrote an article about this incident that was
published in the April 2002 issue of Vietnam magazine. Bell's article is
typical of his sloppy analysis and wishful thinking. The article also is a
compilation of the inaccurate, misleading, and untrue information spread by the MIA cult
regarding this incident.
One matter makes this case especially sad. Charles Duke's mother -- Jane Duke
Gaylor -- was misled, lied to, and generally jerked around by the MIA activists, many of
whom used the same information Bell used in his article. Ms. Gaylor's life as well
as her mental and emotional health were destroyed by the incessant pounding she received
from the activists who tried to convince her that her son was alive, that he was living in
Hanoi, and that he had defected. Ms. Gaylor died an emotional wreck -- an example of
how the MIA activist community treats helpless family members.
After the publication of Bell's article, I asked former Senior Analyst Robert J.
Destatte to prepare an analysis of the Duke-Mark case and a critique of Bell's article.
Bob had worked on this case for several years, including working on it in Vietnam
where he made at least one trip into the area to find and interview witnesses. What
follows is verbatim Bob Destatte's analysis of the loss of Charles Duke and Kit
Mark and his analysis of Bill Bell's article.
An Analysis of the Charles Duke-Kit Mark Loss Incident
Critique of the Bill Bell April 2002 Vietnam Magazine Article
- - - by Robert J. Destatte
You asked me for my views about a recent article
by Bill Bell in which he implies that two American civilian employees of Dynalectron
Corporation, Kit Mark and Charles Duke, were captured or defected to the NVA in May 1970,
and were working as aircraft maintenance technicians at Da Phuc Airfield [the military
side of Noi Bai International Airport] in Hanoi, Vietnam, in the late 1970s.
("Mysterious Disappearance in the Central Highlands," April 2002 issue of
Vietnam Magazine, pp. 44-48.)
The official reference number for the
incident involving Kit Mark and Charles Duke is Case 1625. Bill and I discussed this case
a number of times in the early 1990s. My memory is that Bill stated his views about this
case for the record for the Senate Select Committee on POWs and MIAs in 1992. He also
wrote another article about this case that I believe was published in "Soldier of
Fortune" magazine a few years ago.
I have known Bill Bell for many years. We
first served together in the 25th Division in Hawaii in the early 1970s. We have shared
many challenges and pleasant memories in the years since.
I recall when he joined the Joint Casualty
Resolution Center (JCRC) as its First Sergeant in 1980. In August 1981 he moved to the
JCRC Liaison Office (JCRC-LNO) in Bangkok to work as a debriefer canvassing refugee camps
in Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, The Philippines, etc., searching for information about
Americans who still were unaccounted for in SEA. Later, he retired and accepted a civilian
position in Bangkok doing the same work. Bill's
efforts, often at his own initiative, to collect information from refugees about Hanoi's
prisons and reeducation camps was of great value to analysts at the JCRC and the Defense
Intelligence Agency's Special Office for POW/MIA Affairs.
In early 1991, the Vietnamese government
agreed to allow the United States government to open its first office in postwar
Vietnam--the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi. The Hanoi office was subordinate to the JCRC-LNO in
Bangkok, and the commander of the JCRC appointed Bill to head the office. The DIA's
Special Office attached me to the office in Hanoi, and Bill and I were among the six-man
team that opened the office in July 1991.
A military officer took over as head of the
U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi in early 1992, after the CINCPAC established the Joint Task
Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA). The JTF-FA absorbed the JCRC and its personnel, and
re-designated the JCRC-LNO in Bangkok, and the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi, as JTF-FA
Detachments 1 and 2, respectively. The JTF-FA also established a Detachment 3 in
Vientiane, Laos, and a Detachment 4 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The Commanding General of the JTF-FA
appointed Lieutenant Colonels to command each of these detachments. I was privileged to
work with the first four commanders of Detachment 1 in Hanoi. Every one was a superb
See my comments at the end of this article.)
Bill speaks the Vietnamese and Thai languages
fluently. He is a hard worker and an excellent debriefer. Few persons equal his skills as
a Vietnamese linguist and debriefer. I admire his skills and enjoyed working with him. I
was disappointed when he retired in the early 1990s.
While I admire Bill's contributions to the
accounting mission and his skill as a collector, I believe that he is not a first-rate or
objective analyst. My experience is that he often uses flawed logic and frequently does
not distinguish between what he wishes to be true and what truly is true. Also, I believe
he tends to accept indiscriminately information that supports his views about a particular
issue, and arbitrarily disregards or rejects information that does not support his views.
In my opinion, his recent article in Vietnam Magazine illustrates his weakness as an
In the first paragraph Bill writes
"...they [Kit Mark and Charles Duke] seemingly disappeared into thin air. Although a
search was made for them, it yielded no information. The men's status was relegated to
inactive and their records filed away by the Pentagon as Case No. 1625." He then
proceeds to summarize a series of actions taken over a period of nearly five years to find
out what happened to the two men.
(My note, not Bob Destatte's
note: This is a serious misrepresntation of fact on Bill Bell's part and
is typical of his practice of omitting or misrepresenting information that he does not
like or that does not suit his conclusion. Bill claims that searches for Duke and
Mark "yielded no information." The opposite is true. American
officials received credible information that Communist guerrillas ambushed and killed the
two men. For example, shortly after the incident U.S. or allied forces captured two
guerrillas who had taken part in the ambush. The two guerrillas described the
incident to their interrogators. Also, in early 1975 a senior American
representative in Pleiku sent someone to excavate a reported burial site for the two men
west of Pleiku. By this time, Vietnamese personnel were conducting all such
excavations. Unfortunately, advancing PAVN forces forced the evacuation of Pleiku
before American officials could conclude this search.)
