It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Celeste Headlee.

For the past 35 years, the audio you're about to hear has been sitting on reels of magnetic tape inside a warehouse at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.


GENERAL JOHN D. LAVELLE: I'm sorry to say, I've done nothing to prepare for this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, there's nothing to be prepared for, really, especially starting out.

HEADLEE: This audio is a matter of public record, but it's only recently been made available to NPR and has never been broadcast before. And it's why we're now able to bring you the story of a man being interviewed, what happened to him and why, four decades since he was brought into disrepute by the United States Air force. His case remains unresolved. The name of the man being interviewed is General John Lavelle.


LAVELLE: My father, Irish Catholic.

HEADLEE: John Lavelle was a general in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. There were just five men in the chain of command between him and President Nixon. And this is his oral history. It was recorded by an Air Force officer in 1978, a year before Lavelle died a broken man. Six years earlier, he was abruptly removed from his command and demoted.

For the past several months, Guy Raz, the regular host of this program, has been interviewing people who knew John Lavelle and are still seeking to clear his name. Guy picks up the story from here.


John Lavelle was born in Cleveland in 1916. In his oral history, he remembered being a pretty regular kid.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you ever get in much trouble when you were a kid?

LAVELLE: Same as everybody else. Never arrested, if that's what you mean. Well, that's not true either. Never booked. Got arrested for swimming in Lake Erie in the nude one day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible)


RAZ: His dad was a local fire chief, and he insisted Lavelle go to college. He worked odd jobs after graduation until one day, a friend said he was heading off to take the exam to be a flight cadet.


LAVELLE: And I said, why, and he said, well, don't you realize how much airline pilots are making? Take the exam, spend a year as a cadet and one year as a flying officer, get out and you'll be hired immediately by the airlines. So I went with him.

RAZ: That was a few years before the Second World War, and around the same time, John Lavelle had his first date with the woman who would become his wife, Mary Jo. She is now 93. And we interviewed her a few weeks ago at her home in Virginia. Here are her recollections of their first date interspersed with John Lavelle's from his 1978 interview.

And how did that date go?

MARY JO LAVELLE: Oh, fair. Jack was not a dancer in any form. And so...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Where did you first meet your wife-to-be?

LAVELLE: In a parish CYO.


LAVELLE: One of the priests there...


LAVELLE: A couple of young priests in our parish...

LAVELLE: They had played golf together.


LAVELLE: The deal was Father Murphy offered me was play 18 holes...

LAVELLE: It was a bet.


LAVELLE: But if I were to win...

LAVELLE: If Jack won...


LAVELLE: ...he would pay for dinner and a show downtown for me and a date.

LAVELLE: Any girl that he chose.


LAVELLE: And if he beat me, I had to join a CYO club and take this gal to the CYO dance that he had lined up for me.

LAVELLE: To be his date.


LAVELLE: I lost.


So you only knew each other...

LAVELLE: That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, that I lost in a golf game.


RAZ: By 1971, when Lavelles had been married 31 years, John Lavelle reached the pinnacle of his career, four stars on his shoulder, the highest rank he could achieve. In August of that year, Lavelle arrived at Vietnam as commander of the Seventh Air Force. His pilots were flying reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam.

The rules of engagement were clear: U.S. aircraft could not fire at targets in the north unless they were either being tracked by enemy radar or if they were fired on first. But by that point, the North Vietnamese had acquired a new type of sophisticated radar, one that could evade detection and take a plane out of the sky with almost no warning. For several months, Lavelle was losing pilots over the north. And as he recalled in his oral testimony, it was eating him up.


LAVELLE: One morning, about 2 o'clock in the morning, I was going through paperwork. Included in the paperwork were some of the letters the chaplain wrote and the commander signed back to widows or wives of people missing in action. At 2 o'clock in the morning, I had one that I was signing to a wife of a pilot that had flown for me in the 50th Fighter Wing in Europe.

I almost couldn't sign it. Because I could say to myself, you know, the letter is a form letter, and it's a fake. If we would just go in there aggressively and do the job we had to do instead of the phony rules we were playing with, there was no need for that guy to lose his life. And I resolved then that they weren't going in there without a chance. That's when I said that you never go over North Vietnam that that system isn't activated against you.

RAZ: Lavelle promised himself that he'd do everything he could to prevent the loss of another fighter pilot. He wanted authorization to strike those sophisticated radar and missile sites in the north before their tracking systems were detected, because by that point, as he insisted, it would have been too late for a pilot to avoid being hit. So he sent a request up the chain of command to the then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird.


