Sixteen years ago, Hanoi opened the gates of its dungeons and the first American prisoners of war began a euphoric flight to the freedom some had been denied for almost nine years. This country’s longest and most controversial war had come to an end at last.
During the latter years of that war, the only issue of the Vietnam experience that united supporters and opponents of the war was mistreatment of the POWs, first brought to public attention by an article in the October 1969 issue of Air Force Magazine. Louis R. Stockstill’s “The Forgotten Americans of the Vietnam War,” reprinted by Reader’s Digest, became the catalyst that focused worldwide censure on the government of North Vietnam. That censure was a very long time in coming.
The first American POW in Vietnam is believed to have been Green Beret Capt. Floyd Thompson, captured on March 26, 1964. He, like an unknown number that followed, spent most of his years as a prisoner in a series of remote jungle camps under appalling conditions. The prisoners were kept in bamboo cages, provided neither clothing nor blankets, denied medical treatment, frequently abused by their captors, and grossly undernourished. How many died in the hell of the jungle camps may never be revealed.
Somewhat better known to the world was the system of prisons in and around Hanoi, centered on Hoa Lo, “The Hanoi Hilton.” The first American to inhabit that infamous place was Lt. j.g. Everett Alvarez, shot down on Aug. 5, 1964. It was seven months before downed airmen from the bombing attacks on targets in North Vietnam began to fill the dank cells of Hoa Lo. Alvarez no longer was alone.
While living conditions in the prisons were only marginally better than in the camps, up to late 1969, there were important differences. As the prison population grew, the POWs set up a military organization, devised means of communication, and disseminated regulations and policies based on the Military Code of Conduct. Organization provided a sustaining web of unity and purpose.
Unlike their counterparts in camps, prison authorities in late 1965 sanctioned systematic physical torture, often administered by professionals in that grisly business. Many POWs who didn’t show “the right attitude” were beaten with rubber belts until, as one prisoner put it, their buttocks looked “like raw hamburger.” The rope treatment, suffered many times by the most determined resisters, inflicted excruciating pain, often dislocating the victim’s shoulders and breaking ribs. Injuries that had been sustained in a bailout gave no immunity from torture.
Solitary confinement, sometimes for months, in tiny, unventilated cells infested with rats was a common punishment. Some “offenders” were chained to a slab for days at a time, not released even to attend to natural functions. Starvation and dehydration of those undergoing torture or solitary confinement were routine.
Torture was not used primarily to obtain military information, but to break a prisoner’s will, force him to betray his comrades, and extort letters or tapes condemning US policy and praising the leniency of his captors. The prisoners were viewed by North Vietnam as a propaganda tool to fan the flames of antiwar sentiment in this country. To some extent that scheme backfired when the barbarism engulfing the prisons became known in 1969. Only then did POW life begin to improve, slowly and with many reversions.
Most of the Americans captured before late 1969 were abused to varying degrees. The toughest and bravest suffered the most, among them Air Force pilots Larry Guarino, Don Storz (who apparently died in torture), John Flynn, Robbie Risner, George “Bud” Day, and Jim Kasler, and the Navy’s James Stockdale, Jerermiah Denton, John McCain, and Rodney Knutson. Every man who had met the torturers knew there was a point beyond which he could no longer resist. All but a few held out far beyond what seems the limit of human endurance, then by phrase or intonation made a statement that the outside world would know had been extorted under extreme duress.
The Vietnam Memorial speaks eloquently of those who gave their lives in Southeast Asia. There is no memorial to the men who suffered and survived Hanoi’s prisons. North Vietnam’s calculated program of mental and physical brutality was without parallel in the annals of “civilized” nations at war. The heroism of the great majority of POWs went beyond anything we who were not there can conceive. Their stubborn resistance to the demands of their captors brought honor to themselves and to their profession. These extraordinary men wrote a chapter in the history of this nation that must not be allowed to fade from memory. They should be publicly commemorated as a symbol of patriotism and of the unconquerable spirit that inspires the best in free men.
The most detailed account of the POW experience is John G. Hubbell’s book P.O.W., published by Reader’s Digest Press in 1976.
Published February 1989. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.