Ross Perot: The Heroes Hero ror
When the chips were way down, he stepped into their lives
Saturday, March 20, 2004
By RENA PEDERSON / The Dallas Morning News©
Ross Perot is known around the world as the folksy dynamo who founded a computer empire and ran for president in 1992 and 1996. His colorful criticism that NAFTA would produce a “giant sucking sound” of jobs being siphoned overseas echoes today.
When asked to write his own epitaph once, he answered: “Made more money faster. Lost more money in one day. Led the biggest jailbreak in history. He died. Footnote: The New York Times questioned whether he did the jailbreak or not.”
That was back in 1981, before he led the war on drugs and ramrodded education reform in Texas. It was before he sold Electronic Data Systems to General Motors for $2.5 billion. And before the independent presidential campaigns that led to the creation of the Reform Party.
But just as former President Jimmy Carter may have made his greatest contributions through humanitarian efforts after his presidency, Mr. Perot may well have made his greatest contribution with behind-the-scenes efforts to save the lives of Americans who were injured in the military or were in jeopardy.
One of his most daring efforts – the 1979 rescue of EDS employees taken hostage by the Iranian government – was turned into the best seller “On The Wings of Eagles” and into a TV movie. That’s the “biggest jailbreak” reference.
But there are hundreds of lesser-known stories about people helped by Mr. Perot. They will be brought into the spotlight, many for the first time in public, Thursday night at an awards dinner in Dallas. At that time, Mr. Perot will receive the prestigious Eisenhower Award in recognition of his humanitarian efforts in general and his extraordinary efforts to help American service members in particular. The Business Executives for National Security, a national nonprofit organization for business leaders who help the government on national security issues, bestows the award.
Those in attendance will include a delegation of former POW’s and Medal of Honor winners, most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 70 of those in uniform who have personally been helped by Mr. Perot.
Though he has shied away from discussing his role in the charitable acts in the past, the Dallas businessman agreed to flesh out some of the stories at an interview last week at his Perot Systems office in Plano. He recalled that the extracurricular military missions started during the Vietnam War.
“It was 1969 when Bonnie Singleton came to see me with her 3-year old son. She told me, ‘He doesn’t know if he has a father.’ That really got to me,” he said.
Mr. Perot agreed to help her look for her husband, Capt. Jerry Singleton, who was piloting a rescue helicopter when he was shot down in North Vietnam in 1965. Mrs. Singleton later traveled to Paris, Sweden and the Vatican to try to get information about her husband. Mr. Perot began to publicize the inhumane treatment of U.S. POWs, offering to provide Christmas dinners, flying with the wives of POW’s to Southeast Asia to inspect prisoner camps.
To put those efforts in perspective, this was a time when there were more than 450 known American POWs in Vietnam and some 970 were MIA’s. Some already had been imprisoned as long as 2,000 days, the longest time that American service members had previously spent in captivity in U.S. history. Their grieving and frustrated families had few champions to help their cause until Mr. Perot got involved in a big way.
When Capt. Singleton was finally released in 1973, Mr. Perot made sure his wife and son were the first to greet him, and he keeps a photo in his office of young Richard pointing as he sees his father for the first time. Richard, now 38, and his mother will be in the audience Thursday. Capt. Singleton is expected to attend; the couple is divorced.
For the next three decades, Mr. Perot’s life has intersected with Vietnam veterans. He organized a parade in 1973 in San Francisco to honor those who tried to rescue the POW’s in Son Tay prison. He gave special prominence to Vietnam veterans in the 1991 Dallas parade honoring the Desert Storm veterans. As recently as 2001, he arranged for a nine foot statue to be installed at the U.S. Air Force Academy in honor of retired Gen. Robinson Risner, a former POW.
“You see, Robbie Risner had just been on the cover of Time magazine as the U.S. ace pilot when he was shot down and captured,” Mr. Perot explained. “They knew they had somebody special, so they kept him for five years in solitary confinement in a bamboo box where the temperatures sometimes reached 140 degrees.
“Gen. Risner wasn’t about to let that break him, and the first thing he did when he got out was to organize the first church services in the Hanoi Hilton prison compound. The Vietnamese broke it up and hauled him off for more solitary confinement in the box.
“And picture this: As they are leading him away, the other POW’s stood up and started singing The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America. Room after room, the POW’s sang hymns out the window as Robbie was taken away.
“Later when they asked Risner how he felt at that moment, he said, ‘I felt like I was nine feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.’ That's the kind of guy he is.”
