Somdee Phomachan's Bogus Story:
How an MIA Myth is Born
The issue of Americans missing in Southeast Asia is clouded by many stories that will never die. On their face, these stories are believable and logical. In most of them, a person who seems to be perfectly credible, with no hidden motives, tells a straightforward tale of having encountered American prisoners still held in SEAsia long after the end of the war. After the story becomes known publicly, the source of the story often becomes something of a folk hero among the POW-MIA true believers. Then, after some period of investigation, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA ) or, now, the Defense POW-MIA Office ( DPMO ), releases the results of their investigation and concludes that the story is bogus. This conclusion does nothing to sway the true believers who howl that this conclusion is just another example of debunking a source and covering up the presence of an American prisoner.
One such story is that told by a Laotian refugee, Mr. Somdee Phomachan. Somdee is a believable man, small, seemingly honest and straightforward. Somdee came out of Laos in late 1984, spent a short period of time in a refugee camp in Thailand, then emigrated to the US. He was interviewed by an American within hours of arriving in Thailand and he denied having any knowledge about any Americans -- prisoners, living freely, whatever. After his arrival in the US, Somdee began an association with another Laotian refugee, a man who previously had introduced various bogus stories to DIA. Somdee then told a story that, on the surface, seems very believable, about having encountered two US POWs in a prison camp in Laos. Somdee's story is bogus but he remains a hero to the MIA cult and his story is cited as another example of debunking and cover up.
What follows is a report on Somdee's claim and the results of the DIA investigation. You decide for yourself who is telling the truth.
Somdee and five or six other folks, some of whom were related to him, crossed the Mekong one night in late 1984, entered Thailand, were picked up by the Thai Border Patrol Police ( BPP ), and detained at a local jail.
Along the Thai - Lao border, and in the various refugee camps, there were between 15 and 20 humanitarian relief organizations working under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. Among the people working for these various organizations were Americans. One American in particular was a Vietnam veteran who had joined the State Dept. after the war. He left State while assigned to the Bangkok Embassy to take a job with one of the humanitarian organizations. He was responsible for one sector of the Thai - Lao border where his job was to maintain contact with the Thai BPP and interview refugees from Laos to determine their eligibility for resettlement in third countries. Because of his Vietnam vet status and because he was a former State Dept. foreign service officer, he maintained close contact with the Joint Casualty Resolution Center in the Bangkok Embassy and he would also question each refugee he encountered to determine if they had any information about Americans -- alive, dead, first-hand, hearsay, whatever.
Within hours of arriving in Thailand, Somdee was interviewed by the man described above. In that interview, Somdee related the dates and names of a couple of prisons where he had been held by the Pathet Lao after their takeover of Laos. Most importantly, Somdee stated that he had seen Americans during his service with Vang Pao's forces but that he had no knowledge of Americans in prison. He was asked the same question several times and he repeated each time that he had seen no Americans since the end of the war and had not encountered any Americans while in prison. Somdee showed the interviewer two photographs, both of himself in uniform. (Remember the photographs. You will hear about them later.) A few days later, Somdee was interviewed by the JCRC and he repeated his statement that he had not seen any Americans after the war. He did describe the prison camps where he had been held and, again, he showed two photographs of himself in uniform.
Ted the Producer
In early 1986, we in the DIA Special Office for POW-MIA Affairs were visited by Mr. Ted
We had viewed the video and researched our records. In the video were several Vietnamese and Laotian individuals telling stories about having seen US POWs in captivity after 1973. We had reviewed our files and records and determined that ( 1 ) we had interviewed every one of these people before; ( 2 ) we had completely investigated their stories; ( 3 ) their stories were all bogus and were typical of the phony stories floating around the refugee camps.
Ted the Producer told us that he had another source whose story was going to appear on
national TV news and he gave us a few hints about the story. He would not reveal the name
of the source. Using the few things he said about the story, we dug back into the files
and determined that Somdee was most likely his source. Prior to the appearance of the
Somdee story on NBC
"He cry, he cry, he so sad . . . "
Somdee's new story went something like this. One day, as he was imprisoned by the Pathet Lao, two men were brought into the prison camp. The guards stated that they were Americans. One man acted normal but the other would strip off his clothes, sit on the ground, hugging his knees to his face, and rock back and forth, crying. The guards would poke at him with rifles, sticks, whatever. Somdee claimed that the normal one of the Americans had a small pack and from that pack he pulled two photographs ( one of himself and one of his family )and gave them to Somdee. (Does any of this sound familiar? )
After a few days, according to Somdee, the guards took these two Americans away in a boat down the river and returned without them. A couple of days later, on a work detail down the river, Somdee observed two fresh graves and was later told that the two Americans had been shot and buried there.
