Rambo Days and the MIAs

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Cork Graham having breakfast with actor friends Julia Nickson and Patrick Kilpatrick. Photo courtesy of the author 

“Rambo: First Blood Part II” has been repeating on the AMC channel this week. I get a kick out of it because a friend and fellow Singapore American School alum, Julia Nickson, played the Vietnamese love interest of Sly Stone’s character. For most of us in our teens and early twenties during the 1980s, the Rambo franchise was just a collection of “oo-rah” films. But for me, the subject of Rambo was one of the reasons I got into photojournalism. In 1983, the big story, aside from the Middle East, was American POWs possibly still held in Indochina, and Special Forces Col. Bo Gritz, who was deported by the Thai government for planning and launching Laos MIA search operations from his safe house in Nakhon Phanom.

As he was unavailable, I took the next best option, a group of Hmong resistance sneaking across the Maekong River. We almost made it to Laos that night, but as we drew near, the brush line above the shore was suddenly peppered with what looked like flickering white stars as the Pathet Lao covered us with machinegun fire. I lost all my cameras in the escape over the side and clawing for depth in the blackness, the sound of bullets ripping the water around us like steel guitar strings snapping.

By the time I made it back up to the surface and saw them still firing at one of the other long boats, slowly spinning like a propeller because of a dead Hmong slumped over the tiller of its idling motor, I had drifted clear. That’s when I heard the low pleas for help from a young 13-year-old I had earlier befriended. When I got to him, I tried to keep his head out of water, and that’s when I realized one of the bullets had unzipped the front of him. Gingerly trying to keep more of his entrails from spilling out, I swam with him back to Thailand.

Further help came in the form of a truck sent out from a Hmong resistance safe house near Ban Vinai, a refugee camp from where most of Hmong refugees from Laos were processed to such places as Minnesota, Michigan and the fertile farmlands of California. After the ride to the camp, a relief agency doctor was called to the family’s home. But, the boy didn’t make it.

Gaining a reputation as a photojournalist willing to take on extreme risk in order to get a story, a month later I was invited by a British actor-turned treasure hunter on an expedition to an island off the west of coast of Vietnam, forbidden to all but Soviet Bloc advisors, and loyal communist Vietnamese. French colonials had named the island as Iles des Pirates, Pirates Islands. Whether we found treasure or not didn’t matter, just the fact someone was going into an area of Vietnam no other American journalist had been permitted since 1975 was enough for me. And, perhaps, I could get some information on MIAs Gritz had not been able to in Laos.

As it turned out, I ended up listed as MIA by the US Department of State, and reported by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as KIA by Thai pirates, though Hanoi knew full well I was being tortured and interrogated at the Kien Giang Provincial Prison. Not until three months later, when Thai fisherman held at our prison were released, and confirmed our existence, did Vietnam admit to having the Brit, two Thai crewmen, and me. During those three months I was beat, and the target of psychological attacks by my interrogators, not the least of which was a mock execution. And then, even after a sham trial in the town of Rach Gia, six months after capture on June 16, 1983, a trial reminding me of Stalin’s Soviet Union, with the Politburo on a theater stage above us, filmed by Hanoi’s propaganda machine, and on Nov. 29, my 19th birthday, no less; I didn’t get out until May 17, 1984, after a ransom of $10,000 was paid.

Soon after my release, I was debriefed at the Pentagon by investigators from POW/MIA Joint Casualty Resolution Center. When we were done, it was suggested that I be prepared for MIA families contacting me.

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Graham: One of the favorites of my gallery—taken because of the light, and how everyone’s attention is directed in the photo, including the white chicken, but it also draws a chuckle because of who’s depicted on the front of the woman’s T-shirt: Rambo and his M60. Photo courtesy of the author

The MIA story I recorded in my 2004 memoir, “The Bamboo Chest,” is a sad story indeed. There were profiteers trying to get money out of the families of American MIAs, and those whose hearts were with the families: Clint Eastwood and William Shatner immediately come to mind as successfully targeted by swindlers.

There was the grief of those families that had never had the comfort of knowing what really happened. A minute understanding of what I imagine those families had gone through was offered me by seeing the effects on my own family, the result of my being listed as missing those first three months in one of the worst political prisons in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and then the six months after the trial with me being held under a “debtor’s jail” sentence, my release dependent solely on full payment of the ransom. This was no easy feat for a single income household and why I would never have gotten out if not for the kindness of the American people responding to a freedom fund setup in my name.

What the Vietnam experience taught me was that the US should never get into a war unless we’re willing to fight for total unconditional surrender from the enemy. It also told me to do everything I could to never be taken prisoner again, a belief I would be challenged to uphold later, in what those of us fighting South of the Border called Vietnam Part II.

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