A Vietnam Vet Becomes the Hero—or Villain—in a Failed Bid to Find Missing Americans in Laos

updated 03/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sweating under the burden of 60-pound rucksacks, the three Americans moved stealthily into enemy-occupied Laos. Behind them, glittering in the moonlight, lay the Mekong River and beyond that, the dull routines of peacetime life in the U.S. In the jungle blackness were old foes, Vietnamese soldiers, and the Unfinished Business from a war that ended officially in 1975. This was February 1983—and these veterans sought American prisoners of war they believe are still held in Laos.

The leader of this real-life Mission Impossible was a tall, muscular former Green Beret lieutenant colonel named James G. "Bo" Gritz. And depending on who is defining him, Gritz is either a genuine American hero with the courage of his convictions, or a publicity-seeking egomaniac who is not dealing with a full deck. There are plenty of advocates in both camps. Three times in the past six months, Gritz (pronounced "Grites," as in last rites) has staged forays into Communist Laos, determined to find American POWs. So far he has produced no tangible evidence that a single missing-inaction (MIA) serviceman remains alive in Laos. His latest effort, dubbed Operation Lazarus, ended in failure in a courtroom in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, his base of operations. There Gritz and his comrades were given suspended sentences for illegal possession of high-powered radio equipment. Gritz was unrepentant. "My critics should either lead, follow or get the hell out of the way," he challenged. "We're doing it because you don't leave your comrades behind to die in the hands of the enemy."

Even some of Gritz's harshest critics share his conviction that POWs are still alive in Laos, although they doubt that he has helped the men's situation. Retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, who heads the Center for POW/MIA Accountability in Washington, believes there was adequate evidence of living American prisoners at least a couple of years ago—until Gritz drew the world's attention to them. "If the enemy is intelligent," he maintains, "it will have murdered them by now. Then its previous statements that there are no live Americans would come true." However, Gritz argues the Americans are being kept alive as bargaining chips for several million dollars in U.S. aid that former President Richard Nixon supposedly promised the North Vietnamese.

The commando raid last month has brought massive publicity to the quixotic Gritz, 44, and his self-appointed crusade. In his latest attempt to rescue even one POW and prove his case, Gritz secured five-figure donations from actors William Shatner and Clint Eastwood. (Gritz explains that while Eastwood's contribution was simply a donation, Shatner purchased the film rights to some of his earlier war adventures.) Gritz's critics claim that such grandstanding only antagonizes the Laotian government and slows official inquiries into the fate of 568 Americans listed as missing in action in Laos. MIA families are losing faith in Gritz's judgment, and the U.S. government denies any involvement in what the Pentagon has slightingly dismissed as "guerrilla theater." "The man is an embarrassment to the whole government," says Ken Geisen, public affairs chief at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

While Gritz's personal courage and commitment seem beyond dispute, many who know him fear that the ex-officer has become a loose cannon with an emotional addiction to the excitement and glory of war. "He's dedicated to the POWs," says Robert Dornan, a former California congressman who chaired a House task force on MIA affairs, "but he may be a frustrated combat officer who is just unable to stop his momentum."

Dornan believes that Gritz was launched on his crusade in the late 1970s by government intelligence officials angered by President Carter's apparent lack of interest in MIAs. Officials have never resolved the numerous unconfirmed reports of U.S. prisoners in Indochina. Gritz says he retired from the Special Forces in 1979, after 22 years in the service, when a now deceased Army intelligence chief quoted "overwhelming evidence the POWs were alive" and asked him to lead a civilian rescue attempt.

The former Vietnam battalion commander, who has more than 60 decorations to his credit, launched his operation in Thailand in 1982. Two previous projects had been abandoned while in the planning stages, but Operation Lazarus was to be different. A major defense contractor, Litton Industries, supplied what it will describe only as support, which reportedly involved sophisticated code-transmitting radios that Gritz said enabled him "to communicate directly from the jungle to the highest levels of government." So taken was Eastwood with Gritz's patriotic pitch that he sounded out his old friend Ronald Reagan for backing. "The White House staff reported back to the President that it wasn't in our best interests," a Reagan aide claims—but Gritz has another story. He insists he was "indirectly in touch with decision makers in Washington."

Some members of the intelligence community believe that initially Gritz did have unofficial U.S. government backing. Informed sources assert that at the very least he was provided with high-quality intelligence information and possibly financial support. "They would never admit it," said a former intelligence official, "but my impression is that at first the Army supported him. They've turned off on him now."

The skepticism is fueled by Gritz's predilection for melodrama. According to a member of his team, Gritz led four Americans and 15 Laotian guerrillas into Laos last Nov. 27. Chuck Patterson, who served under Gritz in Vietnam, claims the group was ambushed and had to flee back to Thailand. Patterson defected at this point and sold his account of the escapade to Soldier of Fortune magazine. Although not yet published in the magazine, excerpts of the story were released in January, after Gritz was back in Laos. The news reached Bangkok, and Thai authorities arrested Gritz's rear-link radio operator, Lance Trimmer, 43, a private investigator, and Lynn Standerwick, 25, daughter of an Air Force pilot shot down over Laos in 1971. On Feb. 28, after about a month in Laos, Gritz emerged from the jungle and surrendered in the sleepy outpost of Nakhon Phanom, where he quickly became a celebrated prisoner. Passing the time until his trial, the marathon runner and black belt karate expert gave martial arts lessons to the police chief and appeared on Good Morning America by satellite hook-up from the jail.

A week later he was back home in Westchester, Calif. with his third wife, Claudia, and their children, Melody, 10, and Micheil, 13. Gritz now sees his role as a catalyst to spur the government to negotiate to get the missing Americans home, but he says he would return if necessary. "We need to decide whether we're going to let those men die in the hands of our enemies or whether we are going to bring them back. I just spent five days in jail," he continued, "and I was ready to come out. By God, I think they're ready too after 10 long years."

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