On camera, Somdee was shown a high school yearbook page that contained the photograph of a missing American, taken during his senior year in HS. Somdee pointed to that photograph as being the man he saw in the prison camp. It was all very moving. Somdee told about how the American would show him a photograph of his (the American's) family and "He cry, he cry, he so sad . . ." and Somdee would dab away the tears from his eyes. Somdee then related how the American gave him the two photographs and asked that he somehow get them out of Laos. We asked Somdee where he photos were and he replied that he had been interviewed by an American within hours of arriving in Thailand and he had given the photos to that man. Somdee also provided a partial name that Ted the Producer correlated to another missing American.
After this story, then, we now had Somdee claiming to have seen two Americans in a Laotian prison camp sometime in the late 1970s. He identified the high school senior picture of one and gave a name that correlated to another. Quite a convincing performance.
The Loss Incidents
The place to start looking for a missing man is not in the ramblings of a Laotian refugee, but in the circumstances of that man's loss.
The guy whose photo Somdee picked out of a HS yearbook was the pilot of a Huey that went into an LZ in Laos, picked up some ARVN troops, and was hit. He reported that he was losing hydraulic pressure, his door gunner was shot in the head, and he was trying to haul it back to a secure LZ. There were several other birds around him in formation at approximately 3,500 feet when the Huey exploded in mid-air. Crews in the other birds watched pieces of burning wreckage fall to the ground. Somdee and Ted the Producer would have us believe that this guy survived, was captured, and appeared in the camp with Somdee.
The other man whom Somdee claims to have seen was the pilot of a single-seater, Navy aircraft, on a two-bird night attack mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. They were in some overcast and were taking radar-guided ground fire. The wingman -- who was in front -- reported that his aircraft was rocked by a violent concussion and the whole interior of the clouds lighted up in a bright flash; he assumed that the other bird had been blasted out of the sky. He heard no distress calls, no beepers, nothing. He broke out of the overcast and saw fires, he assumed from pieces of wreckage, all over the ground. He was not able to raise the other bird on the radio.
We are supposed to believe that these two men survived to appear in a Laotian prison camp years later.
Other Sources Provide Definitive Information
In such a case as this, the normal practice is to find other sources who had been in the same prison at the same time as the source who was telling the story about having seen Americans. We looked in our files and found that we had interviewed five other Laotians, all of whom had been in the same camp as Somdee, at the same time, and that all had emigrated from Laos. Each of these five had stated that there were no Americans in any prison where they had been. We went back to interview these men.
They were all over the world -- France, US, Thailand. In their re-interviews, they all said that, no, they had never encountered any Americans in any prisons where they had been. We then focussed on the camp where Somdee claimed to have seen the Americans. We showed these five men a list of 20 or so names and asked if they knew any of the men on the list. The list contained the names of these five, Somdee, others whom we knew to have been in that prison, and names pulled at random. Each of the five men picked out the names of the other four and of Somdee as having been in the prison with them. We asked what they knew about the men whose names they had picked out and each of them gave a reasonably accurate description of the others, including describing Somdee.
We then told each of the five the story the Somdee had told, but we did not identify Somdee as the source. Each of these five men expressed considerable surprise that anyone would claim that there were Americans in the prison camps in Laos. Each of these men told the same story. Remember, these five men were re-interviewed at different times, at different places. They could not have cooked it up. The story they told was that, yes, two men had been brought into that camp. The guards claimed the two men were American spies -- that is, spies working for the Americans, not Americans spying on Laos. One of the men was Lao and the other was of Asian nationality ( we had reason to believe that he was Malaysian ). The Lao acted strange -- he would strip off his clothes, sit on the ground, hug his knees to his chest, and rock back and forth, crying, shouting, weeping. The guards would poke at him with rifles, sticks, whatever. The other guy -- the non-Lao Asian -- stayed somewhat to himself. After a few days, the two men were loaded into a boat with some guards, and down the river they went. A few days later, while on a work detail, they observed some fresh graves and were told by the guards that the two "American spies" had been shot and buried.
The description of the actions and the fate of these two men -- who were not Americans -- was an exact match for the two men that Somdee claimed were American prisoners.
We then asked these five men to tell us about Somdee. They were not very complimentary. In fact, they described how Somdee would kiss up to the guards, tell tales on other prisoners, and gain special favors. They reported that Somdee always drew the lightest work assignments and had some freedom of movement around the general vicinity of the camp.
Kankum Matochan Is In on the Caper
During the time we were tracking these five guys all over the globe and interviewing them, we were steadily on the telephone with Somdee. He denied to us that he had ever seen any Americans, he apologized for telling the story on TV. Then, he would have a conversation with the principal of the school where he was working (he lived in Iowa) and the principal would call us and get on our case for browbeating and threatening Somdee. This kabuki play went on and on and on.
About this time, we picked up rumors from the Lao émigré community that one Kankum Matochan had been a big time player in this caper. Ted the Producer told me that, yes, Mr. Cameron Matochan had brought Somdee to him. Cameron is the English name used by Kankum.
DIA knew Kankum Matochan. He had a brother, Somnuk, who had been resettled in France. Kankum and Somnuk wanted very much to be reunited and live out their golden years in the Land of the Big PX. So, believing that a good US POW story was the ticket, Kankum contacted DIA and claimed that his brother had information about ten US POWs in Laos. ( All this happened a couple of years before the Somdee affair. ) What Kankum had not counted on, however, was the fact that Somnuk had been interviewed by JCRC when he exited Laos and he had denied having any information about US POWs.
