On Oct. 8, 1970, I got a surprise call at home from a man named Cornell Hawkridge.
“This is Cornell Hawkridge,” a blunt voice demanded, without any introduction. “Mr. Seagrave told me to call you. I need your help.”
If Sterling sent him, I was ready to talk. “Well Mr. Hawkridge, tell me how I can….”
He cut me off.“I’m staying at the Victory Hotel on Silom Road. I want you to get over here. And tell your friend Scott McNabb to come too.” He hung up.
Wow, I thought, this guy’s one arrogant prick. The news office at the Bangkok World was closed so I couldn’t telephone Sterling to find out more. I called Scott, grading papers at home, and told him to meet me at the hotel. Thirty minutes later, we knocked on Cornell’s hotel door.
“Come in,” he bellowed.
We found him sitting on his bed in semi-darkness, the window curtains closed, a knapsack and small suitcase tossed in the corner. He was scribbling notes in a notebook by the light of a desk lamp. He ignored us until he finished, then he jumped up. He was short and wiry, moved with a limp, and had a crushing handshake. He seemed to be tailed by demons.
“Did Mr. Seagrave tell you about me?” he demanded. He had no time for social niceties. He had met Boris in Cambodia who passed him on to Sterling, who passed him on to me.
“Not really,” I started to reply. “Maybe…” I was cut off again.
“OK. I’ll tell you.”
And he did, for the next hour, non-stop. Scott and I listened spellbound. We broke in when we could.
Cornell had been ordered out of Vietnam by the U.S. Army just 24 hours earlier. Sons of bitches! They escorted him to Tan Son Nhut airbase and put him on a plane to Bangkok. Fuckers! He was writing a book exposing the stink and corruption, the waste of billions of American dollars from crooked U.S. contractors profiteering on the war in Vietnam. Bastards!
“Cornell, wait, wait,” I finally interjected. “Start from the beginning. Who are you?”
“Don’t you read Life magazine?” he demanded.
“We don’t get it our here.”
“I was supposed to be on the cover of Life magazine, August first, 1969,” he said bitterly. “But then your Mr. Kennedy ran off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. They put him on the cover instead. They cut my story short, but it’s in there.”
He looked off in space, remembering. He seemed to deflate a bit. He pushed his hand through his receding, close-cropped hair. He sighed, and backed up. He had a hell of a story to tell.
Cornell was born in Hungary, where his father was a police colonel in pre-World War II Transylvania, specializing in hunting down political criminals. His family loved law and order and hated the Bolsheviks, so Cornell hated them too. He fought against the Russians in World War II and when the communists took over Hungary he spent seven years in Russian prisons, including two and a half years in solitary confinement. When Hungary rose up against its communist government in 1956, he fought with the insurgents until Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest to crush the rebellion. When it failed, he fled to the West, eventually making his way to America where he gained citizenship. But America left him disillusioned. It was soft, fat and lazy.
Vietnam left him even more disillusioned. In October 1966, he landed a job as a consultant to a U.S. foundation running a refugee camp in Qui Nhon. When he got there, he discovered Vietnamese government officials were stealing 90 percent of the material and food sent to operate the camp and feed the two thousand war refugees who lived in wooden shacks, had no lavatories and shared three wells containing dirty water. Aid workers were forced to buy back the rice stolen from them to keep the refugees alive. It enraged him.
I started to tell him about my visit to the Lao refugee camp, but he cut me short and plowed on with his story.
Around the corner from the squalid camp, Cornell found the Qui Nhon marketplace stocked with stolen U.S. goods – everything from C-rations, TV sets, washing machines, shirts and cigarettes to M-16s, howitzer shells, bazookas and cases of grenades. Cornell wondered if there was anything he couldn’t get on the black market.
“I asked one vendor, ‘Can you get me a tank?’” The stallholder was sorry; they were a bit difficult to get at the moment. How about an armored personnel carrier, the man suggested instead.
Apoplectic, Cornell marched into the office of the American colonel in charge of security for the province. Did he know that there were enough looted U.S. weapons, C-rations, tents and medicine in that market to supply an entire U.S. division for a month? The Colonel admitted he knew all about the black market, but couldn’t do anything. They didn’t have jurisdiction. The American government had an agreement with the South Vietnamese that barred the American military from playing policeman.
“I said, ‘Did it ever occur to you, colonel, that we’re outfitting the Viet Cong? They can simply walk into to the market and buy or steal all the guns and equipment they need to kill us.” Two years later, they did just that, Cornell said. The Viet Cong launched their Tet Offensive against Saigon, using American weapons they turned on American soldiers.
“The American Army is a joke,” he told Scott and me. “If the Russians caught a civilian with anything of theirs – a knife, a gun, a shirt, boots, food rations – they executed you on the spot. That’s an Army. You never saw hijacked goods or Russian army stuff for sale in the market,” he said admiringly. “They’re selling over $10 million in stolen American goods a month – a month! – at just Qui Nhon market alone. And Vietnam has dozens of markets just like that, stocked with looted goods and open for business,” he said bitterly.
