MIA Facts Site

The "Island Fortress:" or, The Senator, The Collaborator, and Mendacity   

Summary.  The subject of this article is a caper that occurred in July 1993, involving: Senator Bob Smith; convicted collaborator, former USMC PFC Bobby Garwood; an ABC 20/20 film crew and producer; Retired US Army MSG Bill Bell; and, former Congressman Billy Hendon.

Garwood had claimed that, while he was living in North Vietnam, he went to an "island fortress" in a lake west of Hanoi to repair a generator.  The Defense Intelligence Agency investigated his claim and concluded that Garwood was not being truthful.

For some reason, Senator Bob Smith took up the Garwood banner.

In 1993, in a caper set up by former Congressman Billy Hendon, Smith and Garwood, accompanied by an ABC 20/20 film crew and abetted by US Army MSG (Ret) Bill Bell, "found" the "island fortress."  Don't believe it.   

The Background

When Garwood returned to the US in 1979, he told several interviewers that he had had no contact with Americans since 1969 or 1970, the time when he moved to North Vietnam. In 1983, Garwood began a relationship with Hendon and, in early 1984, the Wall Street Journal published an article in which Garwood's memory suddenly cleared up and he recalled several instances in which he had seen US POWs in North Vietnam after 1973. (Hendon and Garwood's "live sightings" will be the subject of other articles.)

The "Island Fortress" Sighting

One of Garwood's sightings occurred at what he called an "island fortress." NW of Hanoi is a very large reservoir, Thach Ba Lake, or, Ho Thach Ba. North of the lake was the site of one of several groups of concentration camps -- this one called Lien Trai 4 (Camp Group 4) -- that held thousands of South Vietnamese military officers who were transported to this region beginning in 1976 for what the Communists called "reeducation."  This particular group of camps was dismantled in late 1978.    Garwood was a mechanic and truck driver working for the PAVN in this camp system. Hundreds of South Vietnamese who, after their release from "reeducation" were able to leave Vietnam, have told US interviewers of their contact with "Mr. Bobby" as he worked at Yen Bai. He was not a prisoner.

Garwood claimed that, one day in September 1977, he was told to go to a point on the shore of Thach Ba Lake where he got onto a boat and motored into the middle of the lake, out of sight of land. There, according to Garwood, was a large complex of masonry buildings, an "island fortress." A generator in the complex was busted and he was to fix it. While working on the generator, Garwood claims that he observed twenty or so US POWs.

Garwood's story is full of holes.

In the first place, he never could get the story straight; Garwood gave different answers almost every time he was interviewed.  

bulletHe described the "island fortress" as being several buildings, as being one building, as being made of bricks, as being made of cement.
bulletHe claimed that, upon landing on the island, the buildings were right on the shore, then he said the buildings were so far inland that he had to walk 15 minutes, then he moved them around elsewhere on the island.
bulletThe generator he was working on was in a generator shed adjacent to the exterior wall of the "fortress," then it was inside the "fortress," then it was in a shed some distance away from the "fortress."
bulletThe number of Americans and how close he got to them changed. There were 20, then 40 or more, then he could not tell how many because they were so far away and he caught only fleeting glimpses of them.
bulletHe went to the island in the morning, in the afternoon, at noon. It was rainy, it was sunny, it was foggy. Take your pick.

One element of the story remained constant, and this is important:  Garwood consistently claimed that the "island fortress" was some distance away from shore, in the middle of the lake. This claim never changed and he insisted on this point.

It's Not There

The most telling hole in Garwood's "island fortress" story is the results of US intelligence investigation of the lake. Thach Ba is a reservoir behind a dam on the Chay River, which flows out of china, and after joining with the Lo River empties into the Red River northwest of Hanoi.  For centuries, this river system was a blessing and a curse for the agricultural areas NW of Hanoi -- the rivers provided irrigation and transport but also flooded, depending on the monsoon and upstream rains in China.    The dam and reservoir have, for the most part, brought the river under control. The lake has seasonal, marked changes in depth. Water rises and covers hundreds of little islands, which re-emerge as the lake recedes in the dry season and when water is needed for irrigation. The lake is no stranger to US intelligence. We watch it to get an idea of how much water will be available for irrigation and we use the ups and downs of the water level as a gauge of the need for irrigation and the normalcy of agriculture in the area served by Thach Ba.

