«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Before we left, the Women's Union came to see us and brought us 300 letters and said that our proposal was approved. So, we came back, we had a little committee in place called the Committee of Liaison. Stewart Meacham from the Quakers, Dave Dellinger became my codirector, or I became his co-director. Dick Barnett, a woman who was a social worker from Westchester—I don't remember everybody's name. But there were, maybe, six of us. Maybe one or two more, but not too many. It was a small committee. We brought the mail back, and we immediately re-mailed every letter to the addresses on the air letters, they were called, with a
Ethel Taylor had to go home in the middle of our trip because of her sinus condition, but I think she brought a letter to a family from Philadelphia named Reynolds—it's amazing how you remember names like this—from him, he was a pilot. That brought her together with that family, and they became good friends. So Madeline and I came back alone, and we flew back via Hawaii and San Francisco. When the plane stopped in Hawaii and we had to get out, I was the most nervous human being in the world, because I did not want these letters to be taken away from me. I don't remember—I couldn't put three hundred letters in my bosom, but I had them tightly attached somehow to me!
All of a sudden, we were stopped on the tarmac, the door's not open yet, and the pilot gets on the mic and says, "Cora Weiss, there's a gentleman waiting to see you!" I absolutely thought I would have a nervous breakdown! Was the gentleman the CIA, the FBI, the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]? I wasn't expecting to meet anyone. We get off the plane, I'm clutching the letters in a bag, Stewart Meacham, of the Quakers, is at the bottom of the gang plank! Stewart lived in Hawaii, totally forgot about that! He was a Quaker, and he was the one who wrote the proposal.
And he welcomed me cheerfully! [laughter] He welcomed us, Madeline was with me. It took me a while to get over my worries. But those were the little stories that make life interesting.
Anyway, then we flew to San Francisco, and we had a press conference, and Madeline and I told what was happening. There were three guys who were sitting with basketball jackets in the front row. You know, what do you call those, sports jackets?
Weiss: I knew damned well they were not basketball players. So, the agency sent people, our office in New York had sent out a press release saying that we were going to have a press conference, and my husband and children came out to meet me. That was very wonderful! And Madeline and I did the press conference, and we were on Walter Cronkite that night. But it's very interesting to me that Cronkite was willing to speak the news of “prisoners of war had sent 300 letters to their families in the country,” but not use our photograph, our picture. So, it couldn't be clear to the watcher of the newscast that it was two housewives.
Weiss: That was an editorial decision, because the cameras were there.
Weiss: So, you learn, every day you learn something new.
Q: When you mailed the letters out to the families, what were some of the reactions?
Weiss: Huge gratitude from the majority, "Thank you." A lot of silence because they didn't want to let the DIA, or whoever in the Pentagon was watching over them, know that they were happy.
And an occasional letter that would say, "I refuse to use your channel, I'm not going to recognize you." Or, one person, I think, said—I'm pretty sure of this—that they were told by the Defense
think her name was Dudley, whose son was MIA [Missing in Action], but she didn't know if he was MIA or POW [Prisoner of War], because the flags always had POW/MIA on them together.
She was an anti-war woman, and she told us that she shouldn't use our channel, and she said, "But I'm going to, because I know that otherwise I won't know whether he's dead or alive." She was a remarkable woman.
Q: These were your channels for getting letters from the families now to send back to— Weiss: Now, the families would send their mail to us in our office. We had an office on 9th Avenue, which was then called, "Hell's Kitchen," I think, was it?
Q: It’s right down here, yes.
Weiss: Yes. We were in a room upstairs from a paint store, and in the front of the office, on the 9th Avenue side, was the Center for Constitutional Rights. This had to be the lowest rent in New York.
Q: Oh, I know the building, yes. [laughs] Weiss: And on the 42nd Street side, opposite us, was a disgusting bar and grill, low down, with a fleabag hotel above it. Next door on 42nd Street was a drug store. Apparently, I don't know how I know this, maybe from my papers, apparently the agency interviewed the drug store owner, who
on 9th Avenue and 42nd Street, it was considered very posh! [laughs] What they did with that important information, I cannot tell you!
