Corporal Charles House led his Marine Recon patrol through thick undergrowth under the jungle canopy forty feet above. The country was Vietnam and the year was 1968.
Team Dublin City had been inserted three days prior, North of Phu Bai to reconnoiter the area for signs of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troop buildups, with a secondary mission of identifying possible enemy bunkers, trench lines, or caches for possible airstrikes. After days of patrolling the 1st Recon Battalion Marines were tired and out of water. House halted his men and put them into a security position so that they could refill their canteens at a waterfall that dropped into a small pool and turned into a stream.
After about thirty minutes, House looked over at one of his men, Lance Corporal Perry Gordon, as he put on his cartridge belt. Suddenly, House saw the oddest expression wash over the young Marine’s face.
“What the shit?” House thought to himself.
Gordon could hardly believe his eyes. At first he thought the man he saw standing in the stream was one of his teammates filling up his canteen, but quickly discounted that thought as they had already done that. He describes the person he saw stating, “he wore knee-length dark green pants. Across his chest was a red sash like the kind beauty contestants wear. It looked to be made of silkish ao dai material. Maybe he wore it to keep the VC from firing on him.” Moreover, he was clearly Caucasian. “His brown hair was close-cropped but long on top,” the way the VC wore their hair.
The two white men looked at one another for what seemed like a long moment. An AK-47 rifle was slung across the stranger’s back. Gordon’s rifle lay on the ground next to him. The white Viet Cong turned as a North Vietnamese came walking up from a boulder behind him.
Gordon lunged for his rifle.
The Recon Marine opened fire with his M16, firing approximately five to eight rounds at the white man dressed like the Viet Cong. The White Cong was flung backward into the stream and yelled, “Help me!” in clear, unaccented English. The Marines then opened fire in unison. Lance Corporal Wilkin’s M16 jammed so he hurled several M-26 fragmentation grenades toward the enemy as two more came from around the boulder in front of the patrol. The Marines estimated a total enemy force of about 25 Viet Cong. Gordon dropped an expended magazine and slammed home a fresh one before continuing to fire. Meanwhile, another Marine opened up with his M79 grenade launcher.
Both parties broke contact with one another, but a few hours later the Marines ran into an ambush. Their point man, Private First Class Brown, was killed. As he staggered backward under sustained enemy fire, Brown knocked down the second Marine in the order of movement and saved his life from further enemy gunfire. Gordon reported that then, “Corporal House wasted the gook who got Brown.” The Marines next radioed for fast movers and helicopter gunships to rake the area with gunfire and bombing runs.
The patrol was finally extracted by helicopter; the Marines hoisted out of the dense jungle foliage. On the ride back to Phu Bai, the Marines spoke to one another about the white VC they had encountered. The Marines were still in a state of shock over the event. “I felt bad about it at first,” Gordon said. “But I decided that it was either him or me. Even if I’m not too hot about killing VC, I’d kill another American like that, one who was working for them.”
Corporal House wrote in his After Action Report, obtained by SOFREP, about the incident and how they encountered a white man collaborating with the VC. The Marines reported that they had killed him in the firefight. All of the facts reported by the Marines that day stand the test of time except this single one. It is incredibly difficult to ascertain what did or did not happen in the heat of battle and considering that the white VC went down amidst a hail of gunfire, it is understandable that the Marines reached this conclusion.
However, it turned out that he was very much alive.
Robert “Bob” Garwood grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood in the mid-western United States. His parents divorced and he lived with his father, having little to no relationship with his mother. Garwood was a smart enough kid, but only an average student. As a teenager he ran away to live with his girlfriend and her mother, so his father had him placed in a home for juvenile delinquents. The local Marine Corps recruiter apparently relied on the juvie home to fill his monthly quota and convinced Garwood to enlist. He was sworn into the Marines in 1963, completed boot camp at Camp Pendleton, and was assigned to be a driver for Marine officers.
As a young Marine he was then assigned to Okinawa where he allegedly smooth talked a local Army family and pursued a sexual relationship with their 13-year-old daughter. Garwood was then sent to Vietnam.
Exactly how Garwood was captured by the Vietnamese forces is something that has never been properly explained. Garwood himself offered a number of contradictory stories to various parties over the years, including his fellow American prisoners of war. “Garwood had a half-dozen tales of how he was captured,” POW Frank Anton said of him. About the only thing known for sure, is that he fell into enemy hands in late September of 1965 near Da Nang. Some of the stories Garwood told of his capture revolve around driving an Army jeep by himself looking for prostitutes when he was interdicted and captured by the VC, which is probably the closest to the truth that anyone will ever know.
Initially, Garwood was placed in a POW camp with Captain William “Ike” Eisenbraun, a Special Forces officer who had previously received the Purple Heart for actions taken during his service in the Korean War. Eisenbraun taught Garwood survival techniques, how to live off the land, and helped him learn Vietnamese, which Garwood soon became fluent in. Eisenbraun was severely beaten for an escape attempt, then while recovering he took a bad fall out of his hammock. A few days later, he died from his injuries. According to another POW named Russ Grisset, who made two escape attempts with Eisenbraun, it was Garwood who informed the Vietnamese that they escaped the camp and both men were caught within hours.
Eisenbraun had clout and credibility in the POW camp and had taken Garwood under his wing. Unfortunately, after he died, Garwood was left to his own devices.