Either the case was inactive or it was not.
The record clearly shows that the case was not inactive.
Also, Bill seems to be taking a gratuitous
poke at the Pentagon. This is surprising because Bill knows, or should know, that the
Department of State (DoS) was the agency responsible for determining the status of these
two men. Certainly Bill knows that the DoS classified the two men's legal status as
missing persons, and that "the Pentagon" had no authority to change their legal
status. Bill also knows full well that U.S. Military and Assistance Command Vietnam
Studies and Observations Group's (MACVSOG's), and later USDAO Saigon's, Joint Personnel
Recovery Center--not "the Pentagon"--was the lead agency for planning and
carrying out field investigations in Vietnam prior to 29 April 1975. In short, I think
that Bill misled his readers when he implied that this case lie dormant for many years
after the two men disappeared.
Next, Bill spends nearly two pages
nitpicking the work of JTF-FA field investigators and the information they received from
three or four witnesses they interviewed.
I agree with Bill that it might have been
helpful if the JTF-FA interviewers had recorded more details about their sources'
biographies and their roles in the deaths of Kit Mark and Charles Duke and disposition of
their remains. Perhaps, as Bill suggests, efforts to obtain more details about the
witnesses might have led field investigators to additional witnesses, or helped them
pinpoint the location where the two men were buried, or.... But this is speculation. Since
neither Bill nor I was present when the field team conducted the interviews, I think it
would be very presumptuous of either of us to second guess the team's actions.
After questioning the experience and
competence of the JTF-FA interviewers and the reliability and credibility of their
witnesses, Bill writes that "the [JTF-FA] investigators appear not to have correlated
their findings with other reports associated with live sightings in the same general area
during the same period." Bill then cites several reports that apparently he believes
contradict the statements by the JTF-FA witnesses and raise the likelihood that Kit Mark
and Charles Duke were captured and were working near Hanoi in the late 1970s.
Let's examine some of the reports Bill
The first report Bill cites is a 525th
Military Intelligence (MI) Group report that two of its agents visited Plei Vieng Duong
village in Cambodia in October 1970, where the village chief told them that four NVA
soldiers escorted two American POWs through the village in June 1970. Bill is ignoring
several factors if he is implying that these two men could have been Kit Mark and Charles
In this case Bill is asking us to accept at
face value information submitted by two unidentified intelligence agents who claimed to
have received the information from an unknown and untested third party--the alleged
village chief in Plei Vieng Duong village.
This 525th MI Group report and the several
other reports Bill cited are reports of information obtained from human sources. The intelligence community often refers to these
types of reports as HUMINT (human intelligence) reports, and the sources as HUMINT
sources. To help readers who might not be
familiar with HUMINT reporting judge the value of the reports Bill cited in his article,
it might be helpful to provide a little background information about HUMINT activities in
general and our HUMINT efforts in Vietnam in particular.
HUMINT refers to intelligence information
obtained from human sources, rather than other means such as satellite imagery, signals
intercepts, etc. There are many types of
HUMINT sources. At the lower end of the range
we might find persons such as prisoners of war, ralliers, refugees from enemy controlled
areas, and persons whose status or occupation allows them to travel in and out of areas
controlled by an adversary. At the higher end
of the range are spies who occupy positions in an adversary's political and military
infrastructure, its economic and scientific organizations, or other important sectors.
By its very nature HUMINT can contribute
unique and valuable perspectives and insights on important topics that technical
intelligence cannot provide. In Vietnam, our
HUMINT efforts enjoyed both successes and failures. American
forces repeatedly derived valuable tactical information from enemy prisoners of war, for
example. HUMINT also provided valuable
strategic level information. An example that
comes to mind was advance warning of North Vietnamese planning for the final attack on
Saigon in 1975.
However, in Vietnam HUMINT information
sometimes proved to be false. HUMINT
reporting related to missing Americans seems to have been particularly vulnerable to false
reporting by opportunistic agents or liaison agencies.
The 525th MI Group recruited and managed
some of its HUMINT sources directly. These
operations, carried out independent of and separate from the 525th MI Group's Republic of
Vietnam (RVN) counterpart agencies, were called unilateral operations. However, the 525th MI Group did not obtain all of
its HUMINT information directly from its own sources.
The 525th MI Group obtained much of its
information through liaison with RVN intelligence organizations. These operations were called bilateral operations. Oftentimes the 525th MI Group had no direct
contact with the liaison agency's sources--in most instances the 525th MI Group probably
could not even confirm that the liaison agency's alleged sources truly existed.
