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Brigadier General James Wold, part 2

4/19/2005:

Yesterday we brought you part one of our story on retired Brigadier General James Wold, a much-decorated Air Force pilot in Vietnam who later set up a law practice near Cooperstown.

Back in 1969 and ‘70, many of Wold’s 241 combat missions were search and rescues in Vietnam and Laos. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Wold Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. The republican lawyer was to be the administration’s point person for stepping up the pace to discover the fate of thousands of U.S. POWs and MIAs in all previous wars.

Wold explained what led to the formation of the joint U.S./Russian commission: “During the war in Southeast Asia,” he wrote, “the war in Laos – which was every bit as intense as in Vietnam, and in some ways more-so – for political reasons was conducted as a secret war. Everybody knew something was going on, but it wasn’t talked about officially. I knew that if I were shot down over Laos, JoAnne would be told that I was missing, but the would also be told not to talk publicly about it, and especially don’t talk to the press. That was symptomatic of the Cold War mentality of secrecy...which existed for decades after WWII. But that legacy plagued us in the government’s relations with the families of those missing as a result of the war in Southeast Asia.

“It took the organized wives of...POWs and (MIAs) to form the League of Families and to bring pressure to bear on the Congress (and) Administration,” he said, “to begin to reveal to the public, and the families in particular, just what it was doing to account for its missing soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines...the government had badly mishandled the way it dealt with the families.”

For the next three years, Wold carried on intense negotiations with Russia and a number of Southeast Asian nations. Eventually, he established diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese government and had a diplomatic break-through with the North Koreans; it was the first time in 40 years that delegates of the U.S. and North Korea had met. Wold said the North Koreans were extremely suspicious, but that they grew to believe the U.S. would abide by their agreements.

“Over a period of eighteen months,” he wrote, “we concluded agreements for U.S. teams of experts (to work) inside North Korea, researching, investigating, and excavating crash sites and burial grounds in search of (more than) 8,100 Americans still missing from the Korean War.”

Wold also had to face the many openly hostile families who wanted to know whether their missing loved ones were still alive, and whether they were still imprisoned by current or former enemy nations. Wold proved to be very gifted in this department.

In 2003, Jim’s wife, JoAnne, said, “He had great empathy. People could trust him. He started a program where he and his aides sat down with families of missing servicemen embittered by U.S. government secrecy after Vietnam. They went through the files of each man with their families and told them what happened to their loved ones. That program is still being used today.”

Jim said he was merely “a man of faith and religious conviction born of a life’s experiences, including...a life-threatening tractor rollover accident, and a fighter pilot’s ‘long hours of boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror.’ This part of my life is very personal to me; I am not a crusader. It’s just a central part of what I am, tempered by a clear realization of my frailties.”

For his successful efforts on behalf of missing members of the U.S. military, the Clinton Administration presented Wold with the Secretary of Defense Award for Outstanding Public Service.

Sources: JoAnne and James Wold, private papers; Terry Devine, Fargo Forum, 2/19/03

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm