THE MORTICIAN IS DEAD
They called him "The Mortician."
He died somewhere in the United States on Tuesday, November 6, 2007, his location and identity known to only a few. His importance to the Americans we lost in Vietnam and to their families was known to even fewer.
With his death yet another page has been turned in the story of America’s years in Vietnam.
An important part of that story is about our MIAs, and in his Leave No Man Behind, Garnett “Bill” Bell (with George J. Veith) has written that during his decades-long search for MIAs and their remains on one trip to Hanoi in 1973 he “observed a rotund Asian man in a small masonry building near the entrance to the cemetery. The white-clad individual was leaning over human skeletal remains laid out on a concrete slab at the center of the building. I later observed the same man at Gia Lam Airfield where American remains were normally examined prior to being placed on board U.S. Air Force aircraft. As luck would have it, [s]ix years later [in 1979] this same individual would defect and become known to the world as 'The Mortician.' This Vietnamese official of ethnic Chinese origin became our first source who had actually been involved in processing remains. For years the Vietnamese had denied they were storing the remains of dead Americans, but The Mortician provided us first hand evidence that in fact the Vietnamese had exhumed and stored the remains of several hundre American dead, men whose fates often were unknown to the U.S. Government and consequently to their families. Eventually, the weight of the Mortician’s testimony before the U.S. Congress concerning Vietnam's manipulation of the POW/MIA issue, combined with the discovery of chemical preservatives on the skeletons of American MIA’s unilaterally turned over by the Vietnamese, forced them to recant."
According to Bell, “[t]he communists threatened to assassinate him if he revealed to the West what he knew about the collection of American remains. He wasn’t intimidated, and forcing out the Mortician was undoubtedly the biggest mistake the Vietnamese ever made in the POW/MIA issue. I shudder to think where we would have been without his priceless information.”
I learned about The Mortician several years ago when Erika Holzer and I were researching our book “Aid and Comfort: Jane Fonda in North Vietnam. Recently, while preparing a lengthy, soon to be published, paper about an Air Force MIA who survived a 1972 shoot down but whose remains were repatriated in 1987, I needed information that only The Mortician, if anyone, could have possessed.
I found the old man in an American hospital, languishing in the intensive care unit.
I explained to his grand daughter how The Mortician might be able to help us understand how the airman’s remains exhibited peculiar characteristics, perhaps as the result of his having been used by communists as a human guinea pig.
When the young woman told him of my request, he rallied momentarily and quipped “So they think the old man can still help them, do they?”
Indeed, he could have—as he helped so many American families those many years ago.
But that was then, and this is now—and The Mortician has died.
Those of us aware of his contribution to resolving the conundrum of America’s MIAs hope that his eternal rest will be peaceful.
At least his bones won’t be defiled and warehoused against the day they could be used for nefarious purposes by a dictatorial regime—because he died in the United States of America, unlike the thousands of our countrymen who perished in communist Vietnam.