Not surprisingly, it was not unusual for
opportunistic RVN intelligence officers to create ghost sources, fabricate reports from
these nonexistent sources, and sell the information to American intelligence officers. I have personally encountered this problem. In one instance in early 1967, the head of a 525th
MI Group office passed a report from a HUMINT source to the Commander and G-2 of the 173rd
Airborne Brigade in early 1967. The 525th MI
Group had received the report from an RVN counterpart office near Bien Hoa. The report consisted of a hand drawn map that
depicted the movement of a Communist main force battalion and Allied units. The RVN counterpart office claimed that one of
its agents who was a member of the Communist battalion had secretly obtained the map. According to the RVN counterpart office its agent
had described the map as an imminent plan to set up an ambush against an Army of the
Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) unit at a location identified on the map. The head of the 525th MI Group office spoke highly
of the reliability of the source of this report and encouraged the brigade Commander and
G2 to deploy a unit to the target area and ambush the Communist battalion as it moved in
to set up the ambush. The 525th MI Group
office and the brigade G2 office had no one who could read Vietnamese, so I was asked to
translate the considerable amount of information on the map. The information showed the map to be a Communist
after action report on a battle that had taken place months earlier. Furthermore, the commander of an ARVN infantry
unit had made a handwritten note in the upper right-hand corner of the document that
described when, where, and how his unit had captured the map on the battlefield. An opportunistic RVN intelligence officer at a
headquarters above the ARVN infantry unit then sold a false story about how he obtained
the map and what the map depicted to a trusting and unsuspecting officer in the 525th MI
This leads to another factor that influenced
the quality of information we obtained from HUMINT operations in Vietnam. Military intelligence offices normally paid for
information on a piecemeal, or production, basis. We
seldom, if ever, paid salaries to our agents or those of our RVN counterparts. For the agents and counterpart offices that meant
no reports, no pay. Consequently, some
opportunistic agents and counterpart officers became proficient at fabricating information
on subjects they knew American case officers were interested in. A term used to describe agents who manufactured
false reports was "paper mills."
You can read a comprehensive and
authoritative first hand account of how opportunistic agents and RVN counterpart agencies
exploited our HUMINT organizations in a book that is coming out in May, titled "Of
Spies and Lies," by John Sullivan, a retired CIA polygraph operator who served in
Vietnam for four or five years. It is being published by University Press of Kansas and
can be purchased from their web site or on amazon.com.
While HUMINT collection operations were not
without problems, they often filled in gaps and explained anomalies in technical reporting
and produced accurate information on important issues that could not be obtained from
other types of intelligence operations.
Which brings us to another problem that
HUMINT collectors encountered from time to time.
Every HUMINT officer I know, including
myself, has personally experienced instances in which HUMINT reporting was on target and
accurate but was discounted or ignored by analysts because of prejudice against HUMINT
reporting, because it was not confirmed by technical reporting, or because it did not jibe
with the analysts' own conclusions. In the
1967 incident I described above, the brigade G2, seduced by the folk lore and glamour of
the 525th MI Group officer's "secret agent" story, discounted my translation and
persuaded the brigade commander to deploy a unit to intercept the Communist battalion at
the supposed target location. Not
surprisingly the Communist battalion never materialized.
The unit found only a lot of spent cartridges, a few rusting helmets, and
other detritus from the old battle described in the Communist battalion's after action
report. In his book "Decent
Interval," Frank Snepp notes that analysts also discounted HUMINT reporting on North
Vietnamese planning for the final attack on Saigon in 1975 (see pp. 130-132, First Vintage
Books Edition, August 1978, in paperback).
So how is all of this related to the 525th
MI Group report and other HUMINT reports that Bill cited in his article.
From Bill's description of the 525th MI
Group report, we learn that in October 1970 two unspecified persons entered deep into an
NVA base area in a remote largely uninhabited mountain forest region of Cambodia, west of
Kontum Province, where they allegedly spoke with a village chief who told them that four
NVA soldiers escorted two Americans through his village in June 1970. We can infer that the residents of this village
were ethnic minority montagnards. We can
infer also that the two sources--if they were real persons--probably were members of the
same ethnic minority group.
While our intelligence officers were keenly
interested in obtaining information about activities in this base area, they undoubtedly
found it extremely difficult to find and recruit agents who were both willing to enter
this area, and able to do so safely. I worked
as an editor of HUMINT reports at Headquarters 500th MI Group for nearly a year in 1973. Typically agents were described as ethnic minority
wood cutters or hunters or members of local guerrilla units who were able to enter such
areas as B3 Front's base area in Cambodia. Most
of the reports we received from Vietnam contained information our case officers obtained
from RVN intelligence offices. While the
simplicity of their source descriptions was seductive, they sometimes described fictitious
agents. (NOTE: See this map
of the Communist organization in South Vietnam for location of the "Fronts" to
which Mr. Destatte refers.)
We also know that the U.S. Department of
State, U.S. military authorities, and Dynalectric Corporation representatives made
extensive efforts throughout Pleiku and Kontum Provinces to obtain information from local
ethnic minority groups, RVN civil and military authorities, RVN intelligence
organizations, and our own intelligence units about Kit Mark and Charles Duke during the
weeks and months immediately following their disappearance.
In these circumstances, it is not
inconceivable that an enterprising agent or RVN intelligence officer saw an opportunity to
sell the Americans a concocted story about two alleged agents who obtained vague second
hand information about two Americans moving through Plei Vieng Duong village in June 1970. The story was plausible. It also was vague enough that it could not be
easily refuted. And in view of the
inaccessibility of Plei Vieng Duong village, an opportunistic agent or RVN intelligence
officer could fabricate such a story with little fear that it would ever be proven false
and his credibility challenged.
The foregoing comments are not intended to
suggest that the reports Bill cited were not credible simply because they contained
information received from HUMINT sources. HUMINT
can and does provide valuable information.
