This post deals with an episode that is still hard for me to believe 26+ years later.
I will commence with setting the stage as I have done with the 3 previous Posts. You also will see I introduce the term, “live POW-MIA issue,” as distinct from the POW-MIA issue in general.
New readers to my Posts should commence with Post #1, which can be found at the bottom of Home Page (or use the link) and then read upwards through Posts #2 and #3.
During the second half of the 1980’s I developed a cordial relationship with H. Ross Perot. It was not an extensive relationship in large part because I was in Hong Kong far away from Ross’ base of operations in Texas. However, I was aware of his involvement in the POW-MIA issue and he was aware of mine. As I, he believed many hundreds of American servicemen were left behind after Operation Homecoming in February-March 1973. Ross was dedicated to the live POW-MIAs during and after the Indochina war and he advocated for them relentlessly. In 1969 during the war, for example, he filled an airplane with tons of supplies for the POWs in Hanoi. The North Vietnamese blocked his flights but the global publicity generated by his attempt resulted in better treatment of the POWs. Another example is his subsequent post-war visit to the SRV to discuss the POW-MIA issue as a private individual.
Ross always was very kind to me when our paths crossed, particularly during the Washington, D.C., meetings of the National Alliance of Families for The Return of America’s Missing Servicemen – World War II – Korea – Cold War – Vietnam War. [The National Alliance has since added the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan.] Please note this is not The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, a USG-backed organization whose Board I had the misfortune of serving on periodically in the 1970s and 1990s – and I believe in the 1980s. The Department of Defense pre-empted the National League in the early 1980s and ever since then the League has operated under the suzerainty of the DoD. That will be the subject of a future post. I consider the DoD’s domination of the League one of the great tragedies of the Indochina War because it precluded the League from pursuing the truth. The truth, and bringing home the live POW-MIAs, should have been the League’s sole purpose.
Ross’ commitment to the live POW-MIAs was mirrored by Ronald Reagan when he was Governor of California. Governor Reagan was a strong live POW-MIA advocate during his first presidential campaign and he promised to get to the bottom of the issue if elected. When Governor Reagan was elected President, Ross held him to his promise. President Reagan then appointed Ross to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board with a mandate to investigate the live POW-MIA issue. However, the Defense and State Departments aggressively lobbied President Reagan and Congress to abandon his advocacy of the live POW-MIAs on the fraudulent basis that all the POWs were returned during Operation Homecoming. President Reagan, sadly, succumbed to the pressure and withdrew his support of Ross. Instead, he appointed General John Vessey as his official Special Emissary to the SRV on POW-MIA affairs. He also advised the SRV that General Vessey was in charge of the relationship. Ross was, in effect, shut out of any government involvement in the live POW-MIA issue despite of his extensive knowledge of the issue, his dedication to it, and his good relationship with the SRV. General Vessey’s appointment carried over into the Clinton administration, and the live POW-MIA issue became even more deeply buried in the bowels of the DIA and the CIA.
During the Clinton administration, Congressman Billy Hendon (R-NC) formally proposed the creation of the Perot Commission to investigate the live Indochina POW-MIA issue but it was not adopted by the House, again thanks to the intervention of the Defense and State Departments and certain other Congressmen. The resolution for the Perot Commission cited an interesting statistic: “73 percent of the American people believe the North Vietnamese are still holding American prisoners of war.”
Leading the charge on multiple fronts against Ross was George Herbert Walker Bush. Bush had been head of the CIA and had a long-standing sour relationship with Ross because they were on different sides of the live POW-MIA issue from the get-go. That relationship only got worse over time. Not only was George Bush the least likely advocate of the live POW-MIAs but also he was instrumental in the disenfranchisement of Ross on the issue. Also, Gen. Vessey was the quintessential Defense Department insider, having served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he was a lock, stock and barrel anti-live POW-MIA issue man. Ross was ring-fenced by the anti-live POW-MIA contingent, and he left Washington a saddened man. He got his revenge, though, when he ran for president on an independent ticket. Ross’s presence in the 1992 election was instrumental in George Bush’s defeat. In speaking briefly one evening with Ross I very much got the impression he entered the 1992 presidential race to get even with George Bush.
