LEGACY OF COVERT WAR - THE BOYS WE LEFT BEHIND
By Monika Jensen-Stevenson and William Stevenson
ONE OF THE high costs of covert operations in Southeast Asia has been the
denial of normal rights to U.S. armed forces personnel taken prisoner during
the Vietnam War. If American military men and women become involved in secret
operations in the Persian Gulf, their rights as prisoners may be no better
The Paris peace accords of 1973 resulted in the homecoming of 591 U.S.
servicemen whom communist authorities admitted to holding. However, according
to an interim Senate staff report to be released today (see Page C4), an April
1974 Defense Department intelligence document concluded that several hundred
POWs remained in captivity. This intelligence remained classified until now
under the rationale of protecting U.S. covert activities.
The Pentagon in 1973 listed 317 Americans as missing in Laos, and government
spokesmen were quoted as saying the figure was actually much higher. The
communist Pathet Lao claimed it had a detailed list of prisoners but would hand
this over only if the U.S. government were willing to negotiate. The
government, which was still conducting covert operations against the Pathet
Lao, did not negotiate.
Some of the young men recruited from the U.S. armed forces to participate in
covert warfare obeyed orders reluctantly; others entered secret agreements in
the belief they would be entitled to the usual guarantees that the U.S.
government, in return for their services, would make every effort to bring them
home or give a full accounting of their fate to their families. Few, if any,
members of the armed services expected to be treated as "plausibly deniable" in
the manner of Central Intelligence Agency controlled assets, and yet they were.
Here are two of their stories:
Air Force Sgt. Peter Cressman was a Morse systems operator assigned to an
EC-47Q "Flying Pueblo" reconnaissance aircraft. On Feb. 5, 1973, while on a
mission on the Vietnam-Laos border, the EC-47Q was shot down. The shoot-down
occurred nine days after the Paris peace accords were signed. Cressman had
realized that he and his colleagues were flagrantly violating the peace in a
neutral country. Worried about the possibility of becoming responsible for war
crimes, he had visited the base legal office to find out what his rights and
obligations were. He was told he had no right to do anything but obey orders,
even if they were illegal.
Cressman's family would never have known about their son's mental anguish in
the days before his shoot-down if he had not written several drafts of a
letter, addressed to a public official, outlining his dilemma and asking for
help. If he ever completed an official letter, there was no public record of
it. Instead, the draft letters were returned to his family with his belongings.
Evelyn Cressman felt that someone in her son's unit wanted his family to know
the truth, and that this was how the drafts escaped the notice of military
After the crash, it seemed unlikely there would be survivors. Air Force
sources later told the Cressmans there was little chance of skilled specialists
like their son being taken prisoner. Because of the sophisticated electronic
equipment on board, arrangements existed for the immolation and destruction of
the aircraft before it could fall into enemy hands, and it was almost
impossible for the men to bail out.
The unlikely occurred. Shortly after the shoot-down, another U.S.
reconnaissance aircraft intercepted enemy communications and ascertained that
at least four members of the EC-47Q had survived and been captured. This
information was conveyed to U.S. officials almost immediately. A few days
later, a U.S. search party found more evidence that crew members were taken
captive. On Feb. 17, four crew members were seen and identified about 15 miles
from the crash site, in apparent good health and under the guard of their
captors. U.S. officials were again made immediately aware of this information.
The Cressmans and other families of the EC-47Q flight crew were told none of
this although Air Force directives ordered that families of such men be given
the most complete information possible. Seventeen days after the shoot-down,
the Air Force declared all of the men dead.
Long after the war was over, Evelyn Cressman and Mary Matejov, the mother of
Sgt. Joseph M. Matejov, one of Cressman's fellow crew members, went to see POW
Task Force Director Roger Shields. He told them, they said, that their sons'
names had initially been placed in the U.S. list of POWs to be returned in 1973
(i.e., those for whom the United States insisted on an accounting based on its
own intelligence that they were alive). The mothers reported that Shields told
them the names had then been crossed off the list. Shields wanted them to know,
he said, that he himself had not made that decision. Then-congressman Billy
Hendon (R-N.C.) later told the Cressmans he personally saw their son's name
penciled in the official Operation Homecoming Bluebook. The name was crossed
through and marked over with "Killed in Action."
To Hendon, it seemed that the government was indicating to the former enemy
that the United States was abandoning the men and the communists could
therefore treat them as badly as they wanted. The Cressmans, like many other
families, vowed to find out what really happened.
It took them years to find out that two months after the shoot-down, the four
captives were sighted again, still in apparent good health, about 40 miles from
the crash site. Again, such information was known immediately by U.S. officials
but withheld from the families.
The Cressmans also found there were persons in the Department of Defense who
strongly objected to what was done, but to no avail. These dissenters did
succeed in having a written memorandum of their protest included in official
files. Those files remain classified. When we first spoke to Evelyn Cressman,
she told us, "Some of those dissenters told me privately what happened. They
say they can't go public because it will hurt the country. It will damage
national security. Whose security? The security of boys like my son, Peter?"
She sent us a voluminous file on her son. It included clearly stated "live
sighting" intelligence reports on her son and a lengthy correspondence with
government officials. The Cressmans explored every avenue in an attempt to get
their government to take action to bring back its own men. The best answer they
ever got was an evasive admission that information indicating some of the crew
might have survived had been received and withheld by the government. The
information was not, however, enough to warrant a reconsideration of the
determination of death.
