TESTIMONY OF ANN HOLLAND
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES Subcommittee Hearings on
The Presidential Determination of "Full Faith Cooperation" by Vietnam
2118 Rayburn Building
June 19, 1996
TESTIMONY OF ANN HOLLAND, Wife of T/Sgt. Melvin A. Holland,
M.I.A. March 11, 1968 Lima Site 85, Laos
Thank you very much for inviting me to testify before this distinguished panel today and for giving me this opportunity to speak for the men who cannot speak for themselves. Congressman Dornan, we applaud you for having held these hearings this past year and not allowing our men to die a slow, silent death.
When my husband, T/Sgt. Melvin A. Holland, was selected to volunteer for a sensitive assignment in September of 1967, he was told it would help bring the war to an early end. It did....for him. For me it was the beginning of an odyssey that has yet to have an ending. In order for my husband to accept the assignment, both he and I were required to attend a briefing at the Pentagon and sign a Secrecy Agreement. We were told the men selected for this assignment were the "cream of the crop", the very best the Air Force had to offer. My husband was very proud to have been selected.
He and the other forty-nine men were discharged from the Air Force and put on the Lockheed Air Service payroll.
They were to be sent into Laos as civilian technicians to man a radar base on a mile high mountain in Sam Neua Province 15 miles from the North Vietnamese border. When my husband had been gone five months I received a telephone call one afternoon in the middle of a cub scout meeting and was told that the mountain had been overrun and my husband was missing in action. A few men had been rescued but a number of others had not been recovered. I was told I could tell NO ONE, not my husband's sisters, my children, no one. If I said anything and it got out to the press I could be causing my husband's death!
I had to hang up the telephone and turn around and face my own five little children as well as eight little cub scouts and pretend that nothing was wrong. I had to go through the next three months pretending nothing was wrong. When my children would come running in from school and want to know if we had gotten a letter from Daddy, I would take out an old letter and pretend to read it. When Mel's sisters would ask how he was doing I would have to tell them fine.
I would get a telephone call every other day for a while, then a couple of times a week, then it was every couple of weeks. It was always the same. No one knew what happened to any of the men left behind on that mountain. None of the survivors had seen my husband or knew what happened to him.
About three weeks after the first telephone call, I saw an article in the local paper about a secret radar base in Laos being overrun and 8 of 12 Americans were killed there. I called my adviser at the Pentagon and asked him if my husband was one of the 8 that died. I was told to disregard the article, that it had nothing to do with the operation my husband was on. They still had no information about any of the missing men. After three months my adviser came to visit me and told me my husband and the other men were being declared dead.
They still had no information about any of the missing men, I still had to keep quiet about it because he could still walk out of the jungle tomorrow. When I asked why they weren't being held in missing status for at least a year like other missing men when there was no information about them, I was told that since the men were civilians they were under the control of the State Department and the State Department did not have a "missing" status. The men were either returned, captured or dead. They certainly had not been returned, there was no proof they had been captured so they had to declare them dead. Again, I was told it didn't really mean anything other than that my income would be coming from a different course. I knew they would have to get the men off the Lockheed payroll and I believed that it was just a "paper shuffle" and really didn't change anything. I didn't know that once a man is KOP (Killed on Paper) he is NEVER resurrected on paper. I didn't think that the Air Force that my husband loved with all his heart would FORCE me to accept his death just because I accepted their explanation for the paper shuffle. I believed them when they told me they would continue to try and find out what happened to him and bring him home to me.
Shortly after Mel was declared dead I tried to contact two of the other wives to see if they had been told the same thing I had been told. One of the wives turned me in to our adviser because we had been told we COULD NOT contact each other or any of the men on the assignment. My adviser called me to "remind" me of the secrecy agreement I had signed and told me the consequences could be very serious for me; that I could end up in prison and lose my children. I told him if my husband was dead then I had nothing to lose and if he wasn't dead I was going to do everything I could to bring him home and he could take that piece of paper and put it where it would be most uncomfortable! He reminded me again that I had to keep quiet, that I would only be hurting my husband if anyone found out about where he was and what he was doing. The other wife talked to me and she too had been told her husband could still be alive and to keep quiet. She was so afraid of even talking to me because of the "consequences".
