P. O. W. : THE EXPERIENCE OF AMERICAN PRISONERS OF WAR IN VIETNAM Prisoners of War (POWs): In international law, term used to designate incarcerated members of the armed forces of an enemy, or noncombatants who render them direct service and who have been captured during wartime. 1 This definition is a very loose interpretation of the meaning of Prisoners of War (POWs). POWs throughout history have received harsh and brutal treatment.
Prisoners received everything from torture to execution. However, in recent times efforts have been made to reduce these treatments and to get humane treatment for POWs. These attempts include the Geneva Convention of 1949. Unfortunately, during the Vietnam Conflict, these "rules" of war were not always obeyed, as they are now. The Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoner of War, signed August 12, 1949, provided restrictions and obligations that a country with captured enemy POWs must meet and abide by.
These obligations consisted of feeding, clothing, medical treatment, mail, and delivery of parcels from prisoners. The official tally of American POWs who were captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) during the Vietnam War totaled 766, and of these 114 died while in captivity 2. Those that died were many times deprived of both medication and sufficient food or facilities, and were also ravaged by many diseases that affected the Americans. The guards and cadre refused to accept the fact that adequate food was all that was necessary to reduce if not eliminate the malnutrition and disease among the POW's. How many times I had heard, "the Front provides adequately for your livelihood." 3 The Vietnamese prison guards and higher ranking officers (cadre) sometimes did not understand why the American prisoners had trouble eating rice and developed "rice rejection" This was more of a mental instability than a physical disease. The prisoners also routinely developed dysentery, beri beri, and sometimes suffered from constant massive dehydration.
The food that the POWs had available was very little and almost always consisted of a large portion of rice because rice was the major staple crop for the Vietnamese. The American prisoners had a very tough time adjusting to this new diet though. Another of the main parts of any prisoner's meal was no uc mam. This was a native Vietnamese dish that is fish that has been fermented for a period of time and then is put in pots. This is eaten with rice and sometimes, fresh fish. Not a specific torture, but a very painful experience that POWs had to deal with everyday, was hunger.
Malnutrition, and hunger became a POW's worst enemy, and led to many of the 114 deaths among the prisoners. Another excruciating obstacle that prisoners sometimes faced was torture. Torture was against the Geneva Accords, but then again, so were many other acts that the NVA and Vietcong (VC) committed against American POWs. Torture sometimes only consisted of a few blows with a bamboo stick, to an all out beating until the prisoner was unconscious, to sometimes even worse acts of violence.
They grabbed him off the stool, backward, out the doorway of the bamboo house, across a muddy yard to an even smaller outbuilding... Two more guards burst into the crowded little room and unleashed a cascade of kicks and clubbing, striking Gruters about the chest, belly, and arms. 4 Guy Gruters, a United States Air Force F-4 pilot, was shot down over Vietnam on December 21, 1967, and when he would not answer his captors' questions, was beaten severely. After this his interrogators gave him the "rope torture." Behind him, three of the soldiers got to work with a length of rough hemp rope. They tied a series of shockingly tight hitches around his naked right bicep, then dragged the coiled line under his left armpit and yanked, hard. Gruters felt muddy, created boot soles on the back of his neck where the soldiers were getting leverage.
What the hell are they DOING, he thought, trying to rip my ARM off? 5 This torture bound the subject's arms in such a way as to cut of blood circulation and cause severe pain throughout the torso, shoulders, neck, and arms. Another torture that was used on prisoners was used on Green Beret Lieutenant James N. Rowe. His guards had taken his clothes and mosquito net for "washing" and didn't give them back for the nighttime. This was bad for Rowe because of the many mosquitoes that infest the Vietnamese jungles and come out at night. This was a very painful experience for him, and caused him to lose much needed sleep, which contributed to a slow physical and mental letdown.
Lieutenant Rowe escaped after 5 years of being held by the National Liberation Front (NLF) only to be later assassinated by Communist insurgents in the Philippines on April 21, 1989. Another torture that one POW had to endure was a stretching type of exercise. This happened to James N. Rowe, and he had flashbacks many times afterwards. His guards would first put him in ankle irons, then cuff his hands behind his back, and secure the ankle irons and his hands together with a length of iron bar so that his arms were constantly forced upwards and caused a large degree of joint pain throughout the night and days that his captors continued this type of torture. One of the hardest parts of surviving as a POW was "political indoctrination" by the Vietnamese.
The NVA, VC, or NLF would many times attempt to convert the American prisoner to Communism, and attempt to have the soldier write letters to United States officials to withdraw from Vietnam and "stop hostilities." Most soldiers resisted these attempts because of their firm belief in the U. S. and their Code of Conduct. If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my fellow comrades.
If I am senior, I will take command. If not I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way. 6 This simple statement helped many U. S. soldiers resist repeated attempts to chip away at their moral foundations and is one of the many things that distinguish the United States armed forces from other military units.
Another purpose of these political and social courses was to convince the prisoners that the war was hopeless and that might as well give up trying to resist the Vietnamese and to become somewhat anti-American government. Mr. Ho drew a distinction between what he called the U. S. imperialist government and the American people.
He said he didn't hate the American people. 7 Many times the NVA called the American government imperialistic and said that it only cared for capitalism and its own interests and not those of its people. Upon a POW's return to the United States they were hailed as heroes by their fellow soldiers and received the Prisoner of War Medal. For at least one former prisoner though, there was no fanfare, but instead a court-martial.