Garwood was soon a known defector who had gone over to the other side and worked as a patsy for the Viet Cong. Anton reports that Garwood was not ideological, but that he was intelligent and good with his hands, able to make ad hoc repairs and even helped the VC fix one of their radios. For Garwood, the decision to defect was probably a pragmatic one — he saw how malnourished the other prisoners were, was in fear for his life, and decided that going over to the other side offered the best chance of survival. It was a selfish decision made by a liar and a narcissist, but it was not illogical.
In an interview with Garwood’s father, he told Vietnam veteran turned journalist Zalin Grant, “It really wouldn’t surprise me to find he was helping the VC. He was weak. He’d do whatever anyone wanted if they stuck a gun to his head.” In many cases, it appeared to take a lot less than that to turn Garwood into a collaborator.
In the POW camp, Garwood informed of his fellow POWs, assisted the enemy in interrogating the American prisoners, collaborated with the enemy, and even physically attacked his fellow Americans at the behest of their captors. Garwood also took an appointment and rank in the National Liberation Front. Many years later, Senator John McCain would write, “I know how awful imprisonment in Vietnam was. All of us reached our breaking point at one time or another. To my knowledge, no one ever broke so completely as Robert Garwood.”
The American POWs suffered horribly at the hands of their captors. Their hair stopped growing, they were starved, many came down with dysentery, malaria, or edema. Several report their legs swelling up, their testicles looking like baseballs because the edema was so bad. Some men broke down physically, others psychologically and lost their will to live. All the while, Garwood acted as a trustee for the Viet Cong as the POWs were forced into communist indoctrination and propaganda classes.
The Viet Cong would also use Garwood to propagandize other American soldiers on the front lines. Not long after he was captured, Marines around Da Nang found propaganda leaflets that had been signed by Garwood. At one point, Garwood told another POW that sometimes, “I go down to the coast now and again to take pictures of military installations. Or sometimes I talk to the troops with a bullhorn to try to get them to stop fighting.” He rationalized this behavior by saying, “But the only reason why I do it is because I want to go home.”
The POWs remember that, in July of 1968, Garwood had left the POW camp for about three weeks. This was the same timeframe in which Team Dublin City of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion reported an encounter with a white Viet Cong. When Garwood returned to the camp, he told the prisoners that he had been traveling with the VC and was using a loudspeaker to encourage American soldiers to defect to the other side. He also stated to them that at one point they had come under fire, but that the VC had saved him. He was not wounded in the firefight. Interestingly, POWs who knew Garwood also recall him wearing green shorts and Lance Corporal Gordon reported the white VC he saw to be wearing green shorts.
Several Marines on the recon patrol who got a good look at the Caucasian Viet Cong later positively identified him when shown photographs of Garwood.
Some time after the firefight with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion Marines, Garwood left the POW camp for good, telling the prisoners that he was going to Hanoi. In 1969 he disappeared, although there were rumors that the defector was still in North Vietnam. Other rumors held that he had gone to Russia. The last American POWs were released from Vietnam in 1973 after extensive negotiations carried out by Henry Kissinger with the North Vietnamese government. Garwood did not re-emerge, which was a relief to some Pentagon officials who saw him as a disgrace to the United States generally and to the Marine Corps specifically, one which would only be exacerbated by his homecoming.
Garwood comes home
Little more than scattered reports exist about Garwood’s activities from 1969 to when he re-emerged in 1979, though it seems clear that he continued to collaborate with communist forces in North Vietnam. Garwood upped periscope by handing off a note to a World Bank employee at a hotel in Hanoi stating that he was a POW and he knew where other American POWs were located. Both were lies as Garwood had elected to remain in Vietnam voluntarily after 1973 and he did not actually know of any American POWs still being held.
With Garwood now apparently willing to return home, the Marine Corps retrieved him in Bangkok, flew him to Okinawa and then back to the United States. Initially appearing happy about his repatriation, he was oblivious to the fact that he was about to be charged under the Unified Code of Military Justice for his crimes. In the end, the military courts cleared him of some charges but found him guilty of physically assaulting a POW and communicating with the enemy. He was striped of his rank and military benefits, but served no time in prison.
Proving that a tiger never really changes its stripes, Garwood attempted to cash in on his activities in Vietnam, rubbing shoulders with journalists and Hollywood producers. Eventually, a woefully inaccurate made for TV movie was released about his alleged exploits. Other accounts have emerged from those who have crossed paths with him over the years — Garwood likes to spin fantastical tales about secret missions he did for the CIA and other such nonsense. Now at the age of 72, Garwood’s current whereabouts are unknown.
Bob Garwood and his defection to the Viet Cong is one of the most curious episodes of the Vietnam War, a conflict already rife with odd events and surreal goings-on. Some of Garwood’s actions were not only selfish but treasonous, even if they were attempts to save his own skin. Other POWs suffered immensely, but still returned home with honor. And what of the huge black holes in Garwood’s timeline in which he just disappeared into the hands of the communist North Vietnamese? For that matter, how was he captured by the enemy in the first place?
These are the types of questions about war that are lost to history, both by happenstance and by the intentional obscuring of those involved.
SOFREP reached out to a number of the former Marines who served on Team Dublin City when their patrol ran headfirst into Robert Garwood and 25 or so of his VC cohorts back in 1968. One replied back via e-mail writing, “It’s been fifty years and that’s history. Nothing else to say on it. As for getting my email address please convey to the Rat Fuck who gave it to you that I am pissed to no end — PERIOD. Good luck and God Bless.”
At that, we can’t help but smile. The Marines of Team Dublin City served their country honorably half a century ago and deserve the opportunity to put the war behind them.
Special thanks to Clint Neff for his initial research and contributions to this article.
Declassified patrol report, Team Dublin City
“Survivors” by Zalin Grant