Voices of the Vietnam POWs: Witnesses to Their Fight

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One of the few survivors of the Tarn Ky ordeal was Private Robert Garwood who, upon his return to the United States in , became the subject of the longest court-martial in Marine Corps history. Garwood's story was complicated and unusual, but not altogether unique. Garwood shared the fear, vulnerability, and confusion that gripped so many of the young captives at Tarn Ky and elsewhere in the northern provinces of South Vietnam as they witnessed comrades fall like dominoes to the plague-like conditions.

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The men looked desperately for a way out, but they were handicapped by the lack of psychological or survival training and the absence of organization and senior guidance but for Dr. Between his capture in September and , Garwood drifted steadily from collusion to defection, beginning with the making of propaganda tapes in exchange for preferred treat- ment and eventually wearing a Viet Cong uniform, interrogating and guarding his own countrymen, and, according to some reports, fighting alongside the VC.

By , not even his handlers knew quite what to make of him or do with him.

He spent the next decade in relaxed but restive semi-confinement before getting a message to U. Before the war was out, three other young Marine POWs who had passed through one or more of the Souths northern camps would be among a group of eight enlistees disparag- ingly referred to by fellow prisoners as the "Peace Committee" for their antiwar declarations and propaganda contributions to the enemy. By April , as the guerrilla stronghold in the Tarn Ky region increasingly came under allied air attack, the enemy shepherded the surviving Marines and other remaining occupants of the Kushner camp north to Hanoi.

The POWs arrived there at a time of much improved treatment so that the differ- ence between the North and South captivities was even more pronounced. In Hanoi's cells they would encounter less freedom and more discipline in part from the new demands of a functioning POW organization than they had been accustomed to in the jungle, but they also had cleaner clothes, more palatable food, and an occasional bath. After , the bulk of American pris- oners were housed in the "Unity" compound, foreground, of the prison. The more extensive bombing campaign launched in March , under the code name Rolling Thunder, soon had the Navy and Air Force flying 1, attack sorties per month against the North.

A week after his capture Alvarez was trucked from a countryside detention station into the capital and deposited at the municipal prison known as Hoa Lo, meaning "fiery furnace" in Vietnamese.

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Built by the French at the turn of the century, it was surrounded by thick concrete walls 15 to 20 feet Lieutenant jg Everett Alvarez Jr. Officials divided the prison into several sections, which they later opened and reconfigured to house the POWs. With grim irony the first American occupants of Hoa Lo dubbed the forbidding fortress the "Hanoi Hilton. Such operations produced deep frustration and high casualties. By summer , more than thirty American airmen had been killed or were presumed missing in action and a dozen had been captured, including the first Air Force POW, Lieutenant Hayden Lockhart.

Denton, with the rank of commander at capture, was seized with his bombardier-navigator, Lieutenant jg William Tschudy, when their A-6 Intruder went down during a bombing run on 18 July.

September brought two senior officers who would become key resistance leaders— Commander Stockdale and Commander Wendell Rivers. Along with Alvarez and the survivors from the early captures in the South, the aviator-officers imprisoned in the spring and summer of would become the longest held U. POWs in history. They were part of a rapidly multiplying community that saw the POW population climb to more than sixty by Christmas — about half Air Force and half Navy and Marine.

To accommodate the overflow at Hoa Lo until later renovations only the Heartbreak and New Guy sections were ready to receive prisoners , the North Vietnamese opened two new camps in late summer For the year or so it was in use, the camp had no running water or electricity, and shuttered windows accentuated the gloom of unlit compartments. Confinement there was the closest match in the North to the Spartan circumstances in the South. Not as primitive or remote, but in its own way just as desolate, was the "Zoo," an abandoned French site, once perhaps a movie studio or art colony, on the outskirts of Hanoi near the village of Cu Loc.

Voices of the Vietnam POWs: Witnesses to Their Fight

The concrete buildings, hastily converted into cells, were in varying states of disrepair. The prisoners had to sleep on cement floors for lack of even bed slabs. Cows, chickens, and other farm animals roamed the grounds, which were littered with old film canisters and yellowing posters. The most distinctive structure was a large fetid swimming pool where guards raised fish. As a rule, after September and until the creation of additional space at Hoa Lo in , American captives were brought to the Hilton for registration and other "preliminaries" and then moved to the Zoo or other facilities for long-term incarceration.