We have lots of imagery, air breather and satellite, of the lake. So, when Garwood claimed to have been at his "island fortress" in September 1977, it was no problem to come up with imagery of the lake for years before, during, and after his alleged sighting. There was not and is not now any "island fortress" on any island in Thach Ba Lake. Not at high water, not at low water, not in the dry season, not in the rainy season. Not in September 1977 or at any other time. The only structures on any islands are an occasional temporary thatch or wooden hut while some sort of clearing or planting is going on. One island has a small masonry building that houses hydrographic monitoring instruments. No, it is not big enough to house one person, let alone a group of US POWs. And, using "intelligence sources and methods," it is clear that this building is not an entrance to any underground dungeon. Bobby's "island fortress" is a fabrication. Not to worry, though. I mean, what's a little fabrication among friends?

From the days that he was in the House, Senator Smith has been something of a champion of Bobby Garwood. I have lost count of the meetings in Smith's office where he would start off re-telling one of Garwood's stories about US POWs and asking our analysis of it. As we pointed out the inconsistencies, the proven inaccuracies, and the mass of evidence refuting each of Garwood's stories, Smith would become more and more unhappy. He would accuse us of being interested only in debunking Garwood, not in recovering US POWs. (Does any of this sound familiar?)

Use this link to read another article on the "island fortress" sighting.

The July 1993 Caper

In July 1993, Garwood, Senator Smith, some of Smith's staff, and an ABC 20/20 crew landed in Hanoi. There they were met by former USA MSG Bill Bell who accompanied them as guide and interpreter. They made a few stops then went to the southern shore of Thach Ba. There they boarded a rented boat and motored along the shoreline, not to the center of the lake, finally putting in at a place where Garwood, Smith, Bell, and the 20/20 crew walked up to a group of brick buildings and there, in full view of the amazed Vietnamese residents and the 20/20 cameras, Smith and Garwood announced that they had found Bobby's "island fortress" and this proves that DIA has been lying all along.

After their return, we were invited to come to the Senator's office and explain how it was that we could not find the "island fortress" when they could just sail right up to it. The Senator was delighted to finally have us in the box. His assistant, Dino, was grinning like a pig in mud. Not so fast.

North and South

But, first, let's review Bill Bell and the basic difference between south and north.   Senator Smith refused to permit any member of the US MIA Office in Hanoi to accompany his group.  Consequently, the MIA office could not immediately confirm the location the group visited and filmed.  However, immediately upon returning from the trip to Thach Ba, one of the American journalists who accompanied Senator Smith contact a member of the US MIA office.  The journalist said that he was upset at what he described as an unconscionable conspiracy by all members of Senator Smith's group to deceive the American public.  He reported that the group did not venture into the lake, the buildings that Garwood claimed were the sight of his 1977 sighting of US POWs were not on an island, and local residents said the buildings were constructed at a date long after Garwood left Vietnam.

The Commander of the Joint Task Force -- Full Accounting directed Bell to describe the location of the alleged "island fortress" that he and Senator Smith and Smith's team visited.  Bell described a trip to an area on the northeastern edge of Thach Ba.  This information was passed to imagery analysts in Washington, D.C.    Imagery analysts found structures in the area, but they were constructed after Garwood left Vietnam in 1979.  However, Bell's description did not contain enough specific details to be certain the imagery analysts searched the correct area.   This was confusing, to say the least.

Faced with this confusion, while Senator Smith's group was en route back to the US, the MIA office sent a team guided by Vietnamese who had accompanied Senator Smith to the site to confirm the exact coordinates.

