Is Vietnam-era POW/MIA warrior alive? Clues tantalize
Scripps Howard News Service
His remains have never been found, but David Hrdlicka, an Air Force pilot who became a prisoner of war when his jet was shot down over Laos in 1965, was officially declared dead in 1977.
His name has been chiseled on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The U.S. government says there is no credible evidence any Americans POWs from the Vietnam War are still held. But Hrdlicka's wife, Carol, holds on to evidence that, at least until 1990, Hrdlicka may have been alive and held captive.
Jerry Streeter, a retired insurance executive and a former classmate of David Hrdlicka, also is obsessed with the search. He's filled his apartment in Edina, Minn., with documents and faded satellite photos that possibly connect the dots: a mysterious image of the letters "USA" seen on a satellite photo in a clearing of the Laotian village where Hrdlicka was last seen alive.
The Hrdlicka story has elements that, if true, might prove hard for a government to explain. But at its roots, it may be more about human perseverance against long odds.
When evidence emerged the last time that David might still be alive, Carol had a 12-year marriage to another man annulled. "I don't even try to convince people anymore," says Carol Hrdlicka, who lives in Kansas. "I just hand them a document. There's no sense trying to convince anybody of anything. I want them to see the documents. I want them to make up their own mind."
A photo of David Hrdlicka, a native of Stewartville, Minn., shows a chisel-chinned pilot with a crew cut, a silk neckerchief tucked into his flight suit. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and rose through the ranks to captain. He left for Vietnam on April 7, 1965. Forty-one days later, his F-105 fighter was hit by ground fire over Laos. His parachute was seen opening and he was seen being led away by natives in a small valley in the Sam Neua area.
A picture of a healthy American later positively identified as Hrdlicka was taken with a likely Laotian militia member.
Carol said during the first year, she waited for a call about his recovery. The second year, she began to have doubts. In 1973, Vietnam returned its American prisoners with no word about her husband. In 1977, he was declared dead, her government benefits were reduced and she began to move on. She remarried in 1979.
In 1990, she was accidentally sent a report suggesting a live sighting of David in a Laotian prison camp. That began a mission of filing Freedom of Information Act requests and being stonewalled. She had her marriage annulled and began her fight.
In archived State Department and Pentagon dispatches, lawsuits filed against the CIA by other families seeking answers, even in Russian and Vietnamese newspaper accounts, she has found things she says don't add up. She has been told David probably died in 1968. But she found an article in the Russian newspaper Pravda documenting a 1969 interview with him. In 1988, satellite imagery showed the letters "USA" in a rice paddy near Sam Neua, where Hrdlicka was shot down.
In July 1992, Carol filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for information related to any rescue attempts. She also sought information on a rescue attempt called "Duck Soup." The Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing In Action said there were no records of a rescue attempt for her husband. It also said there was a secret government operation called "Duck Soup" in 1949, but it remained classified. A few years later, a researcher at the Lyndon Johnson library found State Department dispatches from the U.S. embassy in Saigon from June and July 1965 debating the value of a planned operation called "Duck Soup."
In their 2007 book "An Enormous Crime," former U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon of North Carolina and attorney Elizabeth Stewart used public and previously classified documents to argue that the U.S. government knowingly abandoned hundreds of POWs after withdrawing from Vietnam.
"Once they started lying about the rescue attempts, I started asking myself, 'What's going on?'" Carol said. "The more I asked, the less they wanted to give. That's what keeps me going."
Before 1990, U.S. access was restricted in most Southeast Asia locations where American prisoners were allegedly seen. But since 1991, a process called Live Sighting Investigation allows for short-notice inspections by U.S. officials.
To date, none of the 119 investigations -- 97 in Vietnam, 12 in Laos, and 10 in Cambodia -- has generated any credible evidence of American POWs being held in Southeast Asia after 1975, said Air Force Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department's POW/Missing Personnel Office.
Jerry Streeter and Carol Hrdlicka are unconvinced. David was 34 when Carol last saw him and would be 81. Said Carol: "If he was dead, I'm sure I would have had a body by now."