This third post of my blog, www.jcdonahue24.com, pertains to another dimension of the United States Government’s (USG) efforts to preclude me from finding out what happened to my missing brother, Maj. Morgan Jefferson Donahue, who was declared Missing in Action over Laos on December 13, 1968. Specifically, this post deals with how in 1988 the U.S. State Department intervened with the Laotian government to keep me from entering the country to look for my brother and other missing servicemen. I was able to circumvent the State Department and re-enter Laos in early 1990, but I lost valuable time in the interim.
Please note that Posts #1 and #2 of the blog are immediately below this Post #3. I encourage you to read Posts #1 and #2 before this Post #3 if you have not already.
As I did with Posts #1 and #2, allow me to set the stage for this post, please.
I had undertaken multiple initiatives in Laos in 1973-1975 on the heels of my father’s initiatives which commenced with his first visit to Laos within a week of my brother’s loss. I had been active in the POW-MIA issue since early 1969 but did not enter Laos for the first time until 1973. The Laotian war was still underway in Laos after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 but it was time for me to go despite the risk. Indeed, I was in Vientiane two days before the pro-western government fell to the communist Pathet Lao in December 1975. Getting out of Laos at a time my airline ticket suddenly was worthless (gold was about the only way to get out) was another adventure, but that is for a future post.
The Paris Peace Accords proved utterly fraudulent in a matter of a few minutes after their signing on January 23, 1973, as I have cited in Post #1. As best I can reconstruct the press conference on the heels of the signing, Henry Kissinger said, “We have peace in Indochina,” or something to that effect. North Vietnam’s Chief Delegate to the Accords, Le Duc Tho, stepped to the podium and said something to this effect, “Mr. Kissinger is mistaken. We have peace in Vietnam. If Mr. Kissinger wants peace in Cambodia and Laos then the United States will have to sign peace accords with those countries.” Moreover, North Vietnam had every intention of violating the Accords and conquering South Vietnam. Unification of the two Vietnams was its sole objective and the Accords were a way of accelerating the process. In addition, North Vietnam produced its fraudulent Laos POW list to mollify the USG.
It is easy to understand why Mr. Tho declined the Nobel Peace Prize – he knew exactly what North Vietnam was doing in signing the Accords, and he did not want to be part of an incredibly bogus prize.
Among other initiatives, some of my early trips to Laos prior to the country’s fall to the communists in December 1975 concentrated on accumulating intelligence on the locations of American POWs and working with Royal Lao Air Force personnel to conduct a repatriation mission encompassing POWs at what appeared to be a particularly valid Lao prison camp location. After the fall of Laos and the collapse of my repatriation efforts, my efforts turned back to intelligence gathering and to building relationships with Lao refugees in Thailand, and also with the Lao communist government because continued access to the country was essential to me.
While living in Hong Kong in 1988 I established a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), which I named Friends for Humanitarian Assistance to Laos (FFHATL), as another way of accessing the Laotian countryside. My dear friend, Bill Shemeley, of New Milford, Connecticut, joined me as co-head of FFHATL, and he registered FFHATL as a 501(c)(3) organization in the USA. Bill was a former Combat Medic with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam and later pursued a career in the medical device field. In May 1988, I went to Vientiane and presented FFHATL to the Lao Ministry of Health (including to the Minister of Health) and FFHATL’s proposal to send medical supplies to Laos from the USA for distribution to the Lao countryside. FFHATL would provide the medical supplies. The supplies would be shipped to the Ministry of Health and then I would come to Laos with my FFHATL colleague (Bill Shemeley) to supervise their distribution to the countryside. [Bill and I were seeking to have the supplies distributed to the remotest part of the country, especially the Northeast.] The FFHATL proposal was ecstatically received by the Ministry. Indeed, it was the most emphatic invitation to a country I ever have received.
While with the Ministry of Health I also raised our desire to build medical dispensaries in the countryside. We discussed location, construction design, training, resupply, equipment, supplies and supervision. The Ministry made it perfectly clear that the dispensaries had to be constructed according to requirements for the Laotian countryside and not according to U.S. design and construction which the Ministry deemed vastly inappropriate and not usable. The local people would not accept them – “not simple and not open.” We then tentatively established August for the next visit.
The state of medical care in the Lao countryside was sub-rudimentary and totally shocking. The further one got from Vientiane the worse it got. The ability of FFHATL to help the country was unequivocal.
Through FFHATL, Bill raised approximately three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of donated and purchased medical supplies in the USA which we shipped to Vientiane at my expense and distributed to the Laotian countryside under the auspices of the Lao Ministry of Health. In effect, the Ministry of Health became Bill’s and my official sponsors for visas and for going into the countryside. The Ministry of Health was effusive in its gratitude for the supplies.
