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Sunday, March 15, 2009

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

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 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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Banishing the Ghosts in Cambodia


IN Kep, a tiny town on Cambodia’s southern coast on the Gulf of Thailand, two British women are staring at the ghostly remains of a bombed-out seaside villa. Originally called La Perle de la Côte d’Agathe, Kep was founded in the 1920s and was the resort of choice for French Cambodia’s jet set. But the Khmer Rouge had particular distaste for Kep and its sybaritic pleasures, and all but razed the town in the 1970s.

One of the women points out a trail of wetness on the villa’s walls and floor where a dog has peed. “Oh, dear,” she tut-tuts. “It looks like the building is crying.”

Less than a mile down the road, rising from the ashes of Kep like an extravagant bird-of-paradise, is the chic 11-room seaside hotel, Knai Bang Chatt, designed in the ’70s by a protégé of Le Corbusier. No one is crying here. All is luxury and escapism; lush plantings and an infinity pool are combined in a way that fairly screams “James Bond love lair.” Sprawled poolside is a muscular young Belgian gentleman engrossed in his Ian McEwan. The man idly smoothes out the waistband of his black designer swimsuit, the greatest irritation he will face all day. Tonight he will dine under a gorgeous palapa-style structure by the sea, and perhaps join other guests for a midnight swim in the Gulf of Thailand.

To many Americans, Cambodia means only two things — the majestic temples of Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. But there’s another Cambodia — the southern coast — that is beginning to emerge as a popular alternative to the heavily trafficked beaches of Thailand. Here, in towns like Sihanoukville — which, in its heyday in the 1960s, used to draw visitors like Jackie Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve — travelers are exploring the unusual pleasures that occur at the intersection of the luxurious present and the ravaged past.

When my boyfriend, Greg, and I spent a week on the coast this November, we experienced two firsts, both involving tiny bubbles. First, we went swimming one night in Kep among phosphorescent plankton (it’s as if thousands of underwater fireflies are doing a nonstadium version of “the wave”). Later we went into a pharmacy in Sihanoukville and, for $2.80 for 20 tablets (U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere), bought one of the unheralded marvels of modern life: effervescent codeine.

This was not the Cambodia I expected — the tiny bubbles Cambodia. I’d had a sneaking suspicion that my first trip to the land of Angkor Wat and ancestor worship and rampant friendliness might somehow change me, but I expected this change to be triggered by the fact that about one fifth of this country’s population, including most anyone educated, was wiped out by Pol Pot in the 1970s, or that the United States probably dropped more bombs on Cambodia during Richard Nixon’s presidency than it dropped on Japan in World War II.

Y OU’D be hard-pressed to find a town center, let alone a bricks-and-mortar store, in Kep’s bucolic center, but there’s a buzz of activity at the series of shacks along the water that form the crab market. Here fresh crabs are pulled out of wooden cages that you can see just offshore, and, for $7, cooked with curry and stalks of local Kampot peppercorns to produce an exciting variation of everything I’d ever eaten while wearing a lobster bib. Kep is also, oddly, without a decent beach — the sienna-colored sand at the half-mile-long town beach is clearly the world’s largest accumulation of Cajun rub — but you can take a 20-minute boat ride out to Rabbit Island, where a scattering of pale, tubby Britons and gorgeous Danish girls laze on good sand or on the porch of rented huts and sunning platforms, all amid a scrum of mangrove trees, chickens and slightly confused cows. We set ourselves beachside and Greg pulled out a cigarette pack emblazoned with the name of France’s handsomest-ever movie star — Alain Delon — which he’d bought for 30 cents in town. I thought, I am surrounded by at least three kinds of beauty.

We also took day trips from Kep to a temple cave and to Bokor Mountain. Although taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks are plentiful and cheap in Cambodia, we’d decided to hire, at $45 a day, a kind and shy 28-year-old Phnom Penh driver named Toun Bon Thim to take us around in his car, including our subsequent nine-hour drive from the coast up to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat.

When Bon Thim and Greg and I stepped out of the car near the trail to the cave temple, we were greeted by a small band of giddy and adorable Cambodian children who wanted to guide us. The kids — led by a hilarious 14-year-old boy in a T-shirt emblazoned “Parental Advisory” — led us through a muddy rice field to a steep set of wooden stairs (“203 steps. Easy!,” Parental Advisory coached me. “Easy for Mr. New York City!”). Soon we were peering down in a stalactite-dripping cave in which sat a very well-preserved seventh-century brick temple, about the size of four phone booths. Parental Advisory looked at my popped eyes and, aping the helium-pitched voice of a flip teenage girl, he exclaimed, “Ohmygod!” Suddenly I wanted to revoke every sarcastic comment I’d ever made about Angelina Jolie and her Cambodian child; I longed to take Parental Advisory back to New York with us, and turn him into America’s next comedy sensation.

