Background on the Vietnam War and Why There Were POWs

Vietnam was divided by the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the French-Indochina War.

When the French Colonialists were kicked out, the communists were well ensconced in the North, where Ho Chi Minh and his team formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). These leaders were dedicated communists and closely connected to the Soviet Union and to some degree China.

In the South, the Republic of Vietnam was governed in a haphazard and often corrupt fashion but was dedicated to remaining free of  communist control. After the French pulled out Communist insurgents (called the Viet Cong) immediately began guerrilla warfare to undermine the South Vietnamese government.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s communism, was pushing to gain a foothold and expand on every continent. Seeing this rolling spread of communism western leaders called it the Domino Effect. This seemed to be what was going to happen in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam—with that, there would only be Thailand remaining to stop them from taking the entire Indochinese Peninsula, giving them control of the crucial shipping lane of the Malacca and Singapore Straits.[i]

The Vietnam war was a long war– American participation lasted from 1965 until 1973. Most of our Army, Air Force and Marine combatants had a one-year assignment to the war. And some would come home for a year or two and go back for another one-year assignment. Some Naval forces operated bases and marine warfare in the South, but most served on ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Over the seven years of the air war, Navy pilots often flew multiple combat tours. For Air Force crews who flew over North Vietnam airspace, there was also a special stipulation: if we completed 100 missions over the North before the one-year commitment we could go home early. Hence, most Air Force fighter pilots in the 65-68 Operation Rolling Thunder (air combat over the North) era completed their 100-mission tour in 8-10 months. Keep in mind that North Vietnam (especially the Hanoi – Haiphong area) was the most heavily defended area in the world against incoming air attacks. Many aircraft were shot down and though many aircrew members were rescued, many were declared Missing in Action (MIA) or Killed in Action (KIA). Those shot down were not listed as POWs unless there was some clear evidence that they had been captured and were alive in custody of the Communist North Vietnam government.

Factual evidence was hard to get. Some men were declared dead, when in fact they were POWs. Some were listed as a POW when in fact they died shortly after capture. The pain and the burden on wives and families was extreme. This era was thirty years before women were allowed to participate as war combatants, so there were no American women POWs.[ii] But the battle that wives and moms were facing was often more emotionally painful than what the POWs experienced. We knew we were okay. As you will see in the stories ahead, they did not.


The North Vietnam POW Cohort

Most of those long-term POWs who were held in and around Hanoi were aircrew members who were shot down. There were others captured in South Vietnam and a few in Laos. Why Laos? The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route for war supplies to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam pivoted into Laos as it approached the DMZ which was much more protected by South Vietnamese and US Soldiers.

Soldiers captured in the South and Laos had a much higher death rate due to the harsh conditions in the war zone camps hidden away in the mountains and jungles of Vietnam and Laos. Less than a hundred who were captured during the Tet attacks of 1968 made it to the camps near Hanoi. These soldiers, almost all Army and Marines, were marched for weeks and months into the North and many of the prisoners died due to injuries, neglect, and disease. But they were never in the “Hanoi Hilton” system.

The Hanoi Hilton system was named such because the Hanoi Hilton was the primary interrogation and “in processing” prison for almost all those captured in the North. Some remained there for months and years, but most were moved around to other camps in the system for reasons only a typical bureaucracy would understand. Those who were POWs for more than five years typically lived in 5-7 different camps during their incarceration.

Those captured in the South and brought North were isolated from the Hanoi Hilton system in unrelated camps in and around Hanoi until after the peace agreements were signed. In this book, you will read the story of one of amazingly brave and creative Army officer who was captured in the South and made it into one of those isolated camps in the North.

Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton and The Hanoi Prison System Cohort

Navy Lt. Everett Alvarez was the first pilot captured over the North – August 1964 – six months before POW number 2 in January 1965. The war ended and we were released in the winter of 1973, so Everett was the longest held POW from the North at 8 years and 6 months. You’ll read his amazing love story in this book.

From 1965 until the spring of 1968, there was a steady increase in combat missions over the North (Operation Rolling Thunder), accompanied by an increasing number of POWs in the Hanoi system. The bombing of the North was paused and then stopped in 1968. By that time there were just over 350 POWs in the Hanoi system. (Over the 8.5 years of the war, there were three main camps in Hanoi and several that opened and closed more out in the countryside, but within a 15-mile radius.)

When the bombing stopped in 1968, there were no more “new guys” until the bombing resumed in Dec 1971. So, most of the POWs who came home were there more than five years and many were there 6 or 7 years. When the bombing resumed in 1972 with Linebacker 1 in the spring/summer of 1972 new POWs started to filter into the camps. Then when the last surge of bombing (Linebacker II) came in December the number of POWs captured surged because the big B-52 bombers with large crews were overhead.

Nixon’s courageous final push ended the war and the peace agreement was signed a few weeks later in January 1973.  Of course those who were there two years or less—many for only a few months or weeks, were heroic and accepted into our fraternity, but as you can imagine they still tend to think of themselves as the “new guys” and we long-termers were the “old guys.” All the stories in the book are from guys who were there more than five years, but we know those “new guys” had some great romance stories as well and someday, maybe we can get those packaged up too.


