BANGKOK, Thailand -- For Al Shinkle, the war in Indochina has never ended. Neither has his search for missing U.S. servicemen he believes still survive in remote jungle villages in Laos.
Mr. Shinkle's war is a bizarre affair, conducted from his small apartment in downtown Bangkok. For 10 years, the tall, blue-eyed Texan has run a private intelligence network known as Shinkle's Boys.
They all are paid Laotian agents, loyal to the defunct monarchy, who are sent on fact-gathering missions deep into the hard-line communist country.
Since the operation began, 68 agents have disappeared. But some have returned with snippets of information that shore up Mr. Shinkle's stubborn belief that many of the 2,273 missing servicemen survived into the early 1980s, and that some are still alive.
"We should have gone after them as soon as the war ended," said Mr. Shinkle, 68. "In those days we had the spook units, we had the money and we had the locations, but we didn't do a thing."
He says his obsession with MIA rescue missions at a time when the United States wanted no more trouble in Indochina got him drummed out of the CIA in 1976 after 10 years' service and prompted his own private war.
He moved into private quarters not far from Ploenchit Road, where he had gathered intelligence under the guise of an import-export business. His contacts from two years as Washington's chief adviser to the Royal Laotian Air Force were ++ among his first recruits for his spy network.
What Mr. Shinkle says his "Boys" have put together is a mosaic of rumor and semi-official reports that contradicts Vietnamese and Laotian insistence that none of the missing U.S. servicemen are still alive.
Mr. Shinkle's files claim that 253 MIAs are held captive, a figure even the most optimistic POW hunters in Indochina have difficulty believing.
"If he said 10 or 17 I could give him the benefit of the doubt, but 253 is sheer fantasy," said a Western diplomat long associated with the search for missing allies from the Vietnam War.
L But Mr. Shinkle's war has never been derailed by skepticism.
"If I get out just one live POW, I've made first base and won the game," he said. "Then let them laugh at me."
The network is funded by his 90-year-old mother's inheritance, he says. Her money bought information alleging that the last U.S. POWs in Vietnam were moved to the remote, inaccessible highlands of Laos as Hanoi pursued rapprochement with Washington and pressed for suspension of a U.S. trade embargo.
Mr. Shinkle says Vietnamese officials still have access to prisoners in Laos.
Most MIAs, he maintains, were shot down over the Laotian jungle. They parachuted or crash-landed not far from villages where they remain today, jealously guarded by natives and Laotian troops who initially regarded them as enemies but lately as valuable commodities.
Mr. Shinkle says his Boys have brought back tales of POWs living with native wives, of Americans' being used as slave labor in rice paddies, of villagers and government officials haggling over ownership of POWs, and of troops forcibly removing POWs for fear villagers might sell them for food or equipment.
The reports coincided with those of other sources until the early 1980s. After that, Shinkle's Boys still reported that MIAs were seen alive; no one else did.
The Texan's spies returned with faded photos of Caucasians that may have been Soviet technicians but were said to be U.S. POWs with names transliterated by Laotians into Ofsun Onso, Ricky Motto, Saladin and Lollan.
Mr. Shinkle was able to unscramble some of those mysteries, matching the location of villages where POWs supposedly were held with U.S. Air Force reports of crash sites.
Mr. Shinkle's fervor is so great that he smuggles funds to one village, hit hard by two failed rice harvests, because he believes a U.S. flier is kept as a prisoner there.
And he staunchly believes in the authenticity of photos allegedly depicting U.S. POWs that were smug gled out of Laos late last year. But he says the photos were taken years ago and that false dates were superimposed by the Laotians to make them more valuable.
Last year, Mr. Shinkle said, he was offered a Caucasian skeleton for $4,000 but turned it down. This year, he was offered the same skeleton for $12,000.
"It's not inflation," he said. "It's just that the skeleton has been sold so many times among the bone traders [that] the price has skyrocketed."
In his bag, Mr. Shinkle carries bones, compasses, dog tags, an old boot, a survival ration and other paraphernalia his spies brought out of Laos as evidence U.S. servicemen still linger there in captivity.
A few years ago, they brought him dog tag No. 678697, which bore the name of Navy pilot Karl A. Vogeler. The villagers sold it together with Mr. Vogeler's emergency compass and explained that it had come from an American "who ran away in his skin."
Mr. Vogeler turned out to be very much alive in the United States. Mr. Shinkle said Mr. Vogeler had hastily stripped off all his clothing, including the dog tag, and run naked toward a rescue helicopter to make sure "the guys in the chopper knew it was a white man running toward them" and not a Laotian Pathet Lao.