Although most of the two-lane roads that link Cambodia’s bigger cities have been improved and repaved in the past 10 years or so, anyone who jiggles his way in a Jeep up the 19-mile road that is being built on Bokor Mountain in nearby Kampot is vividly, if not violently, reminded of earlier road-based pittedness: by journey’s end you realize that if you were a gallon of paint, not only would you be thoroughly mixed, you would now be a solid. (Loung Ung, a Cambodian writer and land mine activist who has returned to Cambodia some 30 times since escaping in 1980 and moving to Cleveland, told me that before the roads got better, she always packed sports bras for her trips back there.) The top of Bokor Mountain is the site of an abandoned hill station, including an eerie, burned-out palace hotel and a Catholic church where sometimes the fog sneaks up on you so thick that you can’t see your hand in front of you. The site was the setting for the climax of the 2002 Matt Dillon crime thriller, “City of Ghosts.”

“Almost every place in Cambodia has a ghost story attached to it,” Ms. Ung said. “I think it’s because we practice Theravada Buddhism: our gods are able to cross between the borders of the world. And we believe that our ancestors are always with us. When so many people died in our country in the ’70s, we ended up with a lot of haunted, unresolved lives. It’s not fear, it’s respect.”

Indeed, Greg and I got our own taste of unresolved living one afternoon in Kep. We were staying at a place called the Veranda — a series of funky bamboo and wood treehouses, many with terrific views of the Gulf of Thailand and the Vietnamese island Pho Quoc. Greg was lying in the hammock on our porch when he heard a series of mewling, feline cries coming from above him, followed by a soft thump. When he went into our bungalow, he saw first the air vent over our bathroom ceiling and then something more unusual: a kitten had landed in our shower. That night over drinks I told a fellow guest, “I think it’s a message from on high.” The man concurred: “Yes. And the message is: a kitten has landed in your shower.”

The theme of untethered animals is one that reasserts itself not infrequently in Cambodia. After Kep, we spent a relaxed day in sleepy Kampot — a placid riverfront lined with colonial-era buildings increasingly being renovated by expatriates — pottering around the second-hand bookstore and taking in the view of Bokor Mountain.

From Kampot we drove three hours to the coast’s most developed town, Sihanoukville, a drive during which we dodged cows, dogs and a monkey that had parked in the road in the manner of an irritable and recently deposed dictator. But the more common life-threateners were other human drivers, whose conception of the word “lane” can only be described as elastic. I asked Bon Thim if most Cambodians believed in reincarnation, and he said yes. I posited, “This may explain why they drive this way.” Equally thrilling to behold were the loads that we saw heaped onto motorbikes — huge, jodhpur-shaped bundles of firewood or morning glories; a bureau and a desk; four twin mattresses; an IV drip; a family of four. Bon Thim told us: “On New Year’s, when workers travel home, there is even more stacking. Sometimes 20 people stacked on the roof of cars or trucks. Sometimes driver has someone seated between him and his door.”

In Sihanoukville, we reveled in the pleasures that the rest of the coast, however lovely, had denied us: white sand beaches, shopping, non-restaurant-based night life. The beaches ranged from the utterly pristine and private one at our hotel, the Independence — where Jackie Kennedy and Ms. Deneuve are said to have stayed and which earned the nickname the Ghost Hotel after the Khmer Rouge used it as a redoubt during their occupation of Sihanoukville — to the very crowded Occheuteal, lined with food shacks and vendors. During our visit to Occheuteal, I bought a bunch of litchis for a dollar from a woman carrying them on her head, but passed up requests to rent an inner tube (50 cents an hour), be massaged in my chair ($6 an hour), have my back hair “threaded” ($5), or hear a blind man sing (unspecified). Greg and I parked ourselves at one of the food shacks and started people-watching; we rewarded ourselves with mango shakes (mango ice and sweetened condensed milk are put in a blender and frothed to a fare-thee-well).

To shop in a country where the average daily wage is less than a dollar a day is to suddenly want to pay retail. Some of the arenas of this strange inclination are more direct than others: both of the shopping haunts that drew our attention were charity-based. On the muddy, trash-flecked dirt road that leads to Serendipity Beach, the northwestern end of Occheuteal Beach, we found the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project, where kids who are kept out of school and forced into selling wares or themselves on the beach are given free language classes and painting lessons. We each bought a painting ($4 each, plus $1.50 each for frames). A few hours later we found ourselves at Rajana, a gift shop whose proceeds go to teaching young Cambodians handicraft skills. We marveled over the jewelry made from recycled bomb shells ($28 to $32) and key rings made from recycled bullets (95 cents), prior to buying lots of silk scarves ($6 to $30) and lemon-grass candles in bamboo holders ($1.75).