I tried to keep the faith, to believe the Air Force was really trying to get Mel back....until March 11, 1970, two years to the day since I was told Mel was missing, when President Nixon said on national television that we had never lost any men in ground combat in Laos. I knew then that he either did not know about my husband in which case he COULD NOT do anything to bring him home, or he did know about him and WAS NOT going to do anything to bring him home. He was being abandoned.
My greatest fear had come true. So I called the editor of the local newspaper. He wanted to do a story but I was so afraid. Afraid of what could happen to Mel and afraid of what the Air Force would do to me for breaking my oath of secrecy. I knew if Mel were alive and came home, I would have ruined his Air Force career. He would be so ashamed of me. I could end up in prison. I could lose my children. I was 28 years old and they were all I had and having been orphaned myself at 14 years of age, I did not want my children to grow up without either parent. But I knew that I had to do what I could to bring Mel home, I would trust in God to take care of Mel, me and our children and deal with the consequences later.
Two weeks after the story came out I had an unannounced visit from three men from the Pentagon. The commander of the operation, my new advisor, and a man from the Prisoner of War office came "to tell me the truth" about what happened to Mel. He was dead. They were all dead. When I asked for proof, did anyone see Mel die, I was told one of the survivors had heard him crying out for help until his voice got weaker and weaker until he didn't hear it anymore.
I said if they had known that for two years why in God's name did they wait so long to tell me. He said they had to verify all the facts. I said I wanted to talk to the survivor and was told I couldn't because the survivor was wounded too badly and still in the hospital and unable to talk to anyone. When I asked about the husband of the woman I had talked to I was told they had no information about him. They just didn't know what happened to him.
There were three or four men they had no information about at all but the men were all dead. The man from the P.O.W. office then went on to explain how there had not been any reports of anyone being captured in the area, no other information of any kind to indicate anyone had survived and was captured. I was totally devastated. When I asked why my advisor had let me believe Mel could have survived and been captured I was told they couldn't answer that because he had been transferred.
Over the next five years there were many times when I called my new adviser in Washington, D.C., because I had seen something in the news about prisoners in Laos that was contrary to what my first adviser had told me. He was usually courteous, never really gave me any answers and after a while told me that I would have to quit talking about it or "people would begin to think that you are mentally unbalanced and you could end up in a mental institution and have your children taken away from you." Did I really want them to think I was like the little old lady who went down to the train station to wait for her son to come home from WWII?
At other times I was told I could lose my income.
In 1975 I received some information from a source who said he was swapping war stories with a guy one night and this man started telling him about a "war story" in Laos. He asked him as many questions as he could think of then told him he knew the wife of one of the men on that mountain top. Would he mind if he passed the information on to her. The man said "go ahead, maybe she can do something with it because I can't." He was clearly upset. Felt those men had been dumped on and the truth wasn't being told.
When I got the information I called my advisor and told him I wanted to talk to Colonel Clayton, the former commander of the operation who had visited me in 1970. He told me I couldn't talk to Col. Clayton, he had retired and they had no idea where he was. (He was working right down the hall from him in the Pentagon.) What could he help me with. I said "does L-85 or Channel 79 mean anything to you?" He was silent for a moment then in a very cold voice said "you have been talking to one of the men who came back from over there, haven't you?"
I knew then that the source of the information was not just blowing smoke. One of the questions that I had repeatedly asked over the years was, "did they bomb the mountain the next day" and I was ALWAYS told "no" by everyone I asked, including the present advisor. I reminded him that he told me they did not bomb the mountain the next day, and he said Col. Clayton may have told me they did not bomb the mountain the next day but HE did not tell me they did not bomb the mountain the next day! He went on to tell me, in a very loud, angry voice that I was nothing but a trouble maker and I would never find out any more than what I had already been told! I replied "then I would go to Hell trying!"
