What Happened to Harley Hall?
By Barrett Tillman
From The Hook, summer 1999.
"Military men are dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns for foreign policy."
-- Henry A. Kissinger, quoted by Monika Jensen-Stevenson, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, Dutton, 1990, page 97, citing The Final Days, Woodward and Bernstein (Simon & Schuster, 1976).
On the last day of official American hostilities in Vietnam, an F-4J from USS Enterprise (CVA(N)-65), was shot down near Quang Tri, RVN. It was 27 January 1973. The pilot of Taproom 113 was CDR Harley H. Hall of Vancouver, Wash., the exec of the VF-143 Pukin' Dogs who joined more than 58,000 American servicemen lost in Southeast Asia since 1961. A few others followed before the final debacle in 1975, but Harley Hall was the last MIA among Tailhook aviators.
Hall was well known in Naval Aviation. He had been leader of the Blue Angels, flying Phantoms in hundreds of performances during his two-year stint from 1970 to the end of the show season in 1971. As XO of the Pukin' Dogs (or Dogs as he was wont to say) he was regarded as "a marvel" by no less an authority than retired RADM Tom Brown. CAPT Dan MacIntyre, USN(Ret), himself a Blue, said, "Harley was a good pilot, a good VF driver and a good thinker, a man of honor."
The Last to be Downed
The target that Friday morning was a cluster of North Vietnamese supply vehicles 15 miles northwest of Quang Tri. Working with an Air Force OV-10A FAC, Hall's Phantom was struck by AAA fire while pulling off the target. He egressed the area, but when the port wing caught fire there was no option but to eject just offshore. His wingman, LT Terry Heath, saw two good chutes, watched both of them blown slightly inland and saw Hall run from the area.
Hall's RIO was LCDR Philip A. Kientzler, who had never flown before with the exec. Kientzler landed about 100 feet from his pilot near a village on a small island at the confluence of the Dam Cho Chua and Cua Viet Rivers. About 20 minutes after Taproom 113 went down, the Air Force Bronco, Nail 08, was destroyed by a shoulder-launched SA-7. Though emergency beepers were heard that afternoon and evening, no voice contact was established. Eventually the search was called off.
Phil Kientzler returned from captivity a couple of months later. He told what he could -- he had taken heavy ground fire while in his chute and was wounded in one leg. When he asked the guards about his pilot, he was told the aviator had been killed. Kientzler was fortunate in being captured by North Vietnamese; the two Air Force FACs shot down that morning were caught and murdered by Viet Cong.
No other returning POWs had seen Harley Hall in captivity. However, barely two weeks after his shootdown, his status was changed from MIA to "POW, authenticated." Consequently, the Pentagon listed him as a prisoner for more than six years, and he was retroactively promoted to captain. The apparent contradiction was partially explained when the family learned that North Vietnamese documents indicated he had been captured, though communist representatives in Hanoi insisted they had no information about Hall.
In accordance with federal law, Hall was declared deceased on 29 February 1980. In 1995 -- 22 years after the shootdown -- Hanoi returned "partial remains" tentatively identified as CAPT Harley H. Hall, USN. Mary Lou Hall lacked confidence in the government's handling of her husband's case, especially since the chief "pathologist" was merely a mortician. Therefore, she decided to have independent forensic experts examine the "remains": a few tiny bone fragments and three teeth.
That evidence led to an unsettling conclusion -- Harley Hall had died in captivity years after the end of hostilities. If that were the case, the logical question was, how many other MIAs and nonreturned POWs also had been left behind?
A Shameful History
The United States Government has a long, shameful history of abandoning American servicemen in communist hands. A Senate report published in 1991 traced the sad story over a span of six decades. The little-known Allied expedition during the Russian Civil War in 1919 resulted in perhaps 130 doughboys being left behind. They were subsequently written off as "missing, presumed dead."
Even more outrageous was the abandonment of at least 12,500 (perhaps 20,000) Army and USAAF men held in German POW camps in 1945. When the Red Army overran eastern Germany, huge numbers of American, British and other Allied personnel were never returned. Their fate remains largely unknown, though historians consider it likely they were retained as laborers, technical experts, or as "credits" to be brokered for additional American economic aid or as political pawns.
In any case, neither the Allied Supreme Command nor the Truman Administration made an issue of POWs with their Soviet allies. Nor did former Supreme Commander GEN Dwight Eisenhower when he ascended to the presidency in 1952. Ike's attitude toward POWs appears to have been indifferent at best. In 1989 Canadian writer James Jacque cited official sources in Other Losses that Eisenhower had ignored conditions leading to the deaths of thousands of Germans in American control in 1945, while thousands more were turned over to the Russians to become slave laborers.
Nor did the end of the Korean War improve the situation. At the time of the armistice in July 1953, the Department of Defense listed some 7,000 men as POWs, excluding 8,177 listed as MIA. North Korea and China returned 4,439 POWs plus the remains of 1,868 others over the next year. During the 1990s, another 200 bodies were released, though apparently few have been identified. Even allowing 100 percent accounting among the latter, approximately 500 known prisoners remain unaccounted for.
