MIA Facts Site

Senator Smith's Cowboy 

Summary. In early 1986, then-Representative (now Senator) Bob Smith produced a source who told a most bizarre story about US POWs in Vietnam. The story was, on its face, nonsense. Still, we investigated it with due diligence. When we stated the obvious and determined the story to be a fabrication, Smith accused us of debunking.  Read the details of this caper and make up your mind. 

"DIA Was Not Interested"

In April 1986, I had just been assigned as the Chief of the Analysis Branch in the Defense Intelligence Agency's Special Office for POW-MIA Affairs. One day, I received a telephone call from a gentleman in Manchester, NH, asking me to comment on an article that was in the Manchester newspaper. The article stated that Representative Bob Smith had been approached by a young Vietnamese émigré with a story about his encounter with US POWs in Vietnam. In the article, Smith stated that he had tried to contact DIA about the source and we were "not interested." I told the fellow that this was news to me but that I would look into it and call him back.

I checked with everyone I could find but there was no record of Smith having tried to contact DIA with a source of POW-MIA information. I asked in the Special Office, in DIA Legislative Liaison, in DOD Legislative Liaison, even checked with the military legislative affairs offices on Capitol Hill. None of them had had any contact with Smith. I checked with Smith's assistant for POW-MIA matters; she drew a blank, too.

Then, the DIA Director's secretary told me that, a couple of days ago, Smith had called and asked to speak to the Director. She told him that the Director (LTG Perroots, USAF) was out of the Pentagon (which he was) but that she would have LTG Perroots contact Mr. Smith right away. She said that Smith declined the offer and said that he would call back later. I asked her if Smith had said anything to her about a source with possible POW-MIA information and she replied that he had only asked for the Director. That was the only contact that I found between Smith and DIA for several weeks.

Thus, Mr. Smith got off with one big strike against him: His statement in the newspaper article that he had contacted DIA about his source and we were not interested was not correct. Then, when we finally got in touch with Smith and his source, the strikes started piling up.

First, Mom's Story

After a few hours, we were able to get in touch with Smith and he agreed to put us in contact with the source. The source was a young Vietnamese émigré who lived in Manchester, NH. Smith gave us the name of the Vietnamese and told us to get in touch with his (Smith's) local office in Manchester; they would help us find the young man.

Within about two days, two DIA interviewers (Bob Hyp and Wick Tourison) were in Manchester, had contacted Smith's district office, found the young man, and were ready to interview him. But first we had to deal with his mother.

Mom was a real work of art. It seems that she had two children, a daughter and this son, each of them by a different GI father. Mom claimed that she and her sister came to the US in 1975, leaving the children behind. The daughter was able to get to the US in the late 1970s but the son had only recently come from Vietnam.

Hyp and Tourison kept trying to talk with her about her son. She, however, wanted to talk about something else. It seems that one of the big employers in the area was the Sanders Corporation, a major defense contractor who produced electronic countermeasures equipment for use on US combat aircraft. She had tried to get a job with them but could not get a security clearance. She kept after Hyp and Tourison to help get her clearance. They refused.

She identified one of her former GI boyfriends and we tracked him down through Army personnel. He was a Military Intelligence sergeant and he told us that he had dropped her in Vietnam when he learned that her practice was to date only GIs from intelligence units.

Now, the Cowboy's Story

After hearing Mom's story and wasting about a day with her, we were finally able to start interviewing the young man. He claimed to be 20, we figured he was 27 - 29.

The fireworks manufacturer

One of the major underground businesses in Vietnam is illegal fireworks manufacture. The government cannot produce enough fireworks to keep up with demand, especially around certain festival times. So, especially in the big cities in Vietnam, there is a thriving illegal fireworks manufacturing industry. The cops pick off a few bribes and turn their heads. Occasionally, an illegal fireworks factory will suffer a premature detonation and a few folks are killed and maimed, but, that's the cost of doing business.

This young fellow claimed to us that he was one of the major manufacturers of illegal fireworks in Saigon. He then described to us how the business worked: where he got his supplies; how fireworks were manufactured, stored, and distributed; how he dealt with the cops; and all the rest of the details of the industry.

Dreams of being a cowboy

He then told us that, a couple of years previous, he had seen an American movie about cowboys. He had heard that there were cattle farms in the Central Highlands of Vietnam so he decided to end his fireworks manufacturing career and head for the hills to become a cowboy. I swear it, folks, this is exactly what he said.

So, he hopped on a bus in Saigon and headed for the Highlands. We asked him to describe the route he took to get to the Highlands. He is probably the first person in recorded history to go from Saigon to the Central Highlands by way of Vung Tau.

We asked him to describe the security measures that he encountered during his bus trip. That is, how often was the bus stopped by the police for passenger identification checks. He told us that, in the course of a three-day bus trip, never once were they stopped for identification checks.

He continued the tale. He arrived in the Central Highlands -- could not remember the name of the village where he got off the bus -- and, would you believe his luck, right there at the bus stop was a cattle ranch. (Remember, this is all taking place in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.) His luck held and he was hired on to watch the cattle.

After a couple of days, one of his cows wandered off into the bush and he went searching for the bovine. What did he find? You guessed it: While searching for his lost cow, he stumbled on a group of US POWs living secretly in the jungle in the Central Highlands.

