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POW Experience




POW Camps


Two men, two fates

More than 700 servicemembers became prisoners of war in Vietnam.
 None endured longer than Floyd James Thompson and Everett Alvarez Jr.
The two men represent the extremes of the POW experience -- in captivity and in life.

By Chris Carroll
Stars and Stripes


In the early weeks of 1973, the infamous Hanoi Hilton was filling up with Americans. For once, the influx of prisoners was something to celebrate.

Negotiators from the United States and North Vietnam had just finished wrangling in Paris over an agreement to cease hostilities after nearly nine years of open fighting between the two countries.

For the hundreds of U.S. prisoners held at the French colonial-era Hoa Lo prison, and those being gathered from elsewhere in the country, the end was near for a period of wartime captivity unprecedented in American history.


Among them were men who had endured marathon torture sessions, long stretches of starvation and years of isolation in dank cells and even cages. Now they could walk the grounds of the prison, talk to fellow POWs, even go to the jail kitchen for snacks fixed with food from a backlog of care packages their jailers had recently stopped withholding.

As more prisoners arrived, they noticed they were being grouped roughly in order of their capture dates, which they guessed would be the order in which they’d return home. Some were new arrivals shot down during the recent bombing, while others had been confined for most of the war.


In the eyes of most of them, no prisoner had endured longer than Navy pilot Everett Alvarez Jr. He had been shot down in August 1964 during a U.S. reprisal raid after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, considered by many the de facto start of the war.

“I had become something of a freakish legend,” Alvarez would later write. “After all, the period of my captivity spanned the entire length of this undeclared war.”

For those locked up with him, Alvarez was living proof it was possible to maintain military discipline and hold on to faith in someday making it home.

They knew he’d borne up during an early period of isolation as the sole U.S. prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He had later weathered harsh interrogation and outright torture and, in a final blow, received some of the most heartbreaking news from home any prisoner could get.

Yet he’d never given up.

“I knew I could make one more day because this other guy was seven or more years ahead of me,” said a fellow prisoner, Tom Hanton, an Air Force captain shot down in 1972 and today president of the Association of Vietnam War POWs. “There was always someone ahead of you.”

As prisoners continued to gather, to the surprise of many, word soon spread that there was someone ahead of even Alvarez.

“Hey, tell Ev there’s a guy here they brought up from South Vietnam who’s been held longer than Alvarez,” another prisoner said. “His name’s Jim Thompson.”

Alvarez had read about Thompson being held in the South years earlier and wondered whether anyone could survive in such conditions. His reply, related by author Tom Philpott in Thompson’s biography: “I’ll be damned.”


Different Fates



Floyd James Thompson

Everett Alvarez Jr.

By the time the United States withdrew from what was then the lengthiest war in its history, the two men — Special Forces Capt. Floyd James Thompson and Alvarez — had become the longest-held American POWs.

They were two of the 662 military prisoners of war who came home alive from Vietnam, according to Defense Department statistics compiled by the Association of Vietnam POWs. All have their own stories and faced unique challenges. But in many ways the soldier Thompson and the sailor Alvarez represent two extremes — the yin and yang — of the Vietnam POW experience.



Thompson, captured in South Vietnam 50 years ago this week, spent much of his nearly nine-year ordeal in remote jungle prison camps, with the Army refusing to acknowledge he was even alive. When fighter pilot Alvarez became the first American shot down over North Vietnam a few months later, his face was on magazine covers. He soon became widely and incorrectly regarded as the longest-held prisoner of the Vietnam War.


Thompson’s comparative anonymity continued in the post-war years, and it galled him. It can be traced to at least two factors. First, his wife, Alyce, had developed a relationship with another man in the year after her husband’s capture, and in an effort to spare embarrassment to herself and her children she had demanded the Army withhold details about Thompson’s captivity.


