Joseph Stalin supposedly once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
A great deal has been written about the shameless and utterly unforgivable abandonment of American POWs in the wake of the Vietnam War—although, thanks to the American news media, few people are aware of it—but, up to now, no writing that we are aware of quite captures the tragedy and, yes, the outrage of this cold and heartless policy so much as Carol Hrdlicka’s recent book, Finding David: An American Wife Betrayed by Her Government.
The book is an autobiography, taking us to Carol’s early years growing up in the Mountain West, being swept off her feet as a 16 year-old in Littleton, Colorado, by the handsome, well-built and very mannerly 22-year-old Minnesota native, David Hrdlicka, who was already in the Air Force but had not yet become a fighter pilot. As a suitor, he comes across as almost a perfect Prince Charming, and we see him later as an ideal husband and father and a very professional airman, the wingman of future Republican Congressman Bob Dornan when they were fighter pilots together in training at a base in California. “Every faithful American should read this chronicle of a truly spiritual battle!” he concludes in his introduction to the book.
Carol was just 19 years old when they were married. When she got the news in May of 1965 at their home in Wichita, Kansas, near McConnell AFB where David was based, that David’s plane had been shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and he had been taken captive, she was only 27, with two young sons and a daughter in between.
It was shattering news, but there was reason for hope. He had parachuted into territory controlled by the Communist Pathet Lao and was seen walking without assistance in the company of his captors. He was never in the status of my maternal uncle, Gray Bell, who was declared Missing in Action in the early days of the Korean War and remains missing to this day. Rather, his situation would seem to have been like that of an older uncle, David Bell, who was captured by the Germans and returned to his family at the end of World War II or that of my great grandfather, John Henry Martin, who survived the Yankee version of the Confederacy’s infamous Andersonville, the POW camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, and also returned to his family at the end of the U.S. Civil War.
But one special problem Carol had from the beginning was that Laos was not recognized as a party to the war that was being fought over control of South Vietnam, although both sides of the war were violating Laos’s sovereignty on a daily basis. Officially, the war in Laos was a secret war, although it is better described as an “open secret” war. The North Vietnamese didn’t acknowledge that they were massively infiltrating men and war supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the U.S. did not officially acknowledge that they were there doing what David got shot down while doing, attempting to interdict the infiltration. Carol was told to keep her mouth shut about her missing husband because it might endanger his life, and she dutifully complied. She would learn much later that all the other families with loved ones missing or known to have been captured in Laos had been told the same thing. More than anything, the big hush-hush approach gave the Air Force an excuse to keep Carol and the other families in the dark. She had to learn about her husband’s situation from other sources than her own government.
In July of 1966, a little more than a year after David’s capture, her father-in-law in Colorado sent her a photograph of David in captivity that had been published in the Denver Post. They had picked it up from Russia’s Pravda, where it had first appeared. That was followed in the same month by a propaganda recording in which David denounced his country’s military policy in Laos and asked for a pardon so he could rejoin his family. It was reassuring to know that he was still alive, but no further information about David’s situation followed.
From that point on, the Air Force seemed to do its best to kill David off, if not literally, at least administratively. The Air Force Casualty office, in fact, gave her notification in 1969 that her husband had died in captivity, but they provided no supporting evidence for it.
When the POWs held by the Communists were returned in 1973, David Hrdlicka—like hundreds of others known to have been held captive at one time—was not among them. In November of 1977, a hearing was held at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas at which David was officially declared to be dead. The title that Carol has chosen for the chapter concerning that event well summarizes the evidence that the Air Force produced for its conclusion, “Lies, Lies, and More Lies.”
But as Carol saw things at the time, all doors that might have led to David, just over a dozen years after his falling into the hands of the enemy, had been shut with finality. She had to get on with her life, and eventually she remarried.
The New Carol Hrdlicka
Then in July of 1990, just over 25 years after David’s capture, she received in the mail a heavily redacted document from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in which someone, writing in the present tense on June 27, 1989, states, “I AM TALKING TO COL CHAENG (BRIG GEN) PL COMMANDER OF THE 11TH REGIMENT AT KHAM KEUT, KHAM MONAME PROVINCE. SUSPECTING OF HOLDING D. HERLICKA [sic] AND FRIENDS.”
At that point, her life changed radically. She stopped being the hapless victim of her government and its policies and turned into a fervent crusader for her husband (She had her second marriage annulled.) and for truth and justice. Her transformation is well summed up by these two paragraphs from her June 1995 Congressional testimony:
David was sent into harm’s way by the U.S. Government into a covert, unconstitutional war in Laos. Where was oversight by Congress? David was an ordinary serviceman, so why was he used in a covert, unconstitutional war in Laos when there was no leverage to get him released? David’s constitutional rights have been violated, and I need the help of Congress to protect David’s rights. (a quaint and old-fashioned notion in these days of Presidential vaccine mandates. ed)
For many years I believed in and trusted every government official. I accepted as fact everything they told me about David’s case. However, after seeing the evidence, I realize my trust has been betrayed. What is even worse, the U.S. government has betrayed their honorable servicemen. How is it that for more than 20 years this continual pattern of lying and deceiving the families has been allowed to continue? We have had many hearings and heard many promises, then in the end we are always patted on the head, and business as usual returns. People within the agencies, such as Mr. Trowbridge, are promoted and continued on in their jobs. Where is Congressional oversight? I’ve heard the lies and the promises, yet today, I am no closer to finding the truth about David’s whereabouts or fate. (p. 190, bolding in the original)
The “Mr. Trowbridge” referred to here is Charles Trowbridge, the civilian picked to succeed the conscientious Army Infantry Colonel Millard Peck, decorated veteran of three tours in Vietnam, who had been chosen to head up the DIA’s Special Office for POWs/MIAs in July of 1990, but had lasted only eight months on the job before being forced out. Col. Peck had been forced out, apparently, because he took his job seriously and was genuinely trying to learn the full truth about abandoned POWs. Before leaving office, Col. Peck posted a summary of charges against the DIA and its POW efforts on his door, and he submitted a blistering resignation letter.
