Vietnam Era

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 three 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 University

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.

POW Camp Regulations (1967, Unedited)

In order to insure the proper execution of the regulations, the camp commander has decided to issue the following new regulations which have been modified and augmented to reflect the new conditions, from now on the criminals must strictly follow and abide by the following provisions:

  • The criminals are under an obligation to give full and clear written or oral answers to all questions raised by the camp authorities. All, attempts and tricks intended to evade answering further questions and acts directed to opposition by refusing to answer any questions will be considered manifestations of obstinacy and antagonism which deserves strict punishment.
  • The criminals must absolutely abide by and seriously obey all orders and instructions from Vietnamese officers and guards in the camp.
  • The criminals must demonstrate a cautious and polite attitude the officers and guards in the camp and must render greetings when met by them in a manner all ready determined by the camp authorities. When the Vietnamese Officers and Guards come to the rooms for inspection or when they are required by the camp officer to come to the room, the criminal must carefully and neatly put on their clothes, stand
    attention, bow a greeting and await further orders. They may sit down only when permission is granted.
  • The criminal must maintain silence in the detention rooms and not make any loud noises which can be heard outside. All schemes and attempts to gain information and achieve communication with the criminals living next door by intentionally talking loudly, tapping on walls or by other means will be strictly punished.
  • If any criminal is allowed to ask a question he is allowed to say softly only the words “bao cao”. The guard will report this to the officer in charge.
    The criminals must go to bed and arise in accordance with the orders signaled by the gong.
  • When allowed outside for any reason each criminal is expected to walk only in the areas as limited by the guards-in-charge and seriously follow his instructions.
  • Any obstinacy or opposition, violation of the proceeding provisions, or any scheme or attempt to get out of the detention camp without permission are all punishable.
  • On the other hand any criminal who strictly obeys the camp regulations and shows his true submission and repentance by his practical acts will be allowed to enjoy the humane treatment he deserves.
  • Anyone so imbued with a sense of preventing violations and who reveals the identity of those who attempt to act in violation of the forgoing provisions will be properly rewarded. However, if and criminal is aware of any violation and deliberately tries to cover it up, he will be strictly punished when this is discovered.

In order to assure the proper execution of the regulations, all the criminals in any detention room must be held responsible for any and all violations of the regulations committed in their room.

Signed,
The Camp Commander

Recommended Authors and Books

BOOKS RELATED TO CAPTURED BY LOVE STORY CONTRIBUTORS

  • Everett Alverez – Chained Eagle: The Heroic Story of the First American Shot
    Down over North Vietnam, Everett Alvarez, Jr., and Anthony S. Pitch, Potomac
    Books 2005, (1989 Donald I. Fine)

Code of Conduct: An Inspirational Story of Self-Healing, Everett Alvarez, Jr., Dutton Adult 1991

  • Mo Baker – Serve with Pride & Return with Honor, Colonel Elmo “Mo” Baker
    USAF (Ret), 2014
  • Jim Bell – The Heroes’ Wife, Dora Griffin Bell, 2006, Authorhouse
  • Dave Carey – The Ways We Choose, Dave Carey, 2000, Bookpartners Inc.
  • Lee Ellis – Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton, Lee Ellis 2012 FreedomStar Media;

          Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability, Lee Ellis 2016, FreedomStar Media

  • Ralph Gaither – With God in a P.O.W. Camp, Commander Ralph Gaither as
    told to Steve Henry, Broadman Press 1973, Ralph Gaither 2004
  • Smitty Harris – Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the
    Secret Code that Changed Everything, Col Carlyle “Smitty” Harris (Ret) and Sara
    W. Berry, Zondervan, 2019
  • Ben Purcell – Love and Duty, Ben and Anne Purcell, 2006 (Expanded Edition)
  • Dick Stratton – Prisoner at War: The Survival of Commander Richard A Stratton,
    Scott Blakey, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978

HISTORICAL BOOKS OF THE VIETNAM WAR POW/MIA EXPERIENCE

  • POW: A Definitive History of the American War Experience in Vietnam 1964-
    1973, John Hubbell. Readers Digest Press 1976 (633 pages)
  • Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia 1961-1973, Stuart
    I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley, Naval Institute Press. Originally published in
    1998 by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Naval Institute Press Edition 1999
    (706 pages)

ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCE

  • The Long Road Home: US Prisoner of War Policy and Planning in Southeast
    Asia, Vernon E. Davis, Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense,
    Washington, D.C. 2000 (613 pages)

ABOUT THE WIVES’ EXPERIENCE

  • League of Wives: The Untold story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government
    to Bring Their Husbands Home, Heath Hardage Lee, St. Martin’s Griffin,
    2019
  • Saved by Love: A True Story, Evelyn Guarino, Blue Note Books, 2001
  • In Love & War: The story of a family’s ordeal and sacrifice during the Vietnam
    years, Jim and Sybil Stockdale, Harper and Row, 1984

BOOKS BY FOREWORD AUTHORS

  • Halfway to Paradise, Tony Orlando and Patsi Bale Cox, St Martin’s Press,
    2002
  • Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service, Gary Sinise, Thomas Nelson,
    2019

General Articles about the Vietnam War and POW Experience

Below are links to several articles that provide more detail and insight into the Vietnam War and the POW Experience:

 

CNN Newsroom Interview with POW Lee Ellis & Brooke Baldwin

Lee shares some about his own experience and emotions from his POW captivity in Vietnam.

ABC World News – Remembering the POWs of the Vietnam War

The Nixon library hosts a reunion dinner for all living former POWs of Vietnam War.

