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After the debriefings of returned US POWs during Operation Homecoming in 1973, additional information about Garwood and his whereabouts was virtually non-existent. The USG had not known whether he was dead or alive and therefore when the news came in early February that a US "POW" named Garwood wanted to be repatriated from Vietnam, neither the USG nor the USMC was immediately prepared for the announcement.
On 9 February 1979 the State department was informed that on 1 February, Mr. Ossi Rahkonen, a Finnish national who worked for the World Bank headquarters in Washington, had been passed a note in the Thang Loi (Victory) Hotel in Hanoi by a person who claimed to be a US POW. The individual passed a scribbled note to Mr. Rahkonen indicating that he was Robert Russell Garwood, USMC, and American in Vietnam.
In addition to the note, Garwood told Rahkonen, in English, that he had been kept in a POW camp in a mountainous area of North Vietnam circa 150 kilometers from Hanoi and that he knew of fifteen other American POWs staying in his and other camps. Garwood indicated that there were probably yet more American POWs and then asked Mr. Rahkonen if he would inform the US State Department of his imprisonment, after first asking if Rahkonen was a journalist and interested in publicizing the matter. (State Dept. message 091608Z FEB 79)
(NOTE: In his biography Conversations with the Enemy: The Story of PFC Robert Garwood, Garwood stated to the author that he lied to Rahkonen about knowing the whereabouts of other US POWs in hopes of making the story "more than just a single man's message on a torn bit of paper." (p. 301) What was Garwood doing in a hotel frequented by foreigners? In Conversations, Garwood describes in some detail his deep involvement in black marketeering. He had a Vietnamese ration card, and, as a foreigner, he had access to the hotels frequented by foreigners in Hanoi. He had come to the hotel on a black market merchandise run.
Mr. Rahkonen decided to pass the information to the US State Department through the Swedish ambassador in Hanoi. Notified by the Swedes of Mr. Rahkonen's meeting with Garwood and the passing of the note, the State Department cautiously noted that it was unlikely that Garwood would be free to leave any camp without Vietnamese assistance and that it could not be excluded that he had acted at the "request or demand" of the SRV. (In meetings between officials of the US Joint Task Force - Full Accounting and senior military officials on the People's Army of Vietnam, in Hanoi, June 1992, it was noted that Hanoi had "forced" Garwood to leave the country after he had officially requested permission to do so through appropriate Vietnamese channels. According to these PAVN officials, although Garwood was a "rallier," he had proven to be undisciplined, had been involved in the black market, and wa a known womanizer.)
Although the State Department had previously asked the SRV about Garwood at Operation Homecoming in 1973, and via the Four Party Joint Military Team (FPJMT) established in Vietnam pursuant to the Paris Peace AGreement, there is no record of any SRV reply. That fact notwithstanding, the State Department acted quickly once it became aware of an American wanting to be repatriated. In a message to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, it requested that the ICRC be informed of Garwood's request and that the ICRC delegate in Hanoi be apprised of the situation. (State Dept. message 140126Z FEB 79) Of course, it was not clear yet if Garwood was actually being help as a prisoner or whether he was living in Vietnam voluntarily. For this reason the State Department recommended that the ICRC tell him and the SRV that the ICRC was acting on a "humanitarian basis" to assist Garwood's repatriation. (As a "humanitarian gesture," the Secretary of State requested that, upon Garwood's release, the ICRC notify him that his mother had passed away during the last year. State Dept. message 142354Z FEB 79)
The ICRC Acting Director of Operations told the US Secretary of State that he would immediately request the ICRC delegate in Hanoi seek permission from the SRV to see Garwood and ascertain his condition and desire to be repatriated. (SECSTATE messages of 150509Z and 160331Z FEB 79) While the ICRC was working through its delegate in Hanoi to see Garwood and effect his departure from Vietnam, the SECSTATE sent an urgent message to the Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations, requesting that the Garwood matter be brought to the attention of the SRV government at the highest levels.
