The American psyche never suffered such a bitter blow as defeat in Vietnam. America had never lost a war before. Hollywood and the Constitution told all Americans that they were the Good Guys, on the side of peace and freedom, always holding out a helping hand to the little guy. But in 1965 America found itself embroiled in a conflict that cast it as the villain in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of half its citizens. Instead of the laconic marshal riding in to clean up a frontier town, America was suddenly a power-mad bully, armed to the teeth, kicking the shit out of a nation of unarmed peasants.
As far as the Vietnamese were concerned though, the war started in 1930 when a violent insurrection against their colonial masters, the French, was brutally repressed. But members of the newly formed Communist Party managed to escape. Their leader, the self-styled Ho Chi Minh - which means, \\'He who enlightens\\' returned in 1945, with American backing, to liberate Hanoi from the Japanese and declare Vietnam an independent nation.
France refused to accept this, as did the British who held Saigon after the fall of Japan. Seeking to legitimize their own recolonization of Burma, Malaya and Singapore, the British re-armed the Japanese to keep the Vietnamese nationalists, the Viet Minh, at bay. Push came to shove. The Viet Minh attacked, seizing a hundred hostages.
Talks were forced. Ho Chi Minh visited France for a conference which aimed to make Vietnam a free state within the French Union. This was concluded to the satisfaction of neither side.
Soon after Ho\\'s return to Hanoi, it was plain that the fragile peace could not hold. Skirmishes broke out between French and Viet Minh forces in the port of Haiphong. A French cruiser shelled the city and the First Indochina War was under way. The Viet Minh, under General Vo Nguyen Giap, withdrew to the countryside and began a campaign that culminated in the defeat of the French in a bloody, muddy, First World War-style battle at Dien Bien Phu on 7 May, 1954. Peace accords were drawn up in Geneva where the Viet Minh were represented by Ho\\'s longtime right-hand man, Pham Van Dong. The country was to be temporarily divided into two administrative regions separated by a demilitarized zone - the DMZ - along the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh would administer the north while the French, through Vietnam\\'s last emperor Bao Dai, would administer the south, until elections could be called to unite the country. These, it was felt, would be a walkover for Ho Chi Minh.
However, by this time America had become terrified of global communist expansion. Since the end of World War II America had seen most of Eastern Europe fall to communism. In 1949 China fell. The communists had also tried to overrun South Korea, the Philippines and Malaya. There was no way America was going to stand by and see South Vietnam go communist. So America, who was also a signatory to the Geneva Peace Accords, and South Vietnam continually postponed elections on the grounds that communist intimidation made free and fair elections impossible.
In 1955 Bao Dai was defeated in a referendum by his Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, who, with American backing, declared South Vietnam a republic and himself president. Former Viet Minh nationalists in the South formed the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, to oppose the permanent partition of the country and the North Vietnamese began infiltrating men and supplies into the South to aid the fighting. To counter this, the US Special Forces began training the South Vietnamese ARVN - the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam.
The Cuban missile crisis of 1961 scared the hell out of America and the world. For a week America and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of all-out nuclear war. President Kennedy vowed that such a dangerous confrontation must never happen again. But he was a realist. He knew that conflict between the western democracies and the communist world was inevitable. But instead of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, he decided that it would be safer for all concerned if there were to be small, surrogate, safety-valve wars in Third World countries. Vietnam just happened to be it.
Military aid and US \\'advisers\\' poured in. The Saigon regime quickly became corrupted by the massive sums of American aid they had to handle. Diem was assassinated and replaced by President Minh, then President Thieu, another American surrogate. Meanwhile, the Americans were losing more and more advisers as the war in the paddy fields hotted up. In August, 1964, it was reported, falsely, that there had been a second attack on the US destroyer Maddox by North Vietnamese patrol boats. President Johnson authorized the bombing of North Vietnam and Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave the President the power and the money to wage war in South-East Asia.
On 8 March, 1965, US Marines waded ashore on the beaches at Da Nang. It was pure showmanship. They were greeted by schoolgirls carrying garlands of dahlias and gladioli and the mayor of Da Nang with his new Polaroid camera. Other US troops landed discreetly at the airport or stepped ashore from ships at Da Nang\\'s deep-water harbour.
Mighty America thought the war in Vietnam would be a pushover. Their massive resources were pitted against one of the world\\'s smallest, poorest and most backward nations. But they totally misjudged the situation. They were fighting a tenacious enemy who had been battle-hardened by years of fighting. The Viet Cong could blend in with the populace like tears in a bucket of water. They could live in tunnels underground for years on end. They knew the jungle terrain and could march all day on a handful of rice.
American Defense Secretary Robert McNamara soon realized that America could not win. Educated at the Harvard Business School, all he had to do were his sums. It was plain that, in this type of guerrilla warfare, the communists could limit the scope and frequency of the engagements. That meant they controlled the number of casualties. All they had to do was keep their losses down to below the birth rate and they could go on fighting for ever. Sooner or later America would get fed up and go home.
The Australians had had a presence in South Vietnam since 1962, but, in an effort to make the war seem more like an allied effort, President Johnson put pressure on New Zealand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea, who all sent troops. Germany and Spain sent medical teams. Meanwhile, the North was being aided by the Russians, the Chinese and even a few Cuban advisers.
In January, 1968, the Viet Cong threw themselves against the Americans, overrunning much of the country in the Tet Offensive, while the North Vietnamese Army besieged the US Marines at Khe Sanh. Though the Viet Cong were quickly beaten, the damage had been done. American TV viewers had seen the US Embassy compound in Saigon occupied by communist guerrillas. If America could not hold that, what hope was there? Veteran TV news anchorman Walter Cronkite, who until then had supported the war, changed his mind. He now said the war was \\'unwinnable\\' and half the country changed their minds with him. Cursing Cronkite, President Johnson declared that he would not run for a second elected term, replaced his commander in the field, General Westmoreland, and started peace talks in Paris. They were to last five years.
