Kingston at the JCRC, Thailand 1973
Courtesy of John Collins, C-13 Honorary Member
Joint Casualty Resolution Center
COMUSMACV General Frederick Weyand in December 1972 told brand new Brigadier General Bob Kingston, “Some of us are going home. You are not. You are going to set up a Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC) at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. You will recruit in-theater.”
Special Forces Colonel Roger Pezelle, from his Pacific Command perch in Honolulu, described the JCRC’s mission and tentative composition on three type-written pages. Bob then told General Weyand, “I am going to have ground teams search the sites. I don’t have time to train them. Special Forces are a known entity to me. While this is a Joint Casualty Resolution Center, I want all of my ground teams to be Army Special Forces. He agreed.” Charlie Beckwith, who later led the ill-fated hostage rescue team in Iran (1979), was one of Bob’s team leaders. The other was Saully Fontaine, a Jedburgh with the OSS who leapt into France at age 17. Together, they recruited the rest.
Bob picked an Air Force representative for Saigon, a Navy captain for Hanoi, an Army colonel for Vientiane, and a Marine colonel for Phnom Penh, in accordance with terms of the armistice agreement signed in Paris, but Saigon was the only post ever occupied. He posted people in all four corps headquarters throughout South Vietnam, but found it difficult to get information about crash and grave sites.
Bob visited Ambassador G. McMurtrie Godley in Vientiane and said, “I would like to put Tom Henry up here. If it works out, I will give him some people.” Godley said, “No. I am running this war. I don’t need any more army. You are not going to get anybody in here.” Bob’s response: “Well, sir, you leave me no choice but to notify OSD, because I am directed to do this.” OSD’s written response read, “Send the guy up to Vientiane” [or words to that effect.] Godley gave up. “OK, Bob. You win.”
Tom Henry was a big hit. The Deputy Chief of Mission soon asked, “Do you mind if I use Tom in my office? These State Department guys can’t write worth a damn.” One day Tom saw armed men loitering near the embassy perimeter. He warned the DCM with these words: “I think there’s about to be a coup.” His notification was in the nick of time. Good guys nipped that uprising in the bud and Tom could do no wrong ever after.
Elsworth Bunker, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, arrived about this time with a subordinate named Steve Winship. Kingston had never met Bunker, but Winship “had been feeding him a bunch of what [Bob] called disinformation about me, JCRC, and why we were there.” Bunker invited Robert to the embassy where “we had a very enjoyable little meeting. It was testy at first, but he understood exactly what my mission was. He understood how I intended to go about it and what my marching orders were and weren’t. I told him that as far as I was concerned my people come under him. I don’t see any problems.” Bunker said, “Where is all this friction coming from?” Bob told him, “It is coming from this guy Winship. The best thing you can do for me is fire him.” Winship went to Cambodia, which did Bob no harm, because he couldn’t operate there anyway.
Bob’s oral history then elaborated about the fourfold JCRC mission, which de described as “peaceful, open, and humanitarian in nature”:
Bob made clear that to understand the JCRC workload you had to consider the number of individuals and the number of crash sites to be located and inspected. As of July 1973, approximately 1,300 men were officially missing in action throughout Indochina (the two Vietnams, Laos, and Cambodia). More than 1,100 more were officially declared dead. Those figures changed constantly in response to new information.
Bob’s deputy director for staff work at Nakon Phanom supervised casualty data, operations, and public affairs divisions, plus the staff judge advocate. The PA shop prepared a lot of leaflets and pamphlets that featured pictographs rather than words, because populations in target areas were largely illiterate. Dissemination at province, district, hamlet, and sub-hamlet levels in South Vietnam collected a lot of useful leads. The deputy director for field operations supervised two contact teams led by Charlie Beckwith and Sulley Fontaine. The JCRC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Thailand rounded out the organization.
Bob’s opinion of the forensic anthropologists in his employ could best be described as laudatory. The first one, from a U.S. mortuary in Japan, was among the world’s foremost experts on the identification of human remains. He developed a glue that would stick to bones, particularly skull fragments, but not to his fingers. Bob watched him reconstruct a skull by affixing pieces to a manikin, like he was fitting a hairpiece. Three months later he inspected the finished product, minus a few parts and many teeth. That magician could differentiate indigenous Orientals who grind their food from oriental-Americans who chew, because those dissimilar actions wear down teeth differently. Another authority on a year-long sabbatical from the University of Michigan possessed equally impressive credentials. Bob’s verdict was, “The United States military and the League of Families were goddamn lucky…. I, as the commander, couldn’t have been more pleased.”