The Vietnamese UN ambassador expressed his "surprise" at the news that Americans could be living in the SRV against the will and stated that Hanoi's policy regarding American POWs detained in Vietnam was clear; to wit: the SRV had consistently maintained that, after 1973, no US POWs were left in Vietnam. The SRV ambassador also remarked that the SRV would have no interest in detaining Americans in his country. (SECSTATE message 152236Z FEB 79)
The US ambassador to the UN noted to the SRV ambassador that the USG was aware of the SRV policy regarding American POWs but since the Garwood case had come to light there was now the question of the possibility of other American POWs being detained in Vietnam and that this matter should be brought to the highest authorities in Hanoi. (Ibid.)
While the State Department and ICRC were attempting to work with the SRV to accelerate Garwood's repatriation, the US Congress became involved. There had been continuing interest in the Congress since Operation Homecoming to obtain the "fullest possible accounting" of US MIAs and news of Garwood had a detrimental impact upon Congressional attitudes toward normalization with Vietnam. Congressman Lester Wolff, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, along with other members of the former MIA Select Committee, had, in fact, held and ad hoc press conference in mid-February during which time Congressman Wolff and other Congressional officials noted that Garwood's presence in Vietnam might be "an indication that the MIA subject was still an open issue." Wolff then announced to the media that he was scheduling formal hearings on the MIA issue to begin on 22 February 1979.
When Congressman Gillespie (Sonny) MOntgomery (D, MS) received information about the Garwood case, he pointed out at a press conference that it came as no surprise to many Americans that an American "deserter" might still be living in Vietnam and indicated that if Garwood did come home, "He should be put in jail." (Quoted in SECSTATE message 152236Z FEB 79) Other Congressmen criticized Congressman Montgomery's remarks and noted that these kinds of statements could possibly complicate Garwood's release and that the USG's primary interest should be in helping him leave Vietnam.
The US Mission in Geneva quickly cabled the SECSTATE that the ICRC, with headquarters in Geneva, had indicated it was discouraged that the Garwood story had leaked so quickly but would do "its best" to carry out its mission on behalf of Garwood. The ICRC was also aware that a US Congresswoman was in Hanoi at the time (Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman was in Hanoi at this time. SECSTATE message 152236Z FEB 79) and was concerned that she not interfere with the role that the USG had asked the ICRC to play. In addition, the ICRC indicated that it hoped that if the Congresswoman did raise the issue, it would not have a negative effect on the ICRC's efforts to help repatriate Garwood. The ICRC further noted that "the more on pressures the Vietnamese to do something, the longer they delay."
On 17 February 1979 the US Embassy in Stockholm cabled the SECSTATE that a journalist of the "Kvallsposten," a newspaper in Malmo, Sweden, had called the SRV Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the US Embassy separately to ask if the Swedish government had been the source of the information on Garwood. Both refused to comment, but the US Embassy noted that it "does not comment on communications between governments," (AMEmbassy Stockholm message to SECSTATE 170950Z FEB 79) thereby implying that the story was true. Furthermore, it was eventually revealed that Mr. Rahkonen, the World Bank official to whom Garwood had passed the note in the Thang Loi Hotel in Hanoi, had gone to the Swedish Ambassador and asked that the Swedes act as intermediaries. (AMEmbassy Stockholm message to SECSTATE 091608Z FEB 79) The ambassador agreed to do this with the provision that Sweden not be identified in any way with the Garwood case due to Sweden's favorable relations with Hanoi.