Second, many point to a widespread bias within the Army in the 1960s that caused POWs to be held in low regard, almost as if they had failed by being captured. In similar fashion, Purple Heart decorations in Vietnam were sometimes disdainfully dubbed “combat inefficiency badges” for troops who, instead of shooting the enemy, ended up injured themselves.


The family and admirers of another Army captive in South Vietnam — Capt. Humbert “Rocky” Versace, who fiercely opposed his Vietcong captors for two years until they finally killed him in 1965 —worked for decades before he posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2002.


“I just don’t believe the Army at that time was willing to give the Medal of Honor to someone who was a prisoner of war,”Stephen Versace, Rocky’s brother, told Stars and Stripes. “In their minds, heroes were not people who were captured.”


While supporters around the country were donning metal POW bracelets to help keep attention focused on the fate of U.S. prisoners, Thompson’s name was never engraved on one.




It was different in the Navy and Air Force. Names like James Stockdale and Lance Sijan still reverberate in the histories of the services. Stockdale was a Navy commander (promoted to captain in captivity) who had helped set up a secret command system in prison and almost killed himself to conceal it. Sijan, an Air Force captain, was so bent on escape and resistance that he was murdered by his angry captors. Each was awarded the Medal of Honor soon after the war.


Alvarez, who received the Silver Star and other medals for his time in captivity, often tried to correct the record about who was the longest-held POW in the decades after the war. For him — sunny and gregarious in his outlook once home — it was a time of continual achievement. He raised a family, succeeded in careers in government and private business and moved in social circles that included U.S. presidents.


Thompson, also a Silver Star recipient, struggled to shake the horror of imprisonment. His Vietnam torment gave way to tragedy at home that was almost mythical in its depth and completeness. He battled alcoholism, struggled in his Army career, watched the ongoing destruction of his family, became disabled and suffered deep depression.


“He was kind of our version of Job,” said Orson Swindle III, a Marine aviator and former POW confined for more than six years. “Just endless suffering.”


Old Man of the South

Alvarez wasn’t the only one at the Hanoi Hilton in January 1973 for whom Thompson’s arrival was a surprise. Army helicopter pilot Michael O’Connor had encountered Thompson in early 1968 at a prison camp called Bao Cao. At the time, he hadn’t seemed a candidate for long-term survival.


Thompson, then four years into his captivity, had finished a forced march up the Ho Chi Minh trail into North Vietnam several months earlier. His welcome to the country consisted of months shackled in a small cage for refusing to celebrate North Vietnam’s Independence Day.


Everything he’d survived was written on his body as he stared out of a cell door at the camp, the first place he’d been held with other Americans since his capture. When the freshly captured O’Connor first saw him, he took Thompson for an emaciated corpse propped up by guards as a ghoulish joke — until he saw him move.


“He looked like something out of Auschwitz,” O’Connor told Philpott in “Glory Denied,” a 2001 biography of Thompson. After hearing half an hour of scratching through a cell wall, O’Connor asked Thompson what he was doing.


“Standing up,” was the stoic reply. His devastated condition – the result of years of starvation, torture and repeated bouts of malaria — terrified other new POWs. For O’Connor, it showed what a survivor determined to see home again was capable of enduring.


“I don’t know anyone else who could have lived through the stuff he did,” said O’Connor, who soon lost track of Thompson as the North Vietnamese shuffled prisoners between camps.


Thompson had come into the Army 12 years before that meeting, in 1956, as an unenthusiastic peacetime draftee but he quickly acclimated to Army life.


Though the former grocery clerk lacked a college education, he had a sharp mind and was considered a promising enough soldier to attend officer candidate school and receive a commission. Fitness reports tracked down by Philpott paint a picture of a cocky, self-assured officer sometimes given to making snap decisions he’d pay for later.


In 1961, he was pulled into the Special Forces, which was rapidly expanding to meet the demands of an advisory mission to help South Vietnamese troops hold off a growing communist insurgency.


He and his wife, Alyce, had three children and a fourth on the way when Thompson — by then a captain — deployed to South Vietnam in December 1963. There, he commanded a Special Forces unit in a remote camp in Quang Tri province in north central Vietnam, near the location of the later battles of Khe Sanh.


