This is the best thing you’ll read this week.
By Henry Allen
April 17, 1979
Style, Washington Post
One sullen afternoon in April, a plump little girl walking a dog spots Pfc. Robert Garwood, USMC, who is just home from Vietnam. She’s heard all about that.
Garwood is smoking a cigarette in front of his daddy’s trailer, his eyes winced up, his shoulders hunched inside a blue-gray vinyl jacket as if a cold wind were blowing, as if the air itself were acid.
“That was the grocery store, across the street there,” he is telling a companion. “The Pepsi sign is still on the wall around the corner. The whole town used to congregate here on summer evenings. . .”
Beyond the Vietnamese accent which the girl recognizes from the TV, Garwood’s voice rings with plaintive amazement, as if the past were a scintilla away from blossoming to life, a tease just nasty enough to bewilder.
None of this history means anything to the girl, of course. She’s 12. Robert Garwood is 33. He was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong 14 years ago. Nevertheless he seems to have a proprietary attitude toward this town of 500 people, its rusty railroad tracks, sodden cornfields, and no spring flowers.
“Down the tracks there, it was great rabbit hunting, you could shoot ’em with a .22. And over in the woods is the old swimming hole. I could show you places. . . ”
“Hi,” says the girl. She is holding a basset hound on a 20-foot length of chain.
Garwood stares down at her.
“What’s that around your eye” he asks.
“Birthmark,” she says. “You’re Bobby Garwood, aren’t you? I seen you on TV.”
They both look exceedingly pleased with themselves.
As well they might. Garwood is famous, sufficient beatitude nowadays, and he came home to her town for his 30-day convalescent leave, a ghost from a war whose reality is now movies and books: “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home,” “Dispatches,” all the more interesting for being less real than the original.
So Garwood has spent the first week of his leave visiting around Adams and nearby Greensburg, a creature who is not quite real himself, like the Japanese soldiers who held out for decades in the jungle, to be thanked with mere pity when they got home.
There is some pity, here, for Garwood. There have been few thanks. It’s the problem of the allegations against him.
On Sept. 28, 1965, while driving a jeep near Danang on a run for 3rd Marine Division headquarters, Pfc. Garwood disappeared. He was due to rotate back to “the world,” as it was known, in only a few weeks.
On March 22, 1979, six years after North Vietnam released most of its American prisoners of war, Pfc. Garwood stepped off an Air France flight from Hanoi to Bangkok. He learned that he faced charges of soliciting American troops to refuse to fight, desertion in time of war, unlawful communication with the enemy, misbehaving as a prisoner of war, and attempting to cause insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty among his fellow POWs.
He wore long sideburns and a flower in his shirt. He denied collaborating and all the charges against him. He faced the possibility of a firing squad if convicted.
Fellow POWs had already spoken out against him in a variety of books and testimony. They said he’d guarded them with an AK-47, that he wore a Viet Cong uniform.
“One time he told us he went to a U.S. fire support base and got on a bullhorn, saying that they should come over to the other side,” says David Harker, a Virginia probation officer who was in the same prison camp with Garwood. “I always thought he was just an opportunist. He was a confused, mixed-up kid from a broken home. This was one way of getting a little attention. He had no real strong political convictions. It was like he had found a home.”
“He interrogated me,” says Julius Long of Pulaski, Va. “He asked who my captain was, that kind of thing. You try to lie as much as you can, but it’s hard with an American asking the questions-and you didn’t realize what was going on at first. Here we was locked up, he could walk around. We wore pajamas. He wore a green uniform like the Viet Cong.”
‘I Was Gung-Ho’
Two beers into happy hour at Mr. Macabo’s, a tavern in nearby Greensburg, Garwood’s eyes go hard with resentment. He is sitting at a table with his father, a printer with weighty eyelids and a potbelly, and with three ex-Marines — two from Vietnam, one from Korea.
They’ve been swapping boot-camp horror stories, and Garwood seems to have witnessed them all: the kid who blew his head off when he failed to qualify on the rifle range; the drill instructor who made the kid with pneumonia lick up his own spit; the drill instructor who threw Garwood’s clean rifle in the sand. Nobody is going to top Bobby Garwood in what the Marines call sea stories. (He’ll even tell a story about his high school hot rod, only to confess moments later that actually it was his buddy’s car, or they owned it together, that’s what it was.)
Anyhow, Garwood hasn’t drunk beer for years, and here at Mr. Macabo’s some people seem to have done little else, so his sudden resentment seems adolescent.
“When I got to Okinawa last month, I got a haircut,” he announces to the table. “Nobody asked me. Nobody asked me to get it. But I went to Vietnam as a Marine and I came back as a Marine. I was gung-ho, my hero was Chesty Puller (the legendary Marine Corps general, winner of five Navy Crosses). I think if Chesty Puller went through what I did, he’d agree with me. Fourteen years of my life — where has it gone?”
