WASHINGTON. — WASHINGTON -- Twenty-five years ago last spring, Marines of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion returning from jungle patrols near Da Nang told me of running into white soldiers working with enemy forces in the I Corps area of South Vietnam.
They theorized that the Caucasians in the mountains jungle near the demilitarized zone were French, or former French colonial troops converted to communism after being captured in the Indochina war more than a decade earlier. Or perhaps they were Russians. But intelligence reports said one of them was a light-skinned Negro who wore a Marine uniform to sneak into U.S. lines and gather information.
Nobody ever brought back a photograph of these vague figures, usually seen as they slipped deeper into the jungle or took cover in a sudden firefight. A quarter-century later, nobody has ever proved that they existed at all.
Today the war in Vietnam has been over twice as long as the interval between 1945 and U.S. diplomatic recognition of its World War II enemies, Germany and Japan. Yet Washington is still unwilling to take even preliminary steps toward normalization. There is an immense difference in the circumstances, of course: We won World War II, and made over Germany and Japan as democratic nations. We lost in Vietnam, and the same government still rules in Hanoi.
But that is not the main roadblock to normal relations between the United States and Vietnam. We backed the losing side in the Chinese civil war, too, but eventually recognized Beijing -- nearly three decades after Mao's revolution succeeded. What holds up normalization, and may hold it up forever, is some Americans' belief that the Vietnamese still hold U.S. prisoners of war.
Proving that those prisoners exist is just as hard as catching one of those white soldiers who supposedly fought with the enemy in the jungle 25 years ago. For years, sightings have been reported, but none have been confirmed. It's even harder to understand why Vietnam would want to hold Americans secretly instead of clearing away the key obstacle to normal relations.
Yet those reports continue, and the hopes of some families of men long missing in action still rise and fall at every false rumor.
Last week, for a change, what is alleged to be a photo of three U.S. fliers missing since 1966 and 1970 was published here. The FBI and the Pentagon have tried in vain for months to trace its origin and check its authenticity. Gen. John Vessey, investigating POW-MIA affairs for the president, and others who have examined the grainy picture are clearly skeptical. On Thursday, the Hanoi government said it had found and returned the remains of one of those named more than a year ago, but the Pentagon says those remains have never been positively identified.
But anxious families of three missing men, who have not seen them for more than 20 years, assert that they are sure of their identities.
Families like those are victims of cruel deception on someone's part. Naturally, they would rather believe the Vietnamese who killed or captured their loved ones are guilty. But in their frustration, some have contended that the Pentagon must be covering up the fact that some prisoners remain alive.
A further possibility is that hopes are being kept alive by POW-MIA activists raising money ostensibly to free those still held. In 1987, a Defense Intelligence Agency general asserted that groups raising money ostensibly to help free prisoners had ''concocted'' sightings of Americans. The Associated Press quoted Brig. Gen. James Shufelt's letter: ''It is noteworthy that for all their 'proof' and the untold millions of dollars raised, none of these groups or individuals has yet to furnish even the slightest shred of evidence of POWs, much less secure the return of a living American captive.''
Many times before, charlatans have raised money by pretending to serve humanitarian, patriotic causes. While no one has been charged directly in the POW-MIA matter, anyone misleading the families as a fund-raising scam has a more obvious motive for deception than the government.
Sen. John Kerrey, admitting he did not know whether the photo was authentic, said his Foreign Relations subcommittee would hold hearings to investigate the whole issue. A public inquiry is long overdue, to bring these suspicions into the light and conceivably even end the long controversy.
Admittedly, that is a remote hope: The only thing less likely is that those ghostly white enemy soldiers spotted by the Marines 25 years ago will appear out of the jungle and sign an agent to start bids for movie rights.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.