Back in 1990, my colleague Jimmy Carcerano introduced me to Vincent Arnone, who was an ex Green Beret Master Sergeant who served in Vietnam and still lived in Thailand since he’d married an ethnic Lao Thai woman.
Vinny claimed that he needed some “working capital” to consummate a lucrative deal to trade Lao gold for Thai arms to support the anti-communist anti Pathet Lao insurgents in Laos. He further claimed to know where some American POWs were being held against their will deep in the Laotian jungle and he knew where and how we could liberate them.
Now Vinny came highly recommended by Jimmy and my psychologist friend Lorna DiMeo examined him and proclaimed his assertions to be true and that he was an honest man.
Vinny came complete with an old SOLDIER OF FORTUNE magazine in which the whole issue was devoted to detailing how he and Bo Gritz and Loh Tharaphant had attempted to use a group of Vietnam vets to do the same thing, that is to say they had made an incursion into Laos to try to rescue some American POWs.
Not only had a successful movie been made of that caper – DELTA FORCE – but Vinny had a videotape of a BBC documentary questioning whether there were in fact POWs still being held and concluding that they were definitely still American POWs being kept in captivity in the Laotian jungle.
That BBC documentary prominently featured interviews with Vinny Arnone and Loh Tharaphant along with Henry Kissinger and other famous people. The video showed Vinny in Thailand camped with a paramilitary group that he apparently had formed and was in command of.
Vinny’s friend Loh Tharaphant was an extremely successful ethnic Vietnamese businessman in Thailand. He was originally from Hanoi and had been the prime political enemy of Ho Chi Minh in the struggles to govern Indo China after the Japanese had left at the end of World War Two.
Obviously Loh had lost that power struggle to Ho and had fled with his family and assets to the north of Thailand to the village of Nkon Phnom on the Mekong River. This much is all definitely true and was verified in both the Soldier of Fortune article and the BBC documentary.
After being convinced of his veracity, a bunch of us raised about $15,000 to send me to Thailand to hook up with Vinny and his organization and to make the guns for gold trade in Nkon Phnom brokered by Loh Tharaphant.
A Canadian geologist and former Canadian Army Ranger asked to come along for the adventure and to assay the gold which was supposed to have been mined in Northern Laos right next to the Chinese border by anti Pathet Lao operatives.
After effectuating the trade my Canadian friend and I were going to sneak into Laos by boat across the Mekong River to join up with Vinny’s people and some anti Pathet Lao guides to liberate one or two American POWs.
Sounds pretty straight forward doesn’t it? Get rich and famous in one deal. Oh well… My colleagues and I thought so and I was certainly excited by the adventure of it all.
That’s a picture of Lorna, me and my buddy and colleague in this deal Joe Lopisi taken the evening before I boarded a Northwest Airlines jumbo jet for the thirty plus hour flight to Bangkok. The flight included an eight hour layover at Narita Airport in Tokyo.
I was pretty tired when I arrived at the Bangkok Airport where I was met by Vinny, his wife and his Thai colleague Pat. After checking into a modest hotel we drove back to the airport to pick up our Canadian Colleague and drive him to his fancy hotel. He was also exhausted by the flight but, never-the-less; we stayed up late; drinking; sharing war stories; and reviewing the currently planned operation. We were all very high on adrenalin in spite of our physical exhaustion and jet lag.
We had two days to spare before taking the bus North so Pat drove us all to the Royal Palace to see the Temple of the Emerald Buddha the first day and then he drove us about one hundred kilometers to Kanchanaburi… the site of the BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI and the cemeteries and JEATH MUSEUM that memorialized the almost twenty thousand allied soldiers who had died constructing the Thai-Burma Railway under the command of the savage Imperial Japanese Army.
The drive through the Thai countryside was notable for the wonderful Thai architecture and beautiful countryside. I also interviewed Pat about Thai manners, customs and history with my Sony Video Cam. Thailand is a wonderful country with an amazing history. I particularly remember when someone asked me “Where are you from?” to which I answered “Boston.” My querrier responded “Oh… I know that place… it’s near San Francisco… right?”