His voice rises to a height appropriate to Vietnamese, but alarming in English, as if he were panicking. “They kind of erased me. They forgot about me. Why didn’t they request that they free me? Why didn’t they let me tell them in my own words? Everybody always told me, they didn’t ask me.”
Of course, POWs who have borne witness against Garwood have asked why he didn’t ask to go home; they have asked why the North Vietnamese would insist that Garwood was not a POW. But Garwood, on the advice of his New York lawyer, isn’t talking about any of that 14 years, except to say that, “Someday, the whole truth will come out.”
“They thought I was in intelligence because I had G2 on my trip ticket. For 14 years they interrogated me. Doi! Doi! That means liar. Khong noi su that!”
Someone asks what that last phrase means.
“You’re not speaking the truth,” he says. And his father, Jack, kicks in with with a definition more rooted in Greensburg, Indiana: “You’re -ting me.”
Garwood leans over to his father in a startling rush — he hugs him. He kisses him on the cheek. “I’m back with my Dad,” he says.
And he points out, smiling now, that if he stays in the Marine Corps four more years, he can get a pension-besides the $146,000 due to him in back pay, if it isn’t forfeited in a court martial. That isn’t bad for a Pfc. who was twice busted to private for speeding; who drove his truck into the back of a bus on Okinawa.
“They wanted to give me a special court martial but I’d been up for 48 hours, I hadn’t had any sleep,” he complains in the tones of a man who has always been a day late and a dollar short, a voice that accepts with conspicuous magnanimity the gross injustices of a world that has failed — inexplicably — to recognize his worth.
Like a Chameleon
Garwood was not “what you’d call a squared-away Marine,” as a former Marine from Garwood’s unit, Billy Ray Conley, put it last week at his home in Detroit.
“He was always lonely, kind of a timid dude from the git-go. He didn’t seem old enough to be a Marine. The fellas used to tease him for not washing, they’d call him scuzzy, they rode him real bad, but he wouldn’t get mad. But he followed orders.
“I went to town with him one time and we met this girl that could speak English and she helped him with his Vietnamese. We were all trying to pick up a little, but he got it real good. It don’t seem like it would take too much pressure to persuade him into anything, he was like a, what you call it, a chameleon. I’m just glad as hell it wasn’t me that got captured. I’ve wondered what I’d do in the same position.”
‘What if He’s Guilty?’
Standing at the jukebox in Mr. Macabo’s, Dan Bruner listens to these guys laughing at stories about Vietnam and he’s definitely getting torched, as he’d put it, thinking: why can’t they leave it alone?
Because it’s cut-and-dried to Bruner.He knows it had to get weird for Garwood – when Garwood bums a cigarette from his father, he has to slap the older man’s arm to do it because he can’t even remember the English – but what the hell, Bruner keeps saying to himself, Garwood took an oath, like everybody else. If he broke it, Bruner believes, they ought to hang him.
Over against the wall, though, three salesmen from Don Meyer Ford are talking about Garwood. And Bill Schroeder, who repaired F4 Phantoms at Danang, he gets torched just to think how some people think it’s all so cut-and-dried, especially in Vietnam, of all wars — Vietnam with book after movie after TV show hammering it home this year that there are no simple answers.
So a couple of hours later, it’s like magnets, Bruner and Schroeder have found each other, both with their moustaches that are coming to look, in this clean-shaven age, like service stripes from Vietnam. It’s one of those set-tos where everybody else at the table shuts up and buys the beer.
Schroeder: “In 1965, a long way from home, 18 years old, I can’t say I wouldn’t done the same thing he did.”
Bruner: “If you’re one of the first, you can f-up? Didn’t you take an oath?”
“I wasn’t 18 when I took that oath.”
“What age are you gonna cut if off at?”
“What’s punishment? He was there for 14 years. What does a guy have to go through to pay?”
“That’s written down — it’s a firing squad.”
“We’re gonna get nothing from prosecuting the guy.”
“What about Jewish Nazi hunters, would you say the same thing about them?”
“A guy that left high school because he couldn’t make the grades, he couldn’t think about the future, he’s not going to be able to think about politics. He was in a juvenile home, the Marines talked him into joining — easily swayed him, probably.”
So it goes, till Bruner and Schroeder can’t look at each other any more and their shoulders are lifting and then there’s a long silence, both men glowering at the forest of Falls City beer bottles on the red tablecloth.
“What if he’s guilty, though,” says Bruner. “What then?”
“If he’s guilty,” says Schroeder, “he’s gotta be shot.”
Translating From Vietnamese
The town, which is to say Greensburg, the Decatur County seat, population about 10,000, doesn’t seem to care.
“What comments I’ve heard seem to favor the boy,” says Lorne Sefton, president of the Union Bank & Trust. “I don’t know what the newspaper is going to do after it’s over.”
The worst anyone has to say, it seems, is that he’s innocent till proven guilty. But maybe that’s because they’re being asked the wrong question. Push them, and they point out: “Nobody around here ever heard of Bobby Garwood before all this.” And sure enough, even his capture merited only a three-inch item in The Greensburg Daily News in 1965.