The foregoing comments do, however, call
attention to the need to examine HUMINT reports carefully.
Now, back to Bill's article.
Bill noted that the 525th MI Group
collectors believed their sources were credible based on two years of previous reporting.
Anyone who understands the nature of HUMINT collection operations knows that the
collectors seldom have access to data that would permit them to confirm the accuracy of
the information they receive from their sources. Even if we assume that the 525th MI
Group's sources were reliable, the 525th MI Group's collectors would not have had a basis
for judging the reliability of the unknown third party in Cambodia from whom their sources
obtained the information.
Nevertheless, let's assume that the
information the 525th MI Group reported was accurate, and test the information to see if
it necessarily relates to Kit Mark and Charles Duke.
First, it would be helpful to know what
should have happened to these two men during the hours and weeks immediately after they
were captured--if they were captured.
First, their captors would have moved them
as quickly as possible to the POW camp subordinate to Communist B3
Front Headquarters. B3 Front (aka the Western Highlands Front) was the command element
for Communist forces operating in Kontum, Pleiku, and Dac Lac Provinces in South Vietnam.
The B3 Front POW camp was located in Cambodia, a few dozen kilometers northwest of the
location at which Kit Mark and Charles Duke disappeared, and several kilometers south of
the location Bill described as Plei Vieng Duong [geographic coordinates 14°27'N,
One might ask, how do we know their captors
would have moved them to the B3 Front POW camp? We know because every American POW who is
known to have been captured in B3 Front before and after Kit Mark and Charles Duke
disappeared was taken to the B3 Front Camp. How do we know that? Because many of those
POWs told us so after they came home. Additionally, we have considerable amounts of other
wartime and postwar information that tells us that Americans captured in B3 Front were
moved to the B3 Front POW camp as quickly as possible after capture.
So, we might conclude that it is possible
that Kit Mark and Charles Duke might have passed through Plei Vieng Duong village sometime
in June 1970--if they were captured.
But is it plausible? Not really. Plei Vieng Duong village is several
kilometers north of the B3 Front POW camp, and separated from the camp by very rugged
terrain. Kit and Charles disappeared at a location a few dozen kilometers southeast of the
B3 Front POW camp. Their captors--if they
were captured--could have moved them to the POW camp along fairly direct and secure routes
through relatively easy terrain west and northwest of the location where they disappeared.
There would have been no reason for their captors to take them on the more dangerous,
circuitous, and longer route over very rugged terrain that would have led them through
Plei Vieng Duong village.
We should ask also whether Kit Mark and
Charles Duke were the only American captives who could have passed through Plei Vieng
Duong village in June 1970? The answer is that there were other Americans who could have
passed through that village in June 1970.
Bill should know that three of those
Americans had been in the B3 Front POW camp since early 1969. Additionally, he should know
that two more American POWs who had been captured following separate incidents in B3 Front
on 2 November 1969, entered the camp in mid-November 1969. (The following month, in
December 1969, Hanoi's front organization called the Provisional Revolutionary Government
of South Vietnam released two other Americans who had been captured after the incidents on
On approximately 25 May 1970, about five
days before Kit Mark and Charles Duke disappeared, these five POWs departed the B3 Front
POW camp and began the long trek north to Hanoi.
Meanwhile, three other Americans had been
captured in B3 Front in three separate incidents several kilometers northeast of Plei
Vieng Duong village in April 1970. Their NVA
escorts were moving them toward the B3 Front camp when they joined up with the five POWs
who were en route to Hanoi. The eight POWs then traveled together, more or less as a
group, toward Hanoi.
of the five men who had been in the B3 Front Camp died on the trail. The seven POWs who
survived this march arrived in Hanoi on or about 24 July 1970. They returned home in 1973.
So, if we assume that the hearsay story the
525th MI Group's two sources reported was true, we might conclude that it is possible that
two of the several POWs that we know were moving around in the B3 Front area could have
passed through Plei Vieng Duong village in June 1970.
But is it plausible? Yes. There is no credible information that Kit Mark and
Charles Duke survived their loss incident. U.S.
investigators have received several wartime and postwar reports that guerrillas killed Kit
Mark and Charles Duke on a road west of Pleiku, but not a single report that they were
captured. On the other hand, we know that
several American POWs were moving around in the general vicinity of Plei Vieng Duong
village. It is plausible that two of the
several known POWs could have been the subjects of the 525th MI Group report--assuming
that the report was accurate to begin with.
Next Bill cites a CIA report that "two
Americans captured in South Vietnam were detained in a camp at Ban Tam Prin about 43
kilometers north of Dak Chung in Laos." Bill states that the physical descriptions
recorded in the CIA report closely match those of Kit Mark and Charles Duke. Bill
speculates that the two men might have been moved into Laos from POW "Camp 102"
in Cambodia to prevent a joint U.S.-Montagnard operation from rescuing them.
My earlier comments about HUMINT reports in
Southeast Asia apply to this report as well. Nevertheless, let's test Bill's speculation
to see if it is reasonable.
First, you might wish to know that the camp
Bill calls "Camp 102" was the B3 Front POW Camp. Second, it would be helpful if
Bill had told you that the NVA made a decision in the fall of 1969 to transfer all
American POWs captured in B3 Front to Hanoi. Also, you might wish that he had told you
that the NVA sent twelve American POWs from the B3 Front camp to Hanoi in early November
1969. The three remaining Americans in the B3 Front Camp were too ill and weak to travel
with the group that left in November. Those
three POWs and another five POWs who had been captured in the interim began the journey to
Hanoi nearly seven months later, on or about 25 May 1970.