Outside of the tinkly piano-bar womb of Sihanoukville’s two high-end hotels — the Independence and the Sokha — the town’s night life caters mostly to backpackers and beach bunnies, some of them just in from party capitals like Phuket or Vang Vieng, and eager to shimmer and effloresce over cocktails. A stroll down Serendipity Beach will bring you in contact with fire throwers, mystics, British Vogue photographers, sex tourists and many, many opportunities to indulge in something called a “vodka bucket.” Here is the youth of the world, working hard to forget the inequities of working for an understaffed and poorly run N.G.O.; here is the youth of the world, working hard to remember the name of the French dude they just made out with. The signs of these revelers’ impact on the local economy are not hard to find — certain beach bar/guesthouses offer a free night’s lodging to those of their young customers willing to hand out fliers on the beach for an hour; the business card for one local bar included a map which pinpointed the locations of 1) the bar 2) an A.T.M. and 3) the hospital.

Once Greg and I had been home for two weeks, I contemplated whether my day-to-day life had been changed by the trip. I’d stopped e-mailing Bon Thim by then; I’d also burned through our lemon-grass candles, and distributed all our scarves and effervescent codeine and Alain Delon cigarettes. I’d given up trying to recreate the fabulousness of the mango shake that I’d had on the beach. I’d even — was it possible? — stared at our sunset-at-Knai Bang Chatt pictures so long that I had robbed them of their power. Things seemed fairly ... status quo. A wonderful status quo — but a status quo nevertheless.

And then I remembered. We’re adopting a cat.



Any leg of the triangle that is Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville-Kep will take about three and a half hours by taxi and cost $30 to $60, depending on your negotiation skills. A tuk-tuk to Kampot or Bokor Mountain and back will run about $25. The ever-reliable Toun Bon Thim can be reached at Several airlines, including Cathay Pacific (with a stop in Hong Kong) and Korean Air (with a stop in Seoul), have flights from Kennedy Airport in New York, with round-trip fares in April starting at about $1,300, based on a recent Web search.


Knai Bang Chatt (Phum Thmey Sangat Prey, Thom Khan Kep; 855-12-879-486; serves breakfast at a rough-hewn 24-foot-long table under a palapa overlooking the sea, where dinner (about $38 for two) is also served. Guests have use of Hobie Cat sailboats. Doubles from $150 — U.S. dollars are accepted at hotels, restaurants and shops — in the high season (October through March); otherwise from $110.

At the Veranda (Kep Mountain Hillside Road; 855-12-888-619; doubles start at $25. The resort’s bar and restaurant, with the sight of gorgeous sunsets, is quite good, and serves mostly Western food (dinner for two, about $26). Doubles from $25.

The Independence (Street 2 Thnou, Sangkat No. 3; 855-34-943-3003;, stylishly refurbished in 2007, is, along with the Sokha, Sihanoukville’s most luxurious beachfront property. You’ll need to take a tuk-tuk (about $5 one way) if you want to go into town or to the public beaches. Doubles from $140.


At Kimly (to the left of the restaurants at the crab market along the waterfront in Kep; 855-12-435-096), the crab with Kampot pepper is the local specialty. The shrimp tom yum soup and the shrimp with Kampot pepper are also worth trying. Dinner for two, about $20.

Rikitikitavi (River Road, Kampot; 855-12-235-102; is on a balcony overlooking the river. A delicious fish amok — a kind of Cambodian curry that is steamed instead of boiled — is served in a banana leaf. The cook is a former sous-chef at the InterContinental in Phnom Penh. Lunch for two, about $15.

Chhner Molop Chrey (Krong Street, Mondul 3, along the waterfront of Victory Beach in Sihanoukville; 855-34-933-708) is a long-established seafood restaurant, serving fresh fish, shrimp and crabs along the waterfront. Dinner for two, about $16.


At Massage (Champey Inn, 25 Avenue de la Plage, Kep), the setting (under a palapa, and not too far from the sea) is especially nice. Expect to pay $10 for traditional hourlong massage; $15 for oil massage.

Bokor Mountain. Visits to the top of the mountain are in a state of flux while the road is being built. You may be required to go with a ranger in his Jeep ($40, plus $5 park entrance; ask at the park entrance), or you may be able to go in a group tour (try Sok Lim Tours, 855-12-719-872; for $10, plus admission fee.

Rajana (down the alley at 62 7 Makara Street; 855-23-993-642; in Sihanoukville is one of a chain of nonprofit stores, with wonderful textiles, and some clothing and knickknacks. The N.G.O.-run garden cafe downstairs serves good light meals, and is a fine place to cool off.
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