Family unearths clues to missing Texas soldier's fate in Cambodia
- From: Chim <ChimS1@xxxxxxx>
- Date: Sun, 15 Mar 2009 02:47:07 -0700 (PDT)
Family unearths clues to missing Texas soldier's fate in Cambodia
11:29 PM CDT on Saturday, March 14, 2009
By GREGG JONES / The Dallas Morning News
McKinley Nolan's letters from South Vietnam to his wife in Texas
hinted at his anguish. He wrote of playing dead to survive on the
battlefield and the suffering of Vietnamese civilians.
"He was just telling me how bad it was over there, all the fighting,
all the killing," said Mary Nolan.
There was no clue of what was to come.
On Nov. 9, 1967, weeks from completing a two-year hitch in the Army,
McKinley Nolan disappeared from his First Infantry Division unit.
Communist Viet Cong propaganda broadcasts and leaflets later featured
Nolan urging fellow black soldiers to lay down their weapons. The Army
branded the missing Texan as one of the war's two confirmed defectors,
but offered no explanation as to why Nolan deserted or what happened
Now, McKinley's younger brother, Michael, has joined forces with a New
Jersey journalist, a Vietnam War veteran, a New York City filmmaker, a
Hollywood star and a Houston congresswoman in hopes of finally
unraveling the mystery.
Their combined efforts last month pushed the Pentagon's MIA search
unit, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, to act on an eyewitness
account and dig for McKinley Nolan's remains in a Cambodian village.
Michael Nolan, an Austin wood pallet manufacturer, flew to Cambodia to
watch the U.S. team chip away at the hard Cambodian clay. It was the
latest stop in a long journey to find his missing brother and
understand who he was: a deserter who turned his back on his country
and his family, or a hero who stood up to the Viet Cong and Khmer
Rouge and paid with his life.
The Nolan case has long fascinated POW-MIA aficionados. It has spawned
such varied tales as Nolan quietly slipping back home to the Brazos
River bottomlands of Washington County, Texas, to him living the high
life in Cuba as a guest of Fidel Castro.
"In the world of the conspiratorial POW-MIA guys, McKinley Nolan is
like Bigfoot," said journalist Richard Linnett, who has spent years
tracking missing Americans in Cambodia. "He's spotted everywhere."
As a rifleman in the Army's 16th Infantry Regiment, Nolan was based in
Tay Ninh province, near the border with Cambodia. His veiled
references to haunting battlefield experiences are supported by a
Pentagon document that shows Nolan earned a Purple Heart and a Combat
Infantry Badge. Linnett made the document available to The Dallas
The Army didn't respond to questions submitted by The News.
By November 1967, Nolan was one of about 500,000 U.S. military
personnel in Vietnam. A poll that autumn found that 46 percent of
Americans believed U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was a mistake.
Black GIs openly questioned why they should die for South Vietnamese
freedom when they were denied equal rights at home.
If McKinley Nolan shared those sentiments, he didn't tell his wife.
"If he had a job, he did it," she said.
But Nolan's commitment to the Army was flagging. He was AWOL – absent
without leave – from Sept. 7 to Nov. 6, 1967, according to the
He was jailed for two days. And then, on Nov. 9, the 22-year-old
Mary Nolan said the Army revealed little about her husband's
disappearance. Months passed before she received a letter stating that
Nolan had defected to communist Viet Cong forces, she said. In January
1975, three months before the war ended, the Army notified her that
her husband had been seen alive in Cambodia.
In 1992, a U.S. military team thought they had found McKinley Nolan's
remains in Cambodia. DNA tests, however, proved negative.
Eight years later, Linnett, a journalist in Newark, N.J., stumbled
onto Nolan's trail. Linnett was working on a book about a 1970 mutiny
carried out by two crew members of an American freighter transporting
napalm to U.S. forces in Thailand. One of the mutineers, Clyde McKay,
sought refuge with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and was later executed by
the communist group.
Linnett was searching for McKay's grave site in eastern Cambodia when
a local resident pulled him aside. "Are you talking about the black
man?" the villager asked. He told Linnett an intriguing story about an
American GI who supposedly lived in the area during the time of the
Back in the United States, a Pentagon investigator revealed to Linnett
that the Cambodian man was talking about a missing soldier named
"I thought this story was truly amazing," Linnett said. "This guy had
lived with the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge."
Working sources in the U.S. and Cambodia, Linnett pried loose U.S.
military intelligence documents and began sharing information with
Michael and Mary Nolan.
In 2006, Michael Nolan phoned Linnett with incredible news.
