Attention Veterans, POW/MIA families and Concerned Citizens: Bill Bell’s book “Leave No man Behind” has been reduced 50%. For only $10 you now have a wonderful opportunity to emphasize the importance of a full accounting for our nation’s missing personnel by presenting both your Senators and Representatives a copy of this iconic book. Election day is fast approaching and National POW/MIA Recognition Day is Friday, September 19, 2014, act now!
Many people have asked me over the years why I became involved in the POW/MIA issue. I wanted to help the families was my answer, which was true then and remains true today. Anyone who spends even an hour with a family would have a hard time not wanting to help. Not only is their pain still palpable, the sheer frustration of not knowing what happened to their father, son, brother, or husband, and worse, being so powerless to solve the mystery , resonates a particular helplessness that any listener would want to comfort. Still, after many meetings and long hours spent studying and researching the issue, it dawned on me that there was another, more subtle, reason that drove me beyond mere outrage at what had happened to many American families. It is the sense of meeting a national commitment, an awareness of honoring those who came before us and who sacrificed everything.
That sense of national honor is personified in Garnett “Bill” Bell, a man who, as the U.S. Government’s top POW/MIA field investigator in Southeast Asia for many years, doggedly pursued the answers to the fate of over twenty-five hundred Americans missing from the Vietnam War. It was his ability to articulate precisely why this quest was so important that compelled me to continue to seek answers. That is why we wrote this book—to help the American people truly grasp the evolution of the POW/MIA issue, and to show whom the real culprits are—the cold hearted rulers of Hanoi. During Bell’s career some three hundred and fifty Americans were recovered and identified; this detailed account of the many trials and tribulations encountered attempting to identify those missing men, as well as the events that ultimately caused him to seek retirement and abandon his official involvement in this noble effort, will help the American people understand the history of the issue, the possible fate of some MIAs, and why this matter continues unresolved.
I first met Bill Bell at the annual National League of POW/MIA Families meeting in July 1994. I was just beginning to work on what later became my first book, Codename Bright Light: the Untold Story of U.S. POW rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War. I had called him shortly after he had retired and moved back to Arkansas from Thailand. After I introduced myself and asked to interview him at the meeting, he graciously accepted and then rather unexpectedly told me to “come on down to Ft. Smith” and stay a few days with him. Surprised by his spontaneous gesture, I politely declined due to work reasons, but inside I was stunned at his desire to help a complete stranger, which was light years from the suspicious activists I had met as I first tried to learn the issue.
Our talk that day eventually grew into a close friendship and close working relationship. In speaking with Bill, over time I developed a fascination with the nuances of a subject on the surface so simple yet so breathtakingly complex. For me, learning the full history of the POW/MIA issue (which in Bell’s view —beyond the moral component—was a matter of national security), was akin to peering behind the curtain, like Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, and discovering unseen powers at work.
Over the years the issue devolved into three camps: a small group of families and activists hardened by frustration and convinced that successive administrations were covering up a horrendous crime—the abandonment of hundreds of American prisoners to the Communists; a larger group of families less suspicious of the accounting effort but desperately wanting an answer, and a bureaucracy often trying to do the right thing , but hamstrung by national policies ill suited to a democratic society’s demands for results. Despite the best intentions, however, often it appeared that some in the bureaucracy sought to control the issue for their own personal agenda, responding in a knee-jerk fashion to the slightest whiff of criticism, some of it justified, some not. At the other end of the spectrum, for a few other Americans, the issue became their Holy Grail, and as with most fanatics, reason and truth played no part in their worldview, only embellished tales and the spun fantasies of con men. The attention of the American public, unable to follow the intricacies, ebbed and flowed like the tide. As time passed or each new hot revelation was explained away, the nation slowly developed “compassion fatigue” and turned away from the anguish.
Bell is in the middle, seeing neither some vast conspiracy to abandon hundreds of American soldiers nor understanding why the truth could be so difficult to accept, that most likely some Americans were kept prisoner by the North Vietnamese after the war, or that they could rapidly account for many missing Americans if they made the political decision to do so.
No doubt this book will rankle some current and former government POW/MIA bureaucrats along with many activists. Both groups want the public to see the issue from their perspective, and they manipulate the data to achieve that context. Much of the still on-going debate revolves around the “live-prisoner” issue. To be clear there is little doubt that most men died in their incident or shortly thereafter. For about half the missing men, witnesses saw the deaths, and battlefield emergencies prevented their compatriots from recovering their remains. Nevertheless, for many others major questions, and when placed within the framework of the well-known Communist Vietnamese efforts to to exploit American POWs for diplomatic concessions, or their remains and personal effects for financial rewards , these questions become deeply disturbing. “Only Hanoi knows,” claimed the bumper sticker from years ago, a phrase more apt than the vast majority of Americans comprehended then or today.