Now, lets return to Bill's speculation that
the NVA might have moved the two alleged POWs into Laos from POW "Camp 102"
[i.e., the B3 Front POW camp] to prevent a joint U.S.-Montagnard operation from rescuing
them. Bill did not, as I mentioned above, share with his readers the fact that the NVA had
decided in the fall of 1969 to no longer hold American POWs in B3 Front's POW camp, and
that they would evacuate all existing and future American POWs captured in B3 Front to
Hanoi as soon as practical. The NVA might have anticipated the US/GVN incursion into
Cambodia, but I believe it is more likely they were reacting to US cross-border forays in
the B3 Front's main base area in Cambodia. Almost certainly, the decision to move the last
remaining American POWs in B3 Front to the North in May 1970 was a reaction to an incident
in which a MACVSOG force nearly stumbled onto the B3 Front POW camp that same month.
An American helicopter crashed without loss
of life in a grave yard near B3 Front's V211 hospital on 6 May 1970. Based on debriefings
of returned POWs it appears that the B3 Front POW camp was located not more than 2,000
meters from that hospital. Shortly after this helicopter crashed, an Allied force entered
the area and, among other things, captured NVA Dr. Pham Huu Duong. Also, on 19 May 1970,
an Allied force captured approximately 2100 signal documents that belonged to the B3 Front
medical section. While these events were going on, the NVA moved the POWs about five hours
walking distance from the camp. A few days later, the NVA moved them to Hanoi. These were
the last American POWs held at the B3 Front camp for more than a few days before being
evacuated to Hanoi.
As I mentioned earlier, the seven survivors
in this group arrived in Hanoi on or about 24 July 1970. The journey took two months,
including a ten-day stop at a location in Laos while one member of the group received
Since Hanoi had decided to no longer keep
captured Americans in B3 Front, and clearly was taking action to move American captives
from B3 Front to Hanoi as quickly as possible in May 1970, we might conclude that Hanoi
would have moved Kit Mark and Charles Duke to Hanoi immediately after they were
captured--if they were captured.
We might also conclude that the two men
might have caught up with the slow moving group of POWs who started the journey a few days
ahead of them--if the two men had been captured.
But there is yet another problem with Bill's
assessment of the CIA report.
The location Bell cites, Ban Tam Prin ,
which was located at coordinates 15°54'N 107°00'E, is not on the north-south corridor of
the Ho Chi Minh Trail or on any of the east-west feeder
routes between the main corridor and the South Vietnamese border. In fact, it is not on
any route that NVA escorts or American POWs would have followed en route to North Vietnam.
The main corridor of the Trail was about 20 nautical miles west of Ban Tam Prin. South of
Ban Tam Prin many miles, the nearest east-west feeder route was NVA Route B46 between Cha
Van in Laos, and Kham Duc in South Vietnam. Route B46, linked the Ho Chi Minh Trail with B1 Front (B1 Front, aka Military Region 5, was comprised of the
coastal provinces from Quang Nam to Khanh Hoa province). North of Ban Tam Prin many miles,
the nearest east-west feeder route was NVA Route 45. This Route linked the Ho Chi Minh
Trail with B4 Front (Tri-Thien-Hue). Americans captured in B3 Front would not have
traveled on Routes B46 or 45 and would not have passed through or stopped over at Ban Tam
But Bill doesn't stop here. He suggests a
possible link between the CIA report of two Americans in Ban Tam Prin and a MACVSOG
operation called "Operation Tailwind." Bill states that "Camp 102"
[i.e., the B3 Front POW Camp] and the nearby V211 Hospital were located in "the same
area that figured in the 1998 Tailwind fiasco...."
Not true. Operation Tailwind was a mission
in which MACVSOG inserted a force into an area on the main corridor of the Ho Chi Minh
Trail about 20 kilometers SE of Chavan, Laos, on 11 September 1970. Chavan was the
location where NVA Route B46 [see above] joined the main north-south corridor of the HCM Trail. Men and material passing through Chavan could
either move east into Communist B1 Front (western Quang Nam Province) or southeast to
Communist B3 Front (Western Highlands), or continue south to B2 Front (approximately the
southernmost 1/3 of SVN). The Operation Tailwind target area was easily 80 kilometers road
distance north of the B3 Front POW camp and perhaps 100 kilometers south of Ban Tam Prin.
Implying that Operation Tailwind lends credence to
his speculation that Kit Mark and Charles Duke might have defected to the Communists, Bill
complains that the JTF-FA investigators placed absolutely no emphasis "on the
credibility of that part of the [CNN] story relating to the reported American defectors
[in southern Laos]." Bill's complaint is surprising, since he knows or should know
that there is compelling evidence that the allegations about defectors that were aired on
CNN's Operation Tailwind program in 1998 were false. The Operation Tailwind mission was to
disrupt NVA operations on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was not related in any way to a search
for POWs or defectors.
The last Americans who passed through the
Operation Tailwind target area were the seven men mentioned earlier who arrived in Hanoi
on 24 July 1970.
