Prisoners of War

Thirteen prisons and prison camps housed American prisoners of war in North Vietnam. As time went on, the fate of POWs became a subject of widespread concern in the United States: Hundreds of thousands of Americans wore POW bracelets, each engraved with the name, rank and capture date of one American serviceman imprisoned or declared missing in Vietnam. The overwhelming majority of prisoners of war in Vietnam were officers, mostly airmen.

James Shively had never flown in such dangerous conditions; there were continual sound indications of anti-aircraft fire and missiles, and they were flying blind on a dark, cloudy day, with no visuals to guide them. Shively kept expecting to hear the lead flight call "abort", but he never did, and they pressed on. Finally, they broke through the clouds, well into North Vietnam and much lower than they would have liked to be. The lead called that the cloud cover had lifted and they were going in. Anti-aircraft gunners were locked on and giving the pilots a rough time. As they approached the target, they heard over the radio that a plane in the flight ahead of them had been shot down. They went in anyway.

James Shively had never flown in such dangerous conditions; there were continual sound indications of anti-aircraft fire and missiles, and they were flying blind on a dark, cloudy day, with no visuals to guide them. Shively kept expecting to hear the lead flight call "abort", but he never did, and they pressed on. Finally, they broke through the clouds, well into North Vietnam and much lower than they would have liked to be. The lead called that the cloud cover had lifted and they were going in. Anti-aircraft gunners were locked on and giving the pilots a rough time. As they approached the target, they heard over the radio that a plane in the flight ahead of them had been shot down. They went in anyway.

To fully understand and appreciate the war of wills that took place within those Hanoi prison walls requires some familiarity with the Geneva Convention and the Code of Conduct. Those documents heavily influenced the behavior and attitudes of both captor and captive in North Vietnam, during the years 1965 through 1973. For American military personnel, those two documents worked in tandem, providing a framework governing wartime activities. However, adhering to those protocols required both captor and captive to honor the provisions within the agreements. It became evident that interpretations of each one varied greatly.

To fully understand and appreciate the war of wills that took place within those Hanoi prison walls requires some familiarity with the Geneva Convention and the Code of Conduct. Those documents heavily influenced the behavior and attitudes of both captor and captive in North Vietnam, during the years 1965 through 1973. For American military personnel, those two documents worked in tandem, providing a framework governing wartime activities. However, adhering to those protocols required both captor and captive to honor the provisions within the agreements. It became evident that interpretations of each one varied greatly.

When Hell was in Session

By Admiral Jeremiah Denton

Jeremiah Denton's memoir recounts seven years and seven months of grueling conditions as an American prisoner of war. Four of those years were spent in solitary confinement. He was captured by the North Vietnamese in July 1965, after the A-6 Intruder he was piloting on a U.S. Navy bombing mission over North Vietnam was shot down. During a 1966 press conference televised from Hanoi, Denton famously used the opportunity to send a distress message confirming for the first time that American POWs in North Vietnam were being mistreated. Feigning trouble with the blinding television lights, Denton blinked in Morse code, spelling out the word "t-o-r-t-u-r-e".

Jeremiah Denton's memoir recounts seven years and seven months of grueling conditions as an American prisoner of war. Four of those years were spent in solitary confinement. He was captured by the North Vietnamese in July 1965, after the A-6 Intruder he was piloting on a U.S. Navy bombing mission over North Vietnam was shot down. During a 1966 press conference televised from Hanoi, Denton famously used the opportunity to send a distress message confirming for the first time that American POWs in North Vietnam were being mistreated. Feigning trouble with the blinding television lights, Denton blinked in Morse code, spelling out the word "t-o-r-t-u-r-e".

A stunned Dieter Dengler watched as his friend's dismembered head fell onto the trail. He jumped as the villager swung the machete at him. He ducked and threw his hands forward. The villager turned and ran up the trail, and Dengler stumbled off on wobbly legs. He had only gone about twenty feet into the jungle when several villagers with machetes ran past his hiding spot. Only minutes before he had been crawling, unsure if he was even able to walk, but now he was fully charged, with his body and wits firing on all cylinders. He could feel the blood coursing through his arteries and was aware of every heartbeat. He dropped into a gully and ran for about 300 yards before reaching dense jungle.

A stunned Dieter Dengler watched as his friend's dismembered head fell onto the trail. He jumped as the villager swung the machete at him. He ducked and threw his hands forward. The villager turned and ran up the trail, and Dengler stumbled off on wobbly legs. He had only gone about twenty feet into the jungle when several villagers with machetes ran past his hiding spot. Only minutes before he had been crawling, unsure if he was even able to walk, but now he was fully charged, with his body and wits firing on all cylinders. He could feel the blood coursing through his arteries and was aware of every heartbeat. He dropped into a gully and ran for about 300 yards before reaching dense jungle.

