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Traitors or patriots? Vietnam POWs were charged with collaborating with the enemy

Robert Chenoweth looks at a pair of shorts he was issued by his North Vietnamese captors.

KAI EISELEIN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: September 22, 2017

MOSCOW, Idaho — The six young servicemembers, fresh from the prison camps of North Vietnam, stood at attention, saluted and wept as their comrade was lowered into his grave that Monday in a Denver cemetery.

Marine Corps Sgt. Abel Larry Kavanaugh, 24, had been like a brother to them and before he had fired a bullet into his brain a few days earlier, they had shared many grim years together as POWs.

But they had another bond: Kavanaugh and his buddies had all been accused of collaborating with the enemy while imprisoned. They had made antiwar broadcasts, cooperated with their captors and had written letters condemning the conflict, a senior officer charged.

Two were accused of making crude wooden models of American aircraft so the North Vietnamese could hone their marksmanship. Fellow prisoners called them traitors and communists, and named them the "Peace Committee."

Formal military charges had been filed after their release. But the prospect of more incarceration was too much for Kavanaugh. After his suicide on June 27, 1973, his wife said the Pentagon had murdered her husband.

"The North Vietnamese kept him alive for five years," she said. "Then he came back to America and his own people killed him."

This month, as filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick retell the tragedy of the Vietnam War on public television, the story of the POW Peace Committee seems a footnote to the sprawling conflict that tore the country apart.

But 50 years after the war's peak years of 1967 and 1968, it serves to show how the bitter divisions extended even to the prison camps, and how deep they remain.

Some former POWs still believe the Peace Committee members betrayed fellow prisoners and their country.

"They were sworn military personnel," said one who was incarcerated with the Committee but did not want his name used. "They took the oath to uphold the Constitution, and you can't turn on your fellow prisoners."

Hal Kushner, an Army physician and POW who appears in the Burns documentary, said, "We all thought they collaborated and we all thought that they got special favors for the collaboration."

Such conduct for military men was "morally wrong," he said. "You don't have the same moral choices you have in civilian life."

But Robert P. Chenoweth, 69, a Committee leader and one of those accused of making the plane models, celebrates the day he was captured.

"For me  it was the beginning of a new way of looking at the world," he said in an interview in his home here this month.

He studied Marxism while in captivity, came to understand the North Vietnamese point of view and considered seeking asylum in Sweden.

Was he brainwashed?

Maybe, he said. But no more so than he had been by American culture before he went to war.

As he was being released in 1973, his captors asked if there was anything he wanted to take. Among other things, he asked for a North Vietnamese flag, with its gold star and red background.

Today, almost 50 years after his capture in 1968, Chenoweth, who would befriend antiwar activists Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, still has the black gym bag he brought from prison in Hanoi.

Inside, wrapped in acid-free paper, are his old prison uniforms, his rubber sandals made from car tires and the small flag - its colors now faded and stained, but its fabric intact.

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Six Marines carried Kavanaugh's casket into All Saints Catholic Church in Denver on July 2, 1973. The Rev. Roland Freeman, who had married Kavanaugh and his wife, Sandra, in 1967, said the funeral Mass, according to old news accounts. Hundreds of people were in attendance.

All but one of the eight members of the Peace Committee had come to act as honorary pallbearers, even as the charges hung over them.

Chenoweth, then a 25-year-old Army sergeant, attended with his father, Leston.

Also there were Marine Sgt. Alfonso Riate, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; Marine Pvt. Frederick L. Elbert Jr., of Brentwood, N.Y.; Army Sgt. James A. Daly Jr., of Brooklyn; Army Sgt. King D. Rayford, of Chicago; and Army Sgt. James A. Young, of Grayslake, Ill.

Only Army Spc. Michael P. Branch, of Highland Heights, Ky., had been unable to attend.

All eight had been accused by U.S. Air Force Col. Theodore W. Guy, who was the senior officer in their POW camp at a place called "Plantation Gardens."

Guy filed the charges May 29, 1973, claiming the men had aided the enemy, conspired to undermine discipline, accepted preferential treatment and disobeyed orders.

Most of the POWs held in Vietnam had just been released that March after spending years in captivity, often in deadly, disease-ridden camps. Many POWs had starved and perished. Some had been tortured.

The eight denied the charges, noting that other POWs had cooperated with the enemy in various ways. One called the accusations "ridiculous." Chenoweth said his father offered to drive him to Canada if he was put on trial.

The case made front-page headlines across the country. The men had already been ostracized, and the pressure on them was enormous.

Kavanaugh, who had been captured April 24, 1968, became depressed and paranoid.

He thought his phone was being tapped, that he was being followed and would speak only in whispers to his wife, a psychologist testified at a coroner's inquest into his death.

On his first night home with his wife and 5-year-old-daughter, he had packed his bags and said he was leaving the country. His wife dissuaded him.

On June 27, 1973, in a bedroom of his father-in-law's house in Colorado, Kavanaugh shot himself with a .25-caliber pistol.

