Robert Garwood: Prisoner or Defector

The Vietnam War is one of America’s more infamous wars, due to its unpopularity on the home front and the fact that eventually the communist North Vietnam overtook the democracy in South Vietnam. As such, there are numerous things about the Vietnam War that stand out today, such as conspiracy theories and black operations, rumors of foreigners fighting against American troops, etc. While some veterans still have strong feelings about the war, one individual stands out and is still very controversial and hotly debated. Deemed guilty by the military yet innocent by the Supreme Court, that individual is Robert Garwood.

Private First Class Robert R. Garwood, following his return to the U.S.
Private First Class Robert R. Garwood, following his return to the U.S.

Robert Russel Garwood, known as Bobby to his friends, was a Private First Class (PFC) in the USMC serving as a driver in the G-2 Intelligence section, Third Marine Division stationed at Da Nang, South Vietnam. He went missing on September 28th, 1965 and would not return to the U.S. until February of 1979. What exactly happened in between Garwood’s disappearance and his return may never be truly uncovered, but today there are two main stories: the first would be Garwood’s supposed first-hand account of his time as a POW, and the second would the charges by the military that Garwood had defected to the enemy.

According to Robert Garwood, who had only ten days left before being sent back home on the day he went missing, he was supposed to pick up an officer from China Beach later in the afternoon on September 28th, but claims that he couldn’t find the officer and decided to return as night fell. Garwood claims that as he was decided whether or not to return, roughly thirty armed Viet Cong guerrillas surrounded him. He jumped to the ground while firing his Colt .45 twice, killing one VC and was wounded when a bullet hit him in his right forearm. The remaining VC captured him, took his sidearm, stripped him to his underwear and took his boots. Garwood states that he was paraded around Da Nang through multiple VC controlled villages while being beaten and tortured. After ten days Garwood attempted to escape, but was recaptured and taken to a permanent camp for POW’s, and during his captivity he was also afflicted with malaria and amoebic dysentery. Garwood claims he attempted to escape again but was recaptured, and roughly three months later Green Beret Captain William “Ike” Eisenbraun was brought to the camp.

Eisenbraun had served in the Korean War and volunteered to serve in Vietnam, and reportedly served as a mentor and a father figure to Garwood. Eisenbraun taught Garwood how to eat rats and taught him Vietnamese “amazingly fast,” giving Garwood a confidence boost while in captivity. Unfortunately, Eisenbraun died from torture on September 17th, 1967. This brief part of the story can be backed up by fourteen ARVN POW’s who were returned on January 14th, 1966 in honor of the Vietnamese Tet holiday, as they stated that Garwood and Eisenbraun were being held at the same camp, Camp Khu, and also produced a letter written by Garwood to his mother on December 27th, 1965. Due to Garwood’s ability to speak Vietnamese, the guards reportedly used him for propaganda and interrogation, which was supposedly an attempt to turn the other POW’s against Garwood.

Robert Garwood remained in Vietnamese captivity until 1979, when he slipped a note to Finnish diplomat Ossi Rahkonen in Hanoi. Following a BBC broadcast, Garwood was returned to the United States. That is Garwood’s side of the story. However, the evidence accumulated by the military during the search for Garwood paints a very different picture.

Map of Vietnam showing the location of Da Nang, also spelled Danang
Map of Vietnam showing the location of Da Nang, also spelled Danang

First of all, there are issues with Garwood’s reason for leaving the barracks on September 28th. Garwood claims he left to pick up an officer at China Beach. However, the Assistant Chief Admin. Officer from the Third Marine Division state that Garwood had been relieved of duty and would not have had to make the run. And even if he had to make the run, the G-2 was located half a mile from Garwood’s tent and within the perimeter, totally negating the need for Garwood to take a jeep and his weapon. Garwood’s own tent mates in 1965 claimed that Garwood had been leaving to make a laundry run. The jeep itself which Garwood had taken and was supposedly burned by VC was never found by ARVN, Marine or aerial search parties.

An ARVN soldier who had been a POW with Garwood and was released in December of 1965 stated that Garwood claimed he’d been captured after drinking a Coca-Cola and gotten lost near Da Nang. Importantly, this ARVN soldier stated that Garwood had not been wounded, despite Garwood’s claim he had been shot in the forearm and the wound had festered and become infected before healing (keep in mind this was reported in December, three months after Garwood had been captured and would have received no medical care for such a wound). Sgt. Willie Watkins, who had also been a POW in South Vietnam with Garwood, stated during his debrief in 1969 following his release that Garwood informed him that he had been captured while visiting a brothel. Garwood himself told his biographer that write that he’d been captured while driving to Marble Mountain to pick up an officer. Why is it Garwood would make one claim, yet so many POW’s who’d encountered him and have nothing to gain by ruining his reputation claim that Garwood had told them multiple stories while in captivity?

Aside from the suspicious story of Garwood’s disappearance, there was the evidence suggesting that Garwood was willingly assisting the Viet Cong forces. For example, the CG, FMFPAC (Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific) ordered a counterintelligence case on Garwood on December 23rd, 1965 which found that his family, disciplinary and education backgrounds strongly suggested that Garwood would be susceptible to enemy indoctrination and propaganda efforts.

A copy of the propaganda document "Fellow Soldier's Appeal"
A copy of the propaganda document “Fellow Soldier’s Appeal”

There was at one point a document written entitled Fellow Soldier’s Appeal which was printed and read over Radio Hanoi, supposedly written and signed by Robert Garwood with a rubber stamp that urged fellow American soldiers to turn against the war. Military intelligence and numerous discrepancies in the document suggested that Garwood had not actually written it himself, although it is strange that the communists would select Garwood out of all the other POW’s to be the alleged author.