Now, of course, under the pressure of wanting to move to the US, his memory suddenly
cleared up. So, we hauled off to France and interviewed Somnuk. His ten US POWs became
one. Then his story about how, when, and where he encountered the ten/one changed
dramatically -- if I were unkind, I would say that he could not keep his bullshit
straight. It was clear the guy was lying.
Somdee told us that Kankum had approached him and helped him with the "He cry, he cry...." story. We asked Somdee how it was he picked out the photo from the HS yearbook. Boy, was I ever surprised when Somdee described how Ted the Producer and Kankum coached him with the yearbook. Somdee even claimed that Ted the Producer still owed him $100 for his performance.
Starvation and Electric Shock
By this time, we had decided to go out to Iowa and have a chat with Mr. Somdee.
Now, you need to understand that, in the DIA POW-MIA office was one Mr. Soutchay. Soutchay is a Lao. Allow me to ramble for a while. Soutchay was a general officer in the Royal Laotian Army. He started off as a lieutenant in the French Laotian Forces. In fact, he was an airborne platoon leader whose platoon was on the way to relieve Dien Bien Phu when the Commies overran it. When the Commies took over in Laos, 1975, he was one of 38 Royal Lao generals called to Vientiane and sentenced to death. In a move that only the Lao would do, they let him go back to southern Laos to kiss his family good-bye before shooting him. When Soutchay got back to southern Laos, he contacted a friend in the CIA, grabbed up his family and whatever they could carry, and kissed Laos good-bye. He has been an interviewer for DIA ever since. A good guy in every respect.
Now, back to the story. So, Soutchay and Mr. Bob Hyp went to Iowa to chit-chat with Somdee. They also took along a polygrapher and a polygraph, just in case. They interviewed Somdee for a couple of days, and Somdee swore that he had not seen any US POWs, that Kankum had set him up, and the Ted the Producer still owed him $100. Then, we polygraphed him as to his claims to have seen American prisoners and he was off the freaking charts.
However, nothing is simple. It seems that were had rented a suite of rooms in a motel. On the day of the polygraph exam, the weather was cold and dry and there was static electricity all over the place. No problem. Ground the box and discharge yourself before you start the exam. So, Soutchay, Hyp, and the polygrapher demonstrated to Somdee the effects of the static electricity. They would scuff their feet on the carpet and draw static sparks off themselves onto the box, the doorknob, the heater, etc. Somdee tried it, too.
Would you believe that, no sooner had they returned to Washington than we got a call from the principal accusing us of not feeding Somdee breakfast before the polygraph -- "starving him" was the words -- and of using electric shock on him to frighten him !! ( If anyone out there has read Nigel Cawthorne's The Bamboo Cage, this piece of mythology is repeated there. I told Cawthorne the facts, he chose to print otherwise. ) I got hold of Hyp's receipts for the trip and dug out the breakfast receipt for the day of the polygraph. I called the restaurant and spoke with the manager and the waitress who waited on them. She remembered distinctly that "the little fellow" ( Somdee ) ate TWO breakfast orders that day. She told me that she had never seen such a little guy put away so much chow.
Somdee was not starved and he was not subjected to electrical shock.
One Final Piece of the Puzzle
The American who had interviewed Somdee within hours of his arriving in Thailand had moved to the DC area. As part of our investigation, we went to visit him. He had kept extensive diaries of his experiences. He pulled out the diary with his interview of Somdee, consulted his notes, and, just as was reported years before, Somdee had stated that he knew nothing about American POWs and had seen no Americans after the war. Somdee had shown him two photos of himself and he had given the photos back to Somdee. No, Somdee did not show him any photos of an American POW and his family.
Billy Hendon Rears His Head
Later, after the NBC story, I was testifying before a Congressional committee and Billy Hendon was there with his circus. Hendon had a videotape of Somdee's NBC performance which he played for the committee. I had to answer a few questions about the Somdee story and the Congressional committee dropped the matter. Some of Ted Sampley's followers were in the audience muttering under their breath. Later, Hendon spoke to me in the corridor, called me an "asshole." I thanked him. All in all, it was a great day.
Somdee Phomachan's claim that he encountered two American
servicemen held prisoner in a prison camp in Laos in the late 1970s is bogus. The
evidence against Somdee is overwhelming:
I can only conclude that Somdee made up this story, with the help of Kankum and Ted the Producer. He was probably seduced by promises of a TV appearance and, perhaps, by some cash. Somdee took a real incident in a Laotian prison camp involving two men, one a foreigner and the other a Laotian, and twisted the facts into a phony tale of two American POWs.
The problem is that Somdee's story is immortalized in the video We Can Keep You Forever, which is part of the MIA cult's holy writ. The facts of the case, as I have related them here, never see the light of day in the MIA cult web sites. Truth is always the first casualty.