Q: [laughs] Weiss: But one day, for some reason, two or three of us had to go—went across the street to the bar to have a drink. I stupidly left my briefcase under the bar, and didn't know it until the next day, when I called, and yes, they had it, and I went to pick it up. Now, we had a theory at the time, and I have no idea how to prove it, that one of the hotel rooms above the bar, which faced our office, was rented by somebody watching us. So, whatever was in my briefcase, I have no idea what it was, was probably heaven for them to rifle through. But, in any event, we survived those years, we made sure that every single month for three years, until '73, April 30, '73?
Weiss: Three people went to Vietnam, and when they went, they would carry letters from the families. We were in touch with families, we let them know when the next trip was taking place, so if they wanted to send a letter, they could. We took advantage of using the mail to tell them that everyone comes back reporting that their prisoners will be released as soon as the war is over, and the most important thing for us to do was to see that it ended. We did say that in our mail, except for one month, when the Vietnamese reported that it was dangerous weather, there were flooding conditions, and we shouldn't send anybody. I always doubted that and felt that it
weeks because of the flooding. So it took me a few years to learn that that was accurate, that they were not lying.
Q: Now, Jane Fonda was one of your couriers?
Weiss: Yes, Jane and Tom went. That was an unfortunate situation.
Weiss: Well, because it would be dumb to appear on the Hanoi Hannah radio program. That was an unfortunate move.
Q: Yes, no, I read— Weiss: And she has painfully paid for it for so long.
Weiss: But now, she's a heroine again in this country, and she's very actively working for teenage girls, and— Q: Yes, I read something that she wrote, it was almost forty years afterwards, about how she was
Weiss: Yes, well, she was more than one. I mean, she was an important one.
Q: Yes. Well— Weiss: But she also sat in the turret of a tank. That's not smart.
Q: Yes. You mentioned earlier, Ross Perot. How did he get involved?
Weiss: Ross Perot, you know, if you want to help somebody, you don't do things to screw it up.
He just screwed it up constantly, so that his efforts on behalf of the women—who turned out to be mostly MIA, not POW…but nonetheless, on behalf of the women—were all to satisfy his ego! He once wanted to fly a plane full of turkeys so that the guys could have turkey for Christmas, you know, when the plane would have been shot out of the sky. Those SAMs, Surface to Air Missiles, were very accurate. He sent a bunch of the women to Paris— Q: That's right.
Weiss: —to meet with the Vietnamese. It was always Ross Perot in headlines, not the names of the women in headlines.
Weiss: I don't know. But he was not helpful.
Weiss: At all. A wealthy Texan. He put a tiger cage, what he thought of as the tiger cage, in the lobby of one of the congressional office buildings, or in the capitol, and said, "That's where our POWs are staying in Hanoi," when in fact it was the tiger cages in South Vietnam that the South Vietnamese government, with the help of the American government, put the dissidents who couldn't stand up, and who were peed on, and lime was thrown over them by the guards. That tiger cage, which was a real tiger cage, I don't know how people survived it, was discovered by a young staff member in congress named Tom Harkin, and Don Luce, who was a colleague of mine. Don spoke fluent Vietnamese and had been a volunteer in Vietnam, an agricultural volunteer, I think. Tom and he discovered the tiger cages. I can't remember the name of the member of Congress he worked for, and then Tom, of course, became one of the great members of the Senate, responsible for the Disability Act.
Q: Yes. Did you have any contact with the people in the opposition camps, the National League of Families?