Two senior American army commanders expressed concern about their missing subordinates. LTGEN James Van Fleet, commanding the 8th Army in Korea, felt that many of the 8,000 MIAs remained alive in enemy hands while his predecessor, LTGEN Mark Clark, endorsed the sentiment when he unexpectedly retired in 1953.
During the Korean War, several hundred American POWs may have been sent to Russia without ever being declared as captured. Most were aircrew with real or supposed knowledge of B-29 and F-86 operations, strategic targeting or specific technical expertise. In 1997 the Las Vegas Sun interviewed a former NSC staffer from the Eisenhower Administration. Philip Corso, on the staff from 1953 to 1957, stated that Eisenhower decided "the POWs should be given up for dead because the Soviets would never relinquish them."
In other words, leaving American prisoners in enemy hands was simply the price of doing business with communist regimes. Certainly it was an attitude shared by the Nixon Administration, which insisted that all known POWs were accounted for -- despite evidence to the contrary.
The New York Times reported that the U.S. Government demanded the return of 5,000 personnel from Vietnam in 1973 -- a huge number given the 591 Americans actually returned that year. The discrepancy may be explained by "black" forces (likely including South Vietnamese and others) operating clandestinely under "deniable" U.S. control.
The G.H.W. Bush Administration did better, evidently retrieving all U.S. and Coalition POWs known held in Iraq during the brief 1991 Gulf War. However, accountability was lacking. Despite President Bush's repeated assurances that Iraqis responsible for torturing POWs would be charged, there was no such intention -- Washington declared victory before Coalition ground forces reached Baghdad, as there was never any plan to seize the enemy capitol.
Mary Lou Hall and a handful of other families refused to accept the contradictions inherent in U.S. Government evidence about their loved ones missing in Southeast Asia. Still working in San Diego where she raised her daughter and son, Mrs. Hall smiles when she describes herself as "a born troublemaker." Her search for more information led her to sources as diverse as a private laboratory and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
When the teeth and bone fragments were returned, Mrs. Hall demanded an independent examination by a forensic odontologist, who in 1995 confirmed that the teeth were her husband's. The private report stated, "There is no natural phenomenon that tooth No. 5 (and possibly the others) could have been naturally exfoliated with one exception -- CAPT Hall lived far beyond the incident, thereby allowing severe peridontitis to occur and the bone resorption to become so severe that exfoliation could very easily have occurred." Dr. F.N. Powers added that Hall's 1972 dental X-rays showed no periodontal disease. Based on forensic benchmarks, it was estimated that Hall's teeth showed between two and three years of peridontal evidence.
Additional evidence was forthcoming. During a "one time good deal" arranged by Defense Intelligence Agency, Mrs. Hall and another Vietnam widow gained access to their husbandsí declassified files. Hall's file was huge -- nearly a foot thick -- and contained much of what Mary Lou had seen before. Intercepted Vietnamese radio messages tracked Hall from battalion to battalion after his shootdown, and there was mention of "a big Blue Angel" being paraded in Hanoi. "Harley was well known because he'd led the Navy's flight demonstration team on an Asian tour in 1970 or 1971," Mrs. Hall explains.
Beyond the previous data, one document shocked Mary Lou Hall: A report that her husband had been interrogated by Soviet officials, presumably in Hanoi. No paper or pens were permitted in the secure reading room, but she memorized the document by date and origin, and then filed a request for its release. Eventually DIA replied that no such report could be found.
The paper trail, combined with the fact that teeth do not constitute "remains," led to the obvious conclusion: There was proof that CDR Harley Hall survived at least two or three years beyond Operation Homecoming.
A question raised at the time concerned the lack of POWs with major injuries. None of the 591 returnees had lost an arm or leg despite high-speed combat ejections, none were mentally impaired and none were obviously traumatized. Then-LCDR Jack "Fingers" Ensch, who lost one of his thumbs in his 1972 bailout, was selected for separation from the POW community prior to the mass release, but the senior American officers on site would not permit it, stressing the motto "Unity over self." Consequently, Fingers came home on time (see "Where Are They Now?" The Hook, Summer 1995).
Mary Lou Hall, a petite blonde with a feisty demeanor, leans forward in her chair. "Yes, my children and I want to know what happened. I don't believe he's still alive today, and frankly, I hope he isn't. The way things turned out, I'd prefer that he was killed on the spot. But what's most important is to know that Harley is remembered and honored with the truth that he's unaccounted for, rather than the unconscionable lies the government has told for so long."
At the close of the 20th century, when at least 13,000 American POWs have been left to their fate by Democrats and Republicans, civilians and military, the question remains: What happened to those men who served the nation that abandoned them?
Beyond that, what can active duty personnel expect of the government after the next major "conflict?" How many prospective Harley Halls are flying military aircraft today? If the lessons of 1919, 1945, 1953 and 1973 are any example, the chilling question answers itself.
More information about author Barrett Tillman can be found by clicking the topics below. Barrett has written 45 books and over 600 magazine articles. We thank him for permitting us to print his story about hero Captain Harley Hall, US Navy on 'mofak.com.'
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