I talked to a lawyer the next day and asked him how I could get the truth out of them. He suggested that I sue them. It had never been done before and there was no guarantee that I would succeed but I might be able to force them to answer some questions.
I lined up my five children and explained to them that I was doing it to find out the truth about what happened to their Daddy. What was the worst thing we could find out and could we live with it because if we couldn't live with it then I'd better not ask the first question. They just looked at me. I told them I believed the worst thing we could find out would be that Daddy is still alive over there and we can never bring him home.....can we live with that.
They said, "but Mom, you HAVE to TRY." I made my decision then that I would try.....no matter how long it takes or how much money it costs or what people say about me. God knows, I've tried. I only hope and pray that if Mel is alive that he knows it too.
The lawsuit bounced back and forth for seven and a half years before it was finally dismissed in 1982 on the grounds that the Statute of Limitations had run out. There is a two year Statute of Limitations on Federal Tort Claims.
During that seven and a half years there were many interrogatories entered on both sides. I answered all of their questions truthfully to the best of my ability. I now know they lied about almost everything they answered. Why?
In 1985, thanks to President Reagan deciding the families of the KIA/BNR's were to be included in the P.O.W./M.I.A. annual gathering in Wash., D.C., I met for the first time other women who were going through much of the same things I was going through. It had been a long, lonely 18 years not having another soul to talk to about this.
For the first time I met a "Casualty Officer". For the first time, I met someone who had heard about the men at Site 85 and they did not think I was crazy. I was not alone anymore.
Through an FOIA, in December of 1985, I received Mel's records that even the lawsuit had not been able to pry loose from the Air Force. In those records was a report from 1972 telling of a male Caucasian wearing glasses being taken to the prison camp at Ban Nakay. He was told the man was from the radar base at Phou Pha Thi (Site 85). The Joint Casualty Resolution Center had no record of those men missing anywhere. The very office that was to correlate information they receive from various sources about prisoners of war.
How many reports had slipped through their hands because they didn't know about the eleven men left behind at Site 85 and believed their source to be lying?
In 1987 I received from the Casualty Office a formerly Top Secret report (CHECO) on the Fall of Site 85, and a video tape of the mountain that was taken before the Site started operating but after the equipment was installed. Information in the CHECO report is contrary to the answers the Air Force gave to the interrogatories in the lawsuit. Who is telling the truth?
In 1990 a Captain in the U.S. Air Force interviewed a former high level Laotian commander, General Singkapo. According to William Sullivan, former Ambassador in Laos during the fall of Site 85, Singkapo was the man most knowledgeable about American prisoners of war. General Singkapo, when asked about the battle at Phou Pha Thi stated that "two or three wounded Americans had been captured and sent North".
The Laotian government later stated that he was old and senile and didn't know what he was saying. They have since refused to let him be re-interviewed by any American.
Was he senile and didn't know what he was saying?
In June of 1992, Boris Yeltsin came to the United States with a list with forty-one names on it and "good news about your missing men from World War II, Korea and even Vietnam who could be alive in our country today"!
President George Bush promptly rebuffed him and said he had been drinking too much vodka when President Yeltsin tried to hand him the list. He didn't know that George Bush was the director of the CIA the year I started my lawsuit and tried to get any records they had about Site 85. I believe George Bush did not want to see any list with the name Arnold Mikhailevich Holland, correlated to Melvin Arnold Holland, on it. My husband. Sentenced for "counter-revolutionary activities".
The list was "misplaced" for 15 months when I learned of it in September, 1993, and demanded to know why it wasn't in my husband's classified records that I had reviewed six months earlier in Washington, D.C. I was told it wasn't classified. No one had bothered to even ask the Russians about any of the names on the list.
After I demanded some answers I finally got to attend a meeting in March, 1994, with the Russians and was told Arnold Mikhailevich Holland was an Estonian who was born in 1914 and sentenced in 1945 and couldn't possibly be my husband.