[1] These narrow straights are strategically located, forming the narrow shipping lane that connect the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, and then the Pacific. In places the Straits are less than 2 miles wide, yet they are the passageway for 30% of the worlds shipping and 90% of all Middle East and African crude oil going to Asia.

[1] Women became military pilots in the late 70s, but it was not until 1993 that they were allowed to fly front line combat aircraft in combat. Women have proven to be great pilots and great leaders of air combat units. Thankfully, none have been captured and incarcerated for a long period of time in a traditional POW camp.

POW Treatment

There were three major treatment eras in the POW camps. For the early months of 1965, they did not know how to handle POWs and though they were isolated, there was not routine torture and beatings, etc.

Then in late summer of 1965, it cranked up and all hell broke loose. Torture and various types of punishment were always going on in every camp. Some of it was to keep us fearful—so we would obey the rules—but most was for propaganda. They wanted us to help them win the war by getting Americans to turn against the government and end the war. Of course, we were bound to live by the Military Code of Conduct for POWs (shown in the book’s appendix) and so the battle lines were drawn. It’s hard for most people to understand why they would torture us to get statements, but you have to understand that there were no moral restrictions on the policy.

In late May of 1969, there was an escape attempt at the Zoo camp in Hanoi torture surged in all the camps. I was at the Son Tay camp about 25 miles NW of Hanoi and by July that year, when the US was landing on the moon, they were torturing guys to sign a statement saying they had received “lenient and humane treatment. When we confronted them with the fact that we could not sign a statement with a lie, they told us no—it was the truth.

When we confronted them on that they said that “Truth is that which most benefits the party.” In other words, the end justifies the means. Sadly, it seems that mindset is spreading around the world.

The bad treatment continued until the fall of 1969 when it suddenly stopped and life in the camps for the last two and a half years was more became more “live and let live.” We knew this change was related to the death of Ho Chi Minh died in September of 1969 and the decision of the new leadership in power, but we did not know then the real reason it changed.


The National League of POW/MIA Families Changed Our Treatment

Beginning in late 1968, the wives and families stood up to the US Defense Department’s “keep quiet” policy and began to organize and go public about POW accounting and treatment. The movement spread across the US like few causes ever have. A major contributor to this effort was the famous patriot and businessman H. Ross Perot. By the fall of 1969 wives and families were confronting the North Vietnamese communist delegation at the Paris Peace Talks. Several of them with the sponsorships of charities and folks like Ross Perot, traveled to embassies around the world to meet with foreign governments to ask for their support—to help by putting pressure on the communist captors to abide by the Geneva Accords on the treatment of POWs and to provide a full accounting of the names of all POWs.

Most Americans still don’t know how much the POW/MIA support movement impacted the communist leadership in Hanoi and changed our treatment. In September of 1969 when their founding leader, the  famous Ho Chi Minh, died and the new communist leaders emerged in Hanoi, they changed the policy on treatment of POWs. Within one week, the systematic torture stopped. They removed bricks covering the windows in many of the camps, and food improved somewhat. Overall, POW life shifted to become more of a live-and-let-live environment. 

We knew this change was related to the death of Ho Chi Minh, who died in September of 1969, and the decision of the new leadership in power, but we did not know that the real underlying reason for the change was the strong support of the American people that was inspired by the hard work of our families. The bottom line was that the propaganda-focused communists did not like to be put in the world’s spotlight in such a negative way.

It was this shift in treatment that enabled us to have time to decompress from the horrors of the past. Locked up for three more years with fellow POWs who had been there longer and endured more harsh treatment, helped us put things in perspective. We had time to deal with our past and prepare our hearts and minds to return home to our loved ones. Amazingly, those last years of incarceration turned out to be a blessing. We came home ready to move forward and live a normal life. Our PTSD issues have been minimal, and our career and marriage success has exceeded our peers.


The Hanoi Hilton University System

The long-term Hanoi Hilton cohort was a unique group—almost all aircrews, average age at capture of 30.5. Most were officers (> 95%), most had a college degree, quite a few had a masters degree and several had been in the astronaut program. Though we had no books or magazines, other than an occasionally propaganda piece that was laughable, we did have an amazing source of knowledge and talents. in the early years when cells were smaller and we were more isolated, knowledge was passed through the walls and across the camp via the tap code and other covert communications.

After the Son Tay raid in November 1970, almost all POWs in the system were moved back into the HH into large rooms previously occupied by hundreds of Vietnamese prisoners. These large open bay rooms of 40-60 men each became the campus for our “Hanoi University” where you could study subjects of math, foreign language, engineering, history and geography. Many of the men wrote poems—a couple of them even published a book of poems after the war.

Once the day-today torture ended, we moved to more of a live and let live environment and our energies were freed for various types of creative entertainment. There were various special programs. We had movies (told by experts), toastmasters, physical fitness training, and even dance lessons in one room. Most all cells had a chaplain and a weekly church service with amazing homilies delivered by grizzly old fighter pilots. Bridge and chess provided lots of time passing competition.

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