At the tail end of the American entanglement in Vietnam,
a war-weary and divided nation was looking for something
— anything — to feel good about.
By Chris Carroll
Stars and Stripes
The 591 military POWs released by North Vietnam in early 1973 were it.
“We were a plus — a bright spot for the country,” said Tom Hanton, an Air Force fighter pilot freed in late March that year after being held for nine months in Hanoi.
But in the days before “thank you for your service” had become an everyday salutation, the acclaim often didn’t spread further, even though millions of American troops served in Southeast Asia. The enthusiastic welcome home, punctuated by patriotic parades and speeches, was gratifying but left some feeling slightly uneasy.
“Looking back on it, we as POWs were treated as the only heroes of the Vietnam War,” said Tom Hanton, a former Air Force pilot and president of the Association of Vietnam War POWs.
“The others — the guys slugging it out in the jungle —generally didn’t get treated as heroes,” he said. “That was unfair.”
The country’s attitude represented a remarkable U-turn compared to previous wars. Never before had prisoners of war taken on the iconic status conferred on them during the war in Vietnam.
In earlier years, the nation had broadly regarded POWs as unpleasant realities of conflict — and sometimes even representations of cowardice or failure, said Northwestern University historian Michael J. Allen.
“There’s a long tradition in western military history to think of prisoners as having failed, or of being signs of weakness,” said Allen, author of “Until the Last Man Comes Home,” a history of the POW/MIA movement. “After Vietnam, however, the returning POWs were very much regarded as heroes, and given particular honors and awards to recognize their imprisonment and suffering.”
While the prisoners languished in Vietnamese captivity for years and suffered brutal torture, starvation and isolation, a mass movement and letter writing campaign was revving up focused on their welfare.
Many believe the Nixon administration sought to use the frightful experiences of the POWs as ammunition to tar the anti-war movement. Parts of that movement — famously including celebrities who paraded through Hanoi to meet with POWs — were likewise prone to using the prisoners as political props.
From whatever political angle it came, the intense focus on POWs — unprecedented in the history of American warfare— steadily elevated the issue until bringing home the POWs ended up at the top of the popular agenda of war aims.
“In the end, what Nixon tried to do completely backfired on him, because he had created such a base of support for these men in the United States” Allen said. “By the end of the war, he was arguing, ‘We can’t pull out of the war simply to win the release of 500-plus men.' ”
Once the 1973 Operation Homecoming was over, many former POW supporters shifted course slightly to focus on thousands of U.S. servicemembers missing in action in Southeast Asia.
It was a painful political issue would linger for decades amid accusations of abandonment by government bureaucrats eager to leave the Vietnam War in the past. The charge was aired in Congressional hearing rooms as well as on the big screen, where actors Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone led fictional missions to rescue living POWs held long after the war.
Reports of white prisoners who were spotted in communist prisons in Southeast Asia, or of shadowy wartime transfers of American officers to Russia in exchange for military assistance, fueled the passion of activists. They include former POW and Navy A-6 pilot Eugene “Red” McDaniel, who was shot down in May 1967 during a bombing mission.
McDaniel’s “backseater” for the mission was Lt. James K. Patterson. Both were in radio contact with U.S. forces after bailing out, but American rescuers were unable to reach either man before being captured. McDaniel returned home with the 591 troops released in 1973, but Patterson seems to have simply disappeared.
For decades, McDaniel has suspected the military and U.S. government knows more than it’s letting on about Patterson and the more than 1,500 Americans still listed as missing in action from Vietnam, and argued for the release of classified records he believes would prove a cover-up.
“If I had known when I was in a prison camp what I know now about all of this, I don’t believe I’d have made it,” McDaniel said.
The previous war in Korea had seen a number of captured troops said to have been “brainwashed” by communist propaganda. The result was the famous Code of Conduct, and it was drilled into troops they were “bound” to give nothing more than basic identifying information to captors.
But the experience of POWs in Vietnam would change the military’s attitude to captivity.
A few heroic POWs died following the code to the letter as they faced an organized torture program in North Vietnamese prison camps. Most found it impossible to fully resist torture, however, and senior POWs modified the code, sending out the word to simply resist as much as possible.
After release, ranking POWs worked with the Pentagon to modify the code to reflect what had been learned in the communist prisons of Vietnam. Some changes were subtle — “I am bound to give name rank, service number and date of birth” was shifted to the less dire “I am required to give…” — but meant plenty to former POWs.
“The word ‘required’ says you give them as little as you can,” said Mike McGrath, a Naval Aviator captured in 1967 and severely tortured. “The word ‘bound’ means you’re going to die.”
The war in Vietnam had another deep psychological effect on the collective military psyche, reflected in greater dedication to recover the bodies of those lost in combat, Allen said.
As a result of Vietnam, he said, there’s a more comprehensive effort to recover MIA troops from World War Two, for instance, than there ever was immediately following the war. Echoes of Vietnam affect current operations as well, he said.
“It’s grown… to the point there have been firefights simply to recover dead soldiers,” Allen said. “That’s a result of a mythos that has grown in the all-volunteer force, that the military will not allow the civilian leadership to abandon it as it believes it was abandoned in Vietnam. The recovery of human remains is an expression of that idea.
