The Vietnam War, like many other wars, is full of myths and legends regarding soldiers who fought there. The problem of deserters and defectors during the Vietnam War was one that became especially prevalent, and one that spawned the legend of Salt and Pepper.
Salt and Pepper refers to a pair of soldiers that were reportedly spotted by American forces who were fighting on behalf of the Viet Cong. “Salt” was a Caucasian of slender build and 6ft. 10in. tall with dark hair, while “Pepper” was either black or very tan (suggesting African American or Hispanic ethnicity) of medium build with black hair. Both men were reportedly seen by soldiers in the area under the control of I Corps, and appeared to be fighting alongside the NVA and VC. The name “Salt and Pepper” itself comes from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), who received so many reports from soldiers in the field that they started a case file regarding the two mystery soldiers.
Some theories as to who Salt and Pepper argue that they may have been French Foreign Legionnaires who remained in-country after the First Indochina War, while others suggest they were observers from a third country, such as the Soviet Union, East Germany, etc. The most prevalent theory is that Salt and Pepper were a pair of American defectors who had decided to join the Communist side, although exactly which two defectors they were has never been solved. The DIA built up a list of possible candidates over time based on physical descriptions and information gathered after the war, but unfortunately their identities remain almost pure speculation.
One individual who has widely been suggested as having been “Salt” was Robert Garwood, a Marine who disappeared on Sept. 28th, 1965 and didn’t return to the U.S. until February 1979. While Garwood has since claimed he was a POW during that time, and others in his defense claim whatever Garwood did was because of the circumstances he found himself in, numerous sources including the DIA and fellow Marines strongly point to Garwood having been a defector. Marine POW’s claimed to have encountered Garwood doing everything from assisting the VC in interrogations to fighting in the field against Americans to convincing other POW’s to “cross over.”
Garwood’s full story can be read here, and it makes sense why he has become one of the prime suspects as being Salt. Whatever Garwood truly did and to what extent during the time he was MIA will never be known unless he were to admit it, but many aspects of Garwood’s claims are clearly false. He has changed the story of his capture plenty of times and plenty of POW’s positively identified him in debriefings, and the majority of sightings regarding Garwood helping the enemy in combat originated from I Corps, the same area Salt and Pepper were being spotted which helped create the myth of the “Caucasian Viet Cong.”
However, Garwood wasn’t the only American soldier in question in regards to Salt and Pepper, and unfortunately there are several soldiers who deserted while in Vietnam whose stories were never fully detailed. One African-American soldier named McKinley Nolan had taken a Vietnamese-Cambodian woman as his common law wife and was declared AWOL on Nov. 9th, 1967. Why has never been completely determined, but the Communist-operated “Liberation Radio” began broadcasting alleged statements by Nolan, and American soldiers began to recover Communist propaganda leaflets containing photos of Nolan that urged fellow soldiers to resist the war.
At some point it was determined that Nolan had moved his family (his wife and now children) to B2 Front, the headquarters for the Viet Cong and the forward base for the NVA near the border of Cambodia. In 1973, during Operation Homecoming, Nolan requested to remain at B2 Front and informed returning American POW’s of his decision. In 1974, U.S. intelligence had found that Nolan had moved his family to somewhere in Cambodia after becoming dissatisfied with living alongside the Communists in Vietnam. Ironically, Nolan’s family lived there from several weeks to a few months, at which point he became dissatisfied with the Khmer Rouge and attempted to return to Vietnam, at which point Nolan disappeared. What we do know about Nolan from intelligence reports has been proven as accurate, and it is strongly believed that Khmer Rouge soldiers killed Nolan during his return to Vietnam in either 1974 or 1975.
Two individuals who were rumored to have been Salt and Pepper were two Marines named Fred Schreckengost and Robert Greer who had been stationed at Da Nang. On June 7th, 1964 Schreckengost and Greer wanted to see the countryside and rented a pair of motor bikes, after which they were never seen again. The Marine Corps declared them MIA and launched a massive search effort alongside ARVN forces, during which the motor bikes were quickly recovered and locals from numerous villages described how the VC had been parading two captured Marines. Unfortunately, even though they gathered some leads the two Marines were never found.
In one of the villages Greer and Schreckengost were displayed in, the villagers claimed that the Marines and their VC captors had spent the night. That night, the Marines had tried to escape but were shot and killed by the VC, then buried in an unmarked grave. In 1990, a USPACOM Joint Task Force interviewed the villagers who had witnessed the event and were able to determine where the soldiers were supposedly buried. After enough digging, the team recovered certain bones, teeth, dog tags, and other items that positively identified the them as Fred Schreckengost and Robert Greer.
Despite this, Schreckengost and Greer have unfortunately been labelled as possible candidates for being Salt and Pepper because Greer was dark-skinned and Schreckengost was very similar in appearance to Robert Garwood, another defector. In fact, some soldiers who were interviewed following Salt and Pepper sightings sometimes pointed out Schreckengost as possibly being “Salt” but could never positively identify him. After the war, MIA activists and conspiracy theorists selected Schreckengost and Greer as having been members of a “secret returnees” program run by the government and were living in the U.S. under assumed names, while others claimed the two had been defectors that aided the VC. This in itself is very sad, as the final fates of Schreckengost and Greer were proven to have been a failed attempt to escape the enemy.
The case of Salt and Pepper, despite never being proven or identified, was merely one of many mysteries propagated by servicemen during the Vietnam War, but the issue of deserters who may have aided the enemy was one that particularly stung because of the unpopularity of the war among both servicemen and civilians. In some ways, it was the defectors being spotted in the field that may have contributed to the theories of Soviet advisors, in that American soldiers may have wanted to believe the Caucasians seen helping the VC were Soviets instead of their fellow countrymen. There was even a news story about the alleged Operation Tailwind, in which the U.S. launched an attack on defectors using Sarin gas in Laos, although the defector and Sarin aspects were proven to be a hoax.
In fact, some of the stories regarding deserters range from the Colonel Kurtz-esque defector akin to Robert Garwood to soldiers going native after marrying a local girl akin to McKinley Nolan to the outright bizarre. Reportedly, the Director of the DIA Leonard Perroots was told a story by the second-to-last U.S. defense attache to South Vietnam LTG John Murray, who described the so-called “Soul City.” Reportedly, Soul City was an area of Saigon where a number of African-American deserters were living that had become rampant with black marketing, drug dealing, etc. and was dangerous enough that neither U.S. or ARVN soldiers would patrol the area.
There are rumors that soldiers living in Soul City may have remained after the war, as Murray stated that from 74-75 many U.S. officials were aware of Americans living in the city. When the Communists prepared to finally overrun South Vietnam, the U.S. Embassy began to broadcast messages in both Vietnamese and English warning people to leave which produced a sporadic stream of people who were then flown to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. As the Communists came nearer, the flow increased, to the point that up to 300-350 Americans ended up being flown to Clark in a period of weeks, although it is unknown what exactly became of them once there.
Perhaps the reason why the story of Salt and Pepper persists is because, while some myths such as Colonel Tomb are never solved, Salt and Pepper had several very likely possibilities that are unfortunately impossible to corroborate now.