Fox and Friends Interview on Accountability

Fox and Friends Interview with Lee Ellis – How to Engage with Honor Through Accountability

Return with Honor – Hosted by Tom Hanks

Beyond Courage: Surviving as a POW

The Vietnam War lasted almost 20 years. It was the first war the U.S. had lost. However, the return home of the Prisoners-of-War was widely celebrated. They were held captive for almost nine years, the longest of any American war. Those pilots who survived shootdown were held in secluded prisons, hidden from the outside world except for occasional propaganda films.

In 1992 I received permission from the Vietnam government to return to Hanoi and the prison camps with a group of POWs and family members. Here they told their story inside the cells and camps where they were held. This was the only time such permission was ever given.

Over 60 hours of footage was shot in Hanoi and the camps. That footage was made into a powerful 56-minute program, “Beyond Courage – Surviving Vietnam as a POW” (1999).

BEYOND COURAGE – 56 MINUTES – 1999 from Will Furman on Vimeo.

POWs Return to USA “Operation Homecoming”

“Air Force Now” film footage

Official 40th Anniversary POW Homecoming Ceremony at the Nixon Library

Official 40th Anniversary POW Homecoming ceremony included “Missing Man” aircraft flyover; formal wreath laying to President Nixon; Presentation of Colors; presentation of tribute certificates and pins from the Department of Defense; remarks by Nixon Foundation President Sandy Quinn and Lt. Gen. Richard Newton, former Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force; musical performance by Tony Orlando; military 21-gun salute; and playing of “Taps.”

A Day in the Life of a POW (the early years)

Typically, when we were not going through punishment and torture, we were either in solitary or small cells with 2-4 guys at the Hanoi Hilton or perhaps as many as 6 or 8 in the Zoo and Plantation and the Son Tay camp which was 23 miles NW of Hanoi. Typically, we slept on top of a ¼ inch rattan mat on concrete platforms or wooden boards. The gong rang each morning around 6am and camp policy required that we get up, fold up our mosquito nets and fold up our blankets. We had no sheets or pillows, but we typically made a pillow by stuffing our other pants leg with our extra set of black or striped pajamas and t-shirt and shorts.

Every cell had a speaker (the Bitch Box) on the wall, and we got propaganda three times a day. Early mornings and just prior to the required bedtime in the evening Hanoi Hannah gave about a 5–8-minute session of the war news. It always ended with “GIs why would you want to die 10,000 miles from home, lay down your arms and cross over to the people’s side. Every day during the week after lunch we had a longer pure propaganda lecture, usually from some antiwar leader back in the US.

Here are the events of a good day—meaning you had not been hauled out for punishment or torture because you had demonstrated a “Bad Asstitude” as they pronounced it.

The first activity of the day came when the turnkey and a guard or two opened our door and said “bo.” One of us would take the bo (3-gallon toilet bucket) down to the sewer and dump it out. Thanks goodness it had a lid and there was some water and a stick broom there to wash it out a bit. Next came the first meal of the day which would be the same as the second/last one that would occur around 4pm. Usually thin boiled soup (pumpkins, cabbage or “sewer” greens) and a small baguette of bread or a cup of rice and maybe a couple of tablespoons of a stewed version of the vegetable in the soup.
Around noon time, the gong would ring, and we were supposed to take a siesta—we could lay down on our beds (concrete or wooden slabs). And around 1:30 it would ring again to get up. Most weekdays we were taken outside one cell at a time to the wash house and given ten minutes to wash our bodies and clothes. If you were being punished, then you might go weeks without a bath.

Typically, one of us would be called out for an interrogation about once or twice a week. Sometimes it was a lead into a demand for something from us that would eventually lead to punishment or torture. But most of the time, it was for the camp officer to test our willingness to agree with their perspective, or for some new young English speaker to practice.

Inside our cells we spent time reflecting on our lives and families. Dreams and discussions caused us to reflect on our lives and eventually, we had to face the good, the bad and the ugly of how we had behaved and performed. We also had conversations, sharing our personal life story, or discussing various issues of the world, or sharing poetry, bible verses, or war stories. Once you learned the communications techniques, you and your cellmates began communicating with other cells and that could occupy much of our time—but there were many interruptions when the patrolling guards came our way.
After we recovered from the shock of ejection and capture and settled into the camp life, we began to exercise. in the small cells only one person could walk at a time—it very much resembled the way that animals pace back and forth in cells in the zoo. Pushups and situps could be done on the bed and in some camps there was a lot of competition to see who could do the most.

Around 9pm, Hanoi Hannah reached out again to the American soldiers in English and we got to listen to the latest version of their daily propaganda and efforts to turn US soldiers against their country. And then the gong rang, indicating it was time to hang the mosquito nets and call it a day. As Jim Warner used to say, “gents, tomorrow is another day.” And with that we headed off to dreamland.

The Value of Authenticity in the POW Camps

Vietnam POW Resource Center

This website contains a comprehensive list of documentaries, interviews, biographies, memoirs and facts about the Prisoner of War experience in South East Asia during the Vietnam War. Hundreds of books and countless interviews, documentaries and other materials have been made about the topic since the US Prisoners were released in 1973. All titles are easily searchable for anyone interested in the subject.

Visit the Website

The League of Wives

Vietnam’s POW/MIA Advocates & Allies – Article Link

How the POWs Connected with One Another

POW/MIA Bracelet Story with Dave Carey

Sonny & Cher Welcome Home Vietnam POWs 1973

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