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POW? Questions nag Green Beret's exploits

Apr. 12, 2009 - 08:14AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 12, 2009 - 08:14AM  |  
This December 1965 photo provided by Gary Nystrom shows members of Special Forces Detachment A 245 during pre-deployment training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Then-1st Lt. Otis H. Ashley III stands in the back row on the far right. Nystrom is on the left in the same row with sergeant's stripes.
This December 1965 photo provided by Gary Nystrom shows members of Special Forces Detachment A 245 during pre-deployment training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Then-1st Lt. Otis H. Ashley III stands in the back row on the far right. Nystrom is on the left in the same row with sergeant's stripes. (Gary Nystrom via AP)
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This 1967 photo, provided by the Army National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, shows then Army Maj. Otis H. Ashley. Ashley claims he was briefly taken prisoner during a 1966 firefight in Vietnam, but his POW story has been called into question. (Army National Personnel Records Center via AP)

In the early days of the Vietnam War, Green Beret Otis H. "Bane" Ashley III was executive officer of Special Forces Detachment A-245 at Dak Seang, an outpost near the Laotian border. He was earnest, gung-ho, a risk taker.

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In the early days of the Vietnam War, Green Beret Otis H. "Bane" Ashley III was executive officer of Special Forces Detachment A-245 at Dak Seang, an outpost near the Laotian border. He was earnest, gung-ho, a risk taker.

But was he ever a prisoner of war?

The government said yes at first, and even decorated him for valor — before changing its mind.

On Sept. 28, 1966, then-1st Lt. Ashley left the camp in a jeep to retrieve a soldier due for some training. According to Ashley's official account, he and his escort of three Montagnard tribesmen were driving down Highway 14 when North Vietnamese regulars ambushed them.

A .45-caliber round grazed Ashley's forehead, temporarily blinding and paralyzing him, he said, and a grenade blew him out of the jeep, peppering his body with shrapnel and severely wounding two of the indigenous soldiers. After killing three of his attackers and being shot through the left thigh, he passed out, Ashley alleged.

"When I woke up ... I was being dragged by a guy who was pulling me along by the armpits," he wrote in an account for Hans Halberstadt's 2004 book, "War Stories of the Green Berets."

Ashley, supposedly still clutching his foot-long K-bar trench knife, stabbed his would-be captor to death and escaped, according to his account.

The whole incident lasted about 15 minutes. There were no eyewitnesses to his alleged capture and escape.

Others agree that Ashley came stumbling down to a Dak Poko River crossing, and that he was alone. Accounts of his condition vary wildly.

Then-Spc. David L. Quigley told officials: "He held his knife ... at a threatening angle. It was instantly evident that he was seriously wounded and was standing and moving on something other than mear (sic) physical strength, was under severe mental stress and was either already in or going into shock."

Ashley had a gunshot wound in the left thigh, and his entire left side was "heavily saturated with shrapnel wounds," Quigley wrote then and recently reiterated in an interview with The Associated Press. Ashley's left eye was swollen shut and covered in blood, and the pupil would not contract. Fearing a concussion, Quigley decided not to give Ashley morphine.

Medic Henry Dale Jennings, also at the river that day, remembered things differently in a recent telephone interview with the AP. Ashley had "minor" shrapnel wounds, but no gunshot wounds that Jennings could see.

"His eyes were equally round, reacted to light and all that," Jennings told the AP. "So there was no head injury."

A helicopter airlifted Ashley to the 18th Surgical Hospital at Pleiku. The people who met him there also could not agree on his condition.

Retired Army Col. Abraham Lincoln German, then a captain and staff aide at Pleiku, says the only wounds Ashley had were measle-like red dots — "zits" — along one side of his body. He added, "The radiologist confirmed there were NO, repeat, NO metal fragments anywhere in his body."

But nurse MaryLee Welch says Ashley was "a mess, both physically and mentally."

She recalled his knife, "whether it was a bayonet or a Bowie knife or something. But he was swinging something around very viciously ... (and yelling) ‘Get away. Don't touch me.'"

Accounts of the alleged ambush scene are similarly all over the map — with the jeep showing more or less damage, and some recalling spent shell casings while others saw no evidence of a fight.

Ashley was awarded the Silver Star for the incident. The story might have ended there, had Ashley not sought an upgrade.

Gary Nystrom, a sergeant on Ashley's team, says the Army Inspector General's office contacted him in the late 1970s to ask about his letter supporting Ashley's bid for the Medal of Honor. Nystrom says he never wrote such a letter and didn't even know of Ashley's POW claim.

"God, I'll tell you what," Nystrom says with a chuckle. "If we had had him and Rambo together, we'd have beat the hell out of those people over there."

Also included in Ashley's Medal of Honor packet was the statement of a Capt. William H. Poe, saying he had uncovered a shallow grave near the ambush site and found the bodies of four North Vietnamese soldiers who'd died in precisely the violent ways described by Ashley.

Reached recently by the AP, Poe called the statement a "bold-faced lie."

"It certainly is not my signature, because I did NOT open any graves up in Dak Seang," he says.

Ashley did not receive the Medal of Honor. Instead, in 1976, the Army revoked the Silver Star.

In 1978, Ashley was discharged from the military at the rank of major. But while he couldn't convince the Army of his story, the Department of Veterans Affairs, then called the Veterans Administration, believed him.

For years, Ashley was listed by the VA as a POW. Documents from his VA file, obtained by the watchdog group P.O.W. Network, show his story of captivity led to diagnoses of "combat fatigue" and "combat induced anxiety conversion," contributing to a 100 percent disability rating.

By the time Ashley spoke in 2001 to a group of school kids in Corvallis, Ore., his brief struggle had somehow morphed into a three-month captivity.

"They couldn't just talk to you; they had to beat the living snot out of you," he told the rapt children, according to a newspaper account of the talk.

Ashley, 66, of Philomath, Ore., says it was the VA's decision to list him as a POW — an "innocent mistake" for which he has "gained nothing but grief." In a signed statement faxed to the AP, Ashley says he has been trying since the mid-1980s to have any reference to himself as a POW stricken from his records. He says the VA no longer lists him as a POW, and adds that the erroneous annotation "never, not ever" netted him any monetary benefits from the VA.

The agency declined to discuss Ashley's status. It did, however, confirm that he currently draws $2,823 a month — 100 percent disability.

———

AP writers Brad Cain in Salem, Ore., and Natasha Metzler in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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