There is no doubt Ross had a penchant for confrontation. There is a plethora of information on that in the Internet. This was a trait that did not serve him well in dealing with the USG, especially the politicians and the anti-live POW-MIA elements in the DoD, the State Department, and the anti-POW-MIA contingent in Congress. Ross clearly could not box in that weight class. In some respects, he was his own worst enemy despite having a heart of gold regarding the live POW-MIA issue.
Ross was dedicated to getting to the truth of the live POW issue despite the USG’s relentless commitment to burying the issue and have it never, ever darken the USG’s footsteps. Beyond the abandonment of the American servicemen, Ross also publicly decried the CIA’s secrecy regarding the war in Laos and the CIA’s staunch resistance to de-classifying documents pertaining to the war there. That secrecy in part was based on the Agency’s need to bury the history of its drug smuggling operations in Laos to finance the war there. Also, Ross engaged in private discussions with Vietnamese officials in the late 1980s, including a private visit to Hanoi in 1987. Furthermore, it is cited that he secured agreement with the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry in 1990 for him to be Vietnam’s business agent should diplomatic relations with the USA ever be established. Along the way, Ross built up a reservoir of soured relations between him and the USG.
In the spring of 1988, I was briefly visiting my then ex-wife (Dianne Donahue) in San Francisco on my way back to Hong Kong from meetings at Union Carbide’s world headquarters in Connecticut. While we were married, Dianne was an absolutely dedicated and unselfish supporter of my involvement in the POW-MIA issue and she participated in innumerable POW-MIA events, several trips to Laos, and many private Jeff Donahue-POW/MIA initiatives in a variety of countries. It was profound support.
While I was visiting Dianne she received a call from a man who identified himself as Ross Perot and asked to speak with me. This was before viable cell phones and I have no idea how he got Dianne’s home phone number, particularly when Dianne and I were divorced. She gave the phone to me, and I said, “Good day, Ross. This is Jeff.” After exchanging pleasantries, Ross said something to the effect, “Jeff, I’ve got something I need your help with.” I rejoined, “I will be glad to help. Please fill me in.”
Ross then said something to the effect, “Jeff, I’ve got something going on in China. I know you know a lot about China and how to get things done there. I want you to meet a 3-man team coming from Texas to Kunming, China, and help them accomplish their mission. They will be leaving for China in 2 days. Please arrange to get to Kunming as quickly as possible and team-up there with them.”
I left San Francisco the next day and when I got to Hong Kong I immediately booked air travel to Kunming via Guangzhou. I told no one in my office other than to say, “I’m exhausted and need some time off.” I told no one I was going to Kunming.
Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China, directly above the northernmost provinces of Vietnam (Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Hà Giang and Cao Bang) and the northernmost provinces of Laos (Phongsali and Long Namtha). Kunming was not commercially developed as it is today. Indeed, there was only one decent hotel (2-star equivalent, speaking euphemistically) in the city, the Green Lake Hotel, named after a renowned lake in the city. That was where I was to meet the team from Texas. The city itself was very rustic with a lot a hand-driven and donkey-driven carts on the streets. Kunming is a vastly different city today, as are so many other China cities. Even the Green Lake Hotel has been rebuilt into a modern facility.
The only material Western presence in Kunming was during WWII when it was one of the terminus points for the famous “Hump” flights from Burma to China by the U.S. Combat Cargo Groups.
Early the next morning the 3-man team called on me and at breakfast we dove deeply into the mission. [I am withholding their names, as it is the appropriate thing for me to do.] The mission was to send two members of the team by train to the China-Vietnam border where a USAF F-105 fighter pilot was in a prison just inside the Vietnamese border. He would be released and handed over to them across the border. It was clear that a great deal of planning had gone into this and that a number of people on both sides of the border had been well compensated (again, speaking euphemistically) to ensure the transfer. The pilot had to be retrieved from the prison, taken to the border, and handed over to the two team members on the China side. The pilot would then be brought to Kunming by train and we would alert Ross that the transfer was complete. It was up to him to make the transfer public when he thought the time was right.
We spent the next day and evening meticulously studying the plan to make sure the transfer plan was in order. We also went to the local market to buy clothing and some supplies for the pilot. And, we purchased the train tickets for the team and the pilot.
