Thursday, April 11, 2013


US made armored vehicles in Hue, captured from the South Vietnamese Army at the war's end
Today I'm in the old capital Hue inside the Citadel. I'm outside the Imperial Enclosure, and as I'm strolling along Thang Street, I chance upon what is known as 'The Conflict Museum’. It's easy to find, since big American made tanks and armored vehicles are parked right out front. Although armor was used by the US military to retake the Citadel in 1968, plaques beneath these heavy vehicles state that most were captured at Tan My Port in 1975, as the war ended. The plaques don’t mention they were abandoned by ARVN troops, who were trying to board ships and escape south.

Buying a ticket, I find the section on the American war, and prepare myself to sort through what is truth, and what is propaganda. There is plenty of both, but I’ll be shocked at what else I find here.

At first, the museum is heavy on weapons, documents, and old photos. There's an emphasis on the torture of captured communists by the ‘puppet’ soldiers, and by the US. Like in the ‘War Remnants Museum’, these atrocities were documented elsewhere. Of course
US made bombs on display in the museum
there's no mention of torture inflicted by the communists themselves. For all their focus on atrocities, one of the most horrific events of the war here in Hue, is not mentioned in the museum at all. In 1968 when the communists took the city, they rounded up and massacred 3,000 of Hue’s citizens. It was the worst massacre of the war. Most killed were civil servants and government officials. These included teachers, lawyers, firemen, doctors, policemen and administrators. But the communists didn’t stop there. The dead included women, children, Catholic priests, nuns, Buddhist monks, and a French medical team. 

These unfortunate civilians were marked for death by Viet Cong (VC) spies who had been living among them until the takeover. In the first days of the takeover they were quickly rounded up, executed and buried in mass graves, many near the Perfume River. These mass graves were discovered as US troops were retaking the city. During that deadly month of occupation, the VC had murdered an entire generation of Hue’s civilian leadership.
US Army Cobra gunship, type flown by Capt. McDonnell. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Continuing on, I find many weapons here, all were manufactured in the US, Russia, or China. I ponder over this: all the weapons are of foreign origin. So what if North and South Vietnam were left to fight the war alone, using only their domestically made weapons? What would they have used to fight each other? Knives and bamboo spears?

For the average North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong fighter, this war was mainly a fight for reunification, and to kick out foreign invaders. For the Americans, Russians and Chinese, the implications of the Vietnam War were much broader. This was also a proxy war, part of the larger Cold War dividing the world at the time. Most Vietnamese today still don't understand this.

Another group of photos show anti-war demonstrations within Vietnam in the 1960’s. They glorifly the demonstrations from those years, but they won’t allow any demonstrations against the government today.

The last room has exhibits from when the communists recaptured the city as the
ARVN and US Army ID's on display
war ended. A display caption reads, “SOME ID CARDS OF THE AMERICAN AND PUPPET SOLDIERS, TAKEN BY THELIBERATION TROOP IN MARCH 1975”. Lined up like playing cards, there are many genuine military ID's from ARVN troops, along with 11 Army ID cards from American soldiers. This is another mislabeled caption. Nearly all American troops were long gone out of Vietnam after the peace was signed in 1973, so these 11 soldiers couldn’t have been captured in Hue in 1975. This is just more propaganda, but the ID cards themselves are genuine. I wonder, were these men killed in action earlier in the war?

On a hunch, I decide to research the US soldiers on these ID cards. I knew that there was a story for each one of these young men. I decide to search beyond the propaganda, and try to find out what really happened to them.

Getting to a computer later, I begin tracking down their information
searching through various public databases.. Of the 11 ID cards, the text of one name isn’t visible, leaving me 10 to research. Four of the ID cards don’t have any relevant information that I can find. Their names are not listed on Vietnam War Memorial, so these four men weren’t killed in Vietnam. They aren't on the list of the prisoners of war (POWs) released at the war’s end either. For these four men, perhaps their ID cards were lost or stolen.

For the ID of one Staff Sargeant, I’m pleased to learn through a networking search that he survived the war. A former Army Ranger in Vietnam, he’s now a civilian manager of a contracting company. Like the other four, I’m curious to know how his ID card ended up here. I wonder if he is even aware that his old Army ID is on display in a Vietnamese museum.

