By Amy Silverman
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"Here is the Laotian border, this is Hanoi, there they were hit," Hopper said, pointing to a large topographical map noted in transcripts from the hearing. "Here is the point of incident of where they last saw Earl's aircraft. Note the closeness--the nearness to the Laotian border here. Throughout this area in Laos, as you know, there were safe areas. These men were briefed if you go down here head for high ground, get into the safe area where we can come and pick you up. So there's a possibility that Earl was not missing in Vietnam, but actually in Laos. And, as you know, he's going to do his best to evade and he's going to head for a safe area where he can be safely picked up. It is possible, then, that if he got into Laos and got into the control of tribesmen, run into Pathet Lao--I don't know what--that he could have been held as a prisoner in Laos. We didn't get a single American prisoner of war out of a Laotian prison camp when the other prisoners came home. Keep that in mind."
The board's finding:
After evaluating all of the evidence placed before it by both the United States Air Force and the next of kin, the board finds that the evidence does establish by a preponderance of the evidence that [Lt. Col.] Earl P. Hopper, Jr. can reasonably be presumed dead.
Hopper's closing comments filled four single-spaced pages in the hearing transcript. He concluded: "When we came here I knew we'd be fighting a stacked deck, but I will not and I'll repeat, not, let the United States of America abandon our son and his comrade-in-arms without a fight."
[Department of Defense official James] Chappie also recommends that Dr. Kissinger meet with as small a group as possible and reports that while many of the radicals have left the League . . . a certain Mr. Hopper is still quite a pain. In fact, Hopper tape-recorded Chappie's entire and very candid series of remarks today and Chappie had to make strong representations about the use of the tape. He warns you to be sure to insist that no such monkey business take place tomorrow.
--from a 1974 memo to presidential adviser General Brent Scowcroft
Earl Hopper, Sr. has only ever had one employer: the United States Army. He and his brother, Rex, had enlisted in 1940. After officer training, Earl served all over the world in three wars, as a paratrooper and in intelligence. Of his five sons, only the youngest, Buck, chose a career outside the military.
Once he realized the government wasn't being forthcoming regarding the fate of Earl, Jr. and other POW/MIAs, making the switch from brass to activist wasn't easy.
"I was greatly disappointed," Hopper says. "Being a military man, patriotic and so forth, I had a lot of faith and trust in Nixon. I had a lot of faith and trust in the government. And I had a lot of faith and trust in the military."
Weren't Hopper's former colleagues in the military upset with his role as an anti-government activist?
"Well, there were hints at that," he says, whacking his pipe against an old clay ashtray in his den in Glendale, then reloading with black cherry tobacco, "but they soon learned that I wouldn't take any of that from them and that I could talk louder and faster than they could. And when they would make some statements that I knew were not true, I would challenge them. And that's where my reputation started, that I was a radical--"
"A redneck," offers brother Rex, who's listening.
Earl laughs. "A redneck, yeah. And knowing that I was a retired colonel, although the government people didn't like me, particularly, they did respect me. Now, I have to say that I did get to know some people, a couple admirals in the Defense Intelligence Agency, whom I trusted personally. But because they were government people--military people--I knew that they had to say what they were told to say. But over a bottle of Scotch, you can get a lot out of a person, on a private basis."
Like the fact that men were left behind. Hopper says military officials who wouldn't say that publicly acknowledged it to him, privately.
Hopper continues. "The biggest advantage I had was that I was military," he says. "So I knew a lot about how the system worked. I was not a politician, believe me. Nor would I ever want to be. But to compare my knowledge and background and everything to that of a father who was a civilian who was living down in Timbuktu someplace. . . . They were easily snowed and confused by the bureaucrats and the military of the U.S. government."
By the mid-'80s, the National League of Families had grown into a powerful--but politically charged--bureaucracy. Hopper the military man had no patience. He left the board of directors in the mid-'80s to focus his energy on Task Force Omega, the POW/MIA research organization Patty Skelly founded in 1983.
Patty: "When Earl, Jr. gets home from his 30-year vacation in sunny Southeast Asia, I'm gonna ground him until he's 90. Maybe 105!"