Pfc Robert Garwood Traitor Or Survivor History Essay

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There are many books and stories which feature heroic accounts of survival and sacrifice among the American POWs of Vietnam. These books are written by several different sources including reporters, former military personnel, wives of POWs, and the POWs themselves. Many of these books have a reoccurring topic which connects them all, the case of PFC Robert ‘Bobby’ Garwood. The books generally discuss the facts of the case as presented in his court-martial, and they also present conflicting opinions as to his guilt or innocence and his claims that American POWs were still in Vietnam after his escape. The scattered facts and opinions are rarely put together, compared, and analyzed, which is the purpose of this research.

Who was Robert Garwood?

Private First Class Robert Russell Garwood of the United States Marines was a motor pool driver stationed in Da Nang, South Vietnam in 1965. At the time, he was a 19 year old high school drop-out from Indiana. On September 28, Garwood was reported absent at bed check. He was officially reported as an “unauthorized absence” at 0730 the next morning. Like many POWs, information would surface as to his capture and imprisonment by the Viet Cong. Garwood was supposed to return during Operation Home coming in 1973, but for unclear reasons did not. In 1979, a Finnish National working in Hanoi was handed a note by a man claiming to be the American POW, Robert Garwood. A few months later, Hanoi confirmed the existence of Garwood and added that he had been free for a number of years and was able to leave at anytime. Upon arriving back in the United States, he was court-martialed and convicted of collaboration with the enemy.

Many people were shocked at the idea of a United States Marine collaborating with the enemy. How could a Marine “crossover?” Why would he willingly stay in Vietnam for so long? Is he a traitor, or a young, misunderstood frightened soldier? More shock came amidst Garwood’s assertions that he personally witnessed more POWs still in captivity. How could there still be POWs in Vietnam? The influx on information meant to bring answers only brought more questions. To find the best answers, all sides must be examined.

Robert Garwood: the Traitor

Garwood was sent to pick up USMC officer Winston Groom and never showed. Many reported that Garwood probably took a detour to a local brothel, which he had allegedly done in the past. Upon Garwood’s disappearance on September 28, 1965, he was officially classified as “UA” (unauthorized absence) until October 15 when his status changed to “missing.” On December 3, a letter entitled Fellow Soldier’s Appeal was discovered near Da Nang. The letter was signed by “B. Garwood.” The letter suggests the United States should stop fighting and return home. After reviewing the letter, Garwood’s status was changed to “presumed captured.”

In January of 1966, several ARVN POWs were released from Camp Khu. Their release was not uncommon because it coincided with the Tet holiday. The surprise came when the ARVN officers produced a letter written by Garwood addressed to his mother. One of the ARVN officers also claims to have been shown a copy of Fellow Soldier’s Appeal by Garwood himself. In July of 1966, another copy of the letter was found near Da Nang bearing Garwood’s name.

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Two years later, LCpl Jose Agosto Santos and PFC Jose Ortiz-Rivera were released from captivity and debriefed like all released POWs were. During their debriefing, they reported seeing Garwood and that he had “crossed over” to the enemy. They claimed Garwood had participated in a liberation ceremony, accepted a commission in the NVA, and adopted the name “Nguyen Chien Dau.” The same year, several ARVN soldiers were released from captivity and reported an American POW who was offered a release turned it down and joined the National Liberation Front to work with the Viet Cong. They reported the American went by the name Nguyen Chien Dau.

In February of 1968, more letters appeared under the signature of Garwood. The USMC sought FBI and CIA assistance in examining the letters to confirm or reject their legitimacy. The CIA concluded six of the letters were in fact written by Garwood.

In November of 1969, more American POWs were released and corroborated the accounts of Santos and Ortiz. They added to the accounts by saying Garwood was free to roam the camp while carrying an AK-47 and lived in guard’s quarters. Furthermore, they stated that Garwood had told them he was going north to join anti-American organizations. More evidence against Garwood mounts in July of 1970 when a South Vietnamese Guerilla claimed to have a conversation with an American VC in January of 1969, who called himself Nguyen Chien Dau and claimed to have crossed over in 1965.

In 1971, a capture VC claimed to have knowledge that Garwood was taken to North Vietnam and then to Russia for training. This is very significant because this event marks the first time the United States Defense Intelligence Agency became involved in the Garwood case. The DIA did investigate the possibility of a defector in Moscow, but no further reports nor mentioning of this investigation have become available.