Unfortunately, before their departure the team had run low on cash. The Chinese and Vietnamese border policemen demanded more compensation (a form of extortion) and we had no alternative other than to pay. Thus, the team and I did not have enough cash to cover everything including the increased compensation, the supplies, the tickets, and various other things we had to purchase. The shortfall put us in a real bind. However, when walking around Kunming earlier I had noticed a small card in a window in a bank which said something to the effect “Foreign Checks Accepted with Gold American Express Card.” I went in the bank – I did not speak Mandarin and none of the staff spoke English – and wrote a personal check and showed them my American Express Card. Much to my surprise, they promptly gave me $1,000 in Yuan Renminbi. To this day I am grateful to American Express.
That evening we said good-by to two of our team members who departed by train. Given the train schedule, the third team member and I anticipated the return of the other two members with the pilot the next morning.
By the middle of the next morning the third team member and I were quite nervous because the other team members and the pilot had not showed up. I was in my room when there was a knock on the door. I opened the door quickly hoping to meet the team and the pilot or at least get an update. To my surprise a Chinese man in a suit introduced himself as “Mr. Du” with the Yunnan State Security Service. He gave me his card with exactly that on it. I will never forget his introduction because he was all of 5 feet tall and I was looking down at him, and he spoke passible English.
Mr. Du then said, “You are in China in violation of your tourist visa status. You are under arrest. Give me your passport and your plane ticket. Do not leave the hotel.”
Of course, my anxiety immediately went through the roof. I had no passport, no plane ticket, no knowledge of what had happened to the team, and what was going to happen to me. No one except Ross Perot even knew I was in China. Moreover, the hotel would not permit me a phone call to Hong Kong or the USA. During this time, I did not see the remaining team member who had not gone to the border.
For the rest of that day I stayed in my room except for meals in the dining room (meager at best). I continued to dwell in a state of high anxiety. In the late morning of the following day, Mr. Du knocked again and said, “Pack your bag.” He waited for me and then said, “Come with me.” I asked him about my colleagues but he ignored me. He took me downstairs and into a waiting military jeep with two armed guards. I worked up the courage to ask him where I was going and much to my surprise he said, “Hong Kong.” We drove to the airport where one of the guards pointed to a waiting China Airline plane and told me to get on. He handed me my passport and ticket.
As soon as I got to my apartment in Hong Kong I headed for the liquor cabinet.
To this day I do not know what happened to the team. Certainly, the mission did not succeed. I believe the mission’s failure was inevitable given the leaks along the way as well as the array of Chinese and Vietnamese border staff who had to be compensated.
I never asked Ross about the mission. I felt it was as painful for him as it was anxiety-inducing for me. My strong suspicion was that upon learning about the mission and terminating it, the Chinese government escalated it to the American Embassy in Beijing. From there, it went to Winston Lord, then Ambassador to China, who intervened to have the team members and me released. Winston and Ross had a good and long-standing relationship. Winston Lord’s intervention, though, is my best guess. I am certain all of the team got out of China since they were US citizens.
Interestingly, in the run-up to the 1992 Presidential election a TV reporter for one of the scandal-focused TV programs was waiting at my doorstep when I got home from work one evening. He brought a cameraman with him. He introduced himself and said he had heard of some kind of overseas foray backed by Ross Perot and that I had participated in it. He felt it would be a powerful story for an election year. He begged me to go public with it, with him hosting the story. I persistently said, “No,” and emphatically closed the door on him and and went inside. He knocked for the next 15 minutes and I ignored him. The next morning, I had to step over him to get to my garage because he had slept on my doorstep hoping I would change my mind. [You are welcome, Ross.]
I welcome any insights or perspectives from Ross at any time.
Post #5 will be out shortly. It will be a short one.
And I now address you directly, dear readers and friends: I would be vastly grateful for your sharing my blog with your friends, colleagues and others. “Please” is my operative word. Getting these Posts out to the public is the only way we will get the truth of the live POW-MIA issue told rather than being lost to history. When you share it with them, please ask them to start reading at Post #1 at the bottom (Post #1) of the 4 Posts. Please help us secure more thousands of readers in the 60+ countries now reading it. Recommending it to current or retired military and State Department individuals will be vastly appreciated.
Thank you very much!