In May, 1968, in the so-called Mini-Tet, the Viet Cong threw themselves against the Americans again. VC losses in Tet and Mini-Tet essentially finished them off as a fighting force. From then on, the war in the South was largely conducted by North Vietnamese regulars infiltrated down the Ho Chi Minh trail which ran from the railheads in the North, down through neutral Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam.
America was, by this time, split down the middle -over the war. Martin Luther King had condemned it. Blacks found themselves unfairly committed as frontline troops while their militant brothers at home told them that they should be killing their real enemy, the white man, not yellow ones. Protesters took to the streets. Young men burnt their draft cards. Blacks burnt the ghettos. Rich kids stayed on in college or bought a medical deferment from a sympathetic family doctor. The poor fled to Canada or Sweden, or resigned themselves to becoming cannon fodder.
Australia, too, was torn apart by the war. And in Europe huge anti-war demonstrations were held condemning it. President Nixon was elected in 1968 on a promise to end the war. Instead - initially, at least - he extended it. Throughout the war, the Ho Chi Minh trail had been the communist lifeline. Nixon was determined to cut it with the illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia and eventually cross-border incursions. These destabilized Cambodia, paving the way for the Khmer Rouge, and Laos, where the CIA were fighting a \\'secret war\\' against the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao. Both countries fell to the Communists in 1975.
Meanwhile, more and more body bags were being shipped home and more and more Americans were finding themselves in communist prison camps. In November, 1970, heliborne American forces staged a dramatic raid on the camp at Son Tay, near Hanoi, in an attempt to rescue some of these prisoners. The camp was empty. The PoWs had already been moved on. Earlier in 1970, four students protesting against the broadening of the war were gunned down by National Guardsmen at Kent State University. Campuses across the US rebelled. An anti-war group called the Weathermen began a terrorist bombing campaign. Congress rescinded the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, curbing Nixon\\'s powers to wage war.
The war itself had become increasingly unpopular. It had been discovered that Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed from planes to clear the enemy\\'s jungle cover, caused cancer and birth defects. The world had been shocked by the My Lai massacre where several hundred innocent civilians had been butchered by American troops. Newspapers carried pictures of innocent children being napalmed. TV showed the summary execution of Viet Cong suspects.
In country, things were getting worse. The Phoenix Program, designed to break the communists\\' political organization, turned into the murderous prototype of the strategy South American dictators now use to liquidate all opposition. Death squads simply murdered anyone likely even to have thought of becoming a communist. Body counts - estimates of the enemy dead - were wildly exaggerated or simply made up. US losses were minimized. The Vietnamese claim that the Americans even bombed their own dead to hide their real losses - an abhorrent idea to the Vietnamese who often risked their lives to recover comrades\\' bodies for proper burial. Reports were falsified to such an extent that no one in Washington - or even in the command structure in South Vietnam - knew what was going on.
The grunts on the ground knew, though. The US was getting its ass kicked. Morale broke. Drug use among the armed forces became widespread. Racial violence flared. Even the Marine Corps was forced to accept the Afro and the clenched-fist Black Power salute. Fragging became commonplace - officious officers were simply disposed of by their own men with a fragmentation grenade. No one wanted to die. No one wanted to be the last man killed in Vietnam.
Time was running out for Nixon. He could no longer wage war, but he could not make peace either. In December, 1972, the Paris Peace Talks broke down. Nixon and his chief negotiator in Paris, Dr Henry Kissinger, decided to bomb the North Vietnamese back to the conference table with an all-out attack on Hanoi and Haiphong. It lasted 11 days. On 27 January, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed. The price of US withdrawal? The return of all prisoners, including the bodies of those who died in captivity, within 60 days. Thirty days after that four of Nixon\\'s top aides resigned when they were implicated in a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building, Washington DC.
Both sides knew that the Paris Peace Accords were not worth the paper they were written on. They simply allowed America to get out of Vietnam. After a \\'decent interval\\' the war would resume. In April, 1975, the South finally fell to the communists and Vietnam was, once again, united.
By this time, President Nixon had also fallen, the last victim of the Watergate scandal. He\\'d known all along about the break-in and had lied to the country.
The war cost America around $300 billion. Eight million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia - four times the total amount dropped in the whole of World War II. 4865 helicopters were lost and 3720 other aircraft were downed. 46,370 US servicemen were killed in action. More than 10,000 died in Vietnam from other causes. Over 300,000 were wounded. Some 2500 were listed as missing in action. 695 were taken prisoner in Vietnam, nine in Laos, none apparently in Cambodia. At least, that is the number who were returned home, alive or in coffins. Whether, in fact, all the prisoners had been returned in 1973 has been a source of controversy ever since. Many Americans believe that some of the so-called missing in action - the MIAs - were not missing at all, but prisoners that the Vietnamese had hung on to after the peace settlement was reached.
Some fifteen volumes of intelligence documents from the war were published by the American Department of Defense on 15 December, 1978. They are called the \\'Uncorrelated Information Relating to Missing Americans in South-east Asia\\'. Each of these massive 700-page volumes contains declassified Defense Department, State Department, CIA and National Security Agency reports of men taken prisoner and seen in captivity during the war years and immediately after. The \\'uncorrelated\\' means that, in most cases, the informant does not know the name of the American prisoner he\\'s seen - or, at least, a name that correlates to a US serviceman known to be missing. Many have been heavily censored - sometimes to the point where the complete text has been blanked out. But, together, they tell a story slightly different from the official version of the war. They make chilling reading.