During this time, the USMC POW Screening Board met several times to review the case evidence against Garwood. Technically, he was still a POW. The Board concluded Garwood had deserted, but the refrained from changing his official status from POW to Deserter. Members of the board also pushed to stop all pay and benefits toward Garwood. A declaration of desertion could be potentially damaging to the public image of the Marine Corps because the USMC tries to project an image of the highest professionalism and loyalty from its soldiers. A label of ‘deserter’ could be seen as a flaw in the almighty Corps. The USMC was simply playing it safe with regards to Garwood. To them, the image of the USMC was more important than prosecuting one of their own.

Operation Homecoming of 1973 would bring new and damaging information to concerning PFC Garwood. POWs: PFC Pfister, SP4 Lewis, PFC Daly, CPT Kushner and CW2 Anton had come home and all of them had spent time directly with PFC Garwood. Kushner would say Garwood refused repatriation on several occasions and was in fact a commissioned NVA lieutenant who would later go to North Vietnam.

The accounts told by Frank Anton would be most damaging. Anton recounted numerous occasions in which Garwood worked with the VC running the camp. Anton went on to describe how Garwood spied on them, acted as an interpreter during investigations and again refused repatriation. Anton also explained how Garwood took part in the Marxist indoctrination and reeducation classes at the camp. At one point, Garwood actually screamed into the face of another soldier, “You have come to Vietnam Williams, to commit crimes against these innocent people! I hate you Williams, and those like you. I spit on you Williams.” The most damaging account from Anton was the case involving the death of the camp commander’s cat. When the soldier Russ Grisset finally confessed to the killing of the cat, the VC captors beat him viciously. Garwood was apparently upset the other soldiers allowed Grisset to confess and Garwood walked down the line of POWs and then struck a soldier named Harker in the ribs, knocking him to the ground. Anton also described the immense grief Garwood showed upon hearing the news of the death of Ho Chi Minh. Anton’s final account of Garwood was during the Homecoming of 1969. Two other POWs had been released and Garwood left with them. Anton did hear about or see Garwood again until Garwood’s return in 1979.

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Robert Garwood: The Survivor

Despite the numerous accounts of Garwood’s collaboration with the enemy, was he just trying to survive? Initial reports suggest he may have defected from the beginning. However, just before he disappeared, Garwood wrote a letter to a friend saying how excited he was because he was leaving Vietnam in 10 to 12 days. The likelihood of a 19 year old with 10 to 12 days left in a hostile country defecting are highly unlikely.

The early release of Fellow Soldier’s Appeal suggests Garwood underwent intense interrogations and possible torture in the early stages of his capture. Many other soldiers signed similar letters under duress and were not held accountable upon retuning during Operation Homecoming of 1973. Had Garwood returned during 1973, he may not have been as easily indictable because of the amnesty granted to so many POWs.

Garwood’s age and inexperience also suggests he would give in to the camp guard named “Mr. Ho” and his wishes if it meant keeping Garwood in favorable conditions like a comfortable bed, decent food, and a further avoidance of malaria and dysentery. We do know Mr. Ho forced Garwood to watch ARVN POWs play Russian roulette against each other with the inevitable result. Reports claim Garwood was left in “a state of barely controlled hysteria” at the sight of the deaths. The question again is how a 19 year old, high school dropout, from rural Indiana, resist such mental torment? His only notion would be to try to survive by any means necessary by this point.

The young Garwood needed a mentor for survival which arrived as Captain William F. “Ike” Eisenbraun. Ike was a seventeen year veteran who had extensive survival tactics knowledge. Ike advised Garwood to learn the Vietnamese language in order to minimize surprises and increase the chances of survival. Garwood learned how to survive off the jungle by eating certain plants and insects. Ike’s best advice was to “do whatever the VC tells us to do. Don’t piss them off. Every one of those guards out there has had a family member killed by one side or the other, and they’re itching for any kind of excuse to blow your ass away.” Garwood was also relieved to learn that Ike had also signed letters like Fellow Soldier’s Appeal. The rational behind signing such letters was survival.

Eventually, Ike realized he had doomed himself and Garwood by learning too much. He figure the VC would never let go prisoners who understood their language and could pass on sensitive intelligence and information. When Ike and another POW attempted escape and were caught, Garwood felt betrayed by his mentor and began to distrust the other soldiers. Nonetheless, Garwood felt like he lost a father when Ike died from illness and imposed excessive work.

Garwood now became more involved in the indoctrination programs serving as an interpreter and even as an educator. Is this the make of a turncoat, or a man who learned the lessons of Ike and was committed to survival? When Operation Homecoming came around in 1973, Garwood had been continuously involved in indoctrination classes and fixing vehicles for the VC and the NVA. There is the possibility Garwood was afraid to return during Homecoming for fear of prosecution. Many of the soldiers were given amnesty upon returning, but how was Garwood to know this would happen? Even if he did know, had there been other POWs been as willing a participant as him? Again, he had no way of knowing.

