COLUMN ONE : Portrait of a POW Hunter : One photo has given Jack Bailey the finest moment in a strange journey. His odyssey may serve as a road map to the MIA crusade and its dubious cottage industry.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade ago, many people considered Jack Bailey the best of men.

He was praised as a humanitarian who had aided thousands of Southeast Asian refugees, hailed as a hero who had given desperate people a chance to live. One missionary called him "the most genuinely compassionate man I ever met."

Then that Jack Bailey seemed to all but vanish, sinking into the murky realm where Americans haunted by Vietnam try to raise the dead--the presumed dead, that is. Jack Bailey, POW hunter, traversed a path of hope and delusion that has left him branded by critics in the Pentagon and elsewhere as a man who traffics in tragedy.

Now Bailey--an old fighter pilot who fell from grace, a 68-year-old Don Quixote driven by an obsession--is hoping that Army Capt. Donald G. Carr, if not his ghost, will help him reclaim his lost honor.

Donald Gene Carr was a Green Beret who disappeared in Laos on July 6, 1971. And it is Carr, Bailey insists, who has reappeared in the photographic image of a grinning, middle-aged man.

The photograph that Bailey is showing to the world--one of several that recently have rekindled interest in the question of missing soldiers--represents what many believers and skeptics alike consider the most intriguing evidence to date suggesting that at least some of the more than 2,273 Americans who disappeared in the Vietnam War may still be alive, perhaps still captive.

Twenty years after his brother's disappearance, Matthew Carr insists that the man in the photo is his brother. Donald Carr's former wife and son share that belief, as does a forensic anthropologist who conducted a detailed, computer-enhanced comparison of Bailey's snapshot with old photos of Carr.

Authorities with the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, which oversees official POW-MIA research, have cast strong doubt on other putative POW evidence that has surfaced recently. But as yet, the agency's researchers simply don't know what to make of Bailey's photo, said Navy Cmdr. Ned Lundquist, a Pentagon spokesman.

Even if the grinning middle-aged man turns out to be just another Caucasian missionary, the photo has given Bailey the finest moment in his strange journey.

His odyssey could serve as a road map through the POW-MIA crusade. Bailey has become a middleman in a multimillion-dollar POW-MIA cottage industry. His charity alone has raised more than $3.3 million, records show. Bailey says he has never personally profited from his efforts.

In the Spotlight

Yet the controversial Bailey is now the movement's man of the moment, conferring with members of Congress, appearing on national television, meeting the Washington press.

Standing before 14 television cameras in a Capitol Hill press conference, Bailey ticked off his reasons for believing that the photo is authentic. He told of an acquaintance in the Laotian government who claimed to have access to an American prisoner. He explained how he provided his Laotian source with a blue knit shirt, a cheap wristwatch and a camera, along with instructions to take a picture of the man wearing the items. He explained that his source later told him the man's name was "Gar."

He triumphantly produced results of the photo comparisons by Michael Charney, head of the forensic science laboratory at Colorado State University. The bone structure and even the contours of the ears--"lobes, helix, concha, tragus"--matched, Charney's report said.

Both Bailey and Matthew Carr began to weep as they described Donald Gene Carr as a man who apparently had suffered brain damage.

"He's kind of like what you would call right now the village idiot," Matthew Carr said.

Skepticism abounds, however. Hopes have been raised and crushed before. Officials point out that Laos is not as closed to outsiders as it used to be. Many foreigners--including about 3,000 Americans--visited the country last year. Some skeptics suggest that Charney is less than objective, noting that he has previously criticized the Pentagon's handling of MIA cases.

Finally, there is the Bailey factor. He has recovered partial remains of a few missing servicemen, but Pentagon officials said he was a nuisance whose efforts have consistently done more harm than good.

"I just don't have a great deal of faith in him," retired Army Gen. Eugene Tighe said in a recent interview. Tighe, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is considered a key ally by POW-MIA activists because of his stated conviction that some POWs were left behind and his criticism of research methods. Tighe said he fears that if Bailey "is behind all of this," the resolution could prove "very, very cruel to a lot of people."

But the relatives of Donald Gene Carr want to believe.

"Anybody who's going to tell me that Col. Bailey's rescue is a phony, they'd better think again," Matthew Carr declared.

"I'm real happy Col. Bailey's doing what he's doing," Donald Gene Carr Jr. said.

Not that they know much about him.

"This guy," Donald Carr said, "just came out of nowhere."

The photograph shows a man lying on stretcher, grimacing in pain.

Vietnam, 1965. The man in the photo is Jack Bailey at 42. He offers the snapshot the way another man might offer a business card. Keep it, he says.