On 26 February 1979 Hanoi finally confirmed Garwood's presence in Vietnam. US Congresswoman Holtzman was told by Vietnamese vice foreign minister Phan Hien that Garwood was "indeed living in Vietnam and is free to leave when he wishes." (SECSTATE message to US Mission Geneva 262237Z FEB 79) The next day, the SRV's UN counselor delivered a message to the US ambassador to the UN (US Mission to the UN message to SECSTATE 270127Z FEB 79) noting that Garwood's case was unique. In addition, they agreed to allow him to leave for the US under the aegis of the ICRC.
although the US Ambassador to the UN had forewarned his SRV counterpart, as early as 14 February, that the USG could not control he Garwood would explain his own situation and 14-year sojourn in Vietnam after his repatriation, the SRV's ambassador to the UN thought it surprising that the case had already received such attention in the press. The US Ambassador noted that "Perhaps there will be less interest if it is discovered that Garwood had indeed stayed behind voluntarily." (US Mission to the UN message to SECSTATE 270127Z FEB 79) Certainly, he could not have predicted how things would turn out and how long the Garwood case would remain in the public eye.
On 28 February 1979, the SECSTATE cabled the US Mission i Geneva that the SRV Mission in New York had notified the ICRC representative in Hanoi the Garwood would be allowed to leave Vietnam. (SECSTATE message to US Mission, Geneva, 280311Z FEB 79) In the telegram it also noted that the State Department had discussed the Garwood case with both DoD and the USMC and noted the procedures to be followed once Garwood came under US control. As early as 14 February, the USMC had begun planning for Garwood's repatriation. (Memo for the Director of Intelligence, USMC, 14 February 1979) Planning procedures included, among other things, readying the public affairs, intelligence, and legal personnel necessary to support Garwood's debriefing. Initial guidance suggested that the Garwood case be handled as that of all returning POWs had been handled in 1973 because Garwood was still officially listed as a POW. (In fact, USMC Captain Jordan, USMC Public Affairs Office, in an undated USMC memo (probably circa late March or early April 1979), indicated that the "Marine Corps position concerning allegations of misconduct is that until proven otherwise, Garwood is still an active duty Marine and as such will receive the same courtesy and respect accorded any other returning PW. Additionally, Captain Jordan referenced 5 USC 552, DOD Dir 5400.7, SECNAVInst 5720.42 B, HQBul 5720 of 14 Feb 1975, and MCBul 191200Z Feb 1975 -- all of which pertain to treatment of returning POWs.)
According to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (DAS) for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Frank A. Sieverts, who was the State Department's point of contact (POC) for the Garwood correspondence with the SRV, arrangements were made for GArwood to depart Hanoi on/about 15 March. He was scheduled to arrive in Bangkok, Thailand after transit through Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC/Saigon) and was to be accompanied by an ICRC representative per original arrangements, but with some variations. His departure was delayed for at least a week, however, once the SRV became aware that media reports were calling Garwood "a US POW" who was being repatriated from Vietnam. The SRV maintained that Garwood was not a POW but rather a "rallier" who had stayed in Vietnam voluntarily. Furthermore, the SRV viewed the media reports as suggesting that the SRV had lied about whether any POWs remained in Vietnam. (AMEmbassy Bangkok message to SECSTATE 151229 MAR 79) As a result, Hanoi indicated that it wanted to "study the matter" prior to releasing Garwood.
In response, DAS Sieverts wrote letters to the SRV in both English and French indicating that officials of the USG had not identified Garwood as a POW and that the "information by the SRV government was consistent with information we have received from other sources." DAS Sieverts suggested that the media reports, which noted that Garwood was a "returning POW" might have resulted from the fact that he had technically been listed by the USMC as a POW in 1965 and that his official status had never been changed. He also added that the State Department made no judgment about Garwood's present status and the "our only interest in to assist in arrangements for PFC Garwood's departure from Vietnam with the help of the ICRC." (SECSTATE message 152255Z MAR 79)
One of the variations to Garwood's exit from Vietnam lay in the original concept of having a State Department representative meet him in Ho Chi Minh City, accompany him to BAngkok, and then to Okinawa and to USMC control. It was anticipated that during the long trip from Vietnam via Thailand and then to Okinawa, the State Department representative would be able to obtain some information from Garwood about any possible remaining US POWs in Vietnam. The State Department also noted that "any legal problems between Mr. Garwood and the USMC would be solved in the US." (Telephone interview of 17 November 1992 with Andrew Antippas, former Consul General, American Embassy, Bangkok.)
