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There were too many individual dramas, too many complex emotions involved. If it was a war without heroes, many Americans were intent upon making the prisoners fill the role. There was valor there, of course, but there was also simple luck. The prisoners' return was shadowed by the 1,300 men still missing. Moreover, many were professional soldiers. Many had been shot down while they were delivering 500-lb. bombs on unseen victims at the touch of a button. They had obeyed orders, dealt in death and presumably understood the odds and consequences. That they survivedwhile 45,937 other Americans diedwas cause enough for quiet, personal celebration, but not, it may be, for public statues or halftime Super Bowl rhetoric.
No one, of course, would minimize their ordeal. In the weeks ahead, the prisoners' stories will emerge, and they doubtless will be tales of suffering and endurance, bravery, boredom and perhaps sometimes weakness. Only a few of the 35 men previously freed have described what life was like in the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese camps.
Navy Commander Charles Klusmann, 39, was the first American serviceman to be captured in Laos, where the Communists say they still hold seven military prisoners. Klusmann, shot down on a reconnaissance mission in June 1964, was held for 3½ months before he escaped. His experience, though brief, may have been typical of treatment in the earlier stages of the war. After he was captured, Klusmann was marched through villages for the populace to gawk at and scorn. Last week in Atlanta, where he testified before a Governors' committee on veterans' benefits, Klusmann observed: "Returning prisoners really shouldn't be put in parades because they have already had a lot of people just coming out to look at them like animals."
For two months, then, Klusmann was kept in a single room, allowed out only occasionally to bathe in a stream. He suffered from dysentery and other diseases brought on by a diet that included rats and dogmeat stew. "Your physical state just deteriorates," he said. "I lost 40 pounds." Eventually he slipped into a period of languor: "You get detached from reality. You wonder, is this all a dream? They keep telling you that you were killed when you were shot down and that is what your family was told."
Navy Lieut. Norris Charles, 27, was shot down in 1971, and spent 8½ months in a North Vietnamese camp before he and two other flyers were released last September. Although released prisoners have been commanded not to discuss life in the camps until all the men are freed, Charles offered some glimpses of the experience in a newspaper interview. He had expected to be beaten by villagers, but he found them oddly kind and curious about him. "Some of them would come in and feel my hair, my Afro," he said, "and the kids would come in and give me cigarettes." The girls giggled when he was ordered to remove his flight suit and revealed that he was wearing red drawers.