It was his third war. During World War II, he was a teen-age aircraft mechanic. In Korea and Vietnam, he was a fighter pilot. In Vietnam he also did duty as an aircraft crash investigator. He would be choppered into a remote crash site to try to determine why the aircraft went down and, if possible, what happened to the men.

Sometimes, alone at a remote crash site, he would spot an empty parachute hanging in the trees. "I'd wonder, you know, where is he?"

All of Bailey's photos come with a war story. He explains how a crash investigation was interrupted by a Viet Cong ambush. The U.S. helicopter gunship that dropped him off returned with guns blazing, lowered a rope, and Bailey grabbed hold. Off they went--but in their haste Bailey was dragged through the trees and suffered fractured vertebrae.

Decades have passed since Bailey dangled from helicopters. His hair is gray, his body softened with age. Aviator frames now hold prescription lenses. Twenty-six years later, he is still haunted by the thoughts of empty parachutes.

"This thing has consumed me," he said, voice heavy with fatigue, during one of a series of interviews. Inside the office, a wide rampart of files contained his "intelligence"--documents, photos, videotaped statements. Photos of the missing men decorated the walls. A map of Southeast Asia bristled with pins indicating the location of purported POW sightings.

Another time, weeks later, he abruptly mentioned that he had sought therapy to understand his obsession.

"What the doctors and everybody else feels," he said, "is I have a lot of guilt feelings inside me. . . . I have a hell of a guilt complex.

"I was the most bitter person in the world when I saw that country fall and saw what was happening to the people, the boat people. . . . I have an awful lot of guilt--as an American, as an American-- about what happened to the Vietnamese, the Laotians and the Cambodians.

"And what happened to some of my (flight school) classmates, my friends and my pilots is a disgrace, a national disgrace."

He said he would like very much to quit.

"Right now, it's very difficult. . . . If I didn't have some intelligence and information, to give me a little hope . . . "

Frequent Trips to Asia

At an age when others retire to the security of home and family, Bailey seems in perpetual motion. He spends most of his time in Thailand, returning frequently to his Garden Grove base, with occasional side trips to his home in Northern California. He and his wife have largely lived apart as Bailey pursued his mission. Married 46 years, they reared five children, including an adopted Vietnamese boy. The Baileys have eight grandchildren.

Bailey used to rent an apartment in Seal Beach from a friend at a bargain price. Tight finances, he says, required him to move both himself and his charity's offices into his daughter's Garden Grove home.

When criticized, Bailey offers explanations, makes excuses, accuses his accusers: They are against him at every turn.

Pentagon officials, meanwhile, portrayed Bailey as a gullible incompetent who was an easy mark for con artists dealing in bogus MIA "intelligence." He interfered with U.S. research efforts, they said.

Critics within the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, the largest, most influential group involved in the cause, say Bailey earned their scorn with shameful fund-raising techniques. Law enforcement authorities in the U.S. Postal Service and the state Department of Charitable Trusts say they have received complaints and have monitored Bailey and a few other POW-MIA activists for such violations as mail fraud. The complaints have not led to charges.

Financial disclosure statements of Bailey's "Operation Rescue"--no relation to the national anti-abortion group--say the effort raised $3.3 million from its incorporation in 1981 through 1989. Bailey is past the filing deadline for his 1990 financial statement, state officials said.

Records show that from 1985 through 1989, only a fraction of the money raised--never more than 16.6%--went toward the twin missions of aiding Southeast Asian refugees and hunting for missing American servicemen. Records show the rest was spent on management and fund raising. Charity watchdog groups recommend that at least 50% of revenue go toward direct services.

Bad Management Admitted

Bailey, who claims to take no salary through his charity, acknowledges that poor management brought about some of the troubles. But he also has accused his former fund-raiser, the Washington-area firm of Bruce Eberle & Associates, of milking the charity for profits. Bailey's financial records suggest that only 8.4% of $2.51 million generated by Eberle's firm went toward the charity's purpose. Bailey and Eberle severed business ties in early 1989.

Eberle disputes Bailey's accounting and says his firm did nothing wrong. "They had a very successful direct mail fund-raising program that lasted a long time. They just weren't successful in bringing anybody (a POW-MIA) out," he said. ". . . Sometimes there's sour grapes and I think they're looking for a scapegoat."

Critics were more appalled by the editorial content of the direct-mail campaign.

Bailey was cited frequently in a November, 1987, report by Army Gen. James W. Shufelt, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, on dubious fund-raising activities by activists involved in the POW-MIA issue. The report was submitted to U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, during hearings on the POW-MIA issue.

A recurring theme, Shufelt said in the report, was emotion-laden, unsubstantiated claims that searchers were "on the verge of rescuing (a POW) and if the recipient does not send money promptly, American servicemen will die."