South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) troops commonly secured suspected sites so professional recovery personnel could safely dig and extract. Unarmed U.S. contact teams wore orange uniforms for easy identification and Bob instructed all to raise open hands if situations got touchy. Those procedures usually worked well, but the U.S. contingent drew hostile fire on at least one occasion, when ARVN wounded four Special Forces soldiers and killed the team captain after he stood up and waved his arms. They also killed the Vietnamese helicopter pilot and wounded one of his crew. Bob still believes the ambush was deliberate. “There were no spent cases from any firing. Somebody completely sanitized the area.” He has “nothing but a gut feeling” about motives, but speculates that it might have been to make North Vietnam look like the culprit and thereby get more aid from the United States.
Bob returned home five days later (late December 1973). The Joint Casualty Resolution Center conducted no more ground operations in South Vietnam. His immediate successor mainly retrieved the remains of U.S. POWs who died during captivity in North Vietnam.
General Vessey’s comments below pick up where Bob Kingston’s oral history closed. Tom Wilkerson, then a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, accompanied those two Great Men on their second trip to Hanoi. He attended the opening meeting with General Giap, and they revealed to him the substance of ensuing conversations, which took place behind closed doors.
----- Original Message -----
From: John W. Vessey
Sent: Sunday, May 01, 2005
Subject: RE: SEARCH CONTINUES FOR MIAs IN VIETNAM
I was delighted to see that the number of those for whom we have not yet accounted is down to 1399. When Bob Kingston and I went to Hanoi in August of 1987, on my first visit as Presidential Emissary, the number was then around 2400, and that in the shadow of the expectation that some, or many, might actually be alive and still in captivity. A little background might be of some interest to some of the “Loopers.”
President Reagan called me in February of 1987, and asked me to take on an important task that he thought would take about three months of my work. A few days later, when I met with him, he laid out the mission. There were six tasks he wanted undertaken:
1) Find out if any live Americans continue to be held as prisoners of the Vietnamese; if there are, get them home.
2) Get the Vietnamese Government to agree to work with us to set up a system to permit the US to achieve the “fullest possible accounting“ for those servicemen still missing from the war.
3) Get all of our former South Vietnamese military comrades and government officials out of the prison (VN called them “reeducation”) camps. There were about 8000 in the camps at that time.
4) Set up a system which would permit separated Vietnamese families to be reunited without having to run the gauntlet of South China Sea pirates or going through the refugee camps in SEA.
5) Get the Amerasian children fathered by US servicemen out of Vietnam and into the US.
6) Push the Vietnamese to end the military occupation of Cambodia and support a peaceful change of government in Cambodia.
The President asked me if there were anyone special that I would like to take with me to Hanoi. I told him I wanted to take Bob Kingston. When he asked why, I told him of Bob’s history with JCRC, and I also told him that I would like to have the Vietnamese look across the table and see at least two of us who had inflicted some battlefield defeats on their forces. The President agreed.
Six years later, when I assured President Clinton that all six of President Reagan’s tasks had been accomplished, I thought about the “3 months,” and wondered if it were President Reagan’s optimism, or my ineptness which caused the 69 month discrepancy.
The tale of the adventure is long, and probably not worth the time of the “Loopers,” but I would make a couple of points.
First, 99% of the publicity about the mission was on the missing Americans; however, getting the 8000 former SVN officers out of prison, getting over 350,000 Vietnamese family members out of VN and reunited, getting 65,000 Amerasian kids and mothers into the land of their fathers, and getting the Vietnamese out of Cambodia were all more difficult than the agreements to account for the missing Americans, and in many ways, just as satisfying.
The second point, I’d make is that when we went to Hanoi in 1987, the place was a mess! The economy was in terrible shape. A former rice exporter had long lines for rationed rice! A walk around the lake in the middle of the city at night, had hundreds of angry people accosting us, believing we were Russians, and wanting to tell us how Russia and other communists had screwed up their country. Today, I read a lot of newspaper articles about the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and most of them talked about how well off the Vietnamese were today as though it were the result of the war. It could never be proved, and is probably nuts to even assert it, but I believe that the negotiations President Reagan set in motion in 1987 at least partially spurred the beginning of the reforms in the Vietnamese economy and led to their acceptance by ASEAN. My principal counterpart was Nguyen Co Thach, then the Deputy Prime Minister. He was a guy who was part of the crowd wanted to move VN toward the West rather than toward China. Unfortunately, that issue has not been resolved to this date.
Some day, I’ll dig out my notes from the meeting Kingston and I had with Vo Nguyen Giap in 1988 and share it with “Loopers.”