After the delay caused by the discussion of Garwood's status (either "POW" or "rallier"), it was decided that the US Consul General in Bangkok, Andrew Antippas, would meet Garwood's Air France flight from HCMC. Consul General Antippas would accompany im through Thai customs, and then escort him to the waiting USMC aircraft on the military side of Bangkok's Don Muang airport. This decision was perhaps promoted by discussion between the State Department and the USMC after both of these organizations received a 14 March mailgram from Dermot G. Foley, Attorney at Law, on behalf of Robert R. Russell and his family. The Foley mailgram demanded that "there be no discussion whatever with him (PFC Garwood) respecting his experiences or his conduct in Vietnam until or unless he has had an opportunity to meet and fully consult with his family and me. " (SECSTATE message of 170059Z FEB 79 and Mailgram from Dermot G. Foley, 122 East 42d St., New York, NY 10017, to Secretary of STate Cyrus Vance and the US Marine Corps. Foley was the attorney for the National League of Families and agreed to act as Garwood's lawyer.) Little did the State Department or the USMC know that the obtrusive tone of the mailgram was to be a harbinger of the kind of legal activity which was to come in the years ahead.
Prior to meeting the Air France flight from HCMC, Consul General Antippas arranged for Garwood to by-pass Thai customs since he carried no luggage, pass through a side door of the terminal to a waiting American Embassy car, and transit the airfield to the military side and the waiting USMC C-130 aircraft. According to Mr. Antippas and a telegram from the AmEmbassy Bangkok to the SECSTATE, "Robert Garwood arrived Bangkok aboard Air FRance flight 1600 hours Bangkok time . . . USMC formalities were accomplished aboard USMC aircraft which consul witnessed. USMC aircraft departed Bangkok 1740 local time for Okinawa." (AMEmbassy Bangkok message to SECSTATE 221123Z FEB 79)
According to then-Captain Joseph Composto (telephone conversation with Colonel Joseph Composto, Director, Research and Civil Law Branch, Judge Advocate Division, USMC, Headquarters, USMC, on 22 December 1992), the USMC-appointed defense attorney, the USMC formalities consisted of taking custody of Garwood (from Consul General Antippas), allowing him to board the C-130, and then reading Article 31 of the UCMJ to him so that he would not incriminate himself by anything he might say. (NOTE: Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is, essentially, the military version of the Miranda warning against self-incrimination.) The reading of Article 31 was not an anomaly. In accordance with the UCMJ and guidance from the military service secretaries, all former POWs who were suspected of having aided or collaborated with the enemy in any way, were first read Article 31 and apprised of their legal rights so that they would be protected from self-incrimination.
During the trip from Bangkok to Okinawa Garwood appeared to be happy to be back under US control, according to Composto. In fact, defense attorney Composto had to advise Garwood several times during the flight not to say anything which might be used against him in a court of law. Apparently, although Garwood had noted his understanding of Article 31 when it was read to him in Bangkok, he did not appear to comprehend that he was going to be charged under the UCMJ. (Telephone interview with COL Composto, 22 Dec 92) Excited and talkative during the flight, Garwood wanted to know about the changes in the US since 1965 and even asked what had happened to his Mighty Mite jeep upon his disappearance in September of that year. (The in-flight discussions with Garwood are rather interesting that they show Garwood had not forgotten his native language, English, as he was to insist later to both the media and USG officials.) Although Garwood had no luggage with him, he did have some personal effects and the high school ring which belonged to SGT Joe Zawtocki, USMC, a fellow POW with whom he had exchanged "rings" while in one of the POW camps. (SGT Zawtocki, USMC, died in captivity. His remains were returned to the US on 14 August 1985. Apparently, GArwood and Zawtocki had exchanged rings in a type of "bonding:" ceremony. Eventually, this ring and a "kind of PLO" scarf would end up in the hands of Dermot Foley (according to Foley's widow) and would never be returned to Garwood. No evidence has been found, however, to document an association between the "PLO" scarf and "threats of death" supposedly made to Garwood by the SRV.)
