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Family unearths clues to missing Texas soldier's fate in Cambodia

Written By vibykhmer on Sunday, March 15, 2009 | 9:42 AM



Mary Nolan, with son Rodger, believes the government should compensate her for the loss of her husband, McKinley, who disappeared in November 1967 while serving in Vietnam. “I should have been given a good explanation as to what happened, when, why,” she said. (ERICH SCHLEGEL/DMN)

Saturday, March 14, 2009
By GREGG JONES (gjones@dallasnews.com)
The Dallas Morning News (Texas, USA)


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 to him.

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 Morning News.

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 Pentagon document.

He was jailed for two days. And then, on Nov. 9, the 22-year-old disappeared.

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 Khmer Rouge.

Back in the United States, a Pentagon investigator revealed to Linnett that the Cambodian man was talking about a missing soldier named McKinley Nolan.

"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 recalled.

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 supplies.

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 sighed.

"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, Linnett said.

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 spirits.

"He would literally step in front of guards to keep them from beating people," Smith said. "McKinley was a hero. Everybody there loved him."

In 1977, the villager Cham Son recounted, Khmer Rouge soldiers took Nolan away.

"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, Linnett said.

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, Perry said.

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 circumstances.

"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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