The men were periodically returned to Hoa Lo for correction or interrogation. During , almost one hundred U. In the first four months of the year, Navy aviators dominated the casualty list, but the number of Air Force casualties eclipsed the Navy's by year's end as its role in the air war expanded. The senior-most naval officer claimed in , Commander John Abbott, died shortly after being taken prisoner on Model of the "Zoo" prison compound Lieutenant jg David G. Rehmann, shot down and injured in December , is paraded before news cameras. Coffee was especially in poor condi- tion from ejection injuries and rough handling en route to Hanoi.

Also in bad shape was Commander James Mulligan, who suffered a broken shoulder and cracked ribs when bailing out of his smoking A-4 Skyhawk on 20 March. In an experience that would become a first rite of passage for most of the downed pilots, Mulligan was picked up by armed peasants and delivered to local militiamen, lugged blindfolded and without shoes over gravelly roads, and pelted by angry mobs on the way to the capital. Pilots typi- cally had their boots removed at capture, going bare- foot until outfitted with sandals once behind bars.

In the South, some prisoners went without shoes for the length of their captivity there. Rehmann's post-capture photograph showing the badly injured pilot being prodded past a gauntlet of assembled cameramen and spectators became internationally famous as a symbol of the American prisoners' plight.


More Americans were taken prisoner in than in any other year of the war. Casualty analysts in Washington counted U. Individual cell- blocks acquired the nicknames of casinos— Riviera, Stardust, Desert Inn, and the largest, with 15 rooms, Thunderbird. On 19 May, the enemy seized six Navy aviators who were celled in Vegas after a brief initia- tion at Heartbreak.

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Other Marines who upon repatriation faced court-martial proceedings for desertion or dereliction — none of them officers, and all undoubtedly rendered vulnerable by their youth and factors peculiar to captivity in the South — were the aforementioned Private Robert Garwood, Private First Class Jon Sweeney, and three members of the so-called Peace Committee, Sergeant Abel Kavanaugh, Corporal Alfonso Riate, and Private Fred Elbert. Over the course of the decade, only a handful of Navy and Marine personnel followed McMorrow into Laotian captivity, but among those were two of the more riveting survival and escape stories of the war. To illustrate the nature of the land we were living in, Bill Austin killed a poisonous snake in our room one night, and in the morning when we emptied our toilet bowls, we hung it up on the fence. Said Schanberg:. Not as primitive or remote, but in its own way just as desolate, was the "Zoo," an abandoned French site, once perhaps a movie studio or art colony, on the outskirts of Hanoi near the village of Cu Loc. Full view. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape.

Lieutenant Commander Eugene B. Before rescue helicopters could reach him, armed locals seized the pilot and turned him over to authorities. Metzger was in even worse shape than McDaniel, with pus draining from huge open wounds on his arms and a deep gash in his thigh where a two-pound piece of shrapnel had penetrated. The other leg was broken, and the stench from the untended wounds was such that the Vietnamese burned incense sticks to counter it.

So convinced were they of his imminent demise, they bothered neither to treat nor to clothe him. When thrown into a room with Metzger at Vegas, McDaniel found him lying naked on the floor. Were it not for McDaniel's and other comrades' care— scrounging cloths to bandage him, keeping rats at bay, and pleading for medicine — the invalid would likely have died. Metzger was a perfect example of how a critically ill POW, who almost certainly would have succumbed in the itinerant captivity of the South, could hang on in the North because of marginally better conditions and the presence of capable, solici- tous cellmates to comfort and nurse him.

Before long Vegas and the Zoo themselves became crowded, the Zoo adding a section in October that newcomers labeled the "Annex. Of 21 U.


A fourth aviator in this group, Lieutenant Ronald Dodge, was thought to be shown in a photo after capture, the prisoner's head heavily bandaged, but Hanoi never acknowledged holding him. A fifth, Commander Kenneth Cameron, hung on until the fall of , when he disappeared after being taken to a hospital. Occasionally the North Vietnamese activated a new facility for reasons that had less to do with relieving overcrowding than achieving some other purpose. Between June and October , for example, they confined more than thirty of the pris- oners in the vicinity of the Yen Phu thermal power plant in northern Hanoi.