Shoot Downs

On March 26, 1964, Thompson was on an observation mission in a small plane flown by Air Force Captain Richard L. Whitesides. Wanting a better look and undeterred by the danger, Thompson told Whitesides to fly lower than the 1,500-foot altitude allowed by regulation. As the plane swooped down, Viet Cong insurgents opened up with small-arms fire and shot it out of the sky.


When Thompson regained consciousness and found himself a prisoner of local mountain tribesmen drafted into service by the Vietcong. Whitesides was gone. He would later be classified as killed in action.


Thompson, suffering from a spinal fracture as well as smaller injuries, was temporarily crippled by the crash. Luckily, he was also being treated humanely by the highlanders.


“I was taken from village to village in the weeks following my capture,” he told the Army in debriefings after returning home. “They made no attempt to interrogate me or treat me like a prisoner. I couldn’t walk, so they weren’t worried about an escape. They were very solicitous of my welfare.”


As he regained some mobility, mindful of his obligation to “make every effort to escape” under the military Code of Conduct, he soon began trying to slip away from camp. Each time, he stumbled across a guard and pretended he was looking for a place to urinate to avoid punishment.


Unlike Thompson, Alvarez was being interrogated by communist North Vietnamese officials hours after fishermen pulled him out of the Gulf of Tonkin. He’d taken off earlier that day, Aug. 5, 1964, as part of a first U.S. attack on North Vietnamese targets and been shot down soon after he’d emptied his A-4C’s 20mm cannon into a warship’s bridge.




Within days, he became the first American POW to move into Hoa Lo Prison, well before it was dubbed, with pitch-black POW humor, the Hanoi Hilton. Although frequently shackled and living in revolting, rat-infested conditions, he gave his interrogators only the required name, rank, service number and date of birth. Further questions he met with stony silence.


Neither his North Vietnamese jailers nor the Viet Cong guerillas holding Thompson intended to allow their American captives to simply live out the war in confinement. Both men, they calculated, could be made into useful pawns in the larger Vietnamese communist cause. The administration of President Richard Nixon, many believed, would later use the plight of the POWs to attack North Vietnamese conduct on the international stage while seeking to shore up support for ongoing military actions.


Forced Testimony

Alvarez was the first U.S. prisoner of war taken in North Vietnam, while Thompson was the 14th U.S. military member captured in the South. It wouldn’t be long before they were followed by many more.


In total, 734 U.S. servicemembers are known to have become POWs during the Vietnam war, and 662 survived the war, as did 138 civilian POWs. An additional 1,643 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for.


By the end of the conflict, their sheer numbers made U.S. POWs natural bargaining chips for the North Vietnamese. Early on, however, when Thompson and Alvarez were first imprisoned, the Vietnamese communists were more interested in their potential value as propaganda mouthpieces.


From Thompson, his captors were particularly desperate for public testimony that the Vietnamese people wanted the United States out of the country. They also wanted a statement from him that he was enjoying great hospitality as a prisoner, and they were willing to do almost anything to him to get it.


By July 1964, Thompson had regained his ability to walk freely, but indoctrination and interrogation were intensifying. His captors had begun reducing his food rations to weaken his will to resist and transferred him to a newly built, heavily guarded camp where he was the sole prisoner.


Suffering from malaria and fearing his chance to escape would ebb as he grew weaker, Thompson fled the camp one morning when his guards thought he was asleep. He struggled northward through the jungle, hoping the Vietcong would assume he was heading south. He was recaptured at dusk by local tribesmen who caught him as he crossed a river.


“It was all downhill from that night on,” he said in a post-captivity debriefing.


When he was brought back to camp, the commander beat him unconscious with a stick. VC political officers subjected him to longer, harsher interrogations. Beatings were commonplace, and his captors began starving him in earnest.


