Every year since the mid-1950s over half a million hopeful World War II veterans get their hopes up for a fictitious life insurance "refund" that is the U.S. equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster mystery.

Typically a well-meaning friend tells a buddy who was at Okinawa, or with Ike in Europe that Uncle Sam is holding anywhere from $70 to $312 for him, and all he has to do is write the Veterans Administration to collect.

The alleged money owed the veteran is supposed to be a "dividend" from his or her wartime life insurance policy. The bogus bonanza rumor is making the rounds now in Washington and elsewhere. Copying machines from the Pentagon to the Social Security Administration are spewing out phony "application forms" the vet is supposed to fill out, and send to a certain Capt. V.R. Prosser at the VA Center in Philadelphia. Slight problem:

There is a VA Center in Philadelphia, but there is no Capt. Prosser, nor is there any dividend waiting for anyone.

In the past couple of weeks a half-dozen sharp-eyed feds have called this column saying they or friends have been told about the alleged refunds, or given "applications" to fill out and send off to Philly. Nobody in the Veterans Administration or the U.S. Postal Service knows who started the "refund" hoax. Or why. But VA offices regularly get calls, letters or walk-ins from veterans demanding the non-existent refunds. Most are nice, if disappointed, when they learn it is a hoax. Every now and then somebody gets a bit ugly, thinking he has been ripped off, again, by Uncle.

"It is the darnedest thing we have ever come across," said a long-time official of the VA. "We don't know who started this, or where, or why. Whenever it crops up we try to track it down. Usually somebody says a friend gave it to him. We check the friend, who got it from a friend, then the trail grows cold."

There apparently is no crime, since nobody can figure out who would gain anything because the vets are not told to send in any money for postage or handling. Since it goes to a legitimate VA address (but to a fake individual for a nonexistent refund) it does not seem likely that anybody is trying to compile a mailing list with the names of World War II veterans.

"One time a banker brought in one of the forms and showed it to us," a federal official said. "We told him it was a long-running fake. We asked him where he got it. He said another banker, solid citizen type, gave it to him at a banking conference." Other vets learn of the fictitious refund from notices on office bulletin boards, handed out at union or veterans group meetings, sometimes even at church. The only thing it has done is generate a lot of revenue and business for the postal service -- and work at VA claims centers. "We even considered that it was an employe, somewhere, trying to drum up business for his agency or post office, but none of it makes sense," said one VA aide, who has tracked the elusive Capt. Prosser for years.

The fake "fact sheet" is now making the rounds of the Pentagon, Department of Energy and heaven knows where else in metro Washington. This is what it says -- and please don't clip this out and pass it on for a refund:

"A bill was passed Congress recently which will give all WW II vets a divident of 65 cents per $1,000 of their GI insurance for each month of service." This refund, the fake notice says, is due regardless of whether or not the insurance is still carried. It goes on to say the VA -- and non-person Capt. Prosser -- are anxiously waiting to hear from one and all, so they can send a check by return mail..

It is all a fake! Don't waste a stamp! Forget it! Nix! Kilroy is not here! This is a drill! The Capt. Prosser in question is the Flying Dutchman; he is at the end of the rainbow. He never was and never will be. Stand At Ease.