Experience as POW
On capture and imprisonment
On the will to live
On secret ways of communicating
On lack of information
POW release in 1973
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.
recounts his experiences as a prisoner of war (POW) and how he and other
prisoners managed to survive.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."