The psychologist said later that he had become "borderline psychotic" and had been unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

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The war-weary helicopter Bob Chenoweth was assigned for the run up to Da Nang in February 1968 was so banged up he had to remove the cargo doors because they wouldn't open or close properly.

It would be a chilly flight, so he packed a warm jacket for the trip.

Chenoweth, the son of a telephone company technician, was from Portland, Oregon. He had just turned 20, but was an experienced helicopter crewman.

He had been in Vietnam for more than a year and had grown increasingly disturbed by what he saw as the racist views of most Americans toward the Vietnamese.

"I was constantly asking myself, 'How could we possibly be helping these people with the attitude that nearly every GI had toward them,' " he said.

That attitude was: "These people were subhuman. They couldn't help themselves. They lived in dirt floors and grass houses," he said. "Plus all the names — gooks and dinks and everything you could imagine."

An aviation geek, he had joined the Army in 1966 and was trained to work on UH-1 Huey helicopters. He arrived in Vietnam in January 1967 and began flying combat, medevac and resupply missions as a machine-gunner.

On Feb. 8, 1968, he was flying back to Da Nang in the beat-up Huey, with a black cat painted on its nose, when it came under heavy ground fire and crashed in a cemetery.

All six men on board got out, but they were quickly hemmed in by local Viet Cong forces, and surrendered.

Thus began Chenoweth's five-year odyssey in enemy hands.

He said the emergence of the Peace Committee began early in his imprisonment, in a camp called "Portholes."

He said he and fellow POW King Rayford, a 20-year-old African-American who had been drafted off a Ford assembly line in Detroit, spent many hours talking in their tiny cells.

Other POWs have recounted how the North Vietnamese began to probe into the prisoners' backgrounds, often feeding them communist propaganda and pointing out the inequalities and upheaval back in the United States.

The cells had radio speakers over which enemy broadcasts and antiwar broadcasts by POWs were heard, prisoners have recounted.

Chenoweth said his captors were also intent on giving lessons in Vietnamese history.

Gradually, he began to see things differently and to sympathize with the North Vietnamese.

"Both my willingness to commit to an antiwar position publicly, in other words my willingness to write letters, to broadcast on the radio, to try to share with people something of what I had learned" came over time, he said.

He said he began to see the American effort in Vietnam as "a war of aggression ... on a massive scale."

"Every one of those pilots that was captured ... was captured on a bombing mission," he said. "They were killing Vietnamese with their bombs."

He said in prison he read the writings of Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the communist revolution in Vietnam; Mao Tse Tung, the Chinese communist leader; and Vladimir Lenin, the Russian communist revolutionary.

He said he became a Marxist.

Other POWs called members of the Committee traitors and referred to them as "the ducks," because they seemed to follow the guards around.

But Chenoweth denied the committee sought, or got, preferential treatment and believes he never did anything to endanger other POWs.

"I thought the people ... running the war, the people who had gotten us into the war in the first place, those were the traitors," he said. Those opposed were the patriots.

He and his friends started publishing an antiwar camp magazine called New Life.

He built the aircraft models of bamboo and branches for the North Vietnamese later, after moving to a prison in Hanoi, he said.

"They wanted planes to put on sticks to ... train the people to lead the planes and stuff like that," he said. "I helped them do that. I helped them make some planes, just wooden silhouettes."

"It wasn't just something to do," he said. "By that time, I probably would have done a lot to help the Vietnamese."

"The thing that people didn't understand about the war, and I think most Americans still don't understand it today, was what the Vietnamese were trying to do," he said. "They just wanted the Americans to go home."

"What was the American purpose in Vietnam?" he asked. "You still can't say today."

Chenoweth said the group expected to get in trouble for its actions once the war ended.

"We talked about staying in Vietnam," he said. "We talked about going to Sweden ... [But] we wanted to go home and share our knowledge."

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Today, of the eight members of the committee, Daly and Riate are deceased. Elbert is in poor health and living in Ohio. Rayford is retired and lives in Michigan. Young and Branch could not be reached for this story.

Guy and Sandra Kavanaugh are also deceased.

Chenoweth worked for a time with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Later, he said he was forced out of a job as a historian for the Navy because of his antiwar activities — an official telling him, "We know who you are."

He retired earlier this year after 27 years with the National Park Service.

Sgt. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was buried in Fort Logan National Cemetery in 1973.

Scores of friends and family were in attendance, along with the Peace Committee members in their crisp military uniforms.

Chenoweth, who had just had a visit from Kavanaugh, his wife and daughter a few weeks earlier, remembers the anger.

It was "beyond description," he recalled. "It wasn't just us. It was the families too . . . They were just angry."

And there was sadness, he said.

"I knew Larry's life," he said. "He gets captured . . . He goes through . . . all this time away from his family. He gets home, where he's supposed to be safe and sound, and he can't do it."

The day after the funeral, the Pentagon dismissed all the charges.

The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
 

Robert Chenoweth points to the name placed on a small duffle bag he was issued upon his release from a prisoner of war camp.
BY KAI EISELEIN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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