While Bill might hope to impress uninformed
readers by citing a "CIA report," he will not impress analysts who have learned
from experience that many agent reports received in Southeast Asia were inaccurate--if not
outright fabrications. While HUMINT activities often provide valuable information, HUMINT
reports cannot be accepted at face value. The
information in HUMINT reports needs to be weighed carefully regardless of what agency
A detailed discussion of each of the reports that
Bill cited is beyond the scope of this note; but two additional reports he cited do bear
Near the end of his article, Bill writes
"Another refugee in Hong Kong said he had seen Americans remaining in Vietnam during
1982. According to him, the Americans were seen near the Central Military Court and Office
If I am not mistaken, the source of this
report was a fellow named Dao Viet Cuong. Bill knows perfectly well that this source's
story has been proven false beyond any shadow of doubt. I am amazed that Bill would cite
this story as evidence that Kit Mark and Charles Duke were captured and were alive in
Hanoi in the late 1970s. I would be less amazed, however, if this was the only false story
that Bill cited in his article.
Bill also resurrects an old story that has
circulated among POW/MIA activists for several years; that a Vietnamese person commonly
referred to as "The Mortician" identified Charles Duke
as an American he observed in Hanoi after the war. Like many of the stories the activists
promote, this story is rubbish.
"The Mortician" is a former
resident of Hanoi. He left Vietnam in 1979. Shortly after he arrived at a refugee camp in
Hong Kong he told American interviewers that he had seen three Caucasians that he believed
were Americans in Hanoi on several occasions after the war. I interviewed "the
Mortician" extensively in 1979 and several times since then. He always was careful to
point out that he had no first hand knowledge that any of the three Caucasians was an
American. People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) officers and enlisted persons who seemed to know
the three men told "the Mortician" that the three men were Americans.
After meeting former USMC
Private Robert Garwood, who had defected to the Communists during the war and returned
home in 1979, while Private Garwood was being tried by a military court martial in the
United States, the "Mortician" confirmed that Private Garwood was one of the
three Caucasians he had seen in Hanoi.
I have spoke with several of the persons who
"the Mortician" claimed had told him that all three of the Caucasians were
Americans. Those persons readily acknowledged that they knew and had spoke with "the
Mortician" on various occasions in Hanoi. They readily acknowledged that they had
known Private Garwood when he lived in Hanoi. In fact some of them counted Garwood as a
They all insisted that Garwood was the only
American who remained in Hanoi after the war. They also noted that it was not unusual to
see Caucasians at the building where "the Mortician" saw the three Caucasians he
described. For example, Vietnam News Agency maintained an office in the building. It was
not unusual for foreign journalists to visit that office. Also, a couple of military
intelligence organizations located inside the Citadel (the secure Ministry of Defense
Headquarters compound), less than two blocks away, maintained a duty office and meeting
room in the building. Soviet bloc advisors had to come into this duty office in order to
make contact with their PAVN counterparts who worked in the secure Ministry of Defense
compound. Also, it was not unusual for PAVN personnel to meet with their Soviet bloc
counterparts at this building rather than escort them inside the Citadel.
Could PAVN personnel have deliberately
misled "the Mortician?" Perhaps. The "Mortician" was a former petit
bourgeois and an ethnic Chinese. After the Communists took control of the North in 1954,
they nationalized his family's funeral business and allowed him to work in the Municipal
Cemeteries Management Committee, performing functions that were roughly equivalent those
of a skilled technician. Hanoi expelled most of its ethnic Chinese Community to China in
the late 1970s. From time to time "the Mortician's" office detailed him to the
PAVN office that was coordinating the recovery of American remains. He was tasked to help
that office prepare skeletal remains for storage. PAVN soldiers might have found this task
distasteful. In view of the class and ethnic prejudices that existed in Communist North
Vietnam in the 1970s, it probably would not have been out of character for some of the
ethnic Vietnamese officers and enlisted persons in the remains recovery office to exploit
opportunities to tease or mislead the corpulent former petit bourgeois Chinese worker from
the Municipal Cemeteries Management Committee.
After I finished debriefing "the
Mortician" in November 1979, he worked with an artist from the USAF Office of Special
Investigations (OSI) to develop artist sketches of the three Caucasians he observed in
Hanoi. One of the sketches bears a resemblance to an old photograph of Charles Duke.
Activists have seized on this fact to build the myth that "the Mortician" saw
Charles Duke alive in Hanoi after the war.
In 1979-80, three OSI identification
specialists separately compared each of the "Mortician's" three sketches with
pre-loss photographs of every American who still was unaccounted for in SEA. The theory
was that if at least two of the specialists correlated the same sketch to the same
photograph, this might provide a lead for further investigation. In the end, each
specialist equated each of the sketches to a different person. This should not surprise
Experts know from experience that
identifications from photographs oftentimes are not accurate. As I mentioned earlier, the
"Mortician" subsequently confirmed that Robert Garwood was the man depicted in
one of the artist sketches. However, the
"Mortician's" sketch of Robert Garwood did not bear the slightest resemblance to
I believe that the resemblance some persons
see between one of the "Mortician's" sketches and an old photograph of Charles
Duke is accidental.
In accepting as fact the myth that the
"Mortician" saw Charles in Hanoi after the war one would have to ignore not only
the compelling wartime information about the death and burial of Kit and Charles, the
misrepresentations of the "Mortician's" story, and the statements by the persons
the "Mortician" cited as the sources for his account. One would have to ignore
also what is known about the disposition of Americans who were captured in the region
where Kit Mark and Charles Duke disappeared.