Weiss: I came to Washington bringing a box of mail from Hanoi, when there was a hearing on the prisoners of war, which I think was led by Congressman Ben Rosenthal of Queens. In a meeting room, one of the women from the League of Families, it was called, got up and attacked me. Then, I testified at the hearing, and I opened the box of letters and put them out on the table to say that I'm here with mail, and then of course mailed them immediately afterwards to the families. It was a kind of dramatic moment, but it was a moment that demonstrated that we had evidence that we were doing something for the pilots, and the League of Families was making propaganda.
Weiss: But do you know that Mr. [John A.] Boehner, the Speaker of the House in Congress, has a POW/MIA flag in his office, and it's 2014, and the war has been over for how many years?
Q: Nearly fifty, yes.
Weiss: And there was one in the City Council of New York City until I don't know when, it might still be there for all I know, but I was shocked when I saw it there. There are POW/MIA highways in America.
Q: Yes. Oh, it was a big issue, yes.
Q: Well, when I look at some of that, you know, it's almost impossible to get the numbers. If you say Missing in Action, where are you going to find those numbers? So it's bound to be endlessly debated.
Weiss: Well, it could be. But when the plane came, and the door opened, every single pilot walked off the plane. There was not a single gurney. That speaks louder than anything. It was an extraordinary day, and being a prisoner of war is horrifying. I don't know how they all survived.
The Vietnamese gave them a lot of pumpkin, which apparently is high in vitamin C. I didn't know that.
Q: Well, John McCain has all these stories about being tortured.
Weiss: They probably were. Have you met a war that didn't have torture? Look at the torture we're doing between Guantanamo and Iraq, and it's horrible. There's a law against it. So, John McCain became a tortured senator. He's in great shape.
Weiss: We brought his mail back for his wife, at the time his wife, and children. He refuses to talk to me, well, that's his privilege, I guess. But he divorced her and married someone else, and he became a Senator. And he's an authority. He's very good on some issues, like torture. But he
Q: I want to ask you about the '72, and the prisoners' releases. How did that trip originate?
Weiss: Originate? We were having our family vacation in August, which we've had—it will be our fifty-eighth summer there this summer, for just the month of August.
Q: On the Vineyard?
Weiss: On the Vineyard. Our children were small, obviously. Our youngest was ten, I guess. I got a call from Paris, would I please come with David Dellinger, to Paris? So, we were good friends with Frankie [Frances] Fitzgerald and her then boyfriend, who was a journalist, who never came back from Vietnam. He was killed in Vietnam. I called her up, and I said, "Would you like to come and spend a few days on the Vineyard with Peter and the kids?" So, they became our house sitters, babysitters. It got to be news on the Vineyard, and there is a picture somewhere of me taken, getting on the plane, the little—what was then called—I don't know if it was called "Cape Air" then, but it was a little thing that flew with a couple of props to Boston. I met Dave, and we flew to Paris. It was supposed to be a secret, what we were doing there. Was that the secret? Yeah, I think that was.
Anyway, we got to Paris, we were met by the Vietnamese, and we were immediately taken to their place, and we were told that they were ready to release three pilots, and would we put together a delegation and take them? We were thrilled. It wasn't until we got to the airport to
each one." Well, that put this whole thing over the top. It was very, very impressive and exciting, and creative of them. It was going to be a peace gesture, obviously. So, we came back, and we put everything into gear.
Q: They gave you the names?
Q: Did they tell you on what basis they had selected them?
Weiss: No, but afterwards, Mary McGrory, writing in the Washington Star, said, "Vietnamese sent the balanced ticket, because we had a white man from New England, Mark Gartley, a black man from California, west coast, [Norris Alphonzo] Charles, and a Jew from the south, [Edward] Elias. So, we called Mark's mother, Minnie Lee, who taught typing and— Q: Stenography.
Weiss: —stenography in the winter living in an RV, recreational vehicle, in Clearwater, Florida, and who had three television sets in her vehicle, so she could watch ABC, NBC and CBS news.
She was against the war. Her son, Mark, was a recent shoot-down, so he had not been there for more than a year or two, maybe two years. So, we called her, and she said, of course. She