Unless the flight could positively locate the target on the first pass, they would be obligated to make multiple passes, from the relative safety of the fifteen thousand foot orbit they had been assigned during the briefing, down onto the bomb run. On such a multiple-pass profile, they would drop only two bombs at a time, and only if they were certain that they had identified the target. It didn't take a lot of imagination to picture the reaction of the experienced North Vietnamese anti-aircraft crews when the Phantoms wheeled down from the overcast sky on the steady, straight dive of the bomb run. The North Vietnamese gunners had Soviet advisers, plus two years on-the-job experience in targeting a diving fighter-bomber.

Unless the flight could positively locate the target on the first pass, they would be obligated to make multiple passes, from the relative safety of the fifteen thousand foot orbit they had been assigned during the briefing, down onto the bomb run. On such a multiple-pass profile, they would drop only two bombs at a time, and only if they were certain that they had identified the target. It didn't take a lot of imagination to picture the reaction of the experienced North Vietnamese anti-aircraft crews when the Phantoms wheeled down from the overcast sky on the steady, straight dive of the bomb run. The North Vietnamese gunners had Soviet advisers, plus two years on-the-job experience in targeting a diving fighter-bomber.

James N. Rowe's fellow captive "Rocky" Versace asked if they thought he should let the Viet Cong guards know that he spoke Vietnamese. The prisoners would need to communicate their needs and the guards showed no evidence of knowing English. They decided that Rocky would use a minimal vocabulary to request the necessities. His command of French and Vietnamese would allow him to monitor their conversations, providing they were not aware of his capability. They were not convinced that their lives were not immediately threatened, although the guards had said several times that they had nothing to fear. Those attempts to dispel the prisoner's fear of being killed had been said with apparent urgency.

James N. Rowe's fellow captive "Rocky" Versace asked if they thought he should let the Viet Cong guards know that he spoke Vietnamese. The prisoners would need to communicate their needs and the guards showed no evidence of knowing English. They decided that Rocky would use a minimal vocabulary to request the necessities. His command of French and Vietnamese would allow him to monitor their conversations, providing they were not aware of his capability. They were not convinced that their lives were not immediately threatened, although the guards had said several times that they had nothing to fear. Those attempts to dispel the prisoner's fear of being killed had been said with apparent urgency.

For three nights after that April 1966 torture session, the North Vietnamese interrogator they called "Mickey Mouse" discussed the war with prisoner Jerry Denton. The persistence he showed in attempting to make Denton understand the North Vietnamese perspective mystified the U.S. naval commander. Did the interrogator really think that a forty-year-old educated veteran who had been imprisoned and tortured for ten months would buy into the narrative? Denton didn't understand Mickey Mouse's tactics or the urgency he displayed in making his arguments. Then Jerry went to another interrogator they called "Cat". Cat told him that he was going to meet with some members of the press.

For three nights after that April 1966 torture session, the North Vietnamese interrogator they called "Mickey Mouse" discussed the war with prisoner Jerry Denton. The persistence he showed in attempting to make Denton understand the North Vietnamese perspective mystified the U.S. naval commander. Did the interrogator really think that a forty-year-old educated veteran who had been imprisoned and tortured for ten months would buy into the narrative? Denton didn't understand Mickey Mouse's tactics or the urgency he displayed in making his arguments. Then Jerry went to another interrogator they called "Cat". Cat told him that he was going to meet with some members of the press.

Rowe was being held in a POW camp in the U-Minh Forest, a "forest of darkness" in the Mekong Delta serving as a Viet Cong base area, where U.S. troops seldom ventured. After the release of the three other Americans, Rowe had been there alone for close to a year, suffering from skin diseases and malnutrition. In November 1968 the NLF informed him that they were considering releasing him. Before doing so, the communists did a background check on him, using their contacts in the U.S. Someone in the States apparently betrayed him. The Viet Cong informed Rowe that they had learned from American antiwar activists that he was not a simple engineer, as he had told them, but he was in fact a Special Forces officer.

Rowe was being held in a POW camp in the U-Minh Forest, a "forest of darkness" in the Mekong Delta serving as a Viet Cong base area, where U.S. troops seldom ventured. After the release of the three other Americans, Rowe had been there alone for close to a year, suffering from skin diseases and malnutrition. In November 1968 the NLF informed him that they were considering releasing him. Before doing so, the communists did a background check on him, using their contacts in the U.S. Someone in the States apparently betrayed him. The Viet Cong informed Rowe that they had learned from American antiwar activists that he was not a simple engineer, as he had told them, but he was in fact a Special Forces officer.