A chance encounter between two Iowans changes the course of many lives
By Kenneth Quinn
A casual conversation 40 years ago on a dark and empty street in post-war Hanoi led to a dramatic family reunification. But it was only a letter in 2016 that revealed that what began that night is truly a story with a special Iowa State connection.
In March 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter, wanting to fulfill a campaign pledge he had made to address the remaining wounds of the Vietnam War, decided to send a special mission to Hanoi to begin the process of accounting for those military personnel whose bodies had not been recovered or whose fate remained uncertain. To that end, he asked Leonard Woodcock, the former head of the United Auto Workers Union, to lead a small but distinguished delegation.
This would be the first U.S. contact with the North Vietnamese government, following the capture of Saigon and the tragic end of the war in 1975. Even though I was still a relatively junior State Department officer, I had been added to the trip based on my six years of experience in Vietnam during the war, my prior service at the National Security Council, and my facility in the Vietnamese language (I had served as President Ford’s interpreter at meetings at the White House).
Before we left, the President convened a meeting in the Cabinet Room with Vice President Mondale and the entire traveling group. The President emphasized that we were going to Vietnam and Laos to inquire about our still-missing and not-yet-accounted-for POW/MIAs from the war.
In addition to using my language skills, I was also appointed as a diplomatic courier, so I could carry a sealed diplomatic pouch (a large orange bag) with an official seal. In it were our communication devices called one-time pads. These were encryption codes that were linked to an exact replica pad back in the State Department in Washington. It was an arduous, time-consuming, letter-by-letter process to create an encrypted message. For each letter in a word, I would have to look up the substitute in the pad (“A” would become “J,” etc.)
As the code officer, it would be my job to translate the messages prepared by the delegation head into written messages that would just seem to be jibberish, and then transmit them in a commercial telegram back to Washington reporting on our trip. This was necessary because there was no American official presence in Vietnam with secure communications capability.
Hanoi in 1977 had very few signs of any economic activity. There were almost no shops, no market stalls or food for sale on the streets, no restaurants, and no bright signs or neon lights. The one and only sign lit up at night was the large portrait of Ho Chi Minh that sat atop the Vietnamese National Bank building, which was surrounded by lightbulbs.
Moreover, there was almost no automobile traffic, no motorbikes that were ubiquitous in South Vietnam, and almost no vehicle movement of any kind. The few people who were moving about were on bicycle. You literally could walk across any street without first looking in either direction without fear of being struck.
Following our two days of meetings, Woodcock wanted to send a message back to the President, reporting that the visit had gone very well. He had met with the North Vietnamese president Pham Van Dong, and we had been told that 10 sets of remains of American service members would be returned to us before we departed. It was very positive news.
So, I sat up at the hotel using the one-time code pad to encrypt the entire message. We had some clerical staff on the trip who then typed it up for me in the code letters. Next I needed to walk over to the telegraph office. It was about 11 p.m. Even though there was no real danger, one of the military officers on the trip, a young Air Force major, offered to go with me. His name was Paul Mather.
As we were walking along the broad, deserted streets of Hanoi, we made small talk. It turned out that, like me, he was from Iowa, from a small town called Greene. I explained that I had grown up in Dubuque. Next we were talking about our experiences during the war, and he said he had been stationed in Saigon when the war ended and was urgently evacuated out of the country. I told him what I had done during the war as an advisor in the Mekong Delta, adding that my wife was from Vietnam.
And then, what Paul Mather said next literally stopped me in my tracks. He told me that he had a fiancé, a Vietnamese woman named Loan. When I asked him when they would be married, he said he didn’t know, because she was trapped in Saigon.
Standing there under only a dim street light, I turned to face him and asked, “Are you doing anything to get her out?” He replied that there was nothing that could be done and that the situation seemed hopeless. It appeared that they might never be reunited. I asked if he had discussed this with anyone on the trip. I said it was possible that the delegation could ask the North Vietnamese to assist him.
I will never forget his reply. Paul said, “No, I could never put forward anything personal about myself that might in any way detract from or disrupt our mission. I just could not do that.”
I was moved by his devotion to duty and impressed by his selfless dedication to our mission. Walking through darkened Hanoi late at night, I thought to myself, “This is so admirable. Maybe I can help him.” So, after our stop at the telegraph office, I said to him, “Why don’t you tell me your fiancé’s full name, ID number, and address. Maybe I can do something.” Paul was hesitant, but I insisted, and eventually he agreed to give me the information.
The next day we were going to have a final negotiating session with the Vietnamese delegation, and then after about an hour there would be a tea break, during which Woodcock and the senior Vietnamese official would go off alone in a corner and speak informally with just the Vietnamese interpreter.
Before we departed to go to this meeting, I waited for the right moment to meet with Woodcock alone. I had to be sure that the more senior State Department officers didn’t see me, because in the State Department culture, a more junior officer like me shouldn’t be talking to the head of delegation without his superior present. But there came a moment when I briefly had Woodcock alone.