“And nobody is doing anything about this?” I interjected. It didn’t seem possible. Where was ABC? NBC? The New York Times? He waved his hand in disgust. I was so fucking naïve.
Frustrated, he moved to another job, assigned to stop looting and pilferage at two civilian U.S. trucking firms hauling Army equipment and supplies in the Saigon district. The companies were required to hire only local Vietnamese drivers. Half were Viet Cong, including Philco-Ford’s labor adviser who later turned out to be a full V.C. colonel.
Same story. Cement, sheet-metal roofing, stereos, cases of M-16s were hijacked by the truckload, frequently along with the trucks that hauled the stuff. Losses were running $100 million a year. He chased the thieves, killed a few. He became a marked man. Twice people tried to kill him. Same outcome. He was branded a troublemaker by his own American bosses.
He fired off a letter to General William Westmoreland, Commander of all U.S. Army forces in Vietnam, enclosing photographs, names, places, incidents. No reply from Time magazine’s 1966 Man of the Year. He wrote Congress. No reply.
It got worse. He started digging into black market currency dealing. The Viet Cong used the profits they made on the currency black market to pay China and Russia for ammunition. Others playing the game big time – South Vietnamese generals, Hong Kong Chinese, Indian money lenders, U.S. contractors and consulting execs – bought seaside villas in the Bahamas. Cornell followed the money trail back to big American banks which looked the other way, asked no questions, laundered the untaxed money and held it in secret accounts for the perpetrators.
When he reported what he found, the IRS didn’t investigate the crooks; they investigated him. They tried to scare him. They audited him and found he owed $80 in taxes.
“The bastards threatened to put me in jail for five years! Put me in jail!,” he roared. He paced the room.“I wrote back and said, ‘Stop the firing in Vietnam for one second and you won’t miss my taxes.’ I didn’t pay. I told them I would take my case to court, and use it as a forum to expose the corruption and waste of taxpayers’ dollars in Vietnam.”
In May 1968, burned out and blacklisted, he left Vietnam and returned to the States. But it turned out somebody had been reading his angry letters. Four months later, he got a call from an investigator on the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. They wanted him to testify in closed session about what he knew. But before he could do so, he was run off the road in what he believed was a faked “accident”. They killed his new wife and left Cornell in a hospital, half-dead. He came out with a rebuilt skull, iron pins in his legs and a burning desire for revenge.
Cornell talked like a paranoid wacko, but both Scott and I found him believable. Evidently, so did Life magazine. Time magazine’s sister publication got wind of his Congressional testimony and put a reporter on it. But Ted Kennedy’s dramatic accident at Chappaquiddick bumped their expose off the cover, trimmed it short, reduced its impact. Nobody seemed to care. He kicked his bag under the bed and sat down, a tired, angry man.
“Why are we in Vietnam trying to solve their problems when we can’t solve problems in our own country?,” he asked the wall. “Look at the slums in the Bronx and Brooklyn; look at the poor, dumb people in Alabama and Louisiana. We’re spending billions in Vietnam, and nothing on America’s problems!” “No one can call me a leftist,” he growled. “I spent three years in Stalin’s jails, and I’ve been fighting and killing communists all my life.”
He stared at me, then Scott. “The war in Vietnam has got nothing to do with communism. It’s a civil war between the Vietnamese, and we should get the fuck out of Vietnam on the next boat. I had a dumb fuck Colonel in Vietnam tell me ‘We’re fighting here to keep the North Vietnamese from attacking America.’ The next day, I walked into his office and said, ‘Colonel, the North Vietnamese have just landed in California and they’re shelling Los Angeles. I just heard it on the news.’ He said, ‘Major, you’re crazy. You know the North Vietnamese don’t have the capacity to invade America.’ And I said, ‘You’re right Colonel – which makes you a proven liar.’”
His voice fell to a whisper. We weren’t even there.
”America wants to help other people fight the communists? Why didn’t America help us in Hungary when we rose up against the communists?”
Cornell moved to England. A British publisher teamed him with a writer named James Hamilton-Patterson to help him tell his story to the world. Now he was back, researching a book he hoped would finally blow the lid off profiteering American multinationals making millions on the war. He was finding that nothing had changed, despite the Congressional hearings and the Life article; in fact, things had gotten worse. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Embassy had blacklisted him from Vietnam, but Vietnam wasn’t the only country where people were making money off looted American goods. Thailand had its own black market in stolen PX goods and GI equipment and nobody was doing anything to shut it down.
“I want you to take me to Asdang Road” he told Scott and me. We both knew what he was looking for. Asdang Road ran right behind the Thai Ministry of Defence. Over twenty shops selling U.S. military gear lined the street, right under the nose of the Thai military. The first cool season I spent in Bangkok, I bought an Army blanket there for a buck.
“You guys will be my translators. I want to see what we can buy there,” Cornell said. He finally ran out of gas. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
It was an unforgettable evening. Cornell was rude and self-righteous, consumed with anger and hatred, but I gave him a pass. Nobody had ever tried to kill me or someone I loved.