Perhaps one of the most telling gaffs in
Bill's analysis is his statement that "During an annual meeting of the National
Alliance of Families on U.S. POW/MIAs held in Washington, D.C., in 1995, a former ARVN
major reported that he had seen Garwood and three other Americans in POW Camp 1, Duong Quy
village, Van Ban district, Hoang Lien Son province, during August 1977."
Bill knows that Private Garwood worked with
the staff of People's Army of Vietnam Group 776 during 1976-78. Garwood's principle duty was to operate and
maintain an electrical generator that supplied power to the headquarters element of Camp
Group 1 (Lien Trai 1), one of several groups of re-education camps administered by Group
776 in Hoang Lien Son Province.
Bill also knows that well over 300 former
officers of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces have told American field investigators
about personal encounters with Robert Garwood while they were inmates in the Group 776
re-education camps. A few of these Allied
officers mistakenly thought that a Thai defector named Chuert Sayburi who lived with
Garwood at Camp Group 1 was an American. Otherwise,
with the exception of about a half a dozen persons, these Allied officers knew of only one
American--Robert Garwood--who was ever seen in Group 776's camps.
My memory is that at least one of these
half-a-dozen or so exceptions was shown to have told a false story. I recall that I and an FBI agent interviewed a
former ARVN officer who I believe is the same person Bill referred to. While I don't recall the specifics of the
interview, I recall that this person's story when examined in detail was not credible.
Bill chose to share with his readers
questionable information received from one source whose own credibility is questionable,
apparently because that source's information supports Bill's speculation about the fates
of Kit Mark and Charles Duke.
Apparently he has discounted credible
information supplied by several hundred reliable sources because that information did not
support his own conclusions about Kit Mark and Charles Duke.
This is not the only credible information
Bill has ignored.
As I mentioned earlier, we know that
Americans who were captured in B3 Front's area would have been evacuated through PAVN
commo-liaison routes to the POW camp for Americans located near B3 Front Headquarters. The
B3 Front POW camp was located only a few dozen kilometers from the area where Kit and
Our field teams have interviewed several
former cadre of the B3 Front POW camp. None of these persons
had any knowledge of these two men. Our field teams also have interviewed various other
former B3 Front personnel who might have had knowledge of American POWs. For example, B3
Front medical units would have treated any Americans POWs captured in this area who were
seriously injured or wounded. Our teams have interviewed numerous persons, including
doctors, medics, and administrative personnel, who worked in B3 Front medical facilities.
Again, none of them had any knowledge of these two men.
As I mentioned earlier, B3 Front had
transferred all American POWs in its POW camp to Hanoi in two increments in November 1969
and May 1970, respectively. Other Americans were captured in this region at later dates.
They were taken to B3 Front's POW camp immediately, and then moved to Hanoi as soon as
practicable. Those who survived were released during Operation Homecoming. None of them
had seen or heard of Kit Mark or Charles Duke.
Since 1975 American POW/MIA investigators
have canvassed thousands of refugees from SEA for information about Americans who might
have stayed behind after the war. Hundreds of refugees have provided accurate information
about the 70 American civilians who remained or were stranded in Vietnam after 29 April
1975. All of these persons are accounted for. Many also have provided accurate accounts
about Americans and other Westerners who wound up in Vietnamese jails in the postwar
years; many of them yachtsmen or drug traffickers arrested while sailing through seas off
the coast of Vietnam. All of these persons are accounted for. Several hundred former
Republic of Vietnam officers have volunteered information about Robert Garwood and his
activities in reeducation camps in North Vietnam after 1976. Some even provided
information about the former Thai pilot who lived with Garwood for a time in the late
1970s (there is a fascinating story about this man that I might tell another time). Since
1987, our field teams have canvassed residents of nearly every district and most of the
villages in Vietnam.
Obtaining accurate information, mostly from
HUMINT sources, about Americans in postwar Vietnam has never been an insurmountable task.
Yet, we have not found a single shred of credible corroborated information that could
sustain a belief that any American who disappeared during the war, other than Robert
Garwood, remained in Vietnam after April 1975.
If the information the JTF-FA obtained from
the witnesses they interviewed is accurate, then Bill's speculation that Kit Mark and
Charles Duke were captured or defected and were working with the Communists near Hanoi in
the late-1970s cannot be accurate. If, however, the JTF-FA interviewers and their
witnesses could be discredited, Bill's speculation might appear plausible. It seems to me
that Bill's chief objective in writing the article that was published in the April 2002
issue of Vietnam Magazine was to discredit the JTF-FA interviewers and their witnesses.
I don't place any credence in Bill's
speculation that Kit Mark and Charles Duke defected.
Both men had served honorably in the U.S. armed forces. By all accounts they were patriotic loyal
Americans who loved their families. I am
disappointed that Bill would ignore the evidence that they were killed on the battlefield
and suggest that they might have defected to the enemy in time of war.
During the nearly five years between their
disappearance and April 1975, American officials received credible information that
Communist guerrillas ambushed and killed Kit and Charles. For example, shortly after the
incident U.S. or allied forces captured two guerrillas who had taken part in the ambush.
The two guerrillas described the incident to their interrogators. Also, in early 1975 a
senior American representative in Pleiku sent someone to excavate a reported burial site
for the two men west of Pleiku. By this time, Vietnamese personnel were conducting all
such excavations. Unfortunately, advancing PAVN forces forced the evacuation of Pleiku
before American officials could receive the remains.
