|US made armored vehicles in Hue, captured from the South Vietnamese Army at the war's end|
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|
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|
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.|
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.|
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.