Carol suspects that Col. Peck was responsible for that fateful July 1990 correspondence being sent to her. She has a summary of Col. Peck’s charges, but one can find them as well in my review of An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia. One can also watch his May 30, 1991, testimony before a Congressional committee in the wake of his resignation on C-Span at https://www.c-span.org/video/?18186-1/dia-special-office-pows-mias.
Near the end of Col. Peck’s testimony, there is a contentious exchange between Committee Chairman Stephen Solarz and Peck over his charges against Ann Mills Griffiths, the head of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. One can read his charges against her as a nefarious actor in league more with a dubious cabal within the government than with the families on page 118 and page 120 of Carol’s book and in my review of An Enormous Crime. Carol, on page 176, comes down foursquare on the side of Col. Peck:
Every year the government holds meetings on the POW issue where they do briefings. The briefings are always about remains, never about live POW searches. There are two groups: One is the National League of Families, which has turned into an arm of the U.S. government and only looks for remains; the other group is The Alliance of Families, who looks for the truth about what happened to their loved ones, abandoned POWs.
The Role of the Press
A critical Los Angeles Times article about Griffiths and the League from August 11, 1991, is still online, and it makes very interesting reading. It is unusual for a mainstream press article in its airing of the voices of genuine POW families and the explosive charges of Col. Peck. His should have been a household name considering who he was and what he was saying, but I must confess that until I read An Enormous Crime, I can’t recall having ever heard of him.
The big news-media eye-opener for Carol came in June of 1992 the day after a bombshell dropped by a former high government official before the Senate Select Committee on POWs/MIAs:
During the hearings, a Senator asked the former Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, “In your view, did we leave men behind?”
“I can come to know other conclusion, Senator. In 1973, some were left behind,” said Schlesinger.”
We thought that the former Defense Secretary’s admission would be front-page news the next day. Instead, the POW community was shocked to find that the Schlesinger bombshell was completely blacked out, not covered by the news at all. (p. 136)
This was the same experience that Representatives Billy Hendon and John LeBoutillier had had in 1981 when outgoing DIA head Gen. Eugene Tighe made a more explicit and authoritative charge before Congress, as I recount in my review of Hendon and Stewart’s An Enormous Crime and Carol does on pp. 137-138.
I believe the general perception that the public has about the issue is that our government did consciously abandon POWs in Southeast Asia. This doesn’t result from what they have read or heard about it from the news media, though. For a good analysis of our press’s shortcomings on the matter, go to https://www.powhrdlicka.com/news-media-exposed/ on Carol’s web site. You will see that the press has largely given the issue the silent treatment.
Rather than the press, popular culture, especially the Rambo movies and the Rolling Thunder demonstrations—along with the black and white POW/MIA flags—has kept the issue, if not in the forefront, at least in the back of people’s minds. Not daring to attack Rolling Thunder and the families it represents, the American press has left its dirty work for the British to do, as we see from this concluding statement on the organization’s Wikipedia page: “The Economist said the organization ‘was founded…to advance a specific crackpot belief: that successive Republican and Democratic administrations have concealed evidence that American captives are being held alive in South-East Asia.’”
The Economist would have us believe that “bipartisan” cover-ups in official Washington are completely unthinkable.
At the Heart of Our Corruption
The priority that our Deep State has given to burying our Vietnam War POWs is well illustrated by the political fortunes of those in the forefront of the effort. The Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, John Kerry, later became the Democratic nominee for President, then the Secretary of State, and is now the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the Biden administration. Kerry’s committee, we should be reminded, did its best to drive the final nail in the coffin of the abandoned POWs.
Kerry is not the main villain of Carol’s book, though. That dubious distinction belongs to another member of the Select Committee, Senator John McCain of Arizona. I thought I had captured the man’s thorough rottenness pretty well when I wrote my song parody, “A Street Named McCain,” back in early 2019, but until I read Carol’s book I didn’t know the half of it. McCain, with no more appealing a personality than Kerry, also became his party’s nominee for President. When he died, he received a grand funeral at the National Cathedral, with everyone who is anyone within our political establishment heaping praise upon him.
And that brings us to the Senate Minority Leader at the time who selected McCain to serve on Kerry’s committee, Senator Bob Dole. Dole was hardly more personally appealing than Kerry or McCain, but he, too, became his party’s nominee for President. As we write these lines, the National Cathedral is gearing up to give Dole a McCain-like send-off.
From Carol’s book, we get a little different picture of the man—who was also Carol Hrdlicka’s Kansas Senator—than we will hear in the eulogies, though:
On one of our many trips to D.C. in the early 1990s, David Jr. and I had a meeting with Senator Bob Dole to get his help in getting David’s file declassified and given to me. As David Jr. started his presentation, he held up a captive picture of his father…and Dole screamed and yelled…
“I’m sick and tired of those fake photos!”
I then responded to him, “How dare you! I have had this picture in my possession since 1966! How dare you say that!”
Dole backtracked. He explained it was at a time when there was a lot of POW activity and conversation and there were photos coming out of Southeast Asia. In my opinion, he was trying to debunk the story that David might still be alive.
William Ramsey’s excellent interview of Carol Hrdlicka about her book is here.