Once we arrived at Kanchanaburi we walked over the famous River Kwai Bridge and admired the old Japanese locomotive on display there. We then rented a long boat powered by a V-8 engine mounted on a swivel to tour up and down the River.
I was amazed by the floating villages that dot that river and I was particularly amused by the “night club” barge that actually sloshed up and down to the beat from the energetic adolescents dancing to the Thai superstar Burt MacIntyre’s BOMMERANG. I later bought a tape of his album. Burt has a Thai mother and an Australian father which explains his name. Thais pronounce his name as BOORDT.
We visited a Buddhist temple deep underground in a cave. There was a huge statue of the Buddha in the final chamber at the very bottom. The surface temperature was certainly over 100º and the humidity also was near 100. The jungle we passed through to reach the Buddhist cave sounded like a TV set turned all the way up between channels. I mentioned to my friend that I could understand how the Allied prisoners of the Japanese would choose the Japanese brutality over the possibility of escaping through that dense, disease ridden Thai jungle.
We ate dinner on a floating restaurant hard by the bridge and, in spite of my love for great Thai food; I couldn’t get the fire out of my mouth no matter how much water I drank. The drive home took a little over an hour from Kanchanaburi to the outskirts of Bangkok and another four hours of horrendous traffic back to our hotels.
The next morning we were scheduled to catch the bus up North to start our adventure but I was delirious with a high fever. They took me to Siam General Hospital where I was admitted. I don’t remember much of the day and night spent in that hospital but I do know that not a single soul I encountered in that hospital spoke any English at all… not a doctor, not a nurse and not an administrator. I couldn’t believe it.
While Vinny and my Canadian friend were in Nkon Phnom; Pat took me from the hospital to his father’s home. His father had been a physician in the Imperial Japanese Army of occupation who’d married a Thai woman and changed his name at the end of the war. He had a huge house with very little furniture, a Buddhist shrine and a big picture of his father kissing the King’s ring. Pat gave me a cup of boiled water every few hours and I felt pretty good by evening.
That evening, Pat, a few of his friends and I had a great feast in a fabulous Chinese restaurant in downtown Bangkok. It was the best Peking Duck I’d ever had. That evening we attended a party given by his friends and we had a fabulous time with their Thai girlfriends. My buddy was named Mari pronounced Mai Lee.
The next day Vinny and my Canadian friend got back and things hadn’t gone well. My Canadian friend said the “gold” wasn’t up to snuff and that the Laotians had left in a real snit. Vinny was in a very dark mood and said we still had time to make the deal happen and asked me for more money to show “the other side” that we still meant business. This was to begin a process of him trying to take all the money I had to “make the deal happen.”
Loh Tharaphant came down to Bangkok to meet me and assure me the deal would still happen but all he said to me was that he would like to work some import-export deals with me after I got back to the States. Needless to say this never happened and Vinny got weirder and weirder telling me how easily he could kill me and get away with it in Thailand and no-one would ever know about it or care about it. When a bona-fide former Green Beret E -7 tells you how easily he could kill you while you’re in a Third World Southeast Asian nation it needs to be taken seriously and plans need to be made.
Since I was by now pretty much out of money and Vinny was still demanding more; I wasn’t feeling very safe. Unbeknownst to Vinny I changed my ticket and left Thailand a day early.
I did take the KLONG TOUR – a tour of Bangkok’s many canals, the floating markets and a great snake farm where poisonous snakes were milked to make anti-venom. I got real close to a King Cobra and other snakes with my video camera.
The best part of the trip home was seeing the peak of Mt. Fuji majestically rising above the plain of clouds as we approached Narita. I was extremely happy to be alive and devastated by the failure of our deal and how I could possibly face my friends and deal with this disaster. All I could do is to tell them the truth and hope they believed me.
Since then I’ve clearly decided that Vinny was a brilliant and very dangerous con man and I really believe that he slipped me a drug or something to make me sick so I wouldn’t be present at the important final deal. I felt absolutely fine before and after the brief “illness.”
Back home, my friends, though disappointed, surprisingly understood. God Bless them all.