The captors put the POWs on display in an apparent effort to discourage U. The middle years were a testing time not only for the American prisoners of war but also for the U. Mounting losses, increas- ing skepticism about the wisdom of United States military involvement in the Indochinese conflict, and worsening problems at home steadily eroded what had always been a thin base of domestic support for the faraway entanglement.

Continuing sharp internal debate within the Johnson and then Nixon adminis- trations, between those advocating more massive use At the Hanoi Hilton by artist Maxine McCaffrey. The pauses convinced the enemy — and many of the POWs, who formed opinions from the bits of news they gleaned from new arrivals and overheard broadcasts — of Washington's lack of resolve. In what had come down to a test of political will rather than military might, Hanoi sought to exploit the POWs in a way that deepened the divide among Americans. Such was the context in which the North Vietnamese established yet another POW camp in the spring of , one devoted specifically to the production and dissemination of propaganda.

Plantation was the "show" camp used by the North Vietnamese to persuade foreign delegations and prominent visitors that they were treating the American prisoners humanely. Situated on the rim of the downtown district roughly between Dirty Bird and Hoa Lo, the "Plantation" camp acquired its name from the property's once stately grounds that had housed the colonial mayor of Hanoi. The prisoners referred to the tree-lined, two-acre site by several other names as well, "Country Club," "Holiday Inn," and "The Citadel," the latter for its location across the street from the Ministry of Defense.

The Vietnamese converted a portion of the facility into a Potemkin village of whitewashed cells, garden patches, and scrubbed corridors that served as a showplace for exhibiting captives to visiting delegations and conducting photo sessions and other staged activi- ties. The prisoners lived in dilapidated but relatively roomy outbuildings that once contained servants' quarters and were brought in to a freshly painted "Show Room" for propaganda events.

The Plantation reached its peak strength of 53 inmates in January — most of them recent shootdowns, who did not yet show scars from mistreatment and had not yet been "corrupted" by the resistance organization and hence were prime candidates for propaganda display. It was here that East German filmmakers shot a widely distributed documentary entitled Pilots in Pajamas.

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It was also at Plantation that most American antiwar activists touring Vietnam got their first exposure to prison conditions that the Communists touted as "humane and lenient. By the time he entered the camp, he was already familiar to an international audience for his bowing in a robotic, Manchurian-candidate-like fashion before a swarm of television cameras in a controversial ploy to negate the public release of an extracted confession. Plantation's most famous resident was Lieutenant Commander John McCain, the son of a four-star admiral and after July commander of all U.

McCain had bailed out upside down at a high speed and suffered multiple traumatic injuries. He barely survived when he landed in a lake nearly unconscious but somehow kicked himself to the surface and activated his life preserver. The young officer— later U. As that, he was but one of an impressive band of Navy cohorts instrumental in stymieing the propaganda operation at the show camp.

By , Plantation had outlived its usefulness as a propaganda mill, though it later housed transfers from Laos and the South. For several years after the Communists' Tet offensive, the air campaign over North Vietnam gradually wound down. Bombing of the North would be resumed at intervals to maintain pressure on Hanoi for a settlement and to buy time for "Vietnamization," the process for preparing America's ally for the U.

During this period, U. Between the halt of bombing operations against the North in the fall of and , when President Richard Nixon ordered large-scale air strikes against North Vietnamese ports and factories in a final attempt to force Hanoi's hand and salvage an acceptable peace, the number of sorties flown by carrier pilots into zones that had produced high casualties dropped markedly. Even with the leveling off of the POW popula- tion and the replenishing of food and medicine in the northern jails as a result of the bombing retrenchment, and remained dif- ficult years for the prisoners.

In , three new camps opened outside of Hanoi: "Skid Row" and "Farnsworth" from a monicker the inmates there attached to a Vietnamese officer " held mainly Army and Marine arrivals from the South; Son Tay received transfers from Vegas, who briefly called the place "Hope" before it became clear the change of scenery offered no respite from the suffering or despair of a prolonged internment that had no end in sight.