LAVELLE: Secretary Laird told me that he agreed, but the climate was just not right in Washington for any changes.

RAZ: Now, remember, this was 1971. The war by that point was deeply unpopular. Already, more than 54,000 U.S. casualties. There was little public appetite for any further escalation. So Secretary of Defense Laird told Lavelle...


LAVELLE: He told me that I should make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement in the field and not come to Washington and ask him, under the political climate, to come out with an interpretation, and he would back me up.

RAZ: But what Lavelle didn't know was that changes to the rules of engagement were also being discussed at the highest levels of government. February 3, 1972 in the Oval Office. In this secret White House recording, Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, can be heard explaining to President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, why the Air Force needed more leeway to bomb those targets in North Vietnam.


ELLSWORTH BUNKER: Now the authority is for - to bomb them when they fire at the aircraft.

RAZ: Nixon seems sympathetic. He also doesn't want to lose any more U.S. pilots. But he was nervous that any escalation might look bad ahead of his upcoming trip to China. So Nixon agreed to allow a looser interpretation of the rules of engagement, but to do it off the books.


PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I want you to tell Abrams when you get back...

RAZ: Nixon tells Ellsworth Bunker to relay the following message to General Creighton Abrams, the top commander in Vietnam. Nixon says: From now on until we get back from China...


NIXON: Do it, but don't say anything.

RAZ: ...do it, but don't say anything. But by that point, General John Lavelle had already been doing it for 10 days. It started with a mission that targeted a runway in North Vietnam to prevent an enemy bomber from landing. Here's how Lavelle recalled that incident.


LAVELLE: The mission was successful. And the North Vietnamese called off the plan and actually turned the airplane around. In subsequent message traffic, JCS actually commended us for the mission.

RAZ: JCS, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But there was a problem. When the after-action report was issued, the words no reaction were written at the bottom. That suggested that North Vietnamese radar was never detected, a violation of the rules of engagement.


LAVELLE: I called my DO and asked him to call the wing commander and tell him that we could not report no reaction. As far as I was concerned, there was no question that the system and the radar were activated against us, and I felt that we were making a mistake in reporting no reaction. Of course, this is the report that somehow or the other got blown up into all my trouble.

RAZ: Somewhere along the chain of command, a 23-year-old staff sergeant who was in charge of filling in after-action reports was asked to make it clear that U.S. aircraft were targeted. That sergeant believed he was being asked to falsify that record. So he wrote to his senator, Harold Hughes of Iowa. In 1972, Hughes appeared on this program where he recounted the contents of the letter.


SENATOR HAROLD HUGHES: In this letter, he started out by saying: Dear Senator Hughes, I and other members of winged intelligence have been falsifying classified reports for missions in to North Vietnam. That is, we've been reporting that our planes have received hostile reactions and such anti-aircraft fire and SAM missile firings whether they have or not. And the sergeant went on to tell that he'd been instructed to falsify reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And then what did you do?

RAZ: Senator Hughes ordered an internal investigation. And shortly after, the Air Force launched a full investigation. By March of 1972, Lavelle had no idea he was about to be made a public disgrace. That month, he met with a Thai general promising to carry out more bombings in the north, something the Thais were demanding.


LAVELLE: I said: Marshall Dawee, for every crew that gets one of those 130-millimeter guns, I'm sending him to Bangkok. And you, Dawee, you're going to put on the best (bleep) party Bangkok ever put on for each one of those troops. He said: It's a deal. At a later date, we received a wire saying that Prime Minister Kittikachorn wanted personally to throw the party and that he, Kittikachorn, was going to throw one of the biggest parties Thailand had ever seen. I also got a wire from Ryan the same day, saying: Come home. You're fired.


RAZ: That wire came from General John Dale Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff.


LAVELLE: I went to the wrong party.


RAZ: By early April, Lavelle was forced to retire. Officially, the Air Force said for personal and health reasons. The real story was leaked to the New York Times, and soon, it was splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country. Jack Lavelle's son John Junior showed us some of those old clippings he keeps in a manila folder.

JOHN LAVELLE JUNIOR: Well, here's one of them: Ex-U.S. Commander Admits Falsifying Data. Bombing Violation Concealed: General Admits False Data on Raids in North Vietnam. Lavelle May Have Hurt Peace Talks.

RAZ: Lavelle was soon hauled before House and Senate committees to testify. Here's how it was covered on this program in 1972.


SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: This month, Lavelle admitted to the House Armed Services Committee that he had ordered at least 147 unauthorized bombing raids against targets in North Vietnam. After his testimony, reporters surrounded Lavelle, but most of their questions were not answered.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You seem to know something about...

RAZ: Now, publicly, the Nixon White House distanced itself from Lavelle. But in private, Nixon was furious.


NIXON: Come back to Lavelle. I don't want a man persecuted for doing what he thought was right. I just don't want it done.

RAZ: I don't want a man persecuted for doing what he thought was right. He goes on to say: You're making the guy a goat now. It's just not right.


NIXON: ...making the guy a goat now. It's just not right.

RAZ: Later on this tape, from June 14, 1972, Nixon asks if there is anything he could do to help Lavelle.


NIXON: Come back to Lavelle now. I just - can't somebody - can we do anything now to stop this damn thing or...

RAZ: But there was nothing to be done. All that was left was for the U.S. Senate to confirm Lavelle's retirement. But in an unprecedented step, the Senate declined to approve Lavelle's retirement at the rank of four stars. They concluded that he knowingly falsified reports, so Lavelle was demoted to a two-star general. And after more than three decades in the Air Force, he was left a broken man. Again, here's Lavelle's oldest son John Junior.

JUNIOR: And I can remember going to the house finally when it was obvious that this - how this whole thing was going - that he was going to be accused of this whole thing and take full responsibility and full blame for it, for all of it, that he was physically and mentally broken by it. I can remember walking in and seeing him sitting on the chair and kind of slumped over and his hands cupped in his lap. And it scared me because I thought to myself: God, what has happened here?


RAZ: Seven years later, in 1979, General Jack Lavelle died of a heart attack. He was just 63.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What other areas would you like to discuss?

LAVELLE: None. I think we've overdone the Lavelle interview, anyhow, and I think you ought to quit. How about cutting off the recorder?

RAZ: And the story would have ended there. But a few years ago, the case was resurrected by a lawyer named Pat Casey, who stumbled upon it while researching a book on another topic. And then in 2010, the Obama administration agreed to reconsider Lavelle's demotion.

PAT CASEY: Well, the nomination did not get to a vote.

RAZ: That's Pat Casey, the lawyer who revived the Lavelle case. He now represents the Lavelle family.

CASEY: The Senate Armed Services Committee sent a letter to the secretary of Defense and asked that certain questions be answered.

RAZ: The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Senators John McCain and Carl Levin, asked for an independent commission to look into the case. Neither senator agreed to speak with us about it, but in a statement issued in 2010, the committee cited inconsistencies in the historical record. Part of those inconsistencies may have had to do with a letter the committee received by a man named Charlie Stevenson. He warned against reinstating Lavelle's rank. Back in 1972, Stevenson worked for Senator Harold Hughes, the senator who launched the first investigation into General Lavelle's conduct. And to this day, Charlie Stevenson disputes John Lavelle's account.

CHARLIE STEVENSON: So Nixon may have wanted it. He may have said it to Henry Kissinger and Ellsworth Bunker, who were not in the military chain of command, but he never signed a written order to change the rules. And there were eight messages reinforcing the rules during the period of the unauthorized strikes.

RAZ: Do you believe that Jack Lavelle was aware that what he was doing was unauthorized and...

STEVENSON: He had noble motives. He wanted to protect the lives of his pilots and thought that they were endangered by the existing rules of engagement. So he thought he had a good reason to take winks and nods from higher authorities as some kind of proof that he could bend the rules.

RAZ: The Lavelle family and its lawyer Pat Casey are still in the dark as to why the independent investigation ordered by the Senate Armed Services Committee has now gone on for two years. Lavelle's daughter Geri(ph) told us the family's getting anxious. How important is time, is getting this done quickly?

GERI LAVELLE: Well, we keep saying it's important because of Mom's age. But she's hanging in there. She's doing a good job.


LAVELLE: And I do think at this point that it has actually become more important to the kids than it has - than it is to Mom.

RAZ: Where is he buried?

LAVELLE: Arlington.

RAZ: And what does his gravestone give his rank as?


LAVELLE: It's got four stars on it.

RAZ: His gravestone has four stars on it.

LAVELLE: Mm-hmm. That's my mother's doing. My mother called. We were given the information on who Arlington recommended to do gravestones, et cetera, and my mom called and ordered the gravestone.


RAZ: Mary Jo Lavelle insisted on those four stars. And no one has ever protested or perhaps never noticed.


HEADLEE: That report was by Guy Raz, the regular host of this program. He'll be back next weekend.


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