The fifteen volumes contain interrogation reports of captured and defecting communist soldiers - often with names, numbers and detailed hand-drawn maps. Some information is supplied by civilian onlookers to a shootdown, say, or a capture. There are CIA agents\\' reports, State Department telegrams, aerial photographs which reveal that the Americans even knew where the john was in most PoW camps in North Vietnam. Information from friendly foreign intelligence agencies is also included, as are high-level reports and official wrap-ups. Then there are documents captured from the Viet Cong - the household accounts of prison camps, shopping lists, orders on the handling of prisoners, reports on weapons, deployment, morale and interrogation reports of American prisoners some of which also give names, numbers, detailed hand-drawn maps and advise the communists on how best to direct their propaganda efforts - Blacks were considered the softest target. And there are reports on Vietnamese radio traffic, overheard by America\\'s National Security Agency.
These documents give a clear insight into the soft underbelly of the war. They tell of VC morale being on the verge of collapse at one point, of American soldiers defecting and fighting for the other side, of American communists coming direct from the US to help their Vietnamese comrades by luring their fellow Americans into ambushes or interrogating American prisoners, of VC agents dealing in marijuana and heroin, of Vietnamese girls leading American intelligence officers (who should have known better) to secluded spots where they were ambushed, of earnest Vietnamese interrogators asking captured Americans if there were any Russian advisers with the US forces, of a camp of the supposedly clandestine Viet Cong with a huge sign saying: \\'Welcome to the South Vietnamese Liberation Front\\' hung over the front gate. They show that the Viet Cong were no disorganized band of heroic peasants. They were highly organized. They had military courts, strict discipline and procedures for everything. Everything had to be done by the book. There was a complete system for handling prisoners with interrogation centres, collection points, evacuation routes and heaps and heaps of paper work. Fierce, fanatical guerrilla fighters they may have been, but the Viet Cong\\'s main worry often seems to be making ends meet within the tiny budget they\\'d been allocated. But the overall impression these documents create is of treachery, treachery, treachery on all sides.
Two Americans are caught driving down Highway with two Vietnamese girls. They had stopped for a rest when they were captured by a reconnaissance\\' party from the North Vietnamese Army\\'s 308th Infantry Brigade. The two men were taken prisoner. The two girls were shot, right there at the side of the road. Detailed descriptions of the two men, their interrogation and treatment are given, plus a blow-by-blow account of their capture which was in \\'mid-November, 1969\\'. Strangely, though, the official Pentagon roster of \\'US Citizens and their Dependents, Captured, Detained or Voluntarily Remained in South-east Asia, Accounted For or Unaccounted For 1/1/61 Through 11/10/79\\' does not list anyone missing on the ground in South Vietnam in mid-November, 1969.
So perhaps the Vietnamese informant, who the interrogator says was very co-operative and answered all the control questions accurately and without hesitation, got the date wrong. But over and over again you find this happening. A Vietnamese says he saw a plane being downed and a pilot being captured on such-and-such a day - but the Americans have no airman listed as missing on that date. A defector says that he saw five GIs being captured on this date,11 but there are not that many ground troops listed as missing for the whole of that month.
Sometimes the informant is sure of the date - it was Ho Chi Minh\\'s birthday, it was the beginning of harvest, it was Tet, it was the first day their village was bombed. Still there are problems here with the lunar calendar. If the incident had happened some years back, they may even have got the year wrong. But some of the documents come from America\\'s own National Security Agency. They are intercepts of Vietnamese radio traffic, timed and dated when the intercept was made. The NSA do not use the lunar calendar. Nor do they forget which year it was. But many of their reports also cite pilots and ground troops being taken prisoner - especially in Laos - on dates when, according to the official Pentagon listings, no one went missing.
The two guys caught driving down Highway 4 could have been Rudolpho Andres Adventio and Daniel T. Bailey who went absent without leave in South Vietnam on 1 November 1969, and have not been seen since.12 Who can tell? Well, the Vietnamese can. Two photographs of each of the captured men were taken and put into their individual folders at the headquarters of SR-2 in the Dong Ket area of Long An province, South Vietnam, by their NVA interrogators. Maybe the Chief of the Criminal Office of SR-2, Sau Quang, remembers them - or perhaps Lieutenant Dao Tan Long who acted as interpreter might recall their names. The fact remains, though, that two men were captured on Highway 4 in mid-November, 1969, who have not been returned or, as yet, accounted for.
Both sides were playing the numbers game during the war and it is entirely possible that the hundreds of American prisoners Vietnamese informants say they saw are vast overestimates. For example, a farmer drafted into the North Vietnamese Army says he visited a prison of war camp in Hanoi in 1967 where one of the guards told him that they were holding 1,000 Americans. But by the informant\\'s own estimate the barracks there only had 560 beds. In 1971, when a CIA informant also says that he saw a prison camp holding more than 1,000 American and Australian prisoners in Ha Tay province, North Vietnam, the interrogator feels that he may be overestimating the numbers because the compound was overcrowded since the prisons at Son Tay and Ben Pha Den were closed following the abortive raid on Son Tay. Besides the Joint Prisoner Recovery Center only list a total of 496 PoWs in South-East Asia at the time, though there were 1,124 listed as MIA.