By that time, he was long gone from Decatur County (Adams is a few miles up Route 421), having spent only a few years of his boyhood in the area. His parents divorced when he was 4, he went to live with his grandmother in her trailer in Adams; then up to Grand Rapids where his father worked in a furniture factory; then down to Indianapolis where Garwood dropped out of a trade high school in the 10th grade, ran away from home, ended up in a juvenile center, joined the marines at 17 after his father signed for him.
Adams, Ind., as true homeplace, as they say, is little more than a sentiment, a hopeful invention.
“People here know his father but not many remember him,” says he postmistress, Joann Wullenwebber, standing in front of shelves of Beechnut Chewing Tobacco and Three-In-One oil.
“I’m hard-line, being a World War II veteran and all,” says Marvin Stone, a farmer who’s come in to Wullenwebber’s store to visit for a minute — the fields are so wet, nobody can fertilize for another week, anyhow, so might as well. “But I’ll tell you — he’s not worse than the fellas who went to Canada.”
Canada, Canada, it’s like a mantra to some people here in farm country — it describes people who wouldn’t even fight, and Garwood, at least he gave it a try, “and you know he did some suffering in 14 years there,” says Robert Duvall, who owns a paint shop down the road.
Here is Adams is the silent majority Nixon invoked — a town of little asphalt-shingled houses with backyards running out to the huge cornfields; basketball hoops sagging from barns; propane tanks; a TV repair shop (closed); Worms for Sale; and an aqua-and-white Liberty trailer next to the railroad tracks.
It has a washing machine on the porch, a splintered plywood front door, and inside are half an angel’s food cake on the dining room table, Garwood’s enormous stepmother and Garwood himself, pacing, fidgeting past a plastic burro; twisting the radio dial from one country station to another.
Whatever he’s looking for, it isn’t in here, and so he goes outside to talk about those summer evenings when people gathered; fall mornings when rabbits fell to his .22, he says, but it’s all so tenuous, a past that hardly existed.
Garwood slides behind the wheel of a visitor’s Thunderbird. “I’ll show you around,” he says. He pulls the shift lever into reverse with the wincing uncertainty of a nurse giving her first injection. “This is only the first time I’ve driven since I’ve been back.”
“Well, the second, actually. I drove my brother’s car one time. You wouldn’t know it but I used to race stock cars, used to race them and motorcycles too.”
At a stop sign, he shifts into park, then back into drive.
“I could show you my grandmother’s house, but they tore it down. They wouldn’t have torn it down if I’d been here, but I wasn’t here. That’s the old walnut tree over there,” he says, pointing to a walnut tree perhaps eight inches thick.
“That’s the Newby’s house, there.” He brakes and rolls down the window. Another little girl, this one in a cowboy hat, stands in the yard with some adults.
“You live here?” Garwood asks.
The girl walks up to the edge of the yard. Garwood repeats his question, his tone gone oddly hard.
“Yeah,” says the little girl, turning away.
Somehow, there was something to be said, but Garwood can’t seem to find it. He says he has to translate from Vietnamese to English in his head.
Next door, in a little white house behind a storm fence, live the sperings. “I used to cut wood with Mr. Sperling,” Garwood says, and stops the car in the middle of the road. He gets out. The Sperlings walk out onto the front porch, shake hands, hug, Carl and Gertrude, white-haired.
“Miz Campbell, I don’t know if you remember her, she’s in a nursing home,” says Gertrude Sperling, who is wearing a apron. “Mr. and Mrs. Walkers, they’re both dead . . . ” And Meadowgold won’t deliver out here anymore, they even took the milkbox back so Carl had to build one to put the newspaper in, and the milking goat hurt her hind leg, and finally: “I expect you need to be going,” says Mrs. Sperling.
“I could show you more, there’s a lot more,” says Garwood. There’s the Adams Feed Company where they used to get corn cobs to burn in the winter, they were poor but the neighbors helped out and . . . well, there isn’t time, Garwood says, to see it all.
The front door to Greensburg American Legion Post 120 is by the howitzer, but you go out back in the cellar for the members’ entrance.
Inside the door is a huge portrait of Frank Hamilton, a Greensburg candidate for national commander of the American Legion.
It’s quiet tonight, half a dozen people at the bar.
“He came in here yesterday with his brother Jack,” says Jim hood, who tends bar. “He introduced him to four, five people. Nobody paid much attention.”
“Nobody knows anything about him,” says Joe Bennett, who sells grain-handling equipment. Bennett orders a double vodka. He has blowdried hair and a Florida tan, and a penchant for irony, it seems, a razory glint when he says: “He’s got a lot of freedom, doesn’t he?”
Bennett doesn’t explain. “Hell,” he says to Jack Bayless, the post commander, “If he’s convicted, what is it?”
“Death,” says Bayless.
Bennett says: “Thirty day furlough, huh?” And he laughs.