People & Events: The Release of the POWs
In the days following the signing of the peace accord on January 27, 1973, the American prisoners of war got word that the war was over. Camp officers read the news from prepared texts stating that the men would be released 120 at a time at two-week intervals. The sick and wounded were scheduled to depart first; the others would follow in the order in which they were captured.
As the men were dismissed following the announcement at Hoa Lo, Lt. Colonel Robinson Risner about-faced and called to the 400 men, "Fourth Allied POW Wing, atten-hut!" Lt. Gerald Coffee remembered the men's reaction. "The thud of eight hundred rubber-tire sandals coming together smartly was awesome." Squadron commanders returned the salute and then dismissed their units with a unified "Squadron, dis . . . missed!"
Some were reluctant to believe the news. Coffee's squadron commander Lt. Everett Alvarez, in captivity for 8 1/2 years, said to Coffee: "You know, I've been up and down so many times over the years that I'm not sure what to think. It looks good, everything seems right, but I'll believe it when I see it. I'm not ready to party it up . . . yet."
Those who believed the announcement was true had a wide variety of reactions. Coffee said that "some men were exchanging a wink and a smile or a light punch on the shoulders, but most, with minds racing unto themselves, already projected themselves twelve thousand miles away and considered the joyful and spooky prospect of reunions with loved ones." POW Sam Johnson remembers his group at Hoa Lo "ran to each other, hugging and crying and whooping with joy." At the another Hanoi prison camp, Plantation, Al Stafford felt "a kind of emptiness which changed, slowly, to profound, bottomless fatigue." He explained afterwards that he had never felt so tired and so vacant in his life, which expressed itself in a deep desire to go back to his cell and sleep.
With the peace, the persistently austere POW conditions were finally relaxed. The men were given letters from families that had been withheld for months and years, along with supplies and other presents from home, including MAD magazine. The prisoners started receiving fresh supplies of bread and vegetables, canned meat and fish, undoubtedly attempts by the North Vietnamese to get the men looking better.
In the hours and days before their release, POWs imagined their future lives. Alvarez daydreamed of "returning to a normal life" in which "we would make our own decisions and set our own agendas." The expectation of normal, daily activities -- getting in a car and cruising down a highway or rolling in a haystack -- filled him with "tingling anticipation. I would get up whenever I pleased, make my own selection of clothing, eat whatever I wanted, and go wherever I fancied."
The last evening in Hoa Lo, Vietnamese guards gave the American prisoners their going-away clothes. Coffee recalled that his fellow soldiers eyed the clothes "like a bunch of little kids in a toy store." They played with the zippers on their jackets and laced and unlaced shoelaces that "we hadn't seen . . . for years." The men were given small black tote bags to carry what they had -- cigarettes, toiletries and gifts they'd received. Some snuck in a souvenir of captivity. For Alvarez, this was a tin drinking cup he said he had used "for so long that it had taken on the sentimental value of a baby's cup."
As promised, the men were released in shifts, with those believed to be the last group leaving Vietnam on March 29, 1973. However, on that same day, the Viet Cong announced that Army Capt. Robert White, unaccounted for since his disappearance in November 1969, was still in captivity. Years later White would say "they just plain forgot about me" until his captors reminded superiors about him. He was released a few days later, and was the last known surviving U.S. POW from the Vietnam War.