MIA Facts Site

Schreckengost and Greer: A Sad Story of Two Brave Marines and the Lies Told About Them

Summary.  In 1964, two young Marines, Fred Schreckengost and Robert Greer, were captured by enemy troops near the U.S. Marine base at Da Nang, Vietnam.  They were moved through several local villages then, according to numerous reports, shot to death while trying to escape.  A huge body of mythology developed around this incident.  Greer and Schreckengost were reported to be defectors who operated with North Vietnamese troops against Americans.  They were supposed to have been returned to the U. S. under some sort of "secret returnee" program in which they were given new identities. Much of this foolishness was promulgated and perpetuated by a former U. S. Army Special Forces Captain, who was a bad actor. For many years, the Greer and Schreckengost story was part of the MIA activist cult's canon of belief.

In 1990, their remains were recovered from the hole where they had been buried in 1964.

I tell this story here to illustrate the sources of mythology that one finds in the MIA activist cult and to illustrate that the U. S. government was right all along in its position that these two Marines had died doing their best to do their duty.
        

Introduction
 

 One of the longest, most twisted sagas of the Vietnam War MIA issue deals with the capture and subsequent deaths of two USMC privates, Robert Greer and Fred Schreckengost. Before you start reading, you need to know that this is a simple, straightforward story, but it becomes twisted and distorted with all sorts of blind alleys. I will try to tell it clearly but sometimes it just gets messy.

Greer and Schreckengost were among the Marines who went to Vietnam early in the US build-up. They were stationed at Da Nang and, on 7 June 1964, they rented a couple of motor bikes and went for a ride in the countryside around Da Nang. They never returned and, when the Marines started searching for them, they quickly found the bikes by the side of the road and several local civilians told of seeing the two Marines being captured by "VC." A huge search was launched with Marines and South Vietnamese troops and police scouring the area. The searchers soon picked up the track and learned that the two had been marched through some villages where they were put on display by their captors then moved along. Despite having these warm leads, the two Marines were never seen again. And now begins the tale.

Salt and Pepper

One of the enduring unsolved mysteries of the Vietnam War is the story of Salt and Pepper. Salt and Pepper stories come mainly from northern I Corps and tell of a team of two Americans, a short black guy and a tall white guy, working with the NVA. There were all sorts of efforts to figure out who these two were. The problem was that sightings of them were usually fleeting, sometimes under fire, sometimes conflicting. DIA had developed some ideas of people who might be Salt and Pepper but, having read the file several times, I have to say it was speculative at best. I do not know if Salt and Pepper were part of the SSC report.

Anyway, Greer was short and dark complexioned (not African-American) and Schreckengost was tall, slender, and light-complexioned. (Actually, Schreckengost was close to Garwood in height, weight, build, and coloring. Remember that fact.) From time to time, captured NVA, civilians, and some US troops would report seeing an American working with NVA troops in northern I Corps and just north of the DMZ. When these people were shown a photo lineup, occasionally someone would pick out Schreckengost as one of the men resembling the guy they had seen. At no time did any witness ever positively identify him as the man seen; he was just one of several photos picked out in a few cases. I have no proof of this, but I must assume that knowledge of their loss and knowledge of the fact that Schreckengost's photo was picked out by a few witnesses was fairly widespread among USMC intell and, probably, among the special ops folks in I Corps.

CPT William R. Atkins, USArmy; AKA "Liam" Atkins

CPT William R. Atkins, USArmy, was a SF officer assigned for a while to CCN. He returned from Vietnam and was assigned to Ft. Bragg. He separated from the Army and moved into the Reserve. He was later released from the Reserves because, according to a series of letters in his file, he never attended drills or meetings, never participated, never answered any mail from the Reserves, etc. So, they dropped him. Atkins did, however, show up in a couple of other places: Rhodesia; the Prince Georges County, Maryland, police force; a London jail; Northern Virginia; and, a 173d Airborne Brigade reunion.

Atkins and Rhodesia


Stay with me, now, this gets messy. You will recall that, in the late 1970s, Rhodesia, a former British colony and member of the Commonwealth, was embroiled in a war between the minority white rulers and the majority black population, striving for independence. The Rhodesian civil war attracted lots of mercenaries, wannabes, and the like. Rhodesian stories were all the rage in SOF magazine. William Atkins showed up in Rhodesia, joined their Army, and lasted about a year before he was booted. According to sources in Rhodesia, they got rid of him because of his tendency to become enraged and beat his soldiers.

Atkins and the Prince Georges County, MD, police force


He then showed up as a member of the Prince Georges County, MD, police force. I do not recall how long that employment lasted but it ended in an internal affairs investigation into the theft of some evidence in a burglary and allegations of brutality. When we asked the PG police about the case, we hit a near stone wall. One new member of the force told us that it was one of those things that no one wanted to talk about. Maybe that was because the internal affairs captain who was conducting the investigation was shot through a window at his home one day. He lived.

