Critics question record of man who claims to be Vietnam POW

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A veteran honored as a prisoner of war in Vietnam at a ceremony in September continues to claim he was a captive despite an Air Force records search that has failed to support him.

Eielson Air Force Base spokeswoman Maj. Valerie Trefts said neither medical nor military records show that veteran Jim Spohn suffered injuries that indicated he had been held captive. She also said there's no indication he received a Purple Heart, as he claims.

Spohn is superintendent of information management at the 354th Communications Squadron, a civilian job. He was honored Sept. 15 at a ceremony honoring POWs and servicemen missing in action because of his harrowing account as a POW near Cam Ranh. Spohn claims he was one of 26 U.S. servicemen to escape from the Viet Cong in 1966.

No one checked his claims prior to the ceremony. But when accounts appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and Eielson's newspaper, veterans began questioning his story because Spohn is not included in a Department of Defense list of Vietnam POWs. The list has not been successfully challenged since its inception 30 years ago.

''I had no reason to believe he wasn't telling the truth,'' said Capt. Don Lewis, executive officer of the 354th Support Squadron, who wrote the story of Spohn's account for Eielson's newspaper.

Spohn, told of the inquiry, said he is searching for a missing medical record and other indications that he spent three months in captivity and received a Purple Heart for the injuries caused by the torture from his captors.

''We'll get this straightened out,'' Spohn said. ''It's such a nightmare. I wish I had never told anyone until I had this straight.''

Spohn said he was an explosives expert on a deployment from the Company E, 14th Infantry in Korea to the 1st Calvary in the Demilitarized Zone in June 1965. He said he was setting up a minefield when he and 12 others were attacked by about 50 Viet Cong.

Spohn said he escaped after three months by killing his captor and fleeing into the jungle. He says he lost 30 to 40 pounds, but only spent one week recovering in the hospital at Camp Zama, Japan, before being sent back Korea, where he was assigned to the military police orderly room because the ordeal.

Spohn explains the lack of supporting records of his time in Vietnam by saying the military police company he was assigned to at Fort Ames, Korea, kept listing him on their morning count of personnel because his assignment to Vietnam was only temporary.

Records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis indicate Spohn was in the Army from February 1965 to August 1966 and in the Air Force from November 1971 until his retirement in August 1989.

But no records indicate he was a captive, that he was trained as an explosives specialist or that he was assigned to Vietnam.

The search of medical records did find a three-month gap, from October 1965 to January 1966, that could back Spohn's story because his whereabouts are unknown for that period, Lewis said.

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