Bill asserted in his article that
"there was no indication that the reported grave was in any way related to the
disappearance of Duke and Mark." I
believe Bill is mistaken. A few years ago I
spoke with a former U.S. official who was in Pleiku at that time and who knew about the
effort to excavate the reported grave site. My
memory is that he explicitly linked this site with Kit Mark and Charles Duke.
In more recent years, JTF-FA field teams
have conducted numerous investigations searching for information about the several
Americans who became unaccounted for in the Pleiku area and surrounding region in the old
B3 Front area. These investigations have yielded additional information to the effect that
Communist guerrillas stumbled onto Kit Mark and Charles Duke unexpectedly, organized a
hasty ambush, killed them, and buried them near where they were killed.
In my opinion, there is no mystery about
their disappearance. I believe both men were killed in a surprise encounter with Communist
guerrillas and buried west of Pleiku on 30 May 1970.
Even if Kit and Charles were captured, it
seems clear that they did not survive long enough to make it the few dozen kilometers to
the B3 Front POW camp.
Our field teams have worked diligently
during the past several years to locate and recover Kit Mark and Charles Duke's remains.
Until they succeed, however, this case is likely to continue to fuel the myth that we left
men behind after the war.
End of Mr. Destatte's comments and analysis
NOTE: You may ask why was Bill Bell replaced
as Commander of the US Detachment in Hanoi if he was such an superb linguist and had
several years experience in collecting information about missing men in SEAsia. The
answer is simple: The job expanded far beyond what Bill or anyone else of his
grade and experience could manage.
When the U.S. opened the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi in mid-1991--the first official U.S.
office in postwar Vietnam--the office was subordinate to the JCRC-LNO in Bangkok.
The JCRC appointed Bill to head its office in Hanoi. The DIA's Special Office for POW/MIA
Affairs attached bob Destatte to that office. Bill and Bob and a Lieutenant Colonel from
the US Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, scouted out the location for the
U.S. MIA Office and signed a lease for it in May 1991; Bill and Bob were among the six-man
team that opened the office in July 1991.
Bill was replaced as head of the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi by a military officer in early
1992, after the CINCPAC established the Joint Task
Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA). The JTF-FA absorbed the JCRC and its personnel, and
re-designated the JCRC-LNO in Bangkok, and the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi, JTF-FA
Detachments 1 and 2, respectively. The JTF-FA also established a Detachment 3 in
Vientiane, Laos, and a Detachment 4 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Commanding General
of the JTF-FA appointed Lieutenant Colonels to command each of these detachments.
The demands on the commanders of these detachments were far beyond simple interviewing and
The eligibility requirements for appointment as the Commander of Detachments 1 and 2,
included being both Airborne and Ranger qualified, and to be either a recent
graduate or to have been selected for attendance at the Army War College in Carlisle
Barracks, PA. This latter criteria insured that the Commanders of these detachments
would be senior Lieutenant Colonels who were destined on the basis of past performance to
become at least full Colonels. For example, the first Commander of Detachment 1 had served
as an enlisted
rifleman with the USMC in Vietnam during the war. After finishing his enlistment in
the USMC he returned to college. Upon graduation he accepted a commission in the
U.S. Army. He had commanded the Ranger Training Brigade, and had extensive
experience in sensitive intelligence operations before taking command of Detachment 1 in
Hanoi. He was promoted to Colonel not long after he completed his tour in Hanoi.
He retired in early 2001, but almost certainly would have been selected for General
if he had remained on active duty for another year or two. Today, he is the head of
the Air Marshal program.
The newly-established (1992) Joint Task Force-Full Accounting was a far more
complicated and extensive operation than had been the Joint Casualty Resolution
Center. The JTF-FA was commanded by a brigadier general and consisted of over 150
personnel. JTF-FA makes monthly trips into Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia to assess
loss sites, and excavates crash sites and grave sites. JTF-FA detachments in Hanoi,
Vientiane, and Phnom Phen conduct research, interviews, and other activities to find
information pertaining to missing men. The JTF-FA is a complex organization
requiring extensive long-, medium-, and short-range planning; complex logistics; extensive
coordination with the host nations; and, coordination among all supporting US military
services as well as the US Embassies in each country.
In the JTF-FA, Bill Bell could have been a senior linguist and interviewer but he
simply could not have been the commander. Bill tells folks that he was let go
because of animosity between himself and the new organization. Not so. He was
let go because he would not accept a non-leadership position AND one other reason.
Bill was close with the Executive Director of the National League of Families. She had
suddenly lost most (if not all) her influence in Washington because of changes brought on
by the establishment of the JTF-FA and the DPMO. Bill was feeding information to her
back-channel. Basically, if something happened that Bill did not agree with, he
called the League Executive Director and gave her his version of the story. She then
called all her friends in Washington, including members of Congress and senior officials
in State and Defense in an attempt to shoot down whatever Bell did not like. No
senior officer -- military or civlian -- will tolerate this sort of back-channel sniping
and by continuing to do this, Bill shot himself down.
In sum, actions to account for our missing men changed dramatically over a short period
and Bill Bell could not adapt to the changes. He continues to claim that he left
JTF-FA because of some evil on the part of the organization -- not so.
. . . and there is nothing more to say.