Atkins Tours London


After this episode ( I believe we are now up into the early 1980s ), the US Embassy in London was contacted by the British police one day and told that the Bobbies had arrested an American and would the US consular folks like to come visit him. When the consular officer arrived, he found Atkins with an assortment of lumps and bruises. It seems that Atkins become belligerent toward a British Bobbie and decided to challenge the authority of the British police to keep order in London. I think it was eleven of them showed him what British nightsticks were all about. When the consular officer arrived at the jail, Atkins started telling him a story about US POWs in Vietnam. Atkins claimed that he had all sorts of information about American POWs, and about two Marines in particular. Officers from the Defense Attache Office questioned Atkins and determined that he had nothing specific, just a bunch of claims that he knew a lot and, if they could spring him, he would talk.

Oh, did I mention the fact that, when Atkins was booked by the London police, he had in his possession the ID card and a credit card belonging to a USNavy Reserve officer who lived in Alexandria, VA? It seems that these same items had been stolen from the Navy guy's home during a break- in; they had been found on a burglary suspect who was arrested by the PG County, MD police; and, these very items were subjects of the internal affairs investigation mentioned earlier because they had disappeared from PG police custody.

"Liam" Atkins in Northern Virginia


After a while, Atkins showed up in the Washington, DC, area. He had now adopted the name "Liam" and begun to frequent the Irish pubs located near Union Station, one of them is the Dubliner. There, he became the source of several stories.

Atkins claimed that:
 

1. He had been told by a USMC Sergeant Major, who worked in USMC personnel in the Forrestal Building, that "some DIA types" had come to the personnel office and removed several files of Marines from Vietnam, including Greer and Schreckengost. This story fed on itself as Atkins became sort of a darling of the MIA activist crowd. Eventually, the story grew to the point that Greer and Schreckengost were claimed to have been secretly returned to the US, given new identities, and hidden forever from their families. (The simple fact that there were no USMC personnel files in the Forrestal Building did not dissuade Atkins or his admirers. Every time I pointed out this fact, I was shouted down as a liar.)

2. While at Ft Bragg, in 1973, he had seen a top secret movie, taken from the air, of Americans being captured and of an American who had escaped who was running around through the tall grass, waving at a US aircraft overhead. None of the men in the film had ever been rescued, according to Atkins. No such movie ever existed in any form.
 

Largely on the weight of Atkins' continually growing and expanding story about Greer and Schreckengost, their story became one of the legends of the MIA activist gospel. Everyone knew for a fact that they were in the Secret Returnee program because Liam Atkins said so.

 

Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, Atkins began to have some problems.
 

1. A realtor in Northern Virginia, who owned some townhouses in the Centreville area, called Army Personnel Command and asked to talk with an Army lawyer. She wanted to know what the Army could do about Lieutenant Colonel Liam Atkins who owed her several thousand dollars in back rent. Upon checking, the Army lawyer found that there was no one by that name anywhere on the rolls, active or Reserve. Eventually he sniffed out the retired Reserve records of Atkins but, because Atkins was not on active or reserve duty, there was nothing the Army could do. We were, however, a bit concerned at his impersonating an officer. It seems that he left each morning and returned each evening dressed in a LTC's uniform and introduced himself to everyone as such.

2. There were some sort of near violent incidents involving Atkins and confrontations with either local or federal authorities. I honestly do not recall the details of these but I know that he was in either local or federal court on some sort of charges.

3. Atkins attended a 173d Airborne Association meeting in Washington, DC, one night. Bob Destatte, a former 173d trooper, was there, too. Bob was not amused to see Atkins in an Army LTC uniform, handing out name cards identifying himself as Liam Atkins, LTC, USArmy. Bob introduced himself, made a little polite conversation, then Atkins beat feet.

4. In 1988 or 1989, Atkins was found guilty of some federal charge and went to jail. There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the activist community because, clearly, Atkins knew the truth about the secret returnee program and the feds just wanted to shut him up.
 
 

The Great New York Road Trip

Steve Arkin, The Guy From New York

One of the frequent contributors to the DIA POW-MIA Office was Mr. Steve Arkin, of New York.. He  was a wannabe of the highest order. He used to call us to report all sorts of tales about US POWs and MIAs. The only problem is that what he was reporting was the latest flash being passed around the activist circle and, in every case, we had already hear the story. He later on got together with a couple of other wannabes and formed an organization named something like "The Association for Unrepatriated POWs."

