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Experiences of American Prisoners of War in Vietnam

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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 captivity2. 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 nouc 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, cleated 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




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