When Mr. Perot commissioned the Risner statue, he asked that it be made ninefeet tall – “life-sized.”
There were lighter moments to be sure: The USO called Mr. Perot in 1986, saying that naval troops who had been at sea for months desperately needed some entertainment. It was suggested that singer Wayne Newton might be willing to go.
“I told them Mr. Newton was a fine singer, and I had been out of the Navy a long time, but I didn’t think that was the kind of boost those guys needed,” Mr. Perot chuckled.
He paid to send the entire contingent of Miss USA Pageant contestants to the Mediterranean, including the new winner, Christie Fitchner from Texas, and a young actress named Halle Berry. The young women proved troupers themselves as they had to be flown to a different nuclear sub or ship each day. The subs surfaced at night to pick them up and then descended. The women, Mr. Perot laughed, “had such a good time, they stayed a month, and I had all these parents calling me wanting me to get their daughters home.”
Later the sailors on the USS Yorktown sent him a unique photo as thanks – lined up in their dress whites on deck, they spelled out “TKS HRP.”
Mr. Perot has the photo in the hall of his office along with hundreds of other photos and mementos, such as the battered cup a POW used for meals and the flag from the jacket of a serviceman killed in action.
Another favorite episode was the rescue of “Max” Dat Nguyen, just as Saigon was falling. The former South Vietnamese Air Force colonel had been imprisoned by the North Vietnamese along with American POW’s. Assigned menial cleaning chores in the latrine and kitchen to humiliate him, Mr. Nguyen used his access to bring food and medicine to fellow POW’s.
As Saigon was falling, Mr. Perot got a call that Max Dat, as everyone called him, needed rescuing and was told that three former POW’s were prepared to go back in and rescue their buddy.
Mr. Perot, concerned that they would be killed if captured again, asked them to wait an hour. He called a “senior official” in the White House, who called the Saigon Embassy. George Petrie, one of the soldiers who had tried to liberate the Son Tay prison camp, made sure Max Dat and 32 members of his family made it to safety before Vietnamese Communists stormed into the embassy compound.
After his own rescue, Max Dat later helped Mr. Perot with the rescue of a group of Vietnamese Nung people who had escaped from Vietnam to China, but then were imprisoned by Chinese authorities on High Island. They faced certain death if they were returned to Vietnam.
After efforts to work with the State Department bureaucracy failed, Mr. Perot sent in his own team, led by Harry McKillop, one of his EDS executives. Some 175 Nungs were released.
“I still don't know exactly how they got them off that island,” Mr. Perot said with a mixture of amusement and amazement. “Harry won't tell me. Maybe it’s best I don’t know.”
Mr. McKillop, later helped pull off another unusual rescue in the 1980’s. Mr. Perot received a call of concern from a U.S. businessman who had heard about an elderly American woman who had been held prisoner in China for more than 40 years. She was the daughter of a wealthy family living in China when World War II broke out. She was captured by the Japanese and put in prison.
After the war, the Chinese claimed she was a CIA operative and kept her in prison. The businessman took a photo of the gate of the prison were she was being held, but did not have an address. Mr. McKillop went to the Chinese town with the photo and walked the streets until he found the gate and Marjorie Fuller. Mr. Perot used his influence to get her released. Today she lives in a nursing home in Baltimore, but will attend the Dallas dinner to thank Mr. Perot in person.
Before she got out of China, Ms. Fuller observed wistfully: “I always said that America is God’s country, but I never went there.” Upon arriving in America, she said: “I had a miracle happen. God brought me home for Christmas.”
How much time and money has Mr. Perot spent on such extraordinary efforts? He smiles but doesn’t answer.
What he’d rather talk about is that the calls for help that come to him in the middle of the night or on a Sunday afternoon usually come from a general or admiral or other high-ranking leader.
That shows these people care about the men and women in their command,” he said. “I wish we had the same concern by CEO’s for some of the people on their shop floor.”
At 73, Mr. Perot seems less intense than a decade ago but still unabashedly patriotic. It’s a tossup whether there are more photos of his family or eagles and flags in his office. He’s kept a lower civic profile since he eased out of the political spotlight, and he agreed to help with the Eisenhower dinner primarily because it will benefit the military.
“My role was insignificant,” he kept insisting during the interview. “The men and women who do so much for us are the ones who deserve the attention.”
But as Gen. Wayne Downing, who participated in the rescue of the Nungs, put it, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
Comfortable or not, Mr. Perot will be The Hero to a room full of heroes Thursday night, and they will get the chance to do something for him.