Now, Woodcock didn’t know too much about me except from this trip, so I had to convince him of the merits of the case. I told him that I wanted to tell him about this terrific young Air Force officer on the trip, Paul Mather. I explained that he had
a Vietnamese fiancé trapped in Saigon, and I handed Woodcock the piece of paper that had Loan’s name and contact information in Saigon.
I then said to Woodcock, “The tone of everything on this trip is very positive. Watching the Vietnamese and listening to them, I feel certain that they would like an opportunity to do something nice. They would like to be perceived as doing something special for you and the delegation. Letting Paul Mather’s fiancé leave the country would be such a gesture.”
I emphasized to him that if he would personally and privately ask his Vietnamese counterpart to free her, there would be a very good chance it would happen.
Woodcock took all this on board, kept the paper, but didn’t really commit to doing anything. I thought I had given it my best shot. Later, after he had his private tête-à-tête with the senior Vietnamese official, Woodcock privately said to me, “I gave it to him.” Later, I told Paul Mather about what I had done and what Woodcock had done.
We didn’t hear anything, and I began to think that nothing would come from my initiative. However, several months later, we were in Paris, and my boss, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, was now negotiating with the same official with whom Woodcock had interacted in Hanoi. When they had their first coffee break, the official told Holbrooke that he had good news for him – Miss Loan had been given permission to leave Vietnam.
It would be difficult to overstate the gratitude Paul expressed to me when I passed on this news. For a few years, I used to get a Christmas card from Paul Mather and his family thanking me for getting his fiancé out so they could be married.
During the remainder of my diplomatic career, I continued to be involved in the effort to account for missing men from the Vietnam War, serving for four years as chairman of the U.S. government Inter-Agency Group on POW / MIA Affairs.
In that capacity, I returned to Hanoi on a number of occasions, including one where I personally negotiated in Vietnamese the first-ever access to a North Vietnamese prison to search for missing Americans who might still be alive.
Paul Mather worked on this same issue, culminating with his publishing a book in 1994 entitled M.I.A.: Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia. However, we gradually lost contact. After completing my service as American Ambassador in Cambodia, I retired from the Foreign Service in 1999 and returned home to Iowa to assume the leadership of the World Food Prize in Des Moines.
I didn’t think again about Paul Mather until I received a letter from him dated Dec. 10, 2016. It was in reading it that I learned about the Iowa State connection that runs like a thread through this entire story. Paul wrote:
“With the passage of time, I have come to realize that I never really adequately thanked you for your intervention, which led to many of the positive events in my life. It has been nearly 40 years since Loan and I were able to re-join…We married in Bangkok in September 1977, within three days of when she and her three children arrived there, compliments of you and Mr. Woodcock…”
Paul, who later confirmed for me that he was an R.O.T.C. graduate of Iowa State (’59 aero engr), explained in his letter that two of those three children also are Cyclone alumni. He wrote further that:
“…elder son Anh…[who] graduated from ISU at Ames [’84 comp & elect engr], has been a computer chip designer for Intel in Austin, Texas for many years…while younger son Thanh, also a graduate of ISU [’89 comp engr], is a software engineer with a company in Bellevue, Wash.”
Paul concluded the family update by sharing that their daughter Phung, the youngest, followed her Dad’s lead and is now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
Reading that letter made me think about the small steps and moments that can have such significant ramifications on many individual lives. What if Paul Mather had not volunteered to walk with me to the telegraph office late that night? What if we had not talked about our Iowa backgrounds? Would Paul have still told me about his fiancé being stranded? What if Woodcock had turned down my request?
And, of course, what if I had just shrugged off the entire matter when Paul initially told me he was hesitant to have the issue raised? That I didn’t, I believe, reflects that special Iowa bond that I felt that night in Hanoi and my admiration for Paul Mather’s patriotism. That is what led to this family being reunited, able to live in freedom, and able to follow in Paul Mather’s footsteps onto the campus in Ames. What a wonderful Iowa State story!
About Kenneth Quinn:
Kenneth Quinn is president of the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines and a former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia. In his role with the World Food Prize since 2000, he has worked closely with the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in implementing the Global Youth Institute for high school students. He retired from the State Department after a 32-year career in the Foreign Service, where he was a rural development officer in Vietnam, member of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s national security staff at the White House, and a member of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Vienna; he also played a key role in exposing Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge atrocities of the mid-1970s and helping to end them. An Iowa native, he served as a special assistant to Iowa Gov. Robert Ray from 1978-1982. In 2008, Iowa State presented Ambassador Quinn with an honorary doctor of humane letters when he delivered the university commencement address to December graduates. In 2014 Quinn became only the 23rd person in history to receive the Iowa Medal, the state’s highest citizen award.
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.