US soldier's ID cards. I searched to find out what happened to these men.
More searches find results for four other ID cards. I’m sad to learn that these men were killed in action (KIA). Mark Bush, Milton Swain, Max Johnson and Richard Staab. From the Vietnam War Memorial database, I learn that all four were with the 101st Airborne, an elite Army unit. All were killed in fighting in Thua Tien Province, of which Hue is a part. None of them died here during the Tet Offensive though. All four were killed later on different dates, between 1969 - 1970. These ID’s may have been removed from their bodies by the VC or NVA after they fell on the battlefield.

Then there is the last name, the only officer in the group. I type in his name for a web search, and hit return.

My mouth drops open. I’m shocked at what I find.

Captain John T. McDonnell. There is far more information about him, then there is on any of the others that I looked up before. That’s because he was not killed in action. He is still listed today as MIA, Missing In Action in Vietnam. He disappeared on March 6, 1969, and he hasn’t been seen or heard from since!

On that day Capt. McDonnell was flying
a combat mission south of Hue in a Cobra helicopter gunship. The chopper was hit by ground fire and crashed. The injured pilot of the helicopter was found and evacuated. Unfortunately, due to the nature of his injuries, he couldn’t recall what had happened to McDonnell.

US forces searching for the chopper, found the wreckage. McDonnell’s helmet was found, with no traces of blood. His seatbelt was found unlocked, so it’s likely he fled on foot. The search team found abandoned enemy positions nearby, and since McDonnell’s body wasn't found, it’s likely he was taken prisoner. The presence of his ID in this museum practically confirms it.

Later information collected from investigators, indicated he was likely being held prisoner by the NVA. Incredibly, he may even have still been alive after the war's end in 1973, when all other
More IDs. Capt. John T. McDonnell, at the bottom, is Missing In Action.
American prisoners of war (POW’s) were supposedly sent home.

I’ve learned that there is something even worse than being killed in a war. There is the great misfortune of disappearing in combat, and never being found. Ever. Capt. McDonnell’s disappearance created a pain for his family that is never ending. For years they were unable to mourn for him, since they didn’t know if he was either dead or alive. Years later, the Army finally declared him officially dead, but how did his death happen, and when? What really happened to him may remain a mystery that will never be solved.

Unfortunately, John McDonnell’s family is not alone. After the US war ended in 1973, and all prisoners were exchanged, more than 2,500 Americans remained listed as Missing In Action in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Since the North Vietnamese soon resumed the war, the US government never paid them the $4.5 billion in war reparations agreed to in the Paris Peace Accords. For years afterward, many believed the North Vietnamese were still holding live American prisoners of war, perhaps hostages for the war reparations. Some American POW’s may have remained in prison camps, held for political ransom.

For their part the communists denied this, claiming all live Americans had already been returned. In at least one case, their claims were disproved. Robert Garwood, a US Marine who had been missing since 1965, was finally released by the Vietnamese in 1979, six years after the US war ended. He was later convicted of aiding and abetting the enemy, but for years the North Vietnamese had never admitted that he was in their possession.

John McDonnell also may have been alive after the war, and he remains listed as Missing In Action today. But the presence of his ID card in this military museum leaves many unanswered questions. For this card to have ended up here, somebody in the NVA or VC must have taken this ID card from McDonnell while he was still alive, or removed it from his uniform after his death. The US military is aware of his ID card in this museum, but his fate remains unknown. After Capt. McDonnell’s chopper went down, he didn’t just disappear into thin air. Somebody here in Vietnam knew what happened to him. 

There are still mysteries to solve in Vietnam. 


  1. G- May I use your photo on a site dedicated to John T McDonnell?

  2. Hello JM. Yes, you have my permission. Please post a link to the webpage in the comments section here, so that I and others can see your website as well. Best to you - G.

  3. G- Thanks. The link to the front page is:

    The photo is located on;

  4. Mark Joel Bush KIA June 22, 1970 Thua Tien was my uncle..

  5. Mark Bush was my uncle killed Thua Thien June 22,1970. I couldn't see his name on the picture that I think is his....Thank you for publishing this....are they more pictures of those id cards?

  6. Can you tell me if the museum where the id cards are is the Hue Provincial Museum -military exhibit? If not would you remember the name of the museum? Thanks again for your time and information. It is greatly appreciated!!!

  7. I believe that what you listed, is the new name of the museum. It seems that since I visited the museum at Hue some time ago, the name of the museum changed later. (That also happened at the "War Remnants Museum" in Saigon, years back it used to be called "The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes".)