Were they telling the truth or were they merely saying what they think our President wanted to hear?
Richard Secord wrote a book in 1992 and in the chapter about Site 85 he stated the loss of the site "had been a major disaster made worse by the loss of nearly the entire team and the compromise of our TSQ technology and a variety of top-secret encryption systems that we could only assume were now safely on the way to Moscow."
When I contacted him and asked him if he meant the equipment was on its way to Moscow he said "no, they didn't get any equipment off the mountain." So, he was referring to the captured men when referring to the "technology"?
He replied that they didn't have any proof of that but they couldn't account for everyone and they had to assume the worst. They had to change secret codes all over the world within 24 hours after the site fell.
Did Mel Holland go to Russia? He was the electronics expert on Site 85. The man who could build and repair the TSQ radios and crypto equipment from the first screw to the finished product. There were only two men on Site 85 when it fell that had TSQ and/or encryption knowledge, Mel Holland and Willis Hall, the crypto expert.
In 1994 the Laotian government allowed the U.S. to return to Site 85 to search for remains. NBC-TV got permission to go up on the mountain and do some filming because they wanted to do a story about "the mystery on the mountain". They interviewed a survivor who said he saw Mel Holland dead with his arm blown off. The same survivor who I was told said he heard him crying out for help. The same survivor who I contacted during the lawsuit to ask him if he saw Mel dead and he told me "no". He said the last time he saw Mel he was alive and running for cover. He said he heard him crying out for help from the direction he had seen him run to but he did not see him dead. He never said anything about Mel's arm being gone. (Another wife had been told in 1970 that a survivor had seen her husband with his arm blown off.)
He could not remember the name of the man who was with Mel and went off in the same direction as Mel. He could not remember the name of the man laying next to him on the ground that the enemy shot in the head when they heard him groaning. I talked to him in 1977, nine years after the incident. He was still very much traumatized by it and started crying and said he hadn't slept the whole night through in nine years.
He was left behind on the mountain after the first four survivors were rescued. One of the survivors ran by him when he was running to the first rescue helicopter that came in. He told him to tell them he was there. Two hours later a second helicopter came in to look for him. During that two hours the enemy went around killing any one they found alive. The man played dead and they shot the man laying next to him. What if the other survivor had been killed on the helicopter as it lifted off? What if he had been unconscious when the rescuer had come in looking for him and assumed he was dead when he crawled by him? Would he have been declared dead after three months? Would his wife have been told she was mentally unbalanced because she wouldn't accept the "truth"?
In 1995 the Vietnamese "found" one of the men who participated in the attack on the mountain and knew where the bodies of the dead Americans were buried. He accompanied the JTF-FA recovery team back to the site. After much searching there were no human remains to be found, not a tooth, nor a button, or a scrap of cloth, or a ring. Nothing. Early this year some documents were discovered that stated that the Laotians recovered a certain number of remains from Phou Pha Thi in 1977.
The Vietnamese were in control of the mountain until 1975. I do not believe the Vietnamese would have just buried the bodies on that mountain and not taken every scrap of information from those bodies that they could get.
Since the Laotians did not recover enough remains to account for the eleven men missing up there, what happened to the rest of them? How could the "witness" the Vietnamese provided say he saw "more than 10 bodies" buried there when the Laotians found only half that number?
As you can see, after 28 years I still have more questions than I have answers. I have spent over half of my life trying to bring my husband home. There are only three things that I know for an absolute certainty: 1. Some day I will die. 2. Until then I will pay taxes. 3. The Vietnamese have the remains of the men who died on that mountain top on March 11, 1968 and they know what happened to the ones who didn't die.
My country could not prove eleven men died on that mountain top in 1968 and they cannot prove it in 1996. If even only one man survived and was captured, he could be alive today, still waiting for his country to come for him. If not Mel Holland, then maybe Willis Hall or Jim Davis or Herbert Kirk. The Vietnamese owe me and my family the truth about those men. We have served our time in Hell.