What is most difficult for the newcomer reading this book and listening to the various commentators to understand is that much of the intelligence on the missing men is not black or white, but multiple shades of gray, which in combination with a seemingly implacable foe who controlled the old battlefields and who was determined to use this leverage to extract concessions from from its imperialist enemy, created questions seemingly impervious to American efforts to answer. This “grayness” enables certain people to slant their analysis on the POW/MIA perspective a particular way, claiming selected facts reveal the truth, which of course, is the truth as they want to see it. Plus, a cottage industry peculiar to Southeast Asia of bone hunters seeking rewards and working in a culture where embroidered hearsay is far more prevalent than a Westernized version of truthfulness, have led to years of wild tales and dead-ends. This book is designed to help the American public see through the smoke and mirrors, to understand precisely what occurred and understand the missteps that were made.
This chronicle details the many events surrounding the career of Bill Bell, from his time as a young infantryman going to war in 1965 to his retirement in 1993. It is his memoirs, not an in-depth examination of the POW/MIA issue from a policy level. While the book recounts most of the major actions and organizational changes that influenced the U.S. Government’s handling of the issue, it is written solely from his perspective as a witness to these historical proceedings. His account is designed to amplify the record, to provide one insider’s account, to the extent memory and documentation are able, so that future generations may know and understand his role in the monumental task of recovering our soldiers and civilians who went missing from the conflagration known as the Vietnam War. Without a doubt many other people served with distinction and honor. Their omission reflects not any overarching role by Bell, but are simply far too numerous to mention.
One might reasonably ask, then, who is Bill Bell and why is he significant? What makes his voice unique, his experiences fascinating, his knowledge vital, and his analysis of the issue and the Vietnamese Communist plans so critical? The answer is simply this: for all the people who have worked or toiled in the U.S. Government’s efforts to account for the nation’s missing men in Southeast Asia, Bill Bell is the only government official who has been directly involved in every aspect of the complex issue at each stage of the events that unfolded over the years. Only someone with Bell’s dogged perseverance and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Vietnamese Communists , combined with his fluency in the various regional languages, could hope to penetrate the system the Communists had created to essentially milk a humanitarian effort for revenue to support themselves. Patience and persistence, traits more often associated with Asian mentality than the go-getting Americans, along with Sun Tzu’s famous dictum to know one’s enemy, allowed Bill Bell the opportunity to get close to the heart of the mystery. In particular, Bell’s candor and unflinching honesty won him an extraordinary trust among the families, a rarity for a government official working in the issue. While the family organizations to protect their interests, as a government official in a politically sensitive position, it was a trait that did not always endear him to his superiors.
Perhaps to give the reader a sense of the families’ anguish, to comprehend a man like Bell to sacrifice so much is an almost Don Quixoteesque pursuit of the truth, let me provide what was for me what was an epiphany into the families’ sorrow. On the day I was to meet Bell at the hotel where the National League of Families was holding their annual get-together, I dropped off my bags in my room. Realizing I left my notebook in my car in the basement-parking garage, I rode the elevator back down to retrieve it . On the way back up, the car stopped at the lobby. As the door opened, an elderly couple tried to enter. Seeing they were straining with a large suitcase, I offered to assist them, which the lady quietly accepted. They walked inside, each taking a spot on opposite sides of me. As the door closed on the three of us, I spotted a badge on the woman’s jacket. Not clearly reading the text, I asked her “what brings you here?” The woman said nothing. She looked away from me, her gaze drifting down to the floor. In a soft voice from the other side of the car, her husband’s voice answered: “Our son.”
As I turned to look at him, it was then that I could clearly read the badge on his shirt—“National League of POW/MIA Families.” I could hear the strain in his voice, an emotion that clipped off further words, as if he wanted to say something more, but was unable to explain to a complete stranger thirty years of anguish over a missing child, to make me understand why they kept coming to a POW/MIA Family meeting, desperate for answers, when surely there was no hope of their son being alive. Nothing more was said. The car went up five and they got off. I felt foolish for asking a seemingly innocent question: I wish I could have said something, but like them, I, too, was helpless. I saw them at subsequent meetings, but I never spoke to them again. I doubt they would even remember me, but I never forgot them.
Bill Bell tried desperately, as hard as any man can over a period of many years, to find the answer to what happened to the son of those grieving parents, and the sons and brothers and husbands of many other American families. From his days as a young infantryman on covert missions into enemy areas in the Central Highlands, to receiving the American POWs as part of “Operation Homecoming,” to assisting with the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon until the morning of April 30, 1975, one of the last Americans to get into a waiting helicopter as the North Vietnamese Army tanks rolled into the defeated city, to slogging his way for almost a decade visiting forlorn, malaria-ridden camps to interview hapless refugees, to his return as the first U.S. Government representative assigned to Vietnam as Chief of the U.S. POW/MIA office, to his televised testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs where Bell told Congress, as the government’s top POW/MIA expert , that he believed the Communists had held man prisoner after the formal release, Bell saw it all.