Camouflaged Jockey Shorts

We asked him to describe his encounter with the US POWs, how they lived, etc., etc. He told us the following:

bulletThere were twelve Americans living in the jungle.
bulletThey had been held in North Vietnam but they escaped and made their way all the way to the Central Highlands where they were now hiding out.
bulletThey had found a small cave which they enlarged and they were living in the cave.
bulletTheir diet was monkey, snake, and an occasional cow that they plundered from the herd that he was supposed to be watching.
bulletOne of the POWs was an older guy with white hair and a white beard with one leg missing.
bulletThe Americans had a few weapons, the main ones being a couple of .50 caliber machine guns, complete with belts of ammunition. The Americans kept a guard posted around the cave. The guy on guard duty would leap up into a tall tree, holding a .50 cal cradled in his arms as he leapt. When the guard was in the tree, he would lash himself to the trunk and stand guard, complete with his trusty .50 cal at the ready.
bulletThe Americans were dressed in an assortment of uniforms and non-descript clothing; one American wore cammy-colored jockey shorts.
bulletHe stayed with them for a couple of days, then he found the cow and went back to his cowboy duties.

He continued his story by describing how the cowboy job was not to his liking so he made his way back to Saigon. Meanwhile, his mother had been trying to get him our of Vietnam and, when she succeeded, he joined her in New Hampshire. One day, he heard Representative Smith on television talking about US POWs and he decided that he had better tell his tale.

The Cowboy Visits Washington

While Hyp and Tourison were interviewing the young man, they were contacted by one of the staff members in Smith's district office who introduced them to another young Vietnamese man. This guy had been in the States since the late 1970s and spoke excellent English. It seems that, when Smith heard about the young fellow with the cowboy story, Smith had invited this other guy to act as interpreter.

According to the interpreter, Smith took him, the cowboy, and one staffer to Washington. There, Smith paraded Cowboy and the interpreter from Congressional office to Congressional office, with Cowboy telling his tale in each office. This went on for two days, after which they all went back to New Hampshire. We confirmed with the district office that, in fact, this is exactly what happened.

It was then that Smith put in the paper his claim that he had tried to contact DIA and we were not interested in the story.

Facts Emerge

Let us now examine the elements of Cowboy's story.

Illegal Fireworks Manufacture

A short while before Cowboy surfaced, DIA interviewers, in the normal course of interviewing Vietnamese émigrés, had encountered a Vietnamese woman, living in Northern Virginia, who had made a lot of money in the illegal fireworks industry in Saigon. In looking into her background, we found that a lot of Vietnamese émigrés -- especially those from Saigon -- knew this lady and knew exactly what she did for a living. It seems that she was well-known throughout Saigon and she made no real secret of her illegal fireworks manufacturing. By all accounts, she was the queen of the illegal fireworks industry in Saigon -- she reportedly had senior police officials on the payroll, so to speak.

We talked with her again, this time walking her through what Cowboy had told us about his role in the illegal fireworks business. She had never heard of him; could not identify him from photographs. As a result of extensive conversations with her, we concluded that Cowboy may have worked in an illegal fireworks factory, may have delivered products, but he certainly was not a kingpin of illegal fireworks manufacture, as he had claimed.

Strike one.

The bus ride

When he was first asked, Cowboy was not able to describe the route his bus took from Saigon to the Central Highlands. The next day his memory had cleared up considerably and, in the continuing interview, he constructed a route that went through Vung Tau.  His route doesn't work. Why detour through Vung Tau to go to the Highlands?  And, we asked him several times to trace his route. Each time, we got a different story.

What was really nonsense, though, was his claim that he traveled by bus for three days and never once encountered a security check point. Vietnamese internal security is tight, especially in the former South Vietnam. Any vehicle carrying passengers  is stopped at both fixed and mobile checkpoints by the police who require passengers to produce identification and travel permission document. No document, go to jail. The fact of frequent security checks on travelers was confirmed to us by numerous Vietnamese émigrés whom we interviewed. Cowboy's claim that no one ever stopped him and asked for his papers is nonsense.

Strike two.

And, you're out

The final strike against Cowboy is his tale of the US POWs. The story is such blatant nonsense that it simply defies description. Twelve Americans, escaped from prison in Hanoi in 1975; made their way across country into the Central Highlands where they enlarged a natural cave and now lived there, eating monkey, snake, and an occasional cow. The description of the American lashed to the tree, holding a .50 cal is especially inventive.

Smith's Reaction

We maintained close contact with Smith while this whole caper was going on. After the interviews, we did our research and then briefed Smith on what we found. When we told him that not a single part of Cowboy's story matched with reality, he went into his usual tirade about how we were only good at debunking sources. I wish now that I had been bold enough to ask Smith if he really, honestly, believed this horse puckey story.

Also, I find Smith's actions in this affair to be less than honest.

First, Representative Smith claimed that he had contacted DIA and we "were not interested." Well, it may be technically correct that he did contact DIA, if you want to count the telephone call to the Director's secretary. However, there was absolutely no record of him ever having said to anyone that he had some POW information. His claim in this regard is, to be nice, dissembling.

Then, there is the whole matter of Smith bringing Cowboy to Washington. He brought Cowboy and an interpreter to the Capitol, had him tell his story to several of Smith's colleagues, then sent him back to NH. If Smith really gave a damn about getting to the bottom of the story, why did he not just call us then and have us come over and meet the Cowboy? Why play this stupid game of "I got a secret"?

Later

About six months later, we had occasion to talk again with the folks in Smith's district office in Manchester. They told us that Cowboy, who was working nights at a quick-stop market and gas station, cleaned out the till of over $2,000 one night and had not been seen since.

Epilogue

So, what is the point of this story? The point is that Senator Smith has a long history of manufacturing and pushing forward stories that are pure nonsense. His crowning achievement was the Smith-Garwood-20/20-Island Fortress fabrication that he pulled off in July 1993. And Smith is a hero -- at least to some.