Mostly the numbers reported seen held at any one place in the North are in the hundreds and in the South in the tens. In August, 1969, for example, the CIA circulated a report of approximately 300 Americans and 700 South Vietnamese being held at a central prison about five kilometres south of Tuyen Quang City in North Vietnam. The prison buildings were made of bamboo with thatched roofs and guard posts were located along the hills surrounding the prison. Residents of the town often saw American work details in the compound or Americans being taken across the road to an abandoned airfield to play volleyball.
\\'This,\\' the document says, \\'is an information report, NOT finally evaluated intelligence.\\' But then neither is raw data, like a fresh interrogation or sighting report. It has been compiled and evaluated from several sightings and cannot so easily be discounted.
In February 1967, sixty-eight American PoWs were reported as being held at the VC headquarters in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam. Fourteen were killed in an airstrike. Also in February, 1967, thirty were reported in captivity at a Viet Cong prisoner-of-war camp at Bung Bang17 and in April another thirty were reportedly being held in Kien Giang Province. In January, 1968, some thirty-six were reported being held in Thua Thien province.
Prisoners were moved around a lot, so it is not possible simply to add up the numbers held at different places. Estimates can be wildly off, informants may be lying. But 200 here, 400 there and 600 at the other place in North Vietnam and twenty here, forty there and sixty at the other place in South Vietnam soon add up - even if they are all inflated by a factor of four. And the overall impression is that there were an awful lot of prisoners out there.
On the other hand, the Americans seemed determined to keep the number of missing down to a minimum - while inflating the number of dinks they greased in their, now infamous, bodycounts. Some men taken prisoner were simply written off, it seems, to make the figures look good.
In spring, 1966, a communist soldier who later defected says that his unit captured a lieutenant and five enlisted men from the American First Cavalry Division. There was no incident where six men were reported lost on the ground at that time. He also reported being told by his military superiors that 280 Americans had been killed in the action, but he talked to the villagers who buried the bodies who said that there were only 200.
The thing is the US Army did not get these bodies back. They did not know what had happened to these men, because they were buried by the Vietnamese. They could all have been captured for all the Americans knew. None of them turned up back at base, so all 206 of them should have appeared on the MIA roster. Instead, maybe as many as one or two did. According to another captured NVA soldier, nine Americans were captured in a jungle area of Dak To in mid-May, 1967, when the 320th Regiment overran their camp at seven o\\'clock one morning. The informant was one of a detail of seven men from the 5th Battalion assigned to escort the prisoners to the 320th\\'s base camp which was two days\\' walk to the west in Kontum province near the border with Laos. According to the roster, there were no incidents where as many as nine men were taken on the ground in one go.
There is an even more glaring example of trimming the figures than these. A captured NVA soldier reported that on 1 or 2 July, 1967, his unit, the 9th Battalion, 90th Regiment, 324 B Division, was in a battle between An Kha and Gia Binh villages, in the Gio Linh district of Quang Tri province between 0700 and 1700 Hanoi time. Twenty-three US Marines were taken prisoner in that action he says.25 According to the official history of the US Marine Corps for that year, a battle did indeed take place in that area on that day. Company B of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Marines was ambushed along Route 561 on the morning of 2 July. When Company B mustered for a headcount that afternoon they found that only twenty-seven men had walked out of the action. The battalion had lost fifty-three killed, 190 wounded and thirty-four missing.
When the 9th Marine returned to the battlefield on 5 July, they found some more bodies. The number KIAed increased to eighty-four and the number of MIAs dropped to nine - so says the official history of the Marine Corps. But if you look at the Defense Intelligence Agency\\'s roster you won\\'t find the names of these nine missing Marines listed there. You\\'ll find just one Sergeant Wayne V. Wilson. He was captured on the ground on 2 July, 1967, according to the roster, and he was not returned, has not been accounted for and has never been heard of again. The other eight - if you believe the Marine Corps - or twenty-two if you believe the captured NVA soldier - simply did not exist at all. Which is lucky, because Marines never leave their buddies behind.
There are hundreds and hundreds of reports like this - men being reported captured and somehow never turning up on the DIA\\'s roster. Okay, so you can\\'t trust the dinks. These little slanty-eyed gooks are all lying sons-of-bitches. They\\'ll tell you anything they think you want to hear. But for some crazy reason the interrogators often do seem to believe their sources - sometimes with good reason. Sometimes a captured soldier, or a defector, or a bystander reports an incident that does correlate to someone known to have been taken prisoner. One VC soldier reports the shoot-down of a helicopter and the capture of its pilot in the Duc Co area of Pleiku province in August, 1965. Someone in MACV - the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, the US military headquarters in Saigon - or in the US Embassy where the document was also circulated, has correlated this incident to the loss of Captain William Hail, who was downed in a helicopter on 2 August, 1965, over South Vietnam - taken prisoner? - and not heard of since. The same source reports another shoot-down of a helicopter in July, 1965, and the man at MACV or the US Embassy comments that no helicopter was listed missing at that time. But if one incident was true, why should the source be lying about the other?
These reports usually talk about one or two ground troops being taken prisoner at one time - but who could keep track of what had happened to grunts out in the jungle? If they didn\\'t come back it was a safe enough assumption that they were dead. Who cared? The guy was probably a cherry, fresh in from Stateside and no one knew his ass anyway. FNGs - fucking new guys - knew shit and went about begging to be wasted anyhow. And if a short-timer didn\\'t come back - a grunt who only had a month or so left before being rotated back to The World - he was a bad mother who could look after himself: no dink was going to take Ole Greaseball alive.