"Greer and Schreckengost Want to Come Home"

The Greer and Schreckengost story was one of Arkin's favorites. He used to call us and, in great secrecy, report that he had heard from a source that an Irishman named Atkins had been overheard in the Dubliner in DC talking about the whereabouts of Greer and Schreckengost and don't we need to check it out? Right. Then it happened. Arkin called and reported to us that Greer and Schreckengost had surfaced in New York, he had had contact with them, and they were ready to turn themselves in. Send us some photos, we said. He did. We received some photos of two guys, one guy per photo, sitting in a non-descript office. These, so claimed Arkin, were Greer and Schreckengost, he was in close contact with them, and they were ready to come home. (Now, I never understood why, if they were in the Secret Returnee program, we needed to go through all this kabuki theater for them to surface. After all, if we had put them in the program, we would already know where they are. But, in dealing with the activists, I learned that one should not ask too many questions that require logical answers. It tends to confuse them and, when they get confused, they become dangerous.)

On with the tale. We set up a meet. He agreed that Greer and Schreckengost would come in. We took the following actions: -- Got their fingerprints from their files. -- Arranged to meet at a joint military recruiting office in NYC. -- Arranged for an FBI fingerprint specialist to be at the office with his fingerprint kit. He could make an identification from fingerprints in a matter of minutes. -- Arranged quarters at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. -- Shipped Wick Tourison and Bob Hyp to NYC to make the meet. -- Several members of the USMC casualty office went along. We agreed with Arkin that he and Greer and Schreckengost would come to the recruiting office, the two guys would be fingerprinted, we would ID the prints, then they would turn themselves in. Everyone waited.

Arkin called every few minutes with another delay. Missed a cab; not sure; still thinking about it; etc.; etc. Finally, he said that they were not coming but that they were represented by an attorney named XXXXX whose office was on XXXX street. Bob Hyp consulted the NYC phone book and found an attorney by that name on that street and the office was not far from where we were waiting. So, Bob and Wick jumped into a cab and went to the attorney's office. When they met with the attorney, he first thought that Bob and Wick were whacked out on something, then he was certain they had been puffing weed. Finally, they convinced him this was for real. Not surprisingly, the attorney had never hear anything about this tale.

Arkin finally called back and said it was all over, they were not coming home, and he would get back to us.

The Greer and Schreckengost story continued to be one of the headliners of the MIA activists. While stationed at the Pentagon, I ran several miles each morning: up the river from the Pentagon, across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge, up the Mall, around Haines' Point. I would run past Ted Sampley's T-shirt bazaar -- excuse me, I meant to say, the hallowed vigil site -- and, every so often, I would stop to check out the latest fantasies. The Schreckengost and Greer story was always displayed as one of the bits of evidence that there was a Secret Returnee program, etc., etc.
 

November 1990

Let us now return to reality. In the search for the two Marines after their disappearance, they were tracked through several villages where their captors would put them on display then move on. There were several reports that they had been held overnight in one village, they attempted to escape, were shot and killed, and buried there. In 1990, an investigative team from the USPACOM Joint Task Force -- Full Accounting went to the village and interviewed wartime witnesses who pointed to the area where they remembered the two Marines were buried. In November 1990, an excavation was conducted that found the grave. After 26 years in acid laterite soil, the bones were deteriorated but teeth, some bones, dog tags, and other items found in the grave lead to a positive identification of Robert Greer and Fred Schreckengost, Privates, US Marine Corps. Probably killed while trying to escape, these two young men had lain in a solitary, unmarked grave for 26 years while charlatans, frauds, and liars desecrated their sacrifice.

Epilogue

"The drama's done. Why then does any one step forth?" The MIA activist pantheon of fantasy is filled with stories just like the one above: built on a few facts, embellished by tales that defy logic, made to sound plausible by misrepresentations and inaccuracies, and defended by attacks on anyone who dares question the story. In the words of one commentator:
 

"These stories have been passed back and forth to one another for so long that, in the repetition alone, these stories have claimed an aura of truth for them. It is a socially constructed reality."

Slowly, however, the activist universe of stories is collapsing. Many of the more famous stories are drawing to a conclusion. You see, those who shouted the loudest for access to the old battlefields so we could investigate and excavate, those who prayed for the day when we could have access to Vietnamese archives, are now among the loudest denouncing the findings of those very investigations, excavations, and research. Why? Because the results are refuting their favorite beliefs. Fred Schreckengost and Robert Greer died shortly after capture. Now that that fact is clear to even a blind man, those who touted this case as "proof" of a non-existent conspiracy, find their credibility sinking further into the toilet. So, they turn to other debates with reality: selected quotes from the SSC report; partial tales about incidents ("bloody bandages" and "dental plates broken during interrogation"; incomplete descriptions of events ; and, ....

Update

On 8 December 2001, the National Alliance web site carried an announcement that Liam Atkins died "earlier this week" (first week of December 2001).   The announcement was a one-sentence statement, found here: http://pages.prodigy.net/lynnpowmia/011208.htm   

     

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