It continued for weeks. Finally, in mid-August, drifting in and out of consciousness, Thompson copied a statement they had written for him and then read it into a microphone, simply to end the torment. When broadcast months later in the United States, the tape was the first evidence for the U.S. government and his family he was still alive.


He was being treated very well, he had said. Afterward, he sank into depression at what he’d done.


Torture and confession

Alvarez’s jailors became serious about extracting a statement from him two years into his captivity. By 1966, there were more U.S. pilots being held at the Hanoi Hilton. As the number of guards needed to corral the Americans grew, so did the level of brutality.


Failure to bow to guards or a moment of defiance could result in a savage, disabling beating. Prisoners began to warn others — using the simple tap code that had become their primary means of communication — about a diabolical new method of abuse.


Interrogators were using ropes and handcuffs to bind prisoners into stretched, distorted positions, cutting off circulation in their limbs and injuring joints. Once bent into the unnatural poses, the Americans could be left that way for agonizing hours until they agreed to confess to a litany of crimes against humanity and the Vietnamese people.


“The worst time was at night, when you heard their keys rattling,” Alvarez said in an interview. “You knew they were coming to take someone, and you prayed it wasn’t going to be you. Then you prayed for the poor guy they took” whose screams often echoed through the night.


They came for Alvarez the morning of Aug. 9, 1966, and told him to write his confession. Alvarez refused. He had listened as some of his fellow prisoners held out through marathon torture sessions. They might scream their lungs out in pain, yet they resisted as long as they could. He knew it was his turn to be tested.


Soon he found himself bound with his elbows pulled unnaturally close together behind his back by a pair of handcuffs.


“It felt like a hacksaw had stuck deep in my flesh,” Alvarez later explained. “The cuffs seemed to cut through to the bone. My head was pushed far forward and all I could do was yell and scream to ride with the pain. They left me alone for quarter-hour spells and then returned, yanking my arms up and squeezing the cuffs tighter yet.”


After a few hours, he could take no more. He wrote his confession with a sense of shame.


“I had vowed to die rather than confess lies yet when the time came I chose not to die,” he said.


“I had been tested and found wanting. I hollered for them to save my skin and this was the price I had agreed to pay. I capitulated during a single morning of torture.”


Indeed, Alvarez—as Thompson had done after a regimen of beatings and starvation — had technically violated the Code of the U.S. Fighting Force by giving more than basic identifying information.


It would be hard to find a POW who would condemn either for it, however. The reality of being twisted with ropes, or strung up by the thumbs, or subjected to electric shock quickly erases illusions of invincibility, POWs say. Some can joke about it now.


“They weren’t going to get anything out of me. I mean, I was Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’ — nothing,” said Paul Galanti, a former Navy POW who’s now commissioner of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. “That lasted about an hour.”



POW Jerry Denton is blinking Morse code for torture during television interview from Vietnam.

If a prisoner was tough enough not to break under torture, that probably meant he would die, several former POWs said.


“We were all on the code of conduct, you know— name, rank, serial number, date of birth,” said Mike McGrath, a Navy lieutenant and A-4 pilot shot down in 1967. “I contend everybody went beyond that.”

Ranking officers among the prisoners, who like Stockdale endured some of the harshest torture of all, established guidelines that gave POWs latitude to decide how much agony they could take before signing a confession or making a statement. The general ethos was one of compassion — calling for prisoners to do their best to resist torture, but if they weakened in one session, to “bounce back” and be stronger next time.


The key, McGrath and others said, was to find ways to deflect interrogators without defying them. That meant inventing names of fictional squadron mates, providing false information about ships and planes or fabricating details about life in America.


One prisoner, for instance, told his interrogator about his family’s electric banana peeler. A fellow POW who heard about the story later bragged that his family was so well off that even the bedrooms in his house had banana peelers.


Most of the interrogators weren’t very savvy.


“You’d try to play cat and mouse with them, you’d try to tell them the minimum you could just to get out of there,” McGrath said.


Sometimes nothing worked.