There was also the testimony of several American POW’s who were released which suggested that from 1967 to 1969 Garwood was definitely assisting the Viet Cong. By May of 1967, Garwood had attended multiple indoctrination sessions while a POW (a tactic commonly used by VC on susceptible prisoners), and upon completion was given an Order of Release (written in both Vietnamese and English which he carried with him) and offered to be released. Instead, Garwood chose to remain and asked to join the National Liberation Front, the official name for the Viet Cong.

From then on, Garwood adopted a new name, Nguyen Chien Dau, which translates to “Nguyen the Fighter” and wore a VC uniform. While assisting in the indoctrination and interrogation of fellow American POW’s, Garwood lived with the prison guards and carried a weapon with him when not in the camps. It was during this period that Garwood became fluent in Vietnamese, working as a translator for the VC and urged other POW’s to “cross over” as Garwood clearly had. Eventually Garwood would become the equivalent of a second lieutenant while serving with the VC, and frequently bragged to the POW’s about his fighting against U.S. forces, and the close calls he had to getting captured. In 1969 Garwood even had a conversation with Bernhard Diehl, a German nurse who had been captured and told her that he did not believe the Americans were suffering a great loss by his having gone over to the communist side. In his words, “So many Americans are fighting with the South Vietnamese; why shouldn’t there be a few fighting with the North?”

Map showing the I Corps Zone on Vietnam, which includes Da Nang
Map showing the I Corps Zone on Vietnam, which includes Da Nang

Garwood’s fighting alongside VC forces helped to create the myth of the “Caucasian Viet Cong” who was encountered by U.S. forces. The majority of these sightings occurred in the area of South Vietnam under the control of I Corps, which coincidentally includes Da Nang, the area where Robert Garwood had gone missing. Another myth, “Salt and Pepper,” tells of a pair of soldiers (one white and one either African-American or very tan) who defected to the VC. While the identities of neither individual has been ascertained, it is suggested by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that “Salt” had in fact been Garwood. Eventually the USMC requested the FBI look at certain propaganda documents to determine if they were written by Garwood (also in response to the increased reports of Garwood sighted by POW’s being engaged in propaganda). The FBI determined that certain documents appeared written by Garwood, while in other parts the orthography had a relatively Cyrillic style (the language group used by Slavic countries, such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War).

Eventually (as stated in Garwood’s account) Robert Garwood returned to the United States in 1979. While one would think that Garwood would be punished for collaborating with the VC, what happened next is much more complicated. Military and civilian attorneys prepared his defense, while the Naval Investigative Service interviewed Garwood’s former comrades in the Marines while the DIA and DOD (Department of Defense) attempted to interview Garwood on the possibility of remaining POW’s in Vietnam. Garwood returned in early 1979, although the court-martial would not resume until mid-1980. Part of the delay was because a few times Garwood’s attorneys (both military and civilian) would be replaced.

Poster of "The Last P.O.W.? The Bobby Garwood Story," shown on ABC
Poster of “The Last P.O.W.? The Bobby Garwood Story,” shown on ABC

During the trial (in which Garwood himself never took the stand), almost all the military personnel who were brought to testify were soldiers who had served alongside Garwood prior to his disappearance, rather than former POW’s who would have possessed the most incriminating evidenced. Despite the the trial, there were still huge gaps in the timeline between Garwood’s disappearance and return in which it was not officially found what Robert had been engaged in or where he had been. Eventually the court found Garwood guilty of acting as an interpreter for the enemy, working as a mole for the VC amongst his fellow POW’s, had interrogated American POW’s, had urged POW’s to defect to the communists, and that he had been a guard with the VC. However, Garwood’s attorney argued that he had been subjected to “coercive persuasion,” that he was incapable of rational decision making and that because of his mental state during his status as a POW Garwood could not be held responsible.

During this time, the DIA made multiple attempts to interview Garwood about other POW’s still remaining in Vietnam, although these attempts were all fruitless and blocked by Garwood’s attorney. In 1984 Garwood did make multiple public and media appearances in which he discussed what he had seen, although multiple organizations (Secretary of Defense, Congress, USMC, etc.) also tried to learn what Garwood knew about other POW’s and all were denied interviews. Eventually, by 1985 Garwood’s attorney stated to the DOD that Garwood would not provide information on POW’s until he was granted immunity, which the DOD denied him. However, in the case United States v. Robert R. Garwood, the Supreme Court declined to take the case and Garwood, now a civilian, was granted immunity.

Since then, Robert Garwood has become one of the most controversial figures of the Vietnam War. In 1993 there was a TV movie entitled “The Last P.O.W.? The Bobby Garwood Story” which promotes itself as the “true story of Robert Garwood” and is based entirely on Garwood’s supposed first-hand account. The film even caused Senator John McCain (another Vietnam veteran who was tortured as a POW by the North Vietnamese) to speak out against the film on the floor of the Senate. Today, most Vietnam veterans disbelieve that Garwood was innocent, and is usually brought up in discussions of “white VC.” In fact, the anger elicited by Garwood in Vietnam vets (as well as many others) to suggest that he face execution, and while many say that Garwood was not capable of doing what he is accused of, one individual (himself a Navy vet) states that Robert Garwood managed to ruin his marriage because of an affair with the individual’s wife.

Patch of the Third Marine Division
Patch of the Third Marine Division

Likely, unless Robert Garwood were to ever make a full confession, no one will ever know the true extent of what Garwood did during his absence in Vietnam. Despite his claims and those of certain individuals, it’s more than obvious that Garwood was engaged in activities that were damaging to U.S. soldiers in POW camps and in the field and deserves the ire of his fellow Vietnam veterans, as well as a possible reevaluation of punishment.

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