The War: Blowing the Whistle

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Only a month earlier, they were prisoners of war. Since their release, Navy Lieut. Robert Frishman and Seaman Douglas Hegdahl have been recuperating at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The third released P.W., Air Force Captain Wesley Rumble, 26, whose fighter-bomber went down over Quang Binh province in April 1968, returned to his home in Oroville, Calif.

Initially, all three men remained silent about their treatment in prison, explaining that they feared for Americans left behind (TIME, Aug. 15). For Frishman, 28, who is naturally voluble, keeping si lent about his experiences was almost as agonizing as his 22 months in solitary confinement. Last week, accompanied by Seaman Hegdahl, he decided to "blow the whistle" on Hanoi at a press conference arranged by the Pentagon.

Sloppy Work. Frishman, whose right arm was shattered in October 1967 when his F-4C Phantom was shot down over Hanoi, said that North Vietnamese doctors had removed his elbow but not all the steel fragments. It was a sloppy operation, said Frishman, because the doctors "are willing only to do what is necessary to keep us alive." Because of his loosely dangling forearm, he was known to his fellow inmates as "The Grim Reaper."

The North Vietnamese told him that the most seriously wounded among the prisoners was Lieut. Commander John S. McCain III, son of the American commander in the Pacific. Despite "many broken bones," Frishman said, McCain "has been in solitary confinement since April of 1968." Frishman denounced the mistreatment of another fellow prisoner, Lieut. Commander Richard A. Stratton, a Navy pilot who "was beaten, had his fingernails removed and was put in solitary." His arms were scarred from cigarette burns. Before Frishman left Hanoi, Stratton told him not to worry about telling the truth. "He said that if he gets tortured some more, at least he'll know why he's getting it, and he will feel that it will be worth the sacrifice."

Only Nine. Most of the P.W.s suffered their worst treatment immediately after being captured. Some were forced to sit on a stool for days until they collapsed. Others, said Frishman, were hung by their arms from the ceiling. The fact that life improved when generals visited the camp led Frishman to allow that "possibly the higher-ups in North Viet Nam may not know the truth about our treatment." This supposition seems plausible. The North Vietnamese are extremely sensitive about U.S. public reaction to the war; coverage in the American press is carefully scrutinized by a special section of the government.

Under the Geneva Convention, signed by North Viet Nam in 1957, prisoners are to be humanely treated and identified, sick and injured released. The Red Cross is to be allowed to inspect the camps, and prisoners' mail allowed to be delivered. Despite the fact that many captured Americans are injured airmen, only nine men have been freed by North Viet Nam during the past five years. Because the North Vietnamese have generally refused to let prisoners write home and have not published the names of Americans held captive, no one knows exactly how many of the 1,300 U.S. servicemen listed as missing are actually languishing in cells north of the DMZ.