“Occasionally, they’d put me on my knees for three days, and my knees turned into flat tires,” McGrath said.


More than four decades after their release, orthopedic problems and nerve damage from torture are still common problems among former Vietnam POWS.


Family Matters

On Sept. 2, 1969, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh died at age 79 — a turning point for the prisoners. Within weeks, at prison camps across North Vietnam, torture and abuse died down. As Stockdale said, Ho’s death meant “a lot less brutality, and larger bowls of rice.”


In a literal sense, the POWs’ existence became brighter.


“They came around and knocked the bricks out of the windows, which had been blocked up, and gave us some ventilation,”recalled Ken Cordier, an Air Force captain and F-4 pilot shot down in 1966.


As life grew more bearable for the prisoners, Alvarez was increasingly worried about what was happening at home. He had noticed a growing distance and unhappiness in the letters sent by his wife, Tangee, whom he’d married just three months before his capture. On Christmas, 1970, he received a final letter from her, written 13 months earlier but withheld by prison officials until then.


Then the letters stopped cold. Finally he wrote to his mother, desperately asking her to level with him about Tangee.


On Christmas Day, 1971, Alvarez was handed a reply from his mother with the words that devastated him: “Tangee has decided not to wait.”


The lonely young woman had gone to Mexico for a divorce and had a new man in her life — a fact that Alvarez’s family had been hiding from him.


Alvarez reeled from the pain of the blow, and retreated from other POWs as he replayed the details of his short life with his wife again and again in his mind. He leaned heavily on prayer and his Christian faith to help him cope.


His despair didn’t survive long.


In April 1972, he was pacing alone outside when he looked up at the first blue sky he’d noticed since receiving the news. He realized that whenever he returned to the United States, he’d be ready to move on with his life. (Indeed, Alvarez would remarry within months of his release.)


“I stood revitalized,” he later wrote. “It did not hurt to think about Tangee anymore. She was finally out of my system. I was free of her ghost. I was going to live!”


Thompson, too, had fretted for years over the family left behind. The youngest of his four children, a son he had never seen, was born the day after he went missing in action. The shock had sent Alyce, his wife, into labor.


For Thompson, his dreams of returning home to his family had sustained him in the darkest periods of captivity. At Bao Cao, where he’d been mistaken for a corpse, he told Mike O’Connor that what bothered him more than anything was separation from them.


Thoughts of home likely played a factor in his determination to rebuild his strength once the overt torture and starvation regimen ended with Ho’s death. A civilian prisoner, Lew Meyer, made rehabbing the sickly Green Beret his mission. The two were soon jogging laps around their cell.


As his strength grew, the old, self-assured Thompson began to re-emerge. He sought to establish leadership in various prisons where he was held, under the assumption he had been promoted on the normal schedule and was likely the ranking officer. (In fact, the Army had several times inexplicably deferred Thompson’s promotions while in captivity.)


In September 1971, a reinvigorated Thompson, Meyer and another prisoner broke out of their prison camp south of Hanoi, nicknamed “Rockpile,” in Thompson’s last of several escape attempts. They were quickly captured amid a hail of bullets.


When they were brought back into the prison, however, no torture and no harsh punishments awaited them. For the American POWs, times had truly changed.


Pressure in the United States to end the war was growing, and the need to bring home the POWs had become one of the major concerns. Late in 1972, the long-stalled peace talks in Paris picked up momentum, hurried along by Operation Linebacker II, a devastating U.S. bombing campaign in December.


On Feb. 12, 1973, a U.S. Air Force C-141 transport plane landed in Hanoi to carry out the first of dozens of groups of prisoners who would leave in the following two months. Alvarez was on that first flight out.



Unhappy return

Although no one had endured a longer captivity, Thompson had to wait another month for release, with some speculating the North Vietnamese wanted more time to fatten him up for public relations reasons.


He finally left Hanoi on March 16, less than two weeks shy of nine years in captivity.


The blows from fate began to rain down on him immediately.