Now, shift the scene back to Washington.  Senator Smith provided us with the GPS coordinates of the building and he shared with us the map on which he traced the route they took to the boat launching point, along the shore, and to the point where they found the buildings. They had traveled, not along the north shore of the lake as Bell had told us, but along the south shore. I guess Bell was having a bad day, what with confusing north and south.

Meanwhile, the team from the MIA office in Hanoi visited the site and obtained the same GPS coordinates that Senator smith gave us in Washington.  With the specific location now confirmed, we asked the imagery analysts to examine imagery of the site back to a date before Garwood's alleged 1977 visit.

Now, The Facts Emerge

Imagery analysts pulled several pieces of satellite imagery of the exact point where the "island fortress" had been discovered by Smith and Garwood. ( Oh, did I tell you that the Vietnamese folks living in the buildings told everyone that the buildings had been built only a few years ago and that, prior to that, there was nothing on the site? But, then, what would they know about it?What did the imagery show? Remember that Garwood claimed he made this sighting in September 1977. We had imagery of the spot in September 1977. There were no buildings anywhere near the site. As we looked at imagery before September 1977 all the way up to 1991, the area showed signs of gradual agricultural development. There was an occasional temporary building put up here and there, signs of agricultural activity around them. The buildings that Garwood claimed were the 1977 "island fortress," that 20/20 filmed and showed on their program, that Bob Smith claimed proved that DIA was lying all along, had not been built until sometime between 1989 and 1991. There were no buildings of any kind at or anywhere near that point that could remotely be called a "fortress." Senator McCain took the imagery to 20/20 where they were only interested in asking him if he really is a "Manchurian candidate." You can imagine his response.

Details of the Imagery

This chart will lay things out in more detail.  The chart describes what the imagery that we looked at showed at the spot that Smith and Garwood visited in July 1993.  Remember:  Garwood claimed that he had seen US POWs in an "island fortress" in September 1977.  In July 1993, Smith and Garwood went to some buildings that were not on an island, and claimed that this was Garwood's island fortress.  The imagery was such that each image showed an area approximately three miles square.

Date of imagery

What the imagery showed at the location of the Smith-Garwood July 1993 visit

24 July 1991

The buildings visited by Smith and Garwood are there.

17 June 1989

The buildings visited by Smith and Garwood are not there but there are nearby buildings and evidence of construction.

14 May 1985

The buildings visited by Smith and Garwood are not there but there are nearby buildings.

4 June 1984

There is not a building within a 2-mile radius.

18 November 1983

There is not a building within a 3-mile radius.

27 August 1980

There is not a building within a 3-mile radius.

14 July 1978

There is not a building within a 5-mile radius.

27 September 1977

There is not a building within a 3-mile radius.  Remember, September 1977 is the date Garwood put on his sighting of US POWs at the island fortress.

  And, remember Garwood's consistent claim that he had sailed to the middle of the lake? The Smith-Garwood party never motored more than a few yards off shore. And, the buildings that Garwood claimed were the "island fortress" were on the mainland, not an island; they just motored along the shore and put in at a point.

At the bottom of this page you will find a link that takes you to a series of pages where you can view the line drawings taken from the actual imagery.

Enter Billy Hendon

When our interviewers went back out to take a look at the place -- this time with GPS coordinates in hand -- the boat driver told a revealing story. Billy Hendon had come on the scene a few days BEFORE the Smith and Garwood retinue arrived. Hendon (through an interpreter) told the boat owner to ferry him along the shore and show him some groups of buildings. They stopped and looked at several groups of building, but none of them were to Hendon's liking. Eventually, they came to the buildings that Garwood would "discover" a few days later. At that point, Hendon had them put into shore, he walked up to the buildings, looked over the buildings, then came back and had the boat return to the start point.

And if that is not enough, the US MIA office later determined that Billy Hendon made a total of three scouting trips to Thach Ba to locate some buildings for Smith and Garwood to "discover."

bulletHendon rented a helicopter for one trip and flew along a portion of the Thach Ba shoreline.  An expensive venture; wonder where that money came from? 
bulletAnother was a land reconnaissance in a four-wheel drive vehicle
bulletThe third was the boat reconnaissance.