But what about the kings of the skies, the Pentagon\\'s pride and joy, the fighter jocks, worth a million bucks a throw in training alone? Sources gave detailed descriptions of their downings and capture. They would give height, weight, hair colour, beard type, skin colour. Naturally, to a Vietnamese, all Americans looked tall. They were fat. Unless they were Black, their hair tended to be blond, their beards red and heavy, and their skin colour fair - or red if they had caught any sun. But by comparing descriptions of the downed pilot with the source\\'s description of the interrogator a pretty accurate picture could be worked up. And sources also described clothing, rings, bracelets, neckchains, watches, whether or not the pilot wore glasses, birthmarks, insignia and they picked out pictures of the types of planes these guys were flying from a book. There are hundreds of these reports. Still, over and over again, the day these sources say they saw a plane being downed and a pilot being captured no one went MIA, according to the Pentagon\\'s roster.
The NSA\\'s intercepts concerning downed and captured pilots seem to carry no more weight. There are hundreds of these reports too, all mentioning captured pilots on dates when no one went missing, according to the roster. The NSA even picked up radio messages concerning ground troops being captured. One reads:
Intelligence sources indicate that on 27 October 1968, the North Vietnamese captured a commando and killed a team of three men north of Xi La Nong river near Ban La Bau (16-27N 106-19E). There is no information on the captured men.
Needless to say, no ground troops went missing that day.
Sometimes the NSA pick up numbers of men being captured:
Intelligence sources indicate that 15 Americans were captured near the DMZ on 2 July 1970 and on 3 July 1970 35 American prisoners were taken.
On 2 July, 1970, only one man went missing in that area, Army Corporal Stephen J. Harber. He was not to return and has never been heard of again. And on 3 July, 1970, no one went missing.
Captured NVA and VC soldiers and defectors sometimes talk of capturing twenty or thirty Americans in one action. Guards talk of marching similar numbers off the battlefield to muster points, interrogation centres or prison camps. Others talk of seeing large numbers being marched up the Ho Chi Minh trail into North Vietnam.
One captured NVA medic reported that, while he was infiltrating down the Ho Chi Minh trail from the North, he saw allied prisoners being marched the other way - between sixty and 100 of them every day for fifteen days. For the first nine days they were all Americans. The last six days they were a mixture of Americans and ARVN, South Vietnamese soldiers. They wore olive drab uniforms and jungle boots. Each man had a rope tied to his right wrist which was connected to the wrist of the man in front and behind. Each group of prisoners was guarded by twelve NVA soldiers. The NVA medic estimates he saw 1100 PoWs in all, 350 of which were South Vietnamese soldiers and 750 were Americans!
This is unbelievable. Less than 750 American prisoners were returned in all, and most of those were airmen shot down over the North. But these men were ground troops, the source says, captured in the area of Khe Sanh. Nothing like that number of ground troops went missing and certainly nothing like that number were taken prisoner, the Americans maintain. The problem is that the interrogator - an American himself - does believe the medic. This information, the interrogator says, is partially corroborated by another intelligence report. Indeed there are hundreds of other intelligence reports of prisoners being moved up the Ho Chi Minh trail. Another saw, around the same time, eight groups of twenty PoWs each over four days, again said to have been captured around Khe Sanh, and yet another saw a group of forty or sixty resting in the bivouac area at commo-liaison station 6 on the trail,35 800 metres north of Highway 9. They were eating rice and were guarded by four NVA soldiers who told the source that these prisoners had been taken in the Khe Sanh, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai areas of South Vietnam. Another saw a group of twenty to thirty men wearing Marine Corps fatigue caps. Again he was told they were US Marines captured in the Khe Sanh area. The interrogator had also submitted three other intelligence reports based on what the medic has divulged - and he reckoned the medic has more to give.
And is it so unbelievable that 750 ground troops had been taken? The medic says he was coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail in July, 1968, immediately after the Tet Offensive, then Mini-Tet, when the communists had practically overrun the South. Earlier that year Khe Sanh itself had been under siege for seventy-seven days, so it is possible that 750 Americans were captured on the ground in the South around that time - at least the interrogator thought so.
So what happened to these guys? Perhaps they were marched off to their deaths. But why not kill them where they were captured? Why go to all the trouble of marching them up the Ho Chi Minh trail only to top them? The medic also reports that the NVA guards were grumbling. They were unhappy because the American prisoners were getting better food then they were. The orders were to give the US PoWs NVA rations plus fresh meat and bananas every day. Now you don\\'t feed up men if you are going to kill them. And on a regimen like that, a significant proportion of them would have survived until 1973. That is not to say that there were no summary executions or life-threatening ill treatment. Two sergeants, one black, one white, were killed in November, 1965 - retaliation for the execution of the student who tried to assassinate Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during a visit to Saigon. And in 1971, two American PoWs and two fatigue-clad Cambodians captured in South Vietnam were blindfolded and taken back over the border into Cambodia. There four graves were dug. That evening the two Americans and the two Cambodians were marched up to the edge of the graves and shot. No trial was held and no reason for the killings given. The men who dug the graves were given dire warnings of what would happen to them if they told anyone what they had seen. The Joint Personnel Recovery Center identified the two Americans as Lieutenant Gerald F. Kinsman and Sergeant James A. Harwood who had been reported missing on the ground in that area shortly before the incident.
Prisoners were shot if they would not walk. Others were executed in retaliation if an officer was killed during their capture or a communist soldier was killed during an escape attempt. But normally an escapee would only be shot in the legs.
Some reports talk of prisoners being shackled, kept in chains or left tied to a post. In early 1968 a US PoW was seen held in a bamboo cage near the banks of the Ia No river in Pleiku province. It was so small he could not stand upright. He was guarded by an NVA soldier with an AK-47. The source says the PoW escaped that night.
