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Return With Honor | Article

The Hanoi March and the Consolidation of POWs

On the morning of July 6, 1966, prisoners at "Briarpatch" and the "Zoo," two prisoner of war camps west of Hanoi, were rounded up in the morning and given shirts with numbers. In late afternoon, the gathered American prisoners, blindfolded and handcuffed in pairs, were loaded onto trucks and driven to a sports stadium in downtown Hanoi. The men from the two prisons, 52 in all, were addressed by a man nicknamed "Rabbit," an indoctrinator from the Hanoi prison of Hoa Lo. He told the American soldiers they were about to "meet the Vietnamese people."

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American Film Foundation

Despite not knowing exactly what lay ahead, the men -- a dozen of whom had been in isolation -- were thrilled to see their comrades. The men communicated in code by tapping on their handcuffs. The joy of human contact ended when "Rabbit" barked the command to move out.

Red-scarved guards flanked the prisoners, who were marched two-by-two into a waiting crowd. Rabbit ordered the men to bow their heads, but U.S. Commander Jeremiah Denton and others passed the word to stand tall. The men were first led past the Soviet and Chinese embassies and then were brought down the city's main avenue, which was lined by a mob that one soldier estimated to have 100,000 people.

Before long, screaming spectators began breaking past the guards to hit, kick, and spit at the men. Bottles were thrown, and more than once the dazed prisoners were beaten to the ground. The brutal gauntlet extended for about two miles, an hour-long ordeal. As the prisoners were led back to the stadium, the attacking crowds broke into a riot. In his book, With God in a POW Camp, survivor Ralph Gaither said he and another prisoner recited the 23rd Psalm the final 100 yards back to the stadium. Almost all the men sustained head and facial injuries, nursing loosened teeth, broken noses and swollen eyes; one even had a partial hernia. After another half-hour of terror, about the time it took guards to disperse the crowds, the men were loaded onto trucks and driven back to the two prison camps.

The event had been planned by the North Vietnamese to win support for their cause. It was staged to produce film footage that would convince the world that the American prisoners were war criminals deserving of derision. They expected that an angry yet orderly Hanoi crowd would be shown jeering shamed American soldiers. Instead, the footage, broadcast to the world, showed manacled prisoners trying to protect their dignity and safety under assault from a mob.

U.S. officials quickly condemned the march, noting it was another violation of the Geneva Conventions. U.S. officials also took the opportunity to condemn the North Vietnamese threat that they would try American prisoners for war crimes. The march was denounced internationally as well, as was the Communist threat of war crimes trials. Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi of India and Harold Wilson of Great Britain lobbied the Soviet Union to restrain the North Vietnamese. United Nations Secretary General U Thant registered his disapproval of the POW treatment, as did Pope Paul VI and the World Council of Churches.

After the criticism, Ho Chi Minh and the Communists pulled back on their threat of trials. The propaganda from the North took a decisive shift. Ho told visiting journalists that the "main criminals" were not captured pilots "but the persons who send them there -- Johnson, Rusk, McNamara -- these are the ones who should be brought to trial." Reaction to the march apparently changed North Vietnamese policy and no war crime trials were ever held. The march itself also drew attention to an issue that until this time had received scant notice from the press and even from the highest levels of the U.S. government: the treatment of American POWs in Vietnam.

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 experience 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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