"He said, 'Richard, someone saw McKinley in Vietnam,' " Linnett
That someone was a Vietnam veteran named Dan Smith, and he had
contacted the Washington County sheriff in search of Nolan's family.
Linnett was skeptical. He phoned Smith.
A retired 911 operator in the Pacific Northwest, Smith said he had
lost a leg serving with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam. In
2005, he made one of his periodic trips to Vietnam to deliver medical
In the city of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border, Smith encountered
a black man, about 60 years of age, with rotted teeth and jaundiced
eyes. The man told Smith that he had served with the First Infantry
Division in Vietnam in 1967.
When Smith mentioned that he was going home soon, the stranger
"Man, I wish I could go home," he said.
"Where's home?" Smith asked.
"Washington, Texas," the man replied.
Smith reported the encounter to U.S. officials in Vietnam. After he
returned home, the Pentagon MIA search unit sent an investigator to
his home. Smith said he picked two photographs of McKinley Nolan out
of a mugshot book.
Afterward, Smith said the investigator refused to take his calls. So
did the MIA unit.
But Linnett heard him out, and he arranged for Smith to tell his story
in person to the Nolans.
In the meantime, Linnett had piqued the curiosity of New York City
documentary filmmaker Henry Corra. When Smith arrived in Washington-on-
the-Brazos, Texas, to meet the Nolans, Corra's camera was rolling.
After a tearful meeting with the Nolan family, Smith vowed to return
to Southeast Asia to find the missing GI.
A series of trips to Cambodia followed, first Smith alone, and then
together with Michael Nolan, Linnett and Corra. What they learned
convinced Smith that the man he encountered in Tay Ninh was another
U.S. deserter who had assumed Nolan's identity.
But the search continued, financed in part by actor Danny Glover, who
agreed to produce Corra's documentary on the search for McKinley Nolan
after seeing footage from Texas and Cambodia.
The group tracked the missing GI to a village outside the town of
Memot, in eastern Cambodia, where a man named Cham Son recalled
Nolan's life during the tumult of war and Khmer Rouge genocide.
McKinley Nolan's missing years emerged from the mists.
When he arrived in Vietnam in 1966, Nolan was happily married, the
proud father of a 2-year-old son. He was a friendly, muscular guy who
loved baseball and horses.
By the time he disappeared in 1967, he had grown disillusioned with
the war, said Linnett, citing interviews with Nolan's friends in
Vietnam and Cambodia.
A Vietnamese girlfriend "convinced him to go with her," said Linnett.
It's unclear whether Nolan willingly worked with the Viet Cong,
Linnett said. In any event, Nolan grew disenchanted with the group and
in 1973 slipped into Cambodia with his Vietnamese wife and their baby,
In eastern Cambodia, Nolan drove a truck and farmed, local residents
told Linnett and Smith. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975 and
emptied cities to return Cambodia to "Year Zero," Nolan was forced to
move to a village deeper in the jungle.
"Because of his size and strength, they made him pull an oxcart loaded
with people being taken to an interrogation center," Smith said.
"Villagers said he would beg for their forgiveness."
Nolan told jokes and sang songs in pidgin Cambodian to lift people's
"He would literally step in front of guards to keep them from beating
people," Smith said. "McKinley was a hero. Everybody there loved
In 1977, the villager Cham Son recounted, Khmer Rouge soldiers took
"He saw McKinley being marched off," said Linnett, "and knew when the
soldiers came back without him that he had been killed."
In April 2008, after hearing Cham Son's account, Linnett and his
comrades gave the Pentagon's MIA search unit precise information on
the suspected grave site. The agency still didn't seem interested,
Last month, after the Nolans enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Sheila
Jackson Lee of Houston, a JPAC team began excavating the site
identified by Cham Son.
The team completed two weeks of digging in late February without
finding any remains, said Air Force Lt. Col. Wayne Perry, JPAC
spokesman. Cham Son told the team as it was wrapping up that the
terrain had changed, and he wasn't sure of the precise burial spot,
The Nolan family and Linnett, with Lee's help, are trying to force the
Pentagon to release McKinley Nolan's personnel file and classified
documents on the case. Linnett and Corra are tracking leads that they
believe will lead to Nolan's remains in eastern Cambodia.
Mary Nolan, now 62, has never remarried. She believes the government
should compensate her for her husband's loss, regardless of the
"I should have been given a good explanation as to what happened,
when, why," she said.
After years of anger at "the system" for taking his brother away,
Michael Nolan said he found peace retracing McKinley's footsteps and
seeing him through the eyes of Cambodian villagers who revered him.
"Whether he's dead or alive," said Nolan, "I feel he would be happy
that we're bringing the truth to light."
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