Robert Garwood was a traitor who sympathized with and later joined the Vietcong forces that were guarding twelve other prisoners. When Garwood returned to the United States after living in Vietnam for six years after the war had ended, he was accused of treachery, but was found guilty only of serving as a prison camp guard, interpreter, informer, and indoctrinator at the jungle prison camp after his capture and subsequent treachery. Garwood received only a demotion to the lowest rank and a dishonorable discharge. 8 Propaganda was also used many times against U. S.
POWs. This included broadcasts from Radio Hanoi in English, which ran news taken from anti-war American radio stations back in the U. S. These were the most disheartening of the propaganda used against the soldiers, because it was from the citizens of their own country. These broadcasts could also bring devastating news of violence at home and lowered the moral of the prisoners a great deal.
They could sometimes bring news of a prisoner's comrades, although this was usually bad news, as in the case of James Rowe. On the twenty-sixth, we heard the beginning of the broadcast, catching the phrase "The execution was carried out at ten o'clock," then static and again, "in retaliation for the murder of three patriots in Danang," static, "Captain Humbert Roque Versace," static, "Cora back." I sat stunned, the rest of the broadcast a blur of meaningless sound. There was silence in our hut as the realization grew: Rocky was dead. They had executed him, murdered him. 9 As Rowe realizes that Rocky Versace, who has been a person that the rest of the prisoners can look up to, is dead, the propaganda has achieved its desired affect and reduced the prisoners' moral.
These types of broadcasts also put into the POW's minds that execution was a very real threat and could end a POW's life very quickly. The longest detained American prisoner was Captain Floyd James ("Jim") Thompson, who was held prisoner for a total of nine years between March 26, 1964 and his return home on March 16, 1973. 10 Jim Thompson suffered immensely from torture, beatings, malnutrition, lack of medication, and isolation. When he finally returned home he was not greeted with fanfare, but with a nation that had turned its back on Vietnam and that typically disregarded the veterans of the war.
Some of the escapes that the prisoners attempted and executed were well thought out and daring plans. But the most successful escapes were spur of the moment ideas that a prisoner who saw an opportunity for freedom would take. An example of this is James N. Rowe's escape. After a few unsuccessful planned attempts he finally found an instantaneous opportunity that he took advantage of. He had just separated from his guards after an American bombing run had created chaos in the unit and was running away and attempting to signal a circling American helicopter.
After what seemed to be an eternity one of the Cobras passed overhead and banked sharply, circling me. It was joined by the second sleek gunship and my heart was beating so hard I though my whole body would vibrate. "They " ve seen me! I'm OK, they " ve seen me!" I saw the helicopter swing into a tight, low turn, ... it settled on the edge of the water, not more than fifteen meters from me. I ran, dragging my net, stumbling but staying upright, ... I dove onto the cool metal flooring and heard myself shouting, "Go! Go!" 11 This attempt by Rowe was successful and led to his repatriation and return to his family and military.
He had been listed as MIA during this time and had been promoted to major by the time that he returned to America. 12 This escape, and his amazing survival, made Major Rowe one of the military's greatest heroes. The release of the American POWs that still remained in Vietnamese captivity was on February 12, 1973, when 143 prisoners were released. In the next weeks 444 more POWs were repatriated back to the United States and the Vietnam Conflict was formally over.
Some of these POWs believe that there are still American soldiers remaining in Vietnam that were never released by the NVA and VC and have started Operation Black Flag. This is a program to help former Vietnam POWs and to help try and find out if there are still Americans that are left behind. Unfortunately though, there are still around 2, 000 soldiers that are unaccounted for and are listed by the United States armed services as MIA. 13 Vietnam POWs are now remembered and honored through memorials and dedications to Prisoners OF War and personnel who are listed as Missing In Action (MIA). The most famous of these memorials being the Black Wall. May they never be forgotten.
NOTES 1 "Prisoners of War (POWs)," Microsoft Encarta online encyclopedia, web 2 "Summary of Vietnam Casualty Statistics," VVA Chapter 172, web 3 James N. Rowe, Five Years To Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW (The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1971) 266. 4 Malcolm McConnell, Into the Mouth of the Cat (W. W.
Norton & Company, Inc. , 1985) 165. 5 McConnell, 165-166. 6 "Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States," Section IV as found in McConnell.
7 Zalin Grant, Survivors: Vietnam P. O. W. s Tell Their Stories (New York: Norton, 1975) 138. 8 Grant, ix.
9 Rowe, p. 209-210. 10 Tom Philpott, Glory Denied: The Saga of Vietnam Veteran Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 2001) xix.
11 Rowe, 438. 12 Rowe, 441. 13 "Prisoners of War (POWs) "A SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY "Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States" as found in McConnell." Prisoners of War (POWs) ." Microsoft Encarta online encyclopedia. web "Summary of Vietnam Casualty Statistics." VVA Chapter 172. web Zalin. Survivors: Vietnam P.
O. W. s Tell Their Stories. New York: Norton, 1975. McConnell, Malcolm. Into the Mouth of the Cat.
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 1985. Philpott, Tom.
Glory Denied: The Saga of Vietnam Veteran Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
, 2001. Rowe, James N. Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW. The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1971.