As agreed with the Ministry of Health, Bill and I scheduled the trip for July 1988 (a revised date). We went to the Laotian Embassy in Bangkok to pick up our visas, which was standard operating procedure. Shockingly, the visas were denied even though I had previously confirmed our visit by phone with both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I got on the phone to the Foreign Ministry in Vientiane to straighten out the visa problem but could not resolve it due to an undecipherable response from them. Without the visa, Bill and I were stuck in Bangkok in a futile and dismaying situation, so he went back to Connecticut and I went back to Hong Kong. Bill did leave the latest edition of the medical text, Merck Manual at the Lao Embassy in Bangkok with the request that it be sent to the Ministry of Health in Vientiane.
Back in Connecticut, Bill sent the latest USA medical shipment to the Ministry including new high technology items such as disposable skin staplers, staple removers and training manuals.
Bill and I were frozen out of Laos for the time being. In 1989, though, a dear friend of mine in Hong Kong, Mary Reynolds, pointed out an article to me in a local Chinese newspaper that a Chinese business group was organizing a trip to Vientiane in January 1990 to introduce Hong Kong businessmen to Laos. Mary suggested there was no harm in joining the trip because if Bill and I got into Laos we could go to the Lao Ministry of Health and hopefully get the visa problem resolved. Mary applied for me and Bill to join the group. We got the visas in short order, and Bill and I met in Bangkok and went to Vientiane. God bless Mary!
After settling down in Vientiane, Bill and I went to the Ministry of Health and contacted the officials there with whom we had been working since 1988. Our conversations always were characterized by mutual respect. They were absolutely shocked, though, when Bill and I walked in the door.
After the usual formalities and the Ministry’s expression of gratitude for the medical supplies, the discussion turned to the subject of Bill’s and my access to Laos under the Ministry’s sponsorship. The senior Ministry individual was candid. He said, “Dr. Donahue, we are grateful for all you have done for Laos but you have a problem with your government [my emphasis] and there is nothing we can do. We cannot influence the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this. You must resolve the problem with your government for FFHATL to continue its mission in Laos.”
Bill and I went back to our hotel and excogitated on strategies. We decided we had no choice other than to go to the U.S. Embassy and try to resolve the issue. [The USA closed its embassies in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975 but never closed the one in Laos.] I detested going to the Embassy because the personnel there, as everyone else in the State Department, embraced the USG’s lie that all the POWs came home during Operation Homecoming and that anyone concerned about the POW-MIA issue was wasting his or her time even caring about the POW-MIAs. However, we did not have a Plan B and we therefore went to the Embassy, introduced ourselves to the Marine security guards at the front gate and then at the entrance to the Embassy building, and told him we wanted to meet with the Ambassador. The security guard said there was no Ambassador, just a Chargé d’Affaires named Charles Salmon. [The Embassy not having a full Ambassador often characterized Lao-USA relations in those days.] I said, “That’s fine, can we meet with him?” The guard said he would go see. He came back in a few minutes and said Mr. Salmon would see us in his office, and he escorted Bill and me there.
In his office, Bill and I introduced ourselves and our FFHATL mission and what we had done for Laos. We told him of the visa problem and I told him that we could resolve the issue by giving the Ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs a letter from the Embassy advising them that FFHATL was a USA-based charitable organization in good standing. We requested the letter. Mr. Salmon said, “Let me check with Washington. Please come back this afternoon.” Bill and I thanked him and promised to come back at 2:00 p.m. Needless to say, Mr. Salmon was not knowledgeable of Bill’s and my involvement in the POW-MIA issue.
Bill and I went back to the Embassy and were escorted into Mr. Salmon’s office by two Marine guards who attended and experienced what happened when Bill and I went into Mr. Salmon’s office.
Mr. Salmon was waiting for me and the second I entered his office he literally ran and confrontationally shoved his face in my face and screamed, “How the hell did you get in this country? How did you get in this country? I demand to know how you got in this country? How did you get a visa?” Bill and I remained completely polite and cordial in spite of Mr. Salmon going ballistic. Indeed, his behavior was making the Marine guards fidget, and I was concerned that Mr. Salmon was so riled up that he was going to have a stroke.
Realizing Mr. Salmon had been sanction in the interim by the State Department in Washington, D.C. about Jeff Donahue and his search for his brother I had but one rejoinder: “Mr. Salmon, I’ll tell you why I am here. My brother was flying over Laos killing people. I am in Laos saving people.” Mr. Salmon then said he would never, ever give us the letter we requested.
Mr. Salmon’s hostility affirmed he had been disciplined by his superiors in Washington. A top USG mission – keeping Jeff Donahue out of Laos – had failed. Indeed, knowing that the POW-MIA issue was the sole domain of the USG, it had gone so far as to tell the Laotian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Health that I should not be allowed in the country and should be denied a visa. This is why the Ministry of Health said, “Dr. Donahue, we are grateful for all you have done for Laos but you have a problem with your government [my emphasis] and there is nothing we can do. We cannot influence the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this. You must resolve the problem with your government for FFHATL to continue its mission in Laos.”
