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The Viet Nam P.O.W.s are in many ways an anomaly. From the start, they were relatively few. Most of them were officers and professional soldiers; they were not the hordes of trench-fighting enlisted men who have often suffered a massive barbarity. In contrast to other wars, Viet Nam's intricacies turned the prisoners into a political and diplomatic as well as a military issue, and their treatment by the enemy seems to have fluctuated, generally for the better, as they assumed their extraordinary symbolic importance.
No Charges. The Korean experience set off a crisis of conscience in the U.S.a debate that now seems almost quaint. Only 21 out of the 10,218 American captives became turncoats; 192 of the returnees were thought to be collaborators. Yet the episode caused speculation that America's youth had turned physically soft and morally flaccid, a somewhat exaggerated idea considering the suffering involved. The experience led President Dwight Eisenhower to promulgate his six-point Code of Conduct for P.O.W.s, pledging prisoners to keep faith with comrades and country during captivity. Among other things, it said: "I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause."
There might yet be recriminations regarding the conduct of today's returning prisoners. Some instances of personal betrayal might eventually surface. But the military was in a distinctly forgiving mood regarding the antiwar broadcasts and statements that some prisoners made during their confinement. The Pentagon announced last week that no charges would be brought against the men for such performances. If the Administration planned to hold draft resisters to the letter of the law, granting no amnesty, it had evidently decided that the prisoners have already suffered enough.
So, too, have their families. Each made its own accommodationswomen learned to live with the experience of being neither wives nor widows, and of being both fathers and mothers. Some of them have achieved over the years an independence and autonomy that might even make it difficult for their husbands when they are reunited.
Most of the wives displayed an extraordinary strength, even though the war deprived many of them of the early years of their marriages. Lorraine Shumaker was a 21-year-old, married for a year, with an infant son, when her husband Robert, a Navy jet pilot, left for duty in Indochina. Now, eight years later, he would be coming home in the first group of prisoners, to their house in La Jolla, Calif. His eight-year-old son Grant, who has no memory of his father, planned to install himself in a cardboard carton and pop out as a jack-in-the-box surprise when his father walks in the door. Sorting through her husband's clothes the other day in preparation for his homecoming, Lorraine Shumaker reflected: "The styles tell the story: Ivy League suits with those thin lapels, pencil-thin ties, button-down collars on his shirts. I didn't have the heart to throw the stuff out. I sent it to the cleaners instead."