Pentagon officials and League of Family directors told congressional hearings of appeals laced with distortions and fabrications. On other occasions they specifically cited Bailey. After hearing the critical testimony, congressmen on the subcommittee called for postal inspectors to investigate POW-MIA fund-raising efforts.

Provably false claims were rare.

But one 1987 appeal from Bailey is an exception. In it, the charity claimed credit for recovering the remains of two American helicopter crewmen. "Now, at least, they've returned to their families," the letter claimed.

It wasn't true. Pentagon records show that a later forensic analysis of bones Bailey claimed to be the remains of two American helicopter crewmen were in fact the partial skeleton of one person, an Asian. There were no Asian-Americans aboard the helicopter in question and, as one authority put it, "no way" the remains were those of a missing American.

That fund-raising letter, Bailey said, reflected his sincere beliefs at the time.

Bailey alienated fellow activists in other ways as well. One example is his 1988 encounter with Dieter Dengler, a former POW. Dengler was a Navy flier who was shot down during the war and captured by the Pathet Lao. He became the only American POW to escape from Laos.

Dengler, now a Marin County resident, met Bailey in summer, 1988, after learning that the POW hunter claimed that Dengler's old cellmate, Eugene DeBruin, was alive. Intrigued by Bailey's evidence, Dengler traveled to Thailand to join Bailey in a hunt for more clues. Before departing, Dengler agreed to write a fund-raising letter.

But after a few days in Thailand and some harsh words with Bailey, Dengler headed home. He sent Bailey a letter by certified mail asking that the fund-raising appeal be scrapped.

"What I saw and heard was not what I expected," Dengler wrote. "This must really hurt you when I say this, please forgive me. You already had so many disappointments in all this and I truly wish that you will be able to get someone out after all your effort. I myself see you burning yourself out totally on this MIA issue, dealing basically with untrustworthy people. With your background and service to this country you deserve much better. . . . "

He signed it: "Take care, your friend, Dieter Dengler"

But a few months later, the fund-raising letter went out anyway. It featured Dengler's first-person narrative as well as a picture of him at his rescue--bearded, bony, weighing less that 90 pounds.

"Yes, there have been and will be disappointments caused by dishonest people," the letter concluded, "but it is vital that we continue NOW since we are closer than ever. . . . PLEASE HELP NOW." There was one editing change. Instead of using Dengler's name, the letter was signed "an ex-POW."

Dengler was outraged. He wrote to the League of Families, "This whole thing of his is a scam and a fraud."

Bailey said he was mystified by Dengler's behavior in Thailand. It was Dengler who betrayed his trust, he said, Dengler who reneged on a promise.

Some close friends forgive Bailey's transgressions.

"Jack opens himself for criticism because he states things as fact when they are not yet fact--betting on the come, so to speak," said Larry Stark, a former POW who is vice president of Bailey's charity. "I've come to know he's a very honest individual doing his damnedest to do the job."

Vietnam veteran David Patterson, who hunted POWs with Bailey for 1 1/2 years, abandoned him in disgust. But Patterson sees a curious sincerity in the POW hunter.

"Jack Bailey," he said, "believes his own lies."

How could Jack Bailey, of all people, have ended up like this?

That's what Air Force veterans who served under him wonder. They remember how he would lead "Bailey's Bandits" on missions of mercy to local orphanages, providing gifts for children and elbow grease to fix up decrepit facilities.

Larry Ward, the American missionary who founded the relief agency Food for the Hungry, remembers Bailey not merely as a good-hearted soul, but as a humanitarian of heroic proportions. In an authorized biography of Ward, the missionary described Bailey as "the most genuinely compassionate man I ever met."

Rescue of Refugees

Their relationship was forged in the chaos of Saigon in early 1975. Bailey, having retired from the Air Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel, was working in Saigon for a defense contractor that supplied the South Vietnamese army. Ward's biography describes how, as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces converged neared the city, he and Bailey organized what may have well been the first load of "boat people."

Minh Transon, Bailey's adopted son, was on that boat. Now a 31-year-old data processor who lives in Northern California, Transon said he was 15 when he and Bailey met.

Bailey, he said, rented a boat and quickly loaded it with women and children. They were on their way out, Transon said, when they discovered the boat's owner had crammed space below decks with wealthy Chinese merchants trying to carry gold and cash out of the country.

Bailey was piloting the vessel down the Saigon River when South Vietnamese authorities seized the vessel and arrested everybody on board.

Transon recalled how he and Bailey were handcuffed together, then how "they beat me in front of my dad." Later, after authorities separated them, "I was told he had been killed."

Bailey said he was beaten and tortured for several days before U.S. military officials secured his release. North Vietnamese forces were only a few days from Saigon.

