Experience as POW

On capture and imprisonment
On the will to live
On torture
On secret ways of communicating
On lack of information
POW release in 1973

click to enlarge1966. On a bombing raid over North Vietnam, Air Force Captain Pete Peterson was shot down and captured by Vietnamese militia. The next six-and-a-half years of his life were characterized by isolation, torture, and interrogation.

Ambassador Peterson recounts his experiences as a prisoner of war (POW) and how he and other prisoners managed to survive.

On his capture:
On his sixty-seventh mission, Peterson's F4 was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He ejected from the burning plane and crash landed into a tree.

"I heard this group coming toward me and it came directly toward me because I looked up in the tree and the parachute had completely enveloped the tree, a white parachute. I had to contemplate whether I was going to get off the planet or not and in the process of doing so, I actually pulled out my .38 revolver which was strapped to my waist and suggested to myself that maybe it would be easier and a less painful process if I just took the revolver and ended my life."

Under strict orders not to kill American pilots, the local militia delivered their prisoner to the military authorities. En route to prison, Peterson and other pilots were paraded through the villages, the object of hatred from a people who had lived too long with a devastating war.

click to enlargePeterson was first taken to Hoa Lo prison, the "Hanoi Hilton" built by the Colonial French to house Vietnamese prisoners. During his captivity, Peterson was held in four different prisons, including three and a half years in one cell at a prison nicknamed "the Zoo." Like every other prisoner, his goal was to come out alive.

On the will to live:
"I think that 'survivability' is a very personal thing. I think each individual has to determine whether or not you are going to make an attempt to survive--it was critical to make that determination--after having made it then you have to find a way to deliver on that."

On torture:
"As far as the torture, the most difficult frankly were what would seem to be the most benign. . . Just kneeling on your knees and holding your hands in the air, that sounds rather innocuous. I can assure you that after a few hours and days going into weeks doing that, you became near a vegetable."

click to enlargePeterson still carries the results of this torture. Rope burns scar his elbows. His right hand often goes numb from the nerve damage that tight manacles produced. But for him, and most POWs, the greatest torture was the isolation.

"Had we not some outlet for touching another person's life, it would have been almost impossible to survive. I think you would have lost faith, or lost confidence and probably given up."

POWs were rarely allowed to see one another. They were kept separated from each other for months--even years--at a time. The prisoners developed secret ways to communicate. Messages were passed by sweeping, even blinking eyes--using the tap code taught in Air Force survival school. Although the Vietnamese knew about the code, they thought it was too slow for the prisoners to use.

On secret ways of communicating:
"As it turns out, the code was very, very fast, even if you just tapped with your finger or knuckle or your hand, you could pass a tremendous amount of information through the wall. To give you an idea, we passed Shakespeare through the wall; we passed movies; we passed our biographies and biographies of others we knew about. It was our entertainment; We talked or tapped on the wall for hours and hours into the day and night."

On lack of information:
"We didn't know who the President was. We didn't know that a man had walked on the moon. We didn't know the details as to anything going on in the streets of America and clearly there was a lot happening back there. In fact, the Vietnamese would bring quotes back saying that this occurred in such and such a place in an anti-war demonstration and we discounted it totally as propaganda."

click to enlargeOn Christmas of 1969, Peterson was taken with other prisoners to communion. Although he was quite sick, he was happy to be able to attend a church service. Eight months later a copy of the film taken during the Christmas mass was given to a U.S. Congressman visiting North Vietnamese diplomats in Paris. Although the communion was obviously staged for propaganda purposes, the film offered a welcomed glimpse of the American POWs. Throughout the country, families of missing servicemen huddled around their televisions looking for the face of a loved one. Pete Peterson was one of 75 prisoners seen for the first time since capture, who were now known to be alive.

On POWs release:
click to enlargeThree more years passed. In 1973, Peterson and 500 other POWs were released following the signing of the Paris Accords. He was reunited with his family who had never relinquished hope of his survival.

"After the war I had two choices. I could go home angry, disenchanted, depressed. If I followed that path, I would always be walking backward. Or I could get on with my life. I woke up one morning and realized I had no control over yesterday. But I had full control over and responsibility for tomorrow. My choice was obvious."

The Man: Peterson
Experience as POW | Return to America | Return to Vietnam

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