The POW hunt was in its sixth sweaty hour when the Vietnamese officer made clear what he thought the prospects were.
“If there were a real possibility, I would have to go with you. But there isn’t anything, so you can just go,” Senior Col. Tran Bien said, allowing the American investigators to continue on unescorted.
Prospects were indeed slim. It was already clear that the point on a map where activist Billy Hendon said American prisoners were held in an underground mountain prison was in reality a rice paddy in the lowlands.
“We’re going to have to go over there and ask that farmer if he knows of any holes in the ground, so to speak,” said the lead U.S. investigator, Bill Hutchinson. None of the farmers did.
The daylong search Sunday of two villages in Vinh Phu province, 50 miles northwest of Hanoi, punctured Hendon’s allegation that hundreds of POWs were secreted underground in a mountain there.
But the search, as dozens before it of other suspect sites, could not prove what many Americans want Washington to prove - that there are no POWs anywhere in Vietnam.
The 2,204 U.S. servicemen who vanished during the war haunt America like no other MIAs in its history.
For Hendon and a few dozen others who have turned the POW hunt into a full-time avocation, it is an article of faith that hundreds of servicemen are in their third decade of captivity, ignored by two governments that regard them as an embarrassment.
Many other Americans are skeptical enough of Hanoi’s good faith to want fuller clarification before the United States establishes diplomatic relations with its former enemy - a move President Clinton is now considering.
Over the past three years, the U.S. government has spent more than $54 million searching Vietnamese archives, interviewing Vietnamese veterans and peasants and digging up old battlefields and plane crash sites.
Certainty eludes them. Vietnam is almost as big as California, with rugged mountains and thick jungle creating countless remote places where prisoners could be hidden. Investigators could bushwhack the entire 1,050-mile length of the country without being able to prove, by U.S. courtroom standards, that POWs were not hidden anywhere.
“You can’t prove a negative,” investigator Gary Flanagan said Sunday, using a phrase repeated often by participants in the MIA-POW hunts.
Certainly it would have seemed too easy, and unlikely, after all the years of Vietnamese denial, for the investigators, an Associated Press reporter and three Vietnamese escorts to drive up to a village, ask to see its secret prison and be shown cells of Americans in their 40s and 50s.
On the other hand, without mounting commando raids on suspect sites around the country, U.S. Defense Department teams can hardly search Vietnamese prisons and military compounds without Vietnamese escorts.
U.S. investigators say they look for details to bolster the POW live-sighting reports, most of which came in the 1980s from Vietnamese refugees. The witness may have related that the terrain was flat or hilly, the building large and obvious or well-hidden, near a river or near a town.
The investigator also looks for signs that the area is closely guarded and supplies are being brought in.
If much of the witness story clashes with what the investigator observes, he may conclude the POW part was fabricated, too - perhaps in hopes of reaping one of the rewards offered by Hendon’s POW Publicity Fund or other groups.
The number of new POW-sighting reports has fallen off, but Hendon and others pour over the old ones, looking for similarities and demanding investigations. Four old reports were the basis for Hendon’s charge that prisoners were held “in a highly secure, sophisticated underground prison inside a mountain, inside the military security zone near Hung Hoa, Vinh Phu province.”
The investigators found no mountains, no multiple rings of security, no forbidden military zone - just paddies along the Red River backed by rolling, low clay hills. Flanagan climbed the highest elevation in the area, a hill 238 feet above sea level, but saw only a lake stretching southward.
Hendon immediately distributed a statement by fax denouncing the search as a “complete and total sham.”
The U.S. Defense Department has yet to issue a formal conclusion, but Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official Tran Van Tu was blunt in his assessment.
“A waste of time,” he said.
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