It was not until Garwood arrived in Okinawa that he fully understood that he was going to be subject to prosecution due to his conduct in Vietnam. Upon arrival and admission to Okinawa's Camp Kuwae Hospital, Garwood was given a general physical examination, fitted for a new uniform, given a world events update, and cleared for further travel. In addition, then-Captain Composto continued to explain the legal rights of the preferred charges against Garwood prior to their departure for Chicago on Northwest Airlines a few days later. (After Action Report of 20 April from Director, Manpower Plans and Policy Division, USMC, to Director, History and Museums Division, USMC)
Traveling via Tokyo, Garwood was again able to avoid the media by remaining on the aircraft. Upon arrival in Chicago, he was met by his family and civilian attorney Dermot Foley and then taken to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital. Garwood remained under observation at the hospital for a couple of weeks, during which time he was debriefed on 29 March by Captain M. Shanklin, a USMC intelligence officer, and then by Congressmen Wolff and Gilman on 4 April. (REf. undated, but probably circa 1 April 1979 USMC Synopsis of Garwood's debriefing by USMC as well as 4 April 1979 transcript of Garwood Interview by Congressmen Wolff and Gilman. Both meetings were held at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital.)
The USMC debriefing scheduled to last from 1300 - 1615 hours on the 29th actually began at 1435 and ran until 1615 and that of the Congressmen was a morning session of two hours and 20 minutes duration. The reasons for which the USMC debriefing was of such short duration are not clear; however, in both of these debriefings it appeared obvious to both the USMC and the Congressmen that PFC Garwood had no information on live US POWs in Vietnam and, indeed, he specifically told the debriefers that he had no first-hand information on live US POWs. (In a 6 April 1979 announcement from the Committee on Foreign Affairs, it was noted that Congressmen Wolff and Gilman had informally questioned Garwood concerning the possibility of American prisoners still alive in Vietnam. The announcement also noted that "Full discussion of PFC Garwood's knowledge must await conclusion of Marine Corps legal proceedings." Wolff and Gilman also added that "We are pleased and grateful for the cooperation extended us by the Marine Corps . . . They are making every effort to aid our task with full regard for Pvt. Garwood's legal rights.")
Additionally, in DIA's evaluation of the USMC interview, it was noted that
". . . Garwood provided no information which would confirm that Americans still remain in Vietnam. Garwood has provided only rumors common during the years following the fall of Saigon and reported to DIA via other sources in the past. Garwood did not provide any new or potentially useful information . . . It should be noted that the scope of the debriefing was limited at the request of Garwood's civilian attorney."
(Undated DIA memo of probably late March or early April 1979, entitled
"DIA Evaluation of PW/MIA Information Provided by PFC Robert R. Garwood,
USMC." It should be noted here that this DIA memo also indicated
that "All of his information is admittedly hearsay, rumor, opinion or
possibly propaganda with no specific information of concrete evidence which
would verify his statements." Neither in 1979, nor in any of his
later testimony, did any of Garwood's statements on his live sightings in
Vietnam after 1973 lead to the recovery of an US POWs.)
In statements given by Garwood at both of these debriefings, as well as in statements to defense attorney Composto, Garwood said that he "had heard from the populace" that there were other US POWs but that he had not seen any himself. (Garwood maintained, to both the media and other organizations, that he had not seen any other US POWs or even Americans after his departure from South Vietnam in 1969. He changed his story in a 4 December 1984 interview with the Wall Street Journal when he indicated that he had seen a number of US POWs at several locations in Vietnam. None of these live sightings has ever been corroborated.)