Special Forces Lieutenant Nick Rowe who escaped in 1968 was shackled in bamboo cages every night for his five years of captivity while several of his fellow prisoners died of malnutrition, disease and ill-treatment.
Mike Benge, an American civilian who worked for the US Agency for International Development, and US Army Lieutenant Steve Leopold, who were released in 1973, were both held in cages in the South44 in 1968. Twenty US returnees, held in the area north of Kratie, Cambodia, were also kept in bamboo cages. Other documents talk of Americans being kept in tunnels - even killed there - though tunnels were also used as air-raid protection.
Young Pathet Lao guards gave prisoners brutal beatings when their superiors were away. In one place the Viet Cong flew a VC flag over a camp where they were holding US PoWs in the hope that it would attract an American airstrike. They liked the idea of Americans killing their own. More commonly, though, American prisoners were used as protection. They were held near vital military and civil installations - power stations and bridges in the North - in the hope that the Americans would not risk killing their own men in any action.
Some Americans were displayed in chains for propaganda purposes. Others were treated as criminals and were held with criminals in civilian jails. Some were given Vietnamese names like one Caucasian who was around 35 in 1967 known by his guard as \\'Ti Hot\\', though this could be the Vietnamese pronunciation of his real name. They were told that they could not use their American names again until peace came to Vietnam.
There is also talk of brainwashing and indoctrination, but all this is lenient treatment by Vietnamese standards. When their own Viet Minh prisoners were returned by the French in 1954 they had to undergo a four-month interrogation and re-indoctrination programme before being sent home to their wives and families. Three months later, soldiers came one night and took them away. They were never seen or heard of again.
It was also pretty lenient compared to the American treatment of their prisoners. One standard American interrogation procedure was to take three Viet Cong suspects up in a helicopter and ask them what you wanted to know. If they refused to talk, one would be thrown out to his death. Then you\\'d ask the question again. The remaining two would chatter hysterically to each other. So you would throw a second one out. The third man would now tell you everything you wanted to know. And when he\\'d finished, you throw him out also.
The high-ranking communist officer who planned the spectacular attack on the American Embassy in 1968 was kept in solitary confinement in a chilled, windowless white room with the lights on day and night for four years while being subjected to the most ruthless psychological probing. When all attempts to break him failed he was dumped out of a helicopter into the South China Sea from 3,000 feet.
Otherwise, when the Americans were done with their prisoners they handed them over to the South Vietnamese who were well known for their brutality to communists. Many were kept in tiger cages for years until the muscles of their legs wasted away and the South Vietnamese certainly did not return them all, as they should have, in 1973. None had a worse reputation for their treatment of prisoners than America\\'s ally, the South Koreans. They made a practice of stripping female Viet Cong suspects, inserting a phosphor flare in the vagina and setting it alight.
By contrast, Viet Cong and NVA soldiers were given lectures on the politics of holding prisoners by cadremen. American PoWs would only be released in exchange for political and economic concessions on the part of the US, they were told. Cadremen admitted that those who resisted interrogation were beaten. Those successfully indoctrinated would be released, others put in tunnels and blown up with dynamite. Some PoWs, they said, were being used to repair roads and bridges damaged by US air strikes. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam considered all detained US personnel as criminals rather than prisoners of war, as there was no declared state of war between the US and North Vietnam.
Despite this harsh official line and the odd example of monstrous brutality, according to these documents at least, the American PoWs were treated far better that one would expect. Throughout the war against the Americans, the North Vietnamese Army was guided by the same instructions General Giap had issued in the first year of war against the French - prisoners should be given clothing and shelter. The dead should be buried in marked graves. Officers were allowed to keep their uniforms while enlisted men were given work NVA fatigues and foreign prisoners should be given a higher cash food allowance than the Vietnamese.
In the North and on the Ho Chi Minh trail 1.20 North Vietnamese dollars a day were allocated to feed an American PoW while only sixty-eight North Vietnamese cents a day was allotted to feed their own troops. In the South 100 South Vietnamese dollars a day were set aside to feed the Americans while only forty-five South Vietnamese dollars a day had to feed each South Vietnamese soldier taken captive. Canned meat, manioc - the local variety of cassava - and rice seems a pretty standard diet.
Naturally the VC complained that they were on short rations so that American prisoners could eat three meals a day. But Americans, it was understood, were used to a softer life. In 1967 it was reported that US prisoners were being held at an old French \\'convalescent camp\\' in Voi city, Ha Bac province, North Vietnam, four kilometres south of the Kep Airfield. On Tet or important American holidays, some Lao Dong party women would come to console the US PoWs and bring soap, towels, wash basins, tooth brushes, perfume, pictures and chicken, ducks, potatoes, eggs and sugar.62 The Americans would be evacuated to trenches during air raids, but sometimes they got killed. On one occasion a bomb landed at the entrance to a trench, killing ten US PoWs. After each raid the cadremen would propagandize the prisoners. \\'The US Government wants to gag your mouths and is dropping bombs to kill you,\\' they\\'d say.
In Laos, three American prisoners were seen living in almost luxurious conditions in a cave, according to the report of a defecting member of a Pathet Lao telephone installation squad. The cave was small but appeared comfortable. It had electricity and basic furniture. They had reading material and one man was seen sitting on his bed playing a guitar. Another was sleeping and a third was eating a loaf of bread.
The defector looked through pictures of missing men. He could not positively identify any of them, but he said that they resembled Captain Gary Henry Fors, Captain Thomas B. Mitchell and Mervin L. Morrill. He was told that they were fed twice daily and given the same food as their guards - milk, canned meat, bread and occasionally beer. They ate better than the Pathet Lao, he said.