The faces of the POW experience: American prisoners of war suffered a great deal at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors. Some came home and rebuilt their lives, some were unable to recover. Some never came home. Browse these photos and afterward share a video montage here.
Lt. Dieter Dengler / US Navy photo
Lt. Dieter Dengler, at a military hospital after his escape from a Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos in 1966. Dengler had been imprisoned and tortured for six months before he and six other prisoners escaped; only two survived. / US Navy photo
A photo released by the North Vietnamese of Air Force 1st Lt. Hayden J. Lockhart, captured on March 2, 1965.
A painting by Maxine McCaffrey of a POW at the Hanoi Hilton.
At Fuchu Air Station, Japan, in August, 1971, Ann Waggoner takes a pen from Senior Master Sgt. Marshall T. Hudson to sign as the 10,001st name on a POW petition that asks the United Nations to request the government of North Vietnam to abide by the rules of the Geneva Convention; Post the names of all POWs, provide adequate food and medical care, submit to regular and impartial inspection of POW living facilities and allow a free flow of mail between POWs and their families. / USAF photo
A photo released by the North Vietnamese of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Robert H. Shumaker, who was captured Feb. 11, 1965, after being shot down over Quang Binh province.
Former POW Col. James Young and his family return home after a day of Christmas shopping in November 1973. Young spent seven years in captivity before his release earlier in the year. From left: Denise Young, Annelise Young, Young and Carrie Young.
An aerial photo of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" POW camp in North Vietnam.
The Camp Faith POW camp in North Vietnam.
The Zoo POW camp in North Vietnam.
The Dan Hoi Barracks POW camp in North Vietnam.
Air Force Capt. M.N. Jones is trucked through Hanoi by his captors.
A photo released by the North Vietnamese shows Navy Lt. D.C. Rehman being paraded after his capture.
POWs on their way home in February 1973.
Stars and Stripes
A painting by Maxine McCaffrey of an American POW in North Vietnam.
A photo released by the North Vietnamese shows then-Capt. Charles G. Boyd after his capture in April 1966.
A painting by Maxine McCaffrey, "Children of an Air Force Prisoner of War."
Prisoners were paraded before angry crowds in Hanoi, where loudspeakers blared insults and encouraged the crowd’s abuse. Many in the crowd attacked the POWs. Front row, from left : Richard Kiern and Kile Berg; second row, Robert Shumaker and “Smitty” Harris; third row, Ronald Byrne and Lawrence Guarino.
U.S. Air Force
Another propaganda photo showing POWs, USAF Lts. Robert Abbott , left, and James Shively, with plentiful food, which was not the case. U.S. Air Force
POWs meeting with Canadian journalists. The communists tortured POWs into behaving well for visitors, who would then report that the prisoners were being cared for adequately. Visits to Hanoi by American antiwar activists including Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden and Daniel Berrigan added to POW suffering.
U.S. Air Force
The North Vietnamese took every opportunity to exploit prisoners. Here, USAF Maj. Roger Ingvalson receives a rare Christmas letter —note the microphone on the right. Ingvalson’s wife died while he was a POW.
U.S. Air Force
Newly freed prisoners of war celebrate as their C-141A aircraft lifts off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. The mission included 54 C-141 flights between Feb. 12 and April 4, 1973, returning 591 POWs to American soil.
U.S. Air Force
Released prisoner of war John McCain is greeted by President Richard Nixon, left, in Washington. McCain spent more than five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp before he was released in March 1973.
Released prisoner of war Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm is greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., as he returns home from the Vietnam War on March 17, 1973. In the lead is Stirm's daughter Lori, 15; followed by son Robert, 14; daughter Cynthia, 11; wife Loretta and son Roger, 12.
AP /Sal Veder
Lyndall Gutterson, 9, jumps for joy as his father, Col. Laird Gutterson, a POW in Vietnam for over five years, embraces his wife, Virginia, as he arrived at March Air Force Base, Calif., on March 17, 1973. Gutterson’s other children, Alan, 26, and Karen, 12, look on.
AP /George Brich
John McCain is administered to in a Hanoi, Vietnam, hospital as a prisoner of war in the fall of 1967 . McCain was shot down during a bombing mission Oct. 26, 1967.
A POW bracelet worn by Lisa Hamble, of Mattoon, Ill., when she 11, honored William P. Lawrence, a U.S. Navy aviator imprisoned in North Vietnam. Hamblen found out many years later that Lawrence had returned home but he died in 2005 and she never got to meet him. She planned to return the bracelet to Lawrence's family.
Unidentified U.S. prisoners of war stand in the courtyard of Hanoi's POW camp at Nga Tu So street, waiting for an inspection of the camp by joint military and international control and supervision commissions in 1973.
Former POW Everett Alvarez Jr. reads a copy of Stars and Stripes as he relaxes in the hospital after his release from the Hanoi Hilton in 1973.
Former POW Everett Alvarez Jr. at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in March 2014.
Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes
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