P.O.W.S: A Celebration of Men Redeemed

  • Share
  • Read Later

(5 of 8)

Charles was taken blindfolded to a prison in Hanoi, installed in a room about 15 by 15 ft., furnished with two desks and a wooden plank bed with a boarded-up window. There he was to spend the first 36 days in solitary confinement. He was immediately issued personal supplies—a cup, toothpaste, tooth brush, shirts, trousers, blankets, a teapot. The food was opulent enough by P.O.W. standards—sweet milk and half a loaf of bread in the morning, thick potato or cabbage soup for lunch, along with soybean cakes, or fish cakes, and sometimes a ration of pork. Later in the day a third meal was served.

When he was allowed to talk with his fellow prisoners, Charles said, they discussed the war and their hopes for a quick end to it. "The old guys," he said, "who had been there for many years, called that feeling 'new guy optimism.' Every time a new guy gets shot down, he comes in and says the war is going to be over in six months." Charles and the others were permitted regular exercise periods, eventually received playing cards and chess sets. "They told us if there was anything we wanted, they would bring it in," Charles said. If isolation and mistreatment were part of the others' stories, Charles and his companions at least had some amenities. "I was able to keep up pretty well with what was happening in the world," he told TIME's Leo Janos last week, "by reading English-language editions of Russian and Chinese newspapers."

Air Force Colonel Norris M. Overly, 43, told a bleaker story of the five months he spent in the "Hanoi Hilton" and other North Vietnamese camps. He and his fellow prisoners were about 30 lbs. underweight, he said, because of a thin diet of watery soup and bread. During his confinement, said Overly, each tiny cell was equipped with a loudspeaker that broadcast "endless hours of propaganda." "We were not treated as prisoners of war," Overly noted. "We were treated as criminals." Regulations posted in the cells began "The criminal will..."

Until all of the U.S. prisoners are out and have told their stories, it is difficult to compare their plight with that of other captives in other wars. No one yet knows how many died in the Communist camps—just as no one can say how many Communists may have died in such South Vietnamese prisons as Con Son, with its famous "tiger cages." P.O.W.s have never fared especially well in any war, except perhaps for some in World War I's Grand Illusion, the classic movie that chronicles the remnants of chivalry in an otherwise brutal conflict. In the American Revolution, for example, thousands died in British captivity. In Civil War camps like Andersonville, Americans treated other Americans far worse than some foreign enemies have. In Korea, an astonishing 63% of American prisoners —6,451 men—died in enemy hands; the P.O.W.s there endured long frozen marches, wholesale torture tactics and a cruelly systematic program of brainwashing.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8