And that, folks, is how it happened.

The Vietnamese Speak

While Smith and Garwood were putting on their charade, a group of Vietnamese military officers, all of whom had been with Garwood during his collaboration, held a press conference.  Click here to read their comments.

What Is Important Here

The important points

  1. The satellite imagery does not simply not support Garwood's claim of having seen US POWs in a building on an island in Thach Ba in 1977.  The imagery refutes Garwood's claim. 
    bulletReviews of imagery to search for a building or buildings on an island as described by Garwood show no such structures anywhere in the lake.
    bulletReviews of imagery of the area visited by Smith and Garwood in 1993, where Garwood claimed to have found the buildings in  1977, show that the buildings they visited in 1993 were not constructed until after 1984.
  2. Senator Smith was shown the imagery; we went over it with him and answered his questions.  He clearly understood that the buildings that he and Garwood visited in 1993 were not built until after 1984.  In fact, residents of the buildings told him that.  Smith completely ignored these facts and went ahead with his ABC 20/20 interview and his press releases.
  3. ABC 20/20 was shown the line drawings by Senator McCain.  ABC ignored the facts, never asked DIA for any input at all, and went ahead with this bogus story.
  4. The whole affair was set up by Billy Hendon, who traveled to Vietnam with Smith, Garwood, and the ABC 20/20 crew.  Hendon went to the lake before Smith and Garwood, found some buildings, and set up this charade.

Now, folks, think about this for a minute.  Hendon and Smith are heroes to the MIA "activist" crowd.  Their every pronouncement is given the weight of holy writ.  Yet, here we have them, caught red-handed, setting up a lie.

Typical Hendon

This caper is typical of Hendon.   Hendon once described to DIA analysts his method of operation. Hendon bragged that he could make the American public believe anything he wished it to believe on the POW/MIA issue, or any other issue.  He explained that he only needed to make it controversial to oppose him, because, in Hendon's words, people in uniform and public servants "don't have the balls" to confront him out of fear that the controversy will harm their careers. Thus, said Hendon, he can make the most reckless and outrageous charges, knowing that he will not be called into question.  And, when people see Billy and others like him   going unchallenged, the audience   assumes that they -- Hendon, Smith, etc. -- are  correct.  This is what Hendon, Garwood, and Smith are up to -- they figure if they can keep up a steady drip-drip-drip of propaganda about Garwood, they can rewrite history.   In this specific case, Hendon figured that he would get the lie on ABC; that lie would become a staple of the MIA activist literature; the Pentagon would not have the "balls" to publicize the truth; thus, Hendon would win again.  I have no intention of letting him go unchallenged, thus, the MIA Facts Site.


There are two points to be drawn from this sad tale:

1. This is exactly how Hendon and Smith have operated time and again.

2. What is gained from all this? Does a single family benefit one wit? Is a single American returned home? How many taxpayer dollars did we spend on mega-million dollar imagery systems, hours and hours of analytic and management time? And, what useful information could we have been investigating while we were distracted by this crap?

Remember Big Daddy's line in "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof"? Something about the "odor of mendacity."

PS: Some sharp-eyed individual is sure to point out that Smith made another discovery on this same trip. One of his favorite stories is one told by a  Vietnamese refugee from the North who claimed to have seen an American chained to a bed in a prison.. We interviewed several other folks who had been in the same prison at the same time and who had access to the whole prison. (It was not much to start with, sort of a little county lock-up.) These guys all asserted that there were no foreigners in the prison; occasionally, a troublesome Vietnamese would be chained to the bunk but there were no Americans there. We told Smith this and he did not like the answer. So, on the trip in which they "found" the "island fortress," they also found a prison with a bunk that had chains on it. This proves it, DIA is lying again, said the Senator.

Give me strength.

See the pictures yourself

This link will take you to an article and to a series of pages on which you can view line drawings of the satellite imagery that showed the buildings Smith and Garwood found in 1993 were not present prior to 1984-85 and most certainly were not present in September 1977 when Garwood said he saw US POWs there.