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People & Events: The Consolidation of POWs

One of the ironies in the history of the American POWs in Vietnam is that their lives were improved dramatically by a failed rescue mission. On November 20, 1970, a small group of Air Force and Special Forces volunteers dropped into the Son Tay prison, located just 23 miles from Hanoi. It took only minutes before the commandos killed the 200 soldiers in the towers, broke into cells, and escaped in waiting helicopters. The raid would have been hailed back in Washington if not for one major problem: all the American prisoners in Son Tay had been evacuated from the camp four months previously. In fact, prisoners transferred to nearby Dan Hoi listened to U.S. fighter planes screaming overhead and watched explosive flashes light up the sky the night of the raid.

The mission was a political disaster in Washington, but the failure actually improved the lives of American POWs. The North Vietnamese, shocked by the near-success of the attempt, moved all of the POWs from less secure outlying areas and concentrated them in Hanoi. Prisoners were rounded up in the "Hanoi Hilton," the facility in which American prisoners had first experienced captivity. Conditions were as bad as returned soldiers had remembered them. Said U.S. Commander Howard Rutledge: "The place was as bleak and cold and filthy as ever. . . . It was like a bad dream."

What did change, however, was that the men, more concentrated and numerous than ever, were no longer isolated. The prisoners were housed in groups of 20 to 50 in large, open rooms. "Being in that room with forty other roommates was just the most wonderful medicine that anybody could ever give you," said Major George Day. Instead of having to tap on walls to make contact, the POWs congregated in rooms and courtyards, talking and organizing as they had been unable to do previously. Two men -- Rutledge and Commander Harry Jenkins -- who had only known each other through tapping during four years of imprisonment, came face to face. "That was something else," Rutledge said, remembering the first time the two shook hands. "We knew each other intimately through our covert communication efforts." The men played card games, exercised together and even organized a toastmaster. Soldiers taught each other whatever they knew, including French, Spanish, history, real estate, and dairy farming.

Information spread through the camp to prisoners who had gone for years without hearing any news of the outside world. Soldiers published abbreviated daily editions of any news the prisoners received. The "Vegas Gambler" was a newspaper printed on strips of toilet paper. It announced the Six Day War in the Middle East and the landing of men on the moon ("U.S. made jump like cow," read the news.) The "newspaper" was delivered from cell to cell. Said Lieutenant Commander Richard Stratton: "As strange as it sounds, it was a quality life."

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