Mel Holland was an American Air Force sergeant with a special talent for
electronic intelligence and high-tech warfare who felt trapped in a covert
operation in Laos. "They lied to us about this operation," he had written to
his wife, Ann. "We'll talk about it on my next leave." But there was no next
leave. He was lost soon after in a communist command strike everyone said was
impossible. "They lied to us," he wrote, "real bad."
What did he mean? The question had gnawed at Ann Holland during her long years
of struggle to raise five children alone. She was warned by U.S. officials to
drop the issue.
Melvin Holland had disappeared in 1968. He had been assigned as a technician
to a remote mountain top in Laos: Site 85, one of a chain of bases in the CIA's
war in Laos, where, supposedly, no war was going on. Officially, he was based
in Thailand. Each time he was flown from Thailand into Laos, he was "sanitized"
and turned into a civilian in a secret war. If he was captured, or if his unit
threatened to become a political embarrassment, the U.S. government would deny
all knowledge of them.
In March 1969, Ann was told he was missing. She must say nothing, not even to
her five small children. Two years later, President Richard Nixon denied the
loss of any Americans in ground combat in Laos. Ann had then asked her case-
officer, "If my husband wasn't lost in Laos, where was he lost?"
Holland contacted us after hearing about the POWs story Monika had produced
for CBS News's "60 Minutes." The segment, entitled "Dead or Alive," aired
during the Christmas season of 1985. We knew who she was because Site 85 had
cropped up in Monika's research. Monika had even come across a report that at
one time the U.S. government had put $6 million in a Hong Kong bank as a ransom
payment for six Site 85 technicians. But we could never get a handle on what
really happened because every bit of documentation was classified and most
family members of men who had disappeared there were afraid to talk because
they had signed secrecy oaths. Ann understood the frustration because she had
struggled for years to learn the truth about what happened to Melvin.
We felt Ann had a right to find out what happened - the truth might hurt
national pride, nothing more. We were also intrigued by Site 85. Monika told
her she'd look into her husband's case, and our education in irregular warfare
took a new turn.
We heard, for instance, about "sheep-dipping" - a process for building the
secret CIA army. An American serviceman, like Mel Holland, would go through the
motions of formal resignation, his records would be transferred to a top-secret
file, and some convincing story would be invented to explain his sudden return
to civilian life. In Mel's case, the story was that he was working for Hughes
Aircraft. However, he would continue to pursue his military career, though
officially "off the books." He was then ready for clandestine activities.
Pensions and insurance had to be somehow covered, and the CIA ran its own
proprietary companies to deal with such problems. In some cases the families of
MIAs who were sheep-dipped still receive two pensions - one from the military
and one from the civilian "cover" company. It was thought by some that this was
considered a good way to keep the families quiet, since they could be
threatened with losing one pension.
In the summer of 1986, Ann came to Washington from her home on the Pacific
coast to ask a former helicopter pilot who had flown her husband and other men
on and off the peak for rest breaks in Thailand, "Were they captured?"
"That's something I cannot, absolutely cannot, talk about," he said. She
demanded a better answer, and he said, "Ann, those men did not technically
exist then. They do not technically exist now.... But you're on the right
track. Don't give up now."
Ann got a copy of a top-secret intelligence analysis of the seizure of Site
85 during a brief period when it was declassified.
What she saw made it clear that her husband and other U.S. airmen were prized
by the enemy as "special talents." In 1968, at Site 85, they ran highly secret
equipment to guide American bombers onto targets around Hanoi, 160 miles to the
east. The CIA said the enemy could not possibly pierce the heavily fortified,
narrow path to the top, or scale the steep 5,600-foot cliffs. Despite such
assurances, the enemy took the garrison in a surprise assault, using tactics
developed by the Soviet Union's "Spetsznaz" special-operations regiment.
Ann sent us her own painfully acquired documents. They revealed an
extraordinary effort by friends in the armed forces to help her dig out facts.
A senior U.S. Army officer, who had served with distinction in combat and
military intelligence in three wars, said, "Remember, lots of areas in Laos,
like Site 85, are remote. Communists come seldom, and then to collect taxes and
rice. Even in that one cave where American captives have been reported, the
communists don't have much communication equipment.... One CIA rescue effort
was abruptly cancelled. There were to be six prisoners rescued. One died of a
bleeding ulcer. They were Site 85 personnel. They were separated from another
three prisoners in another cave. ALEX (code name for a ground observer) has a
friend there captured in 1978, three years after Saigon fell, and was set up to
be captured, but that's real low profile. The six Air Force guys captured are
on the mountain at Phou Pha Thi.... "
Cmdr. Hugh Taylor, a retired U.S. Navy pilot who later became a newspaper
editor and spent many years seeking answers to the Site 85 mystery, claimed,
"The U.S. government lied, threatened and purposely withheld information from
the wives and families of the men left behind at Site 85. Families were
prevented from finding out each other's identities to foil any attempt to
correlate what little they knew, and were warned to stop trying to find out
what happened. There are reports the Americans at the site were denied
defensive support because their presence posed a threat to local CIA-supported
Hugh Taylor had a personal interest. During the Vietnam War, he had been
approached to fly unspecified missions. Those who advised him against the
seductive offer of intrigue and adventure - he was very young then and admired
the secret services - later told him he was lucky. Had he volunteered to be
sheep-dipped, he would likely be counted among the missing, his fate concealed
from friends and family.
Just like Melvin Holland.