A Photo, and Memories of Vietnam

Article excerpt

I STARE at the picture and stare at the picture, yearning to make the middle-aged man with the moustache metamorphose into the breezy, fresh-faced California kid I knew half a lifetime ago. And fearing the feelings if he does.

The grainy photo of the three Americans said to be POWs in Vietnam is a hope and a heartbreak to the families and friends of those men who remain unaccounted for after all these years. The one on the right has been identified by people close to him as Larry Stevens. It's hard for me to say, although I knew him well. Is it because of the change in appearance and poor quality of the picture? Or because knowing that he is alive - after "knowing" for so long that he was dead - would be too hard to take?

We were squadronmates aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea when he went down on a night mission over Laos in 1969. His flight leader, Lt. Comdr. Jim Meehan, suffered aircraft damage as well but made it back out over the Gulf of Tonkin, where he ejected and was picked up by the rescue helicopter. The next morning, Lt. John Paron and I flew low and fast in our A-4 Skyhawks over the area where Larry had disappeared, calling for our fellow "Diamondback" (the squadron call sign) on the emergency frequency. There was no answer.

As a veteran of Vietnam air combat and Pentagon reporter during the Reagan years, I have followed the POW story closely. I have talked with former POWs, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who had been one of my flight instructors, and retired US Navy Capt. Eugene (Red) McDaniel, who obtained the recently released photo.

Yet I am not one of those who believe that large numbers of Americans are being held by or with the knowledge of the Vietnamese government. Nor do I believe that US government officials have been trying to bury or cover up the truth.

As governor of California from 1967 to 1975, Ronald Reagan supported POWs and their families - because he was touched by the issue and also because so many were constituents. It would have made no sense for Reagan as president to do anything but get at the truth about the 2,000 or so Americans unaccounted for in Vietnam and Laos.

Over the years there have been breathless reports of POW "sightings," some by soldiers of fortune like the shadowy James (Bo) Gritz, some by conservative organizations trying to raise money. …