Photo: U.S. Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

What Happened To American POWs In The Vietnam War?

Although the Vietnam conflict lasted for 20 years - from 1955 to the Fall of Saigon in 1975 - the United States government never officially declared war. Over 3 million people perished in the conflict, and hundreds of American and Vietnamese citizens were held in prison camps as unofficial POWs. The North Vietnamese captured American troops and the South Vietnamese held hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers. These POWs were treated in different but perhaps equally awful ways. Americans suffered terrible treatment and years-long solitary confinement, while the South Vietnamese left their captives in miserable health conditions that ended many lives.

For some American POWs, life back in the US presented its own challenges. The US government levied charges against those who came to sympathize with the North Vietnamese point of view. It led one of the freed men to take his life. Even some of the United States' most notable figures, including John McCain, were housed in the notorious North Vietnam prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. The conflict in Vietnam was a controversial one, and POWs were at the center of the national conversation.

Photo: U.S. Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • Many American POWs Were Detained At The 'Hanoi Hilton'
    Photo: United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many American POWs Were Detained At The 'Hanoi Hilton'

    Nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, Hỏa Lò Prison was a bleak place. POWs slept on slabs of concrete. Guards restrained them with leg irons that caused cuts and infections. Inmates had to lie on their backs for days in their own excrement surrounded by rats and cockroaches. They were fed watered-down soup riddled with rocks and feces. Some had to stand on stools for days on end and were occasionally beaten with a bamboo stick.

    The only source of joy at the Hanoi Hilton was the inmates' fellowship. They communicated in a tap code different from Morse code, which the North Vietnamese understood. POWs also passed notes to one another and used hand signals to communicate information about the most vicious guards or offer each other encouragement. When the prisons became overcrowded and the inmates got cellmates, they spent time describing movies and books to one another in great detail.

  • The Vietnamese People's Army Physically And Emotionally Harmed Its Captives
    Photo: U.S. Military Photograph / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Vietnamese People's Army Physically And Emotionally Harmed Its Captives

    Because the US never actually declared war on North Vietnam, the latter claimed that its captives were not POWs but war criminals. Under the rules of the 1949 Geneva Convention, this designation exempted North Vietnam from having to treat captured American soldiers in a humane fashion.  

    However, North Vietnamese leaders also claimed they treated their captives by the standard set by Geneva. According to American Ex-Prisoners of War, a service organization that aids former POWs, the Viet Cong's definition of humane treatment included beating an inmate, forcing him to sit on his knees for an extended period of time, and then giving him a five-minute break every hour because he had a leg infection.

    At other POW camps, prisoners' hands and feet were tied together and bound behind their backs or in front of their bodies. Vietnamese soldiers then hung the bound prisoners on meat hooks and intermittently tightened the ropes. American soldiers would lose feeling in their extremities, and their arms and legs would swell to twice their normal size.

    Captured Air Force fighter pilot David Gray described the Hanoi Hilton as "23 hours of boredom a day and one hour of torture." Gray said the mental and emotional toll was perhaps even greater than the physical aspect: "The kind of very painful torture that we went through, it leaves a mark on you and you find that over time, emotionally, the fear of torture gets worse than torture."

  • Some POWs Were Accused Of Collaborating With The Enemy

    Eight POWs held in North Vietnamese camps were charged with collaborating with the enemy upon their return to the United States. The men allegedly cooperated with the Vietnamese and participated in anti-war messaging during their confinement. Fellow POWs dubbed them the "Peace Committee," and accused them of being communists.

    POWs who weren't part of the Peace Committee argue that it was the soldiers' duty to remain loyal to the United States. However, one member of the committee, Robert Chenoweth, believed US forces had been brainwashed by the United States just as much as the North Vietnamese tried to brainwash them in June 1973. 

    Faced with the possibility of being imprisoned once again, this time by the US, one member of the Peace Committee, Marine Corps Sgt. Abel Larry Kavanaugh, took his own life. The pallbearers at his funeral were his fellow committee members. Of his passing, Kavanaugh's wife said, "The North Vietnamese kept him alive for five years... Then he came back to America and his own people [ended] him."

    The day after Kavanaugh's funeral, the United States dismissed its charges against the surviving committee members.

  • POWs Were Forced To Make Communist Propaganda
    Video: YouTube

    POWs Were Forced To Make Communist Propaganda

    North Vietnamese guards made POWs record propaganda messages, which they played in fellow prisoners' cells and broadcast to the public.

    Guards forced inmates to film videos stating that they supported the Vietnamese government and were being treated well. One POW, Cmdr. Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., managed to reveal the truth of his confinement during a propaganda broadcast by blinking out the word "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" in Morse code.

    In some cases, the communist propaganda worked. After he was captured, Army Sgt. Robert P. Chenoweth said he began to see the North Vietnamese perspective. He realized the Vietnam conflict was one of Western aggression, and even considered moving to neutral Sweden after his release. When he read the writings of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse Tung, and Lenin, Chenoweth became a communist. But he never viewed himself as a traitor to the US.

    As Chenoweth told The Washington Post, "I thought the people... running the war, the people who had gotten us into the war in the first place, those were the traitors."

  • There Were 772 Confirmed US POWs During The Conflict

    Numbers vary, but a report compiled for American Ex-Prisoners of War claims there were 772 POWs in Vietnam. Of those 772, 114 perished. Another organization, NAM-POW posits there were 661 military POWs and 141 civilian captives.

    Counts differ based on whether organizations include civilians and foreign detainees in their numbers.

  • There Were 36 Successful Escapes By POWs
    Photo: U.S. Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There Were 36 Successful Escapes By POWs

    During the Vietnam conflict, 36 POWs successfully escaped, meaning they reached American armed forces. Other escapees were recaptured within hours or days, and some were never seen again. Twenty-eight of those successful escapees got out within their first month in captivity. After a year, the likelihood of freedom dwindled. Only three POWs successfully escaped North Vietnamese forces after being held for a year.

    All successful escapes took place in South Vietnam. Nine men fled camps in North Vietnam, but none reached American forces. One POW managed to escape twice.

    Lieutenant Dieter Dengler, an Air Force pilot, was captured by the Viet Cong in 1966. Following months of excruciating treatment, he overheard his guards talking about their plans to bring POWs into the forest and kill them. Dengler warned his fellow captives and together they hatched a plan.

    During the guards' lunch time, Dengler and six others slipped silently away. Only Dengler survived the ordeal in the Laotian jungle. He was later found by an American helicopter pilot, emaciated and near death.