Although his remains have never been found, Minnesota native 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.
Despite what it calls its best efforts, 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 up to 1990, Hrdlicka may have been alive and held captive. In her search for answers, she has joined a crowd that has grown suspicious of whether the United States did all it could to bring perhaps as many as hundreds of American POWs home long after peace was declared, and long after others have moved on with their lives.
Jerry Streeter, a retired insurance executive and a classmate of David Hrdlicka from St. John's Preparatory School, is also obsessed with the search, filling his Edina apartment with documents and faded satellite photos that possibly connect the dots: like the mysterious image of the letters "USA" seen on a satellite photo in a clearing of the Laotian village where Hrdlicka was last seen alive. Until it was too tattered to display, a POW/MIA flag with Hrdlicka's face on it flew every day over the St. John's campus. "We honor people who come back from wars," said Streeter, who campaigned to have St. John's fly the flag. "The people who do not come back, we feel sad about. People who come back disabled are given sympathy. But somehow we have left the POWs behind." Friday is MIA/POW Remembrance Day.
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."
'The Air Corps wants him'
A photo of David Hrdlicka shows a chisel-chinned pilot with a crewcut, a silk neckerchief tucked into his flight suit. Born in Stewartville, Minn., he grew up in Sandstone. He transferred to St. John's Prep as a junior and already had a pilot's license. Next to his 1950 graduation picture it says: "Thinks the Air Corps wants him."
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 on a mission later revealed to be targeting a road used by Communists to transport troops and supplies. 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 member of the Laotian militia.
Carol said during the first year, she waited for a call telling her he had been recovered. A former flier with David had told her the U.S. military was running rescue attempts called "ghost teams." 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. "It just came to the point that I couldn't stand living with myself to think I was going to abandon David like the U.S. government had done to him," she said.
Letters in a rice paddy
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 now he probably died in 1968. But she found an article in the Russian newspaper Pravda documenting an interview with him in 1969. In 1988, satellite imagery showed the letters "USA" in a rice paddy near Sam Neua, where Hrdlicka was shot down. The Defense Intelligence Agency later said the letters probably were made by a vilage child.
In July 1992, Carol filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for information related to any attempts to rescue David. She also sought information on a rescue attempt she had been told about called "Duck Soup." The Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing In Action responded less than two weeks later. There were no records of the U.S. government ever mounting a rescue attempt for her husband, it said. It also said that, while there was a secret government operation called "Duck Soup" in 1949, its mission remained classified. But, it made clear, it was not connected to the POW/MIA issue and was "completely unconnected to the area of Southeast Asia."
A few years later, a researcher at the Lyndon Johnson library would find State Department dispatches from the U.S. embassy in Saigon from June and July 1965 that debated the value of conducting a planned operation called "Duck Soup." A June 20 dispatch reports a rescue attempt in which one pilot was walked out to friendly territory from Laos, but the dispatch says it is unclear if the pilot was Hrdlicka, identifying him by name. It also warns: "I would like to stress overwhelming importance that this rescue not repeat not be given publicity. Lives of U.S. officers and our Lao friends could be compromised and jeopardized by public hullabaloo about this."
In their 2007 book "An Enormous Crime," former North Carolina U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon 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. Last month a federal judge rejected a bid from the CIA to end a nine-year legal battle over secret records about Vietnam War POWs or MIAs, the latest action in a suit against the CIA seeking information about 1,700 names in its database.
Why would the U.S. government look the other way with men left behind? Records show President Richard Nixon was working on a payoff to Southeast Asian countries in exchange for Americans held captive but was distracted by Watergate. While campaigning for president, Ronald Reagan said he thought American POWs were still alive, and a rescue attempt was discussed but never pursued. The issue became more clouded during the Clinton presidency, as the country sought to normalize relations with 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 has allowed for short-notice inspections by U.S. officials at sites that include prisons. 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. Nevertheless, she said, the repatriation of American POWs and resolution of live-sighting reports remains one of the nation's highest priorities.
Jerry Streeter and Carol Hrdlicka are unconvinced. Jerry often wears a black vest with the POW/MIA logo and a picture of David Hrdlicka's capture. It says: "Ask questions. Some others still survive!"
David was 34 when Carol last saw him, and would be 81 today. Said Carol matter-of-factly: "If he was dead, I'm sure I would have had a body by now."