The floor of the cave was made of sand and cement and the walls were lined with metal roofing sheets. The prisoners slept on cots and there were a table, chairs and a blackboard for the political re-education sessions held by a Thai named Somphong, who had naturalized as a Lao and flown in the Royal Lao Air Force as a pilot. After he had been shot down he was sent to North Vietnam for political re-education. The captured pilots all appeared to be in good physical condition. The CIA reported that \\'preferential treatment of US PoWs is causing resentment\\' among their Pathet Lao and NVA guards. Special food was required, as in many camps the VC did not consider Vietnamese food suitable for Americans. At one camp in the South they would send a local VC into Tay Ninh City every day to buy the prisoners C-rations - the US Army\\'s own food being sold on the black market there. In Cambodia, American prisoners were given extra sugar, milk and ARA cigarettes. The Vietnamese also gave them American cigarettes when they could.
Pilots downed over the North were treated similarly. Often, when a pilot was shot down, if he was grabbed by the military before an angry mob of civilians got to him, he would find himself given cookies and orange juice or even, in one case, taken to a restaurant and given food and beer. Americans liked beer, Vietnamese troops were told, give them as much as you can. In June, 1967, one American plane was hit over North Vietnam and burst into flames. The pilot bailed out and parachuted safely to the ground only to be attacked by a group of angry farm workers. He drew a .45 and shot one of them in the thigh. Then the militia came. Once he was surrounded, he surrendered. He was led down to a nearby highway where a cadre gave him a beer. The pilot responded by handing round his cigarettes. For around 10 minutes he played with the local children, then in sign language indicated that the villagers had better take cover because the planes were coming back. They did. Five minutes after the pilot was taken away in a jeep, American jets began strafing the area while a search and rescue helicopter stood off.
Captives\\' shoes were often taken to prevent them escaping though they would be given back if they had to be taken long distances on foot. Pilots\\' helmets and flying suits were taken because the Vietnamese knew they often concealed hidden radios which could be used to call in another attack. Otherwise their personal property - their watches, jewellery, pictures of their wives and kids - were not to be taken. Any US dollars they had, though, would be taken and exchanged for Vietnamese currency. The general instruction was that these men were not to blame for the evil ways of the warmongering administration in Washington.
Some prisoners were guarded by women, and though some could be brutal, this usually meant a softer regime. One report talks of a camp in Ha Tay province North Vietnam, where US PoWs got coffee, beer or liquor before bedtime. A movie was shown once every two weeks. There were ping pong, volley ball and basketball for recreation and once a week fifty PoWs were taken by bus for sightseeing tours of Hanoi, Son Tay or Ha Dong. On this report, it is noted that, from the original interrogator\\'s personal experience in the French Indochina War, the North Vietnamese treated some of the prisoners from the French Army very well, for propaganda purposes.
The Vietnamese segregated prisoners and moved them around a lot, and they seemed quite capable of treating one group well, another badly, depending on the results they wanted. There seemed to be some inscrutable logic to it all.
In the South, too, treatment seems to have varied - some were even allowed to go hunting and fishing with their guards, while others were kept in \\'Aggression Centres\\' or \\'Alteration Centres\\'. Some were forced into training programmes for indoctrination, others were not. Strangely, though, much of the treatment reported in the documents is markedly different from the treatment meted out to the prisoners who returned in 1973.
Throughout the documents there is an emphasis on American prisoners being \\'useful\\' and \\'valuable\\'. NVA and Viet Cong orders were always to take prisoners if possible. A live American was worth five times a dead one, they were told. If an American soldier was killed resisting during a battle that could not be helped, but once captured they were not to be harmed.81 They were worth money and factories to Vietnam.
When one Viet Cong guerrilla saw the body of a friend that had been mutilated by American soldiers, he killed three wounded Americans in his charge. He was severely reprimanded.
An American airman found himself stuck in a tree after bailing out. He drew a pistol and opened fire at a communist reconnaissance unit on the ground. They fired back, not in earnest but only to persuade the airman to come down. Unfortunately, one of bullets hit the airman and killed him. The man who fired the fatal shot was taken to regimental headquarters for disciplinary action. Usually this meant demotion. Two months later, the regiment were issued with a booklet on what to do when they found a downed American pilot.
In Laos an order came from Pathet Lao HQ (\\'centre\\') in 1970 following rumours of mistreatment. It stated: \\'All Vietnamese and Lao personnel should treat any captured Americans well and Neo Lao Hak Sat\\' - the Lao Patriotic Front - \\'and Pathet Lao officials would be punished if any US prisoners died while in their custody.\\' The order was signed Prince Souphanouvong, head of the Pathet Lao.
A young Pathet Lao soldier was so afraid of the punishment he would receive after he had killed an American prisoner that he committed suicide.
After a pilot was beaten to death by an angry civilian mob in a small town in North Vietnam, local schoolchildren were instructed that they must protect downed American airmen until they could be handed over to the proper authorities. Students were encouraged to read a pamphlet called \\'Policy on Treatment of American Prisoners\\'. This was available throughout North Vietnam for a small price. All civilians were encouraged to purchase it.
The military were instructed to protect airmen from angry peasants and even to disarm any locals nearby. The capturing unit was allowed to hold a prisoner for only twenty days to elicit tactical information. After that he had to be passed on up the chain of command. American PoWs were also defended from airstrikes as they made their way up the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Usually there were well-planned evacuation routes for the prisoners in case of attack. This did not happen often. Prison camps were well hidden and moved frequently. In 1970, a source mentions a prison camp in an area freshly swept by American forces during Operation Phoenix. The report concedes that it could have been well enough concealed to avoid detection. Only in the direst emergency were the PoWs to be killed.
