Victim or Traitor — The Strange Case of POW Robert Garwood
How one soldier’s story still haunts the Vietnam War generation
As written in the United States Military Code of Conduct:
Article III — If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
Article IV — If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades.
In many ways, his story has become, half a century later, one of the more telling metaphors for the agony and confusion that was and still is the Vietnam War.
What did or didn’t happen to Marine Private Robert Garwood during his tour of duty in Vietnam, what he did or didn’t do in the hands of the enemy, still has people disputing facts and muttering condemnations. Or even, just turning their heads away, pretending the whole episode never happened.
If only it were that easy to erase bad memories.
Let’s start with the facts we do know. Robert Garwood was born on April 1, 1946, in Greensburg, Indiana. He enlisted in the Marines when he was eighteen years old and was deployed to Vietnam in 1964.
On September 28, 1965, Private Garwood took off driving a jeep in the countryside near the city of Da Nang, in South Vietnam, and never returned. He had only ten more days before his tour of duty would have been complete and his impending return home.
However, something happened that day and he wound up in the hands of the communist Viet Cong. Three months later, his next of kin received word from the United States (U.S.) Government that the status of Private First Class Robert R. Garwood had changed from “missing” to “presumed captured.”
Eventually, he was marched under armed guard into North Vietnam where over the next few years he was spotted in several prison camps.
Where things get tricky stems from the last undisputed fact concerning Robert Garwood: that he didn’t come home to the United States until 1979, six years after all other prisoners of war were released and welcomed home as war heroes.
When Garwood finally did come home, he did so amidst persistent accusations by former prisoners of war (POWs)that during his time in Vietnam he had knowingly collaborated with the enemy in exchange for favorable treatment, going so far as adopting a Vietnamese name, wearing a Vietnamese uniform, and carrying around a Soviet-made weapon while he guarded and interrogated other prisoners.
Following their release in 1973, several former prisoners went on record saying they saw Garwood sharing living quarters with North Vietnamese guards.
They heard on Radio Hanoi a man identifying himself as Bobby Garwood making propaganda speeches condemning American war aims and urging U.S. soldiers to turn against the war. In those broadcasts, he never once said he had been captured or taken prisoner, just that he had come around to joining the struggle for Vietnamese independence.
Garwood has always denied any charges of collaboration, claiming instead that he suffered the same brutal torture, isolation, and severe malnutrition as did the other 766 American POWs in Vietnam. So much so that, over time, his fundamental judgment and reasoning became severely impaired. The strain of prolonged captivity was simply too much for him and he snapped.
That denial wasn’t enough to stop the U.S. Department of Defense from launching an investigation and subsequent court-martial into his conduct while in service. Once again, witnesses testified that Garwood, by his own admission at the time, had “crossed over” to the North Vietnamese side.
During the court-martial Garwood never took the stand, choosing to base his defense on what amounted to a plea of temporary insanity. In February of 1981, a jury of five Marine officers found Garwood guilty of collaborating with the enemy, including the physical assault of a fellow U.S. prisoner. For this, he was denied all back pay owed and dishonorably discharged.
(Garwood remains the only Vietnam POW to ever be court-martialed, and his was the first such conviction since ten American prisoners were tried and found guilty of collaboration during the Korean War.)
Things got more convoluted when, in 1984, Garwood made several public media appearances claiming the reason he had not come home with the other POWs in 1973 was that North Vietnam wouldn’t allow him to go. Why? Because he knew too much.
Between 1973 and 1979, supposedly still in Vietnam against his will, Garwood said he witnessed up to twenty other American prisoners still being held in Vietnam, long after the war had ended. Naturally, this drew a lot of attention.
Moreover, he went on to accuse the U.S. Government of bringing up trumped-up charges of his collaboration in an attempt to discredit him and anything he might say about remaining POWs in Vietnam.
However, like so many of Garwood’s version of events, things just didn’t add up. In 1992 a U.S. delegation went to Vietnam and examined the sites where Garwood claimed to have seen American prisoners after the war was over. The interviewed nearby residents and local officials. No proof or even a hint of any prisoners left behind was found. Not surprisingly, the current Vietnamese government has strongly denied every claim made by Garwood.
It’s been well documented that American POWs suffered terribly for years at the hands of their Vietnamese captors. Sadly, it was all part of war, as is the fact that brave men did die while being held prisoner half a world away from home. All the rest returned home with honor.
Only one man’s story remains different.