As an affirmation of the State Department’s intervention in my and Bill’s personal affairs that lead to our being denied visas in July 1988, in June 1988 Bill received a phone call from the U.S. State Department inquiring about his upcoming trip to Laos. It now was unequivocally clear the State Department was listening in on Bill and me and FFHATL. Bill learned that the then-Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S Embassy, Harriet Isom, had met with the Lao Ministry of Health in May sometime after my visit to discuss a U.S.-based charitable entity, AmeriCares, building dispensaries in the Lao countryside. [AmeriCares is a large U.S. charity that has strong ties to the State Department.] This caught the Ministry off-guard because another charitable organization (FFHATL) already had a plan for building dispensaries in the countryside. Ms. Isom pressed further, and the Ministry gave her Bill’s and my details. The State Department subsequently convinced the Ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs that Bill and I should not be allowed in Laos. [The record says I met Ms. Isom at a social event in Hong Kong and that I brought up the subject of FFHATL and the State Department’s intervention in my personal affairs. She accused me of being a one-issue man. My response should have been, “Dear God in Heaven, what is wrong with that when it comes to caring about the POW-MIAs in Laos? Unfortunately, respite the record, I do not recall meeting her at the event.]
On Bill’s and my 1990 visit, the Ministry of Health told us a dispensary had been built by AmeriCares but was built with USA designs and some materials and therefore was completely worthless. The Ministry opined, “We told them so…”
If either the State Department, Mr. Salmon or Ms. Isom surface to refute my confrontation with Mr. Salmon and Bill’s and my prohibition on entering Laos, please remember that I have (1) three witnesses to the confrontation with Mr. Salmon, and (2) and a host of State Department communications affirming the Embassy’s dialog with the Lao Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Health regarding me, Bill and FFHATL.
Bill and I told the Ministry of Health that the problem with our visas had been resolved, and we subsequently were able to re-enter Laos and oversee the distribution of the medical supply shipments through 1992. On one trip we were given a tour of the main hospital and were asked if FFHATL could secure some badly needed large equipment. We said we would do our best.
Along the way, Bill and I also funded the creation of a tourism company in Phonsavan, Xiangkhoang Province, operated by a local partner. And, we later undertook a study for the Lao Ministry of Tourism regarding the tourist potential for the Plain of Jars. This study was assimilated into the Ministry’s application to UNESCO for the Plain of Jars be declared a World Heritage Site, which it was. That undertaking also took Bill and me to Sam Neua and the cave-headquarters of the Pathet Lao during the war in Viengxay in northeast Laos close to the border of Vietnam. Some of the caves were thought to hold US POWs during the war but Bill and I could discern no evidence of that. The caves had been thoroughly scavenged by indigenous people after the war.
Here is an exceptional article from the Washington Post dated January 2, 1994, regarding the fate of some of the POWs in Laos: http://articles.latimes.com/1994-01-02/news/mn-7768_1_pathet-lao. Despite the substance of the article, to this day the State Department has but one response enshrined in USG policy: all the POWs came home during Operation Homecoming and there is no evidence to the contrary. How sad that the State Department and the Defense Department so vigorously lie about that rather than tell the truth. Instead, they conduct a rigorous policy of distortion, obfuscation, misrepresentation, misinterpretation, hypocrisy and deceit all to protect the policy.
Should the State Department be excogitating further on the POW-MIA issue and my involvement in it, I humbly request the State Department have the CIA release all documents – including State Department and DIA correspondences and communications regarding my brother and other POW-MIAs – that remain secret and are held secret in the bowels of the CIA and DIA to this day (assuming they haven’t been destroyed). Indeed, in light of the CIA and DIA even maintaining secret records to this day – 40 years after the end of the war – while it is telling the world there were no POWs left behind after Operation Homecoming precludes them from telling the truth about anything involving the POW-MIAs.
Post #4 will come shortly. It will involve my father’s and my work with the Lao resistance movements on the POWs and the FBI’s threat to put us in jail for doing so.
Post #5 will be a fun one that involved me going to Kunming, China, in 1989 on behalf of Ross Perot’s efforts to secure the repatriation of an F-105 pilot whom his sources advised was a POW in northernmost Vietnam. I got an extended stay in Kunming under house arrest for that…
Again, I will impose on you with all my heart if you will distribute the link to my blog – www.jcdonahue24.com – to as many people as you can. Please include military people if you can. They need to know the truth of the POWs-MIAs. The truth will prevail only as more people become aware of the issue. Please tell them to start with Post #1 at the bottom and work their way up to #3.
Thank you so much!
I send peace and regards,