In fact, the communists would go to great lengths to keep American prisoners alive. Both the NVA and the VC were required to carry wounded American prisoners if necessary and there are plenty of sightings of them carrying wounded Americans long distances on stretchers. The wounded PoWs were taken to hospital where their treatment seems to have been humane. Vietnamese medical staff did everything within their power to keep wounded Americans alive. Two Vietnamese medics, husband and wife, reported treating six American prisoners at various field hospitals around South Vietnam - the name of one of them correlates with a known MIA case and has been deleted in the documents. Five of them were suffering from gunshot wounds, the sixth had meningitis. All of them survived and the sources believe they were taken to North Vietnam.
Another source says that, in May 1967, a Black American Marine sergeant was seen being treated at the Viet Cong Northern Sector Hospital at the Tam Thai mountain which usually catered only for wounded NVA soldiers. It was run by a Chinese doctor The interrogator comments that his files list no Negro USMC MIAs in the area at that time. A VC/NVA hospital in Tay Ninh province gave over six of its seventy beds to US PoWs in 1968. Even in hospital, the Americans were given more food than the Communists. None of these men appeared to be wounded. They were suffering from stomach disorders and the \\'after-effects of a TNT explosion\\'. The source, a fellow patient who had contracted malaria while infiltrating into South Vietnam, knew no more details of the incident.
Along with the rest of the patients, the Americans were allowed to watch the films a mobile entertainment team brought round two or three nights a week. They came on a motorbike with a small trailer containing a projector, a mobile generator and a screen and showed such propaganda epics as 10 Years of Victory. All the films showed the glorious achievements of the NVA and the Communist Party, the source comments. Still, when they were well enough, the Americans were allowed to join in volleyball competition with the NVA and VC patients.
Sometimes injuries were more severe and the treatment less successful. Three American pilots with legs missing were seen at a prison camp at Don Anh in North Vietnam. They had lost their legs to anti-aircraft fire. These men had not died during the operation - nor does it seem that the Vietnamese would allow an American to die from wounds or illness without doing everything possible medically to save him. The Viet Cong seemed genuinely sorry when one of their captives died of a virulent strain of malaria. He could have been exchanged for a lot of money and VC cadres held by the South Vietnamese government.
The idea that American prisoners were valuable came from the Americans themselves. Downed pilots carried cards offering a reward to those helping them in English, French, Chinese and South-East Asian languages, and President Nixon offered to release ten communist prisoners for every American returned.
The Vietnamese also certainly knew that America\\'s Veterans of Foreign Wars was offering as much as US$250,000 for the return of each prisoner. One VC platoon leader apparently tried to defect with the two American PoWs in his charge, according to a Department of Defense document. His brother-in-law contacted the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC) who handed over one million piastres in cash - the equivalent of US$8,474. It was later determined that the plan to release these men was hearsay but the Department of Defense document goes on to say: \\'There are currently three other tentative contacts where agents are seeking to return US PWs for money.\\' The incidence of such cases had risen sharply after the South Vietnamese government had circulated a reward leaflet.
The VC had their own reward: 5,000 South Vietnamese dollars and a radio for capturing an American, though the reward for capturing or killing a communist defector was seven times higher. Nothing was offered for the capture of a South Vietnamese soldier. And in 1968 the chairman of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam offered a reward for the safe delivery of American PoWs being transported from prison camp to prison camp.
American prisoners were also valuable as slave labour. The documents show that large numbers of men were used to carry food, load lorries, mend roads and bridges and perform a thousand other tasks.
In 1966 Americans were seen carrying rice in Tay Ninh province. Near Tinh Son two were seen carrying cases of fish sauce. In 1967 a group of Americans in bright uniforms was seen working as labourers in the Xuan Hai school near Ha Dong. A Thai soldier who had been a prisoner of the NVA told the Bangkok Post that he saw thin, emaciated white prisoners at a camp on the Ho Chi Minh trail who he believed to be used as slave labour.
A CIA agent saw US PoWs on the Paul Doumer bridge in Hanoi in 1967 and was told by a policemen that they were repairing it. Another CIA report in 1968 says American prisoners were being transported in trucks to unload coal at a power plant or repair roads in north-west Hanoi.
In 1969 five white men wearing black pyjamas were seen with a VC unit. They were being used to gather food for the unit. They were loosely guarded and sang a Vietnamese song, suggesting they had been with the VC for some time. Eight were seen helping with rice and manioc production in a camp in the Tra Bong district of Quang Ngai province, South Vietnam, during 1969 and 1970. The source was told that they were Marines and that one was a doctor.
US PoWs were seen on a wood-chopping detail in Chau Doc province. In Cambodia, ten white and two Black prisoners were seen sweeping up in an enemy camp. A CIA report says that all American pilots captured in the Yen Bai area were taken to a camp at Tuyen Quang where around 200 US PoWs were being held. The North Vietnamese authorities at the camp then used these prisoners to repair roads, bridges and other installations destroyed by US bombing. The camp director, Lieutenant-Colonel Huan, was well qualified for the job. From 1954 to 1964 he was director of the Ba Vi cattle commune which you\\'ll hear more of later.
A source called Hien says American prisoners were taken to work in factories. And work details of between five and fifteen men with two guards were seen being taken every day in trucks from the prison in Hanoi to Phuc Yen airfield. They wore blue overalls and left at 6.30am and returned at 5.40pm; the drive took around an hour. Some of the work American PoWs were seen doing is a bit more dubious. In several places they were seen teaching English to a class of VC cadremen. They were also taken round villages with propaganda units so that local people could see what the enemy looked like. In some cases they spouted communist propaganda.