Bailey and Transon boarded a flight for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. "The guy who stopped the boat and threw us in prison was on the same plane," Transon recalled.

"Jack still bears both the physical and psychological scars of that ordeal," says Ward in the biography.

During the next few years, Bailey often assisted with Food for the Hungry. The charity acquired a World War II transport ship, the Akuna, to patrol the South China Sea in hopes of rescuing refugees before their vessels sank or they were victimized by pirates.

But the ship proved a financial drain on food programs. When Food for the Hungry decided to shut down the refugee rescue program, Bailey stepped forward. He acquired the Akuna for $1 and a promise to continue the rescue efforts.

Many Were Saved

Associates who joined Bailey on patrols in the Akuna and a replacement vessel recount instances in which scores of refugees, their lives in obvious peril, were saved. But maintenance proved a problem. When a writer for People magazine went along on a mission--"the boat people's friend," the magazine called Bailey--the fuel pump broke down. The Akuna had to be tugged back to harbor.

All along, Bailey says, empty parachutes were part of his agenda. Refugees, he said, often told stories of Americans held captive.

"Akuna Jack," as other POW-MIA hunters called him, was enlisted to help on one of the highly publicized POW hunts led by James (Bo) Gritz, a flamboyant ex-Special Forces commander. The mission, as well as future forays led by Gritz, failed. Bailey and the ex-Green Beret ultimately had an acrimonious falling out.

The more Bailey chased his phantoms, the more his reputation suffered.

All along, Bailey insists, most of the criticism was unfair. Why is it, he has wondered, that nobody talks about the times that he recovered American remains?

There is a kernel of truth in the claims. On one occasion, the Department of Defense's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii concluded that some remains turned over by Bailey in 1985 included at least one tooth that belonged to a missing American, and another that "compared favorably" to the dental records of another missing American. On another occasion, records show, Bailey returned two teeth and three dog tags that proved to be those of three Americans lost in the crash of an AC-130 in Laos.

Bailey proudly cites those reports as proof that he doesn't just deal with con men.

But Pentagon officials emphasize that Bailey did nothing to help identify the missing men. The confirmation of Bailey's findings could only be achieved months later--after the crash site was excavated with archeological care and a forensic analysis.

His actions, authorities say, only served to encourage villagers to scavenge crash sites, further jeopardizing official excavations aimed at accounting for the MIAs.

Sometimes Bailey reacts to such accusations with anger, sometimes with a tired sigh.

Occasionally, he will offer peeks at his evidence.

There was a scrap of paper, supposedly written by a Laotian military man, describing Eugene DeBruin's life in a remote hamlet with two wives and two families. He wants to go, the story goes, but Laotian authorities won't let him.

And there was a snapshot of a grinning middle-aged man in a blue knit shirt.

"My first reaction was just anger," Carol Collins said. "I thought, 'This is not the man I was married to!' "

But soon the face seemed familiar. Then she realized why. "It's just so eerie," she said. " . . That photograph looks like Don Carr's father."

The Donald Gene Carr that Carol Collins prefers to remember was handsome, muscular, athletic--"a man's man" who was quarterback of the 6th Army football team at Ft. Ord, a leader who was drawn toward Special Forces.

His wife never understood his duties in Vietnam--"everything he did was classified"--but she knew she was proud of him. Once he was wounded in a firefight and awarded the Silver Star.

She remembers meeting him in Hawaii for a week of R&R.; She remembers seeing the mark where the bullet struck, right above the heart. An old football injury left him with a surgical scar on one of his knees--she can't remember which. And if the man in the photo has those scars, she said, there can be no doubt.

Carol Collins, now 50 and widowed after the death of her second husband, counts herself among the believers. She finds herself thinking more about Don Carr Jr. than his father.

"I just keep thinking that after all this hoopla he won't come home and then Donnie's going to be hurt again," she said.

Enigma for a Father

Donald Gene Carr Jr., now 25, wonders whether he'll get to see the father he lost when he was 5. He remembers tagging along when his father played handball. He was the base champ. Beyond that, he says it's hard to say which memories reflect his own experience and which reflect stories he's heard.

When he talks about his father he shifts awkwardly from past to present tense, and from the definite to the indefinite. Carr and his mother describe their emotions as a strange mix of hope and fear: What if it isn't true? What if it's somebody's cruel scam? And what if it is true? If Don Carr really is a POW, will all this publicity lead to his death?

"By the looks of the pictures, it doesn't look like he's suffering," Don Carr Jr. said. Even if the mystery is never resolved, "I'd just try to be happy he's alive," he said.

Jack Bailey wants more: To bring Army Capt. Donald G. Carr back home--him and others.

But at least one. That way the old fighter pilot could say he completed his mission.

"I'm tired," he said. "I want to go home."

Times staff writer Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°