It was Valentine’s Day, and snow was drifting down in Greensburg, Ind. (pop. 9,200) when the phone at Circle Printing rang for Jack Garwood. Wiping his ink-stained hands, he listened incredulously to the words of a State Department official calling from Washington: “Mr. Garwood, this is probably not the right way to tell you this, but we just got word that your son is alive.” Larry Cornn, Garwood’s boss, recalls with a grin: “He was standing there dumbfounded, and then he broke down. Nobody around here got a damn thing done the rest of the day.”
Pfc. Robert Russell Garwood, now 32, disappeared Sept. 28,1965 while assigned as a motor-pool mechanic in Vietnam. He was one of the first Marines to be captured there. For eight years his family clung to the hope that he was alive. But when the Vietnamese released their POWs in 1973, Garwood was not among them. Then, about eight weeks ago, a lean young American shoved his way into a group of tourists in Hanoi. “My name is Bobby Garwood,” he blurted. “Can you get word to the U.S. State Department I want to come home?” Hurriedly ripping off the corner of an envelope, he scribbled his name and serial number. “I am in a forced-labor camp and I know about 15 others,” he told the tourists, then darted off without answering questions.
The State Department has verified Garwood’s handwriting on the torn envelope, and Vietnamese officials have acknowledged that the Marine is somewhere in Hanoi. Though his repatriation was thought to be imminent last week, Hanoi would not set a date. “They said he is free to leave anytime he wants to,” reports Rep. Billy Lee Evans of Georgia, who visited Vietnam recently. “But then they said they couldn’t locate him.” Attorney Dermot Foley, counsel to an organization of families whose sons are still listed as missing in Vietnam, believes many more U.S. POWs are there, but that the Vietnamese are reluctant to acknowledge or release them. “They probably held them as insurance that they’d get reconstruction aid,” Foley says, “and now that they are trying to normalize relations with us it’s going to be embarrassing to admit that they lied. If too much is made of that, Bobby may not get out alive.”
In any case, Garwood’s prospective homecoming may not be a joyous one. The State Department says his fellow POWs branded him a turncoat six years ago and reported that he had stayed in Vietnam voluntarily. Jack Garwood says U.S. officials never told him that, and that he wouldn’t have believed them if they had. He does admit that “Bobby was pretty sick of the war. He never detailed anything he’d seen or done, but he said it was pretty bad—stuff that made him sick, like finding bodies of women and children in huts they’d fired on.”
Curiously, one of the first POWs to identify Garwood as a turncoat shows no interest in seeing him prosecuted. “He did defect,” says former Staff Sgt. David Harker, who was held at a Khesanh Valley jungle prison where Garwood served as a guard. “But you have to understand the conditions to know what Bobby Garwood went through. I don’t think he had any strong political beliefs. He just had to convince the Vietnamese that he did in order to make his life easier.” Frequently, Harker says, Garwood helped his fellow GIs—giving them information they weren’t supposed to have, tuning a camp radio to the Voice of America and, once, bringing them a stolen chicken to eat. “If anybody stands in judgment of Bobby Garwood, it ought to be us,” concludes Harker. “I can’t condone what he did, but I don’t think he should be punished.”
For Jack Garwood, accounts of his son’s disloyalty don’t square with a proud father’s memories. The oldest of eight children, Bobby was a Boy Scout who had his own paper route and never missed Methodist Sunday School. But after the family moved briefly to Indianapolis, he dropped out of high school and enlisted. “I don’t know if some recruiter gave him a snow job or what,” says his father sorrowfully, “but he just didn’t want me to boss him around anymore.” Could his son really be a turncoat? “I’ll believe it,” says Jack Garwood, “only if he tells me himself.”