Further evidence as to the uncertainty of his involvement is reflected in the USMC’s investigations and debates over his official status. The board determined the POWs who may still be held in North Vietnam after Homecoming would be difficult to ascertain and therefore a change in status would be unnecessary. This also applied to Garwood who would remain classified as a POW until his return in 1979. This raises the question: if the USMC was convinced Garwood was a defector, then why didn’t they officially change his status?

In a BBC interview in 1981, Garwood tells his side of the story. According to Garwood, the VC wanted to make the other POWs think he had crossed over and they succeeded. Garwood also claims he buried Ike with his own hands which contributed to his depression and isolationism. Garwood goes on to say he was caught stealing (food for the other POWs) and was sentenced to death. He was sent to a camp near the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was soon bombed which caused him to lose his sight for 6 months. After he regained his sight, he was forced into manual labor in North Vietnam. He claims he heard the 591 names of POWs to be released on the radio and was saddened when he didn’t hear his and thus gave up hope of ever being released. He was then transported all over North Vietnam where he was put to work fixing cars and jeeps. He says that during this time, in 1977, he saw American POWs in a boxcar outside Hanoi.

He then started making deals with his captors and established himself as a link in the black market of Hanoi. During this time, he made friends with a girl names Nana who provided him with information as to which hotels hosted foreign nationals so he could try to contact them and make the outside world aware of his presence. Garwood told 60 Minutes reporter, Monika Jensen-Stevenson, Nana was executed in from of him by six men who emptied their AK-47s on her.

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Finally, Garwood was able to pass a note to the World Bank diplomat from Finland, Ossi J. Rahkonen. The message was broadcast on BBC radio to a shocked world. Garwood would not be released for another month. During that month, Garwood was tortured with electric shocks and was told that if he gave up any information about his captors, other POWs still in Vietnam would be executed. Garwood was transported out of Hanoi on a French jet where he was given champagne and treats. Upon landing in Bangkok, Thailand, he was arrested by the USMC for desertion.

Garwood tells an elaborate story of his survival, loss, and the sacrifice of his identity. The questions to ask now are; did he make it all up? Why would he make it up? Was he a traitor? Did he just do what any man would have done in his position? This judgment would come from the military justice system that has the power to grant him his final freedom, or the ultimate punishment. All the past evidence and eye witness accounts would be brought forward 15 years after his disappearance. All the questions would be answered, or would they?

The Court-Martial of Robert Garwood

Upon Garwood’s return, the press portrayed him as a poor forgotten soldier who spent the last fourteen years in hell. Furthermore, the evil USMC was planning to court-martial this hero who had already been through enough. People like POW Frank Anton could not believe what he was seeing. He could not believe the man who held him prisoner was being hailed as a poor victim.

Garwood was initially represented by military defense attorneys who were led by a civilian attorney hired by Garwood’s family. The military defense lawyers eventually resigned from the case and the lead defense lawyer was changed out before the case was finished. The prosecuting attorney also resigned partway through the case.

The proceedings took some time getting established amidst controversy over the charges and the possible punishments. Several of the initial charges were dropped and Garwood was on trial for desertion, collaboration, and maltreatment. Under the instruction of President Jimmy Carter, the death penalty was not to be sought.

Among the POWs who testified were: Dave Harker (the soldier Garwood punched), Ike McMillan, Willie Watkins, Robert Lewis, Gus Mehrer, Luis Ortiz-Rivera, and Frank Anton. All of these witnesses had been with Garwood for an extended amount of time and were witness to his treatment of fellow POWs and assistance to the VC.

Garwood’s attorney’s entered an insanity plea and was determined to prove the mental anguish, mental capacity, wartime captivity and isolation led to the poor high school drop-outs transition to becoming a “white gook.” However, the prosecution had a strong case with numerous reliable witnesses. The members of the jury were all senior officers and Vietnam veterans.

The witnesses testified to Garwood’s actions and abuses toward the POWs. They testified that Garwood had the ability to come and go as he pleased. Luis Ortiz-Rivera testified that Garwood told him he was more comfortable and was treated better by the Viet Cong as opposed to the US Army. Harker testified to the hitting incident. Frank Anton testified saying Garwood carried a rifle and took an active role in the indoctrination courses.

