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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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, ....
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