On August 17th, 1958, a fish and game warden in Death Valley, California, found a car abandoned in the desert 42 miles from the nearest town. The keys were still in the ignition and there was no sign of foul play.
The car was registered to Lt. Paul Whipkey of Fort Ord, California, almost 500 miles away. The Army reported that Whipkey had been missing for five weeks and, in fact, was wanted as a deserter. But, there was a problem: by all accounts, Paul Whipkey was the perfect soldier. No one who knows him believes he could have been a deserter. Carl Whipkey is Paul's brother:
"I don't think Paul deserted. It was completely out of character for Paul to do such a thing. He was a loyal American soldier, devoted to his work. I think the Army knew exactly what had happened to him. I think it was part of a big smokescreen cover up."
Paul Whipkey was an R.O.T.C. honor graduate. After basic training, he won a spot in the Army aviation school. In 1957, at Camp Desert Rock in Nevada, Paul flew an observation plane during testing of the atomic bomb. He was exposed to radioactive fallout, and it soon after that when unusual blotches appeared on his skin. Several months later, stationed at Fort Ord, California, Paul had to have all of his teeth removed.
On July 10th, 1958, late one afternoon, Paul left Fort Ord. He told friends that he was headed for the town of Monterey, less than a mile away. But Paul never returned. The next morning, Paul was reported AWOL and 30 days later, he was declared a deserter. The following week, his car was discovered in Death Valley.
The army says that on the day Paul left, he apparently ended up at Whites Motel in Mojave, California, some 350 miles from the base. Paul had signed the motel's guest registration. Army investigators say they found a gasoline receipt in Paul's car. It showed that he had bought gas in Mojave, before his car ended up in Death Valley, 145 miles away.
On the very morning Paul turned up missing, two soldiers stripped his room at Ft. Ord. Everything was removed, including Paul's personal belongings. According to his brother Carl, this was an odd and perhaps illegal procedure:
"Regulations state that the next of kin or legal representative must be notified before packing belongings. And they didn't notify us at that time. I was very suspicious of this action as soon as I discovered it had taken place."
Four weeks after Paul was reported AWOL, a witness driving through Death Valley saw his car. He said it was being driven by a man in military uniform. However, when Paul left Fort Ord, he was wearing civilian clothes. When the car was found, a pile of cigarette butts was on the ground next to it: Paul didn't smoke. Also troubling to Paul's family was the fact that the Army waited nine months before looking for his body. And it was only by accident that Carl Whipkey heard anything about the car at all:
"The only way that I learned about the car was due to an unofficial call I placed to an enlisted man at Fort Ord. Within half an hour, he called back very excited and he said this is classified information and requested that I not tell anyone where I had heard it."
The investigation into Paul's disappearance also troubled his commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Charles Lewis:
I found it almost unbelievable that he would be classified as a deserter. I was curious what the basis for it was. And I was quickly and promptly told 'Charlie, forget this. The case has been closed and I would recommend that you don't carry it any further.' In essence I was told to shut up and drop it and blow away."
Charles Lewis and Paul Whipkey were both stationed in Nevada during 1957. Lewis recalls the day he saw two men in plain clothes talking to Paul:
"I noticed that they had gone directly to the airfield instead of reporting to operations, which was required for a purpose of security. So I asked them for their identification. They showed me their military identification cards and the picture did verify who the two were."
Over the next few weeks, Lewis often saw Paul talking to the same two men:
"When Lt. Whipkey would come in after they had departed, you could feel a rigidity in his personality traits and his mannerisms."
In hindsight, Lewis now believes that Paul may have met with the two men for one simple reason:
"During that era, there was a tremendous amount of nationwide recruiting conducted by the CIA. And with Lt. Whipkey's qualifications, he would've been an exceptional candidate for such an assignment."
Paul's brother, Carl, thinks there may be some truth to this as well:
"January of the year he disappeared, he told me during a telephone conversation that he was going to be going on an assignment, that he was going to make a name for himself. Before he could tell me what it was, he was interrupted by some officers moving in the proximity of his desk and he could no longer talk to me about the subject. I theorize that Paul was recruited into an Army/CIA joint program that was going on at that time. When Paul left Fort Ord, he drove to the town of Mojave, California and checked into White's Motel. There's a possibility that he was met there by Army intelligence agents or the CIA and transported to Southeast Asia, possibly from Edwards Air Force Base, which is nearby."
Carl now believes that his brother was assigned to a secret mission and left his car with the Army. He thinks they kept it four weeks before driving it into the desert. But not knowing the answer leaves him always wondering:
"I think the Army took his car out to the desert to get rid of it. Out of sight, out of mind. If they would just say, 'Yes, he died on a secret assignment,' we could live with that. We're all loyal American citizens in our family and we would buy that. And until the Army tells us what happened, there will be no peace in our family."
In 1982, the Army reviewed Paul Whipkey's case and found no basis to support his status as a deserter. Two months later his final status was officially changed from "deserter" to "died in the line of duty."