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Remembering Former Rep. Billy Hendon: "His Passion Made Certain America's Viet Nam POWs Were Not Forgotten"

Remembering Former Rep. Billy Hendon: "His Passion Made Certain America's Viet Nam POWs Were Not Forgotten"
Former US congressman and MIA activist Billy Hendon chains himself to the entrance gates of the US MIA Office in Hanoi  (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

By Sunday, 19 August 2018 01:08 PM Current | Bio | Archive

“Why don’t you go out and play ‘Charlie’s Angels?’” Rep.-elect Billy Hendon, R.-N.C., told young daughters Carrie and Jennie .

Hendon was gently nudging his beloved daughters to pretend they were their favorite TV detectives while he and wife Robbie gave me an exclusive interview. It was December of 1980, and Hendon was one of 55 Republicans just elected to the U.S. House as Ronald Reagan was elected President.

Upon learning recently that Hendon died at age 73 on June 28 after a long illness, good memories returned. These included our interview following his first election and talk on the Washington cocktail circuit that this burly, six-foot-six-inch North Carolinian was someone with a bright political future.

“You pay attention to Billy!” the late Bill Anderson, savvy lobbyist for the Independent Petroleum Association, admonished me in 1980, “He’s going to be in [House Republican] leadership before you know it.”

But it was not to be. Twice elected to non-consecutive terms, twice defeated, Hendon is best remembered for his tireless passion for the cause of American servicemen still missing in Southeast Asia. Firmly convinced right up until his death that Americans were held decades after the Vietnam War ended, Hendon transformed the mildest social setting into “stormy petrol” if one disagreed with him.

“Everything could turn into an argument around Billy,” recalled a former House colleague, “Just like Trump.”

After earning degrees from the University of Tennessee and briefly teaching at his alma mater, Hendon returned to his Asheville, (N.C) and worked for his family’s funeral parlor. He also became regional manager of the Putsch and Company manufacturing firm.

With an eye on an eventual bid for Congress, he became Buncombe County Republican Chairman. In 1980, he got his chance and waged a no-holds-barred campaign against Democratic Rep. Lamar Gudger. Hendon slammed Gudger for voting not to expel “a black congressman named Charles Diggs” for misuse of his office and opposing the first across-the-board tax cuts crafted by New York Rep. Jack Kemp (who stumped hard for Hendon). He also tied the incumbent to “Jimmy Carter’s failed foreign policy that left Americans hostages in Iran.”

Blitzing his congressional district in a covered wagon, Hendon unseated Gudger as Reagan swept the Tarheel State.

Hendon was a solid vote for Reagan’s tax and budget cuts and his defense build-up. As a member of the House Interior Committee, he was an ally of the environmentalists’ most hated opponent: Secretary of the Interior James Watt.

“But I also served with—and I liked them a lot—two far-left-wingers from California, [Reps.] Ron Dellums and Phil Burton,” Hendon told me, “Ron had a great sense of humor. Phil treated me well on the Interior Committee in spite of disagreements. If I could have worked it out, I would have gone to his funeral [in 1983].”

A few months into their first term, Hendon and fellow freshman Rep. John LeBoutillier, R.-NY, attended a meeting at the Pentagon that would change their lives. They read classified material and watched films that, in LeBoutillier’s words, “would lead any independent jury to conclude Americans were being held against their will in Vietnamese prison camps eight years after the war had ended.”

The two lawmakers set out to alert the world and get the Americans home. Their efforts led to a meeting with President Reagan and White House Chief of Staff James Baker.

“Reagan told us if anyone ever brought home a POW from captivity, it would be the biggest story since the parting of the Red Sea,” said LeBoutillier.

In 1982, amid a recession, Hendon lost re-election to State Sen. Jamie Clarke. Two years later, with the economy booming and Reagan winning a landslide re-election, Hendon roared back to unseat Clarke.

But another Democratic year came around in 1986 and Hendon lost his third bout with Clarke. He then left politics and devoted his life to the cause of Americans missing in Southeast Asia. Over the next thirty years, he would make seventeen trips to Vietnam to meet with the Communist regime in Hanoi for returning imprisoned Americans.

The former congressman became a fixture on TV talk shows and, with attorney Elizabeth Stewart, co-authored a book that became a New York Times best-seller on Americans he felt were still in Southeast Asian prison camps. It was entitled An Enormous Crime.

He also formed the POW Publicity Fund, which raised and offered a $21 million reward for the return of any U.S. POW in Southeast Asia.

On August 14, at a White House briefing by the Pentagon’s POW and MIA Accounting Agency head Kelly McKeague, I asked him if he had closed the book on American troops unaccounted for in Vietnam.

“It has,” replied McKeague, “Within that set of unaccounted for is what we call 'last known alive.' It's a small subset of individuals who, for whatever reason, were seen alive at a certain point during the war and will remain unaccounted for…..I think it's down to 25.

“Billy would have never stood for that,” said former Rep. and House classmate John Napier, R.-S.C., “His passion made certain America’s POWs were not forgotten. He would have said ‘well, if there are 25 there, let’s go get ‘em.’”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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"Why don't you go out and play 'Charlie's Angels?'" Rep.-elect Billy Hendon, R.-N.C., told young daughters Carrie and Jennie .Hendon was gently nudging his beloved daughters to pretend they were their favorite TV detectives while he and wife Robbie gave me an exclusive...
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Sunday, 19 August 2018 01:08 PM
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