By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
After a few preliminaries and telling me he [the interrogator] wanted to get to know me, he started to ask me about my backseat. He went into perhaps 10 minutes of asking me questions; was he married? And I said I didn't know. What was his first name? And I said I didn't know. . . . Then he asked me if he had gotten out of the acft [aircraft] and I said that I was not sure but I thought that he had gotten out. He said did you talk to him after that? And I said no I did not. He said . . . Parachute? And I said no I did not. This type of questioning and he seemed to pursue it and fianlly [sic] he was done and I asked him, I said is he up here? And he said I don't know. I was most curious as to this line of questioning. Why had he brought this up at this time, two and a half years later, and seem quite interested in his fate and at that time I held some hope he might . . . someplace. Since that time I have heard nothing.
* 1982. After more than a decade of being listed as MIA, Earl, Jr. was reclassified by the government as Killed in Action (KIA) by one government agency, and then as having been a POW for many years by another.
In 1982, shortly after the Air Force had changed Earl, Jr.'s status from MIA to Killed in Action, Body Not Recovered, the Hoppers received a visit from a representative of the Department of Justice, who brought Hopper paperwork to sign. One of the forms was POW compensation--$5 a day for each day an American serviceman was held as a prisoner of war.
"I can't sign this," Hopper told the Justice representative. "My son's missing in action, not a prisoner of war."
He was told: "Sign it anyway. Let's see what they do."
In September 1982, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an arm of the Department of Justice, approved Earl, Jr.'s status as a POW, vis-à-vis the War Claims Act of 1948, and awarded the family $9,535. Basing the status change on the details of the crash, the harsh terrain, and the voice contact established with Keith Hall, the commission said Hopper had become a POW January 10, 1968, but that he'd stopped being a POW April 1, 1973, the date that all remaining U.S. captives in North Vietnam were supposed to have been freed.
Hopper, Sr.--a vocal critic of the government--wasn't sure the Air Force wasn't simply trying to appease him with $10,000; or, he wondered, had Earl, Jr. really been a POW all those years, still alive in a prison somewhere?
* 1983. Hopper says two former CIA agents told him his son was in the hands of the Russians, being treated for malaria and anemia.
Skelly explains, "The Russians were using a group of American pilots to test the average American pilot against the average Russian pilot, because every time Americans come up against Russians . . . we wax their tails. That's historic fact. And they were using him, we are told, with a group of others, to find out why American pilots are better than Russian pilots."
"They were looking at the individual. They were looking at his physical condition, his mental condition, his psychological profile; they were checking into his background on training, his schooling," adds Hopper.
Information on the Russian connection trickled in over the next four years.
* 1984. Hopper says a "reliable former intelligence officer" checked Earl, Jr.'s CIA file and found that--unlike the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Air Force--the CIA had always listed Earl, Jr. as a POW, not MIA. The former spook told him that the CIA tracked Earl, Jr., says Hopper, "climbing the most rugged mountain in the region as he headed for a 'safe' area in Laos; that there were heavy concentrations of North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao troops in the area searching for the downed pilot; and that the CIA sent in a Free Lao team to extract him. When Earl Hopper [Jr.] realized he was in imminent danger of capture, he turned his radio on and hid it behind some rocks thus marking his location of capture."
* 1984-86. Hopper says he received information from former CIA agents that Earl, Jr. was among three POWs offered for release by prison guards in 1984, at the Lao/Thai border--in exchange for passage to the U.S. for the guards and their families. No one was there to pick up the POWs, so they were not released, Hopper asserts.
Skelly says that Army Major Mark Smith, assigned by the Reagan administration to research the possibility of live POWs in Southeast Asia, told her Earl, Jr. was one of the three. She says, "Mark Smith told me face to face and in person that Earl, Jr. was one of those three. He had no reason to lie to me or tell me something other than the truth. It would have been much easier for Mark to look me in the eye and say, 'We don't know who they are' or 'No, Earl, Jr. wasn't one of them.'"