The day he returned, Thompson, who had long dreamed of his reunion with his wife and children, learned from Alyce that years earlier she had moved the family to Massachusetts to live with an Army sergeant she had begun seeing a few months after her husband’s disappearance.


She was driven, she said, by a loneliness exacerbated by a lack of support from other officers’ wives at Fort Bragg, N.C., and by a simple need for help raising four children.


It would soon become clear that Alyce’s betrayal went even deeper. She was the one who forbade the Army from publicizing his captivity, cutting him off from much of the honor his lengthy imprisonment had earned him. For years, the Pentagon had listed Alvarez’s name at the top of the list of longest-held POWs, although it also acknowledged there was another unnamed prisoner held even longer.




In 1971, while aware that he was likely alive, the Army prepared a memo obtained by Philpott that revealed Alyce was attempting to have Thompson declared dead so she could move on with her life.


“He went through hell, but I went through hell too,” she later said. “There are certain things I did I’m not proud of. But I had to do them, for my children, for my own sanity.”


Still, Alyce told Thompson on the day of his return that she was willing to leave the sergeant to attempt to rebuild the family.


After nearly a decade of being put through hell on earth, Thompson took the news calmly and agreed.



Thompson, who according to Alyce had been a heavy drinker before his capture, began to rely more and more on the bottle now that he had his freedom. Their marriage, cold and awkward since Thompson’s return, exploded one night in 1974 when Alyce accused him of homosexuality –she’d once walked in on him embracing another man, she told Philpott – and he began punching her in front of their children.


They soon divorced, and Thompson, who remained on active duty in the Army, fell further into depression and alcoholism. He fell out of touch with the children, who had believed him dead throughout his captivity.


He complained of horrific nightmares. In one, he was a skeleton walking down a trail in Vietnam, and any food he ate dropped out between his ribs.


In 1977, Thompson attempted suicide with a combination of drugs and alcohol. He lived through the attempt, and through sheer determination and the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, friends said, he began to turn his life around in the following years.




In 1981, he suffered a heart attack, quickly followed by a debilitating stroke that left him in a coma for months and struggling with serious disabilities for the rest of his life. He was medically retired from the military in 1982 at the rank of colonel.

It wasn’t the final blow.


In 1990, Jim Thompson Jr., the estranged son born the day after he was captured, was charged with killing a man he believed was having an affair with his wife. He was convicted of second-degree murder.


In an interview with The New York Times, not long before his death at 69 in 2002, Thompson looked back on his life with deep dissatisfaction and voiced his pain in terms almost biblical in their directness.


‘’I’m quite bitter,’’ he said, his ability to communicate hampered by the stroke. ‘’The depression and so forth. I can’t describe it – the agony. All my children are foreign to me. Then depression hits me. Not now, but for a long period.’’


But to a man whose lot in life was to endure, an admission of intolerable pain and an admission of defeat are two different things.



As Thompson sank and sank, he watched Alvarez ascend in public life – as an administrator at the Peace Corps, deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, with seats on numerous boards of directors and as entrepreneur who started several successful businesses.


Alvarez, 76, still goes daily to the government IT services firm, Alvarez and Associates, which he operates in suburban Washington. He speaks reluctantly of Thompson’s ordeal, and when he does so, like the other former POWs, he speaks in hushed tones.


Although he won’t go on the record about his relationship with the man he unintentionally overshadowed, other POWs say that over the years, Alvarez tried to use his influence to help Thompson conquer his problems and settle into his post-captivity life.


It would never come easy for Thompson, who to the end found his main satisfaction in what he had endured as a survivor of the longest and perhaps the most brutal POW experience of any American in the Vietnam War.


“He absolutely celebrated it, and it made his life worth living in those final years,” said Philpott, who found Thompson living in isolation in Florida. Outside his condominium, he had a POW flag flying and a plaque on display to ensure everyone knew what he’d been through.


“It’s a uniquely American tragedy,” Philpott said. “In the end, everything had been taken from him, except his will to survive.”




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