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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

In an earlier post on Ralph Schoenman and his role in the Kennedy assassination conspiracy industry, I questioned his reliability as an interviewer. The reason I did so was because of a man named Gerald Coffee, who was one of Schoenman’s earliest interviewees. This is his story:

Lieutenant Gerald L. Coffee, a US Navy pilot aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, was shot down just off the coast of North Vietnam on 3 February 1966 and taken prisoner by North Vietnamese forces. Shortly after his capture, he was tortured: after being subjected to a mock execution, he was suspended from a tree by ropes tying his arms — one of them already broken — behind his back. A rag crammed into his mouth muffled his cries.

Some weeks later, Coffee would entertain his first American visitor — not a diplomat, a politician, or a Red Cross worker, but Ralph Schoenman. According to Coffee, Schoenman identified himself and his mission clearly. He wanted Coffee to assist in the defense of David Mitchell, a young American draft resister.

(Some history is in order here. In 1965, David Mitchell was charged and convicted with failing to report for induction into the armed forces. Mitchell had refused the draft not on conscientious objector grounds, but because he believed that America was committing war crimes in Vietnam, and that he was obliged under Nuremberg principles to refuse orders to participate.

(Bertrand Russell, Schoenman’s employer, immediately took up Mitchell’s cause. In January 1966, he informed North Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Van Dong that Mark Lane — yes that Mark Lane — one of the Peace Foundation’s directors, would be defending Mitchell in his appeal. In order to bolster Mitchell’s defense, Schoenman was dispatched to North Vietnam to gather evidence of American war crimes. Lane planned to have Schoenman and Staughton Lynd, the veteran activist and lawyer, offer expert testimony on U.S. atrocities. Schoenman’s trump card would be the written testimony of a captured American pilot who was apparently willing to cooperate with the trial. His name was Gerald Coffee.)

First page of Gerald Coffee's letterAs the famished prisoner devoured the bananas, oranges and cookies that had been offered for the occasion, Schoenman lectured him about the evils of America, and what Coffee could do to help him. “You could contribute to the defense of David Mitchell,” he told him. “You have been in North Vietnam and have seen the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Your testimony would be invaluable.” He then offered to take a personal letter back to Coffee’s family. After Schoenman left the room, Coffee’s jailers seized their opportunity, beating him until he wrote a letter communicating the message they wanted delivered to the outside world. Coffee’s 10-page single-spaced letter was written entirely with his unbroken left hand. Schoenman had the letter photocopied and deposited among Russell’s papers.

Two weeks later, Schoenman calmly reported details of his visit to the New York Times, which reprinted extracts from the letter. Schoenman told the Times that Coffee was eager to testify about war crimes committed by the United States troops. Lieutenant Coffee “spoke at length about how he feels about the war in which he’s engaged,” Schoenman told the reporter, and “he says he feels himself to be a criminal.” Longer accounts of Schoenman’s visit with Coffee appeared in the left-wing periodical Liberation, and in Russell’s 1967 book, War Crimes in Vietnam. In the latter, Schoenman included long “verbatim” quotes from his conversation with Coffee. “I can’t get over the fact that the guards are so sympathetic,” Coffee allegedly told Schoenman. “They were simple people, tillers of the soil, farmers, peasants and they treated me kindly.”

Even though the trial judge eventually ruled his testimony irrelevant (it was put in the record for appeal purposes), Schoenman had won a major moral victory. As Russell wrote to Pham Van Dong, Schoenman’s evidence had been presented “partially” to the Court, but “fully to the Press.” David Mitchell was sentenced to five years for draft evasion, but Schoenman and Lane had won the world’s attention.

Coffee survived his ordeal and was eventually released, but by then the controversy over David Mitchell’s trial had passed. The New York Times never investigated the veracity of its earlier report. Schoenman’s “interview” with Coffee was forgotten. But Coffee himself remembers it bitterly. Speaking from Hawaii, he says that Schoenman’s account of his meeting — especially the verbatim quotes — were “laughable.” (His own written account of his ordeal can be found in his book, Beyond Survival.)

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