Anton also mentioned the VC ordered the POWs to treat Garwood like they would treat the regular guards. The POWs did not comply with this order and Garwood did not force them too. This demonstrates Garwood’s detachment from the VC. If there was a case for him acting purely out of survival, this was it. Ike McMillan also testified that Garwood was more of a help to the Viet Cong out of a desire for special treatments. This too is an indication that Garwood was acting on the advice of his departed mentor and just keeping alive and not “piss off” the guards.

In January of 1981, many of the charges had been dismissed. The charge of collaboration still stood. The jury took less than an hour to find Garwood guilty of collaborating with the enemy. He would serve no jail time; instead he was demoted to the lowest rank, denied all pay, and dishonorably discharged. His 14 years in Vietnam was considered to be part of his punishment.


The controversies over the Robert Garwood affair are numerous. The most important is his account of the remaining POWs in Vietnam. Was he lying or telling the truth? If he was telling the truth, then why hasn’t the government done something? In 1993, Garwood led supporters and a large team of reporters to places where he claimed to see American POWs alive in 1978 and 1977. He led them to a very specific place in which he had described in great detail during a deposition in 1992. He took them to two apartment style buildings on the Thac Ba Lake in the Yen Bai province. Garwood claimed to have seen these buildings in 1977. The problem is that the buildings had not been built until after 1983. It was later discovered that one of Garwood’s supporters had made a previous trip to the area and photographed the buildings. Although Garwood denies seeing the pictures, he was now severely discredited. Many people abandoned their attacks on the government and focused their attention to Garwood and his primary supporter Billy Hendon who took the pictures and was a member of a group known as the “Grey Flannel Rambos” who were nothing more than conspiracy theorists who loved making trouble for the DIA.

The more Garwood and angry family members pushed the US government, the more Garwood received criticism. Senator John McCain who was a 5 year POW in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” accused Garwood of being traitor and a liar. McCain would speak out several times against Garwood and his supporters by saying: “These efforts and others constitute an enduring betrayal of his country. And anyone who may be manipulating Garwood for their own ends is a co-conspirator in this betrayal.”

Garwood the Scapegoat?

During Operation Homecoming of 1973, many soldiers were accused of collaborating with the enemy and other various crimes similar to those Garwood were prosecuted for. However, no court-martials took place right after Homecoming. The White House started viewing the war as a loss on the public scene and wanted to distract from the war as much as possible. Although the United States won the combat war, it lost the press war. People were tired of the government and distrust was very high. The White House knew political damage control was needed fast. Long, drawn out criminal hearings against returning POWs would make the sting of Vietnam last longer.

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After the conflict settled down, and people started looking at collaborations with the enemy, Garwood fell into their laps. Did the government now have a scapegoat for all the collaborators? Many analysts combined with conspiracy theorists make those assertions today. They also make the claim the government wants to silence people like Garwood to cover up the soldiers that are still there and the government considers them to be expendable. Since so many years have passed along with so many people involved in the POW affairs, it may be impossible to ever know if soldiers were left behind. We know communists have kept POWs in the past after the Korean War and WWII, so the thought of remaining POWs isn’t so unthinkable, but proof is the enemy theory, no matter how good the intent is behind the theory.


In 1998, Garwood was embraced by three Medal of Honor winners in front of over 200,000 people at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Many things were yelled from the audience including: “we love you Bobby,” and “such men do not embrace traitors.” Obviously the issue is still very near for some people. Some people credit him with being a true hero who works to save American lives still held captive. Others believe he is a traitor who got off easy and does more to dishonor POWs by not admitting what he did.

Today Robert Garwood lives in Mississippi and is the source of attacks by a former disgruntled neighbor who claims that “Robert would destroy my marriage, spread the most vile lies about me beyond anything I could have once imagined possible, and turned my life upside down.” This individuals several thousand word account of his experiences with Garwood from 2000 to 2006 sound like a domestic stalker case waiting to be made into a movie on Lifetime.

Hollywood did make a made for TV movie about Garwood entitled The Last POW? The Bobby Garwood Story. Many of the reviews criticize the film as “Typical Hollywood Whitewash” and others use the film as an opportunity to rehash the government scapegoat theory.

I chose the story of PFC Robert Garwood because we still don’t know all the facts. The only option is to try to understand the facts we have, whether they are distorted or 100% true, they are all we have to go on. As the Iraq War continues, the question regarding captured American soldiers have come up again. We have turncoats like Walker in Afghanistan, and captured soldiers who turn up dead years after their disappearance. Throughout all of the books researched and all of the pieces of eyewitness accounts, they all arrive at the same conclusion; only Robert Garwood and his captors know the truth.

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