In human terns, however, despite his incredible experiences, for him it was not without cost. He learned first-hand the pain of those families, in a way none of us ever want to experience, when he lost his own wife and son in the crash of an American plane evacuating Vietnamese orphans and American dependents on April 4, 1975. No doubt his personality unconsciously reflects the struggles and suffering of over 25 years of dealing with a cunning and ruthless enemy, who, despite today’s fashionable rhetoric about healing the past, remain committed to monopolizing Vietnam’s political power. Still, despite his loss and the almost insurmountable difficulties of trying to get answers from a foe determined not to provide them, Bell persevered, not only for the POW/MIA families, but also for America. In a sense, it was for all our families, but the cost of persistence is high, and Bill Bell has paid a full measure.
This is his story.
Bad news Bill! I received your book today, and, already, I can’t put it down. Of course, that could be considered as good news, in some ways. Thank you for writing it.
“There is much more to the POW/MIA issue than riding around on a bike, wearing black leather and shouting “Bring ‘em home”! Bill Bell’s book “Leave No Man Behind” is the “first step” any American should take in fully understanding the nuances, the heretofore hidden incidents and complex situations of the long American War in Vietnam, and the plight of thousands of America’s still-unreturned veterans. There are many books available but this is the first priority for vets. Read it and pass it on to as many other vets as possible in order to lay bare the facts and let the facts speak for themselves. How we got there in the first place, why we stayed so long and whether or not we vets were able to accomplish our mission. Do yourself a favor, order this great book. You will soon agree that having done so is one of the wisest moves you ever made. For researchers, this book should be considered “PTSD 101”. Concerning research in compiling this great book you will be amazed when you visit the Vietnam Center Archives, Texas Tech University, Bill Bell Collection. (http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive ). This is one of the nation’s premier collections on the American War in Vietnam and graciously donated by Bill”.
Mike DePaulo, Vietnam vet, USMC, National Service Officer, Rolling Thunder Inc.
5.0 out of 5 stars Americans in Vietnam, February 7, 2007
This review is from: Leave No Man Behind: Bill Bell and the Search for American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam 5.0 out of 5 stars absolutely necessary, April 27, 2013
This review is from: Leave No Man Behind: Bill Bell and the Search for American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War (Semihardback)
Very simply, if you have not read this book, even if you spent years in Vietnam as I did, you don’t know anything about the Vietnam War. Buy it, read it, give it to everyone you know who gives a damn about truth. Should be required reading for every college and university.
Just took a week off to Thailand and finished your book on the beach. Sorry it took so long. Great read, amazing book, even more amazing story, truly one for the ages… Thanks so much for all you did and gave to the country and the missing. Your service is truly humbling… Just seeing all the work you guys were doing, your grasp of the situation on the ground, the games the communists were playing, how you were able to give it back to them and how they let it all unravel, the hash house harrier incident, the “fun” comment, the shredding of those files… I wanted to cry… I was on the flight back last night literally almost jumping out of me seat I was so hopping mad. It looks as though not much has changed unfortunately. I hear the same things about them when in Cambodia and elsewhere doing stories. I have more stuff in the works. I’d love to chat with you about it all sometime. Again, thanks so much for reaching out to me all those months ago and sending me your book. You filled in a lot of blanks for me and I feel like I “get it” now. I am going to Vietnam later this year. I feel a lot more prepared. Thanks so much Bill, for everything. Much respect.
Matthew M. Burke
Stars and Stripes
Sasebo and Iwakuni (Japan) Bureau
I have began reading your book. It is amazing. I thought I’d read enough to be kind of proficient in the POW/MIA issue, but in just reading the first couple of chapters I realize I don’t know jack. But I have talked to the parents of several of those still unaccounted, and looked into their eyes. And I do know one thing – I will do what I can to give them some type of closure, and let them know that they are not alone in missing their loved ones!
Your book is very educational, maybe a little to technical for the casual reader but should be required reading for anyone interested in this issue.
I thank you for the book, and I especially thank you for all you do and have done. You are a true American hero in my eyes! THANK YOU BILL!!!
President-VVA Texarkana, TX;
On Monday, January 20, 2014 8:55 AM, Zippo Smith
There is no American on earth who knows the official side of the POW/MIA issue better than Bill Bell.
In the eyes of those who use the POW issue for political advantage and then cast it aside like some old campaign placard Bill committed an unforgivable bureaucratic sin much to their horror; HE TOLD THE TRUTH!!!!
Read Bill Bell’s book and heed his words on how a great nation can undermine it’s moral underpinnings by assigning the least of warriors to decide life and death and unobserved,the mental/physical state, of those suffering in enemy hands,from an air-conditioned office in the USA.
LEAVE THE FATE OF AMERICAN FIGHTING-MEN IN THE HANDS OF THE WARRIOR AND NOT THE SHOE-CLERK.
Major Mark A. Smith,USA,Retired
It amazes me the attention to detail and the “recall” of names, incidents, etc that you have. This book is sure eye-opening for the lay person!
My hubby has mentioned several skirmishes from the war, but not in the detail you’ve outlined in your book! I hate putting it down!
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