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Return With Honor | Timeline

Timeline of POWs

President Dwight Eisenhower, 1954. National Archives.

World War II ends. Allied powers must decide how to deal with Ho Chi Minh's nationalist movement in Vietnam, which has expelled the Japanese. France goes to war to regain its former colony, and a long and bitter struggle ensues between Ho's forces and the French. The French receive financial support from the United States, which sees the French war against the Communist Ho as part of the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

August: The United States commits a few dozen advisors to the French in their war against the Vietnamese and to agrees to pay for half of France's war effort. During the same year, the United States recognizes a French puppet regime in Vietnam. By 1954, the United States will bear three-quarters of the war's cost.

April: At a news conference, President Dwight Eisenhower likens the dynamic in Southeast Asia to a "falling domino" process: if one country should fall to Communism, he argues, bordering countries would follow in rapid succession. This political assumption guides the United States' growing involvement in Vietnam over the coming years.

June 15: U.S. Army Privates Doyle Morgan and Leonard Sroveck as well as Air Force Airmen Ciro Salas, Giacomo Appice and Jerry Schuller become the first Americans POWs in the Vietnam wars. Soldiers of Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh, or Vietnam Independence League, detain the men, who are part of a U.S. maintenance crew supporting French supply units. They are captured while driving a French military vehicle they have borrowed to go swimming. After diplomatic intervention by American officials, the five are released on August 30.

July: After the Vietnamese finally defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu, an international conference is held in Geneva to end hostilities in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. As part of the agreement, Vietnam is divided into two separate countries. Ho Chi Minh and the Communist forces hold power in the North; Ngo Dinh Diem and anti-Communist forces take power in the South. The United States does not sign the Geneva pact, but agrees to abide by it, and supports the Diem government.

January: The United States agrees to take over the training of the South Vietnamese army from the French. The last French advisors depart in 1956.

Spring: Some 900,000 North Vietnamese refugees flee the increasingly oppressive regime of Ho Chi Minh in the North. Dissidents in the North are forced into "reeducation" classes, and "confessions" are extracted from dissidents. This practice of mind control is inflicted on French and then later on American POWs.

July 8: Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand are killed by guerrillas at Bienhoa. They are the first official American casualties of the Vietnam War.

By the time Dwight D. Eisenhower leaves office, 675 military advisors are assisting the South Vietnamese. Upon entering the presidency, John F. Kennedy expands U.S. involvement even further, calling Vietnam the "cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia."

Popular support of South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, strongly backed by the United States, crumbles. Many segments of the South Vietnamese population join the National Liberation Front, the resistance organized to overthrow the repressive Diem. Some of the most dramatic protests against Diem's regime are initiated by Buddhist priests, who burn themselves alive in the capital of Saigon.

November: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as the new president of the United States. Henry Cabot Lodge, America's ambassador to South Vietnam, tells Johnson that if he wants to save Vietnam from Communism he will have to stand firm. Johnson's reply will guide him over the next four years. "I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went."

December: Two dozen American soldiers and civilians are now prisoners of war in Vietnam and Laos.

Mid-1964: While campaigning for president, Johnson says, "We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." Yet, behind closed doors, he is planning to escalate the role of America in the war.

August 5: Naval aviator Lieutenant Everett Alvarez Jr. is shot down during U.S. air strikes against the North Vietnamese port of Vinh. Eight and a half years will pass before he is released.

August: Johnson gains congressional authorization for United States involvement in the war against North Vietnam after he announces that North Vietnamese torpedo boats have made two unprovoked attacks against American destroyers in international waters. By approving the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Congress grants Johnson the power to commit U.S. forces to Southeast Asia to turn back the North Vietnamese, giving the president the freedom he wants to fight the war. Only later is it revealed that the American ships were in the area, assisting South Vietnamese commando raids, and that the second incident never took place.

February: When Viet Cong forces kill seven Americans and wound 109 more in an attack on an American base, Johnson authorizes retaliatory bombing of North Vietnam aimed at cutting off the flow of supplies to reduce the military pressure on South Vietnam.

March 8: Johnson sends the first U.S. ground troops into action, a crucial turning point in the American involvement in the Vietnam War. At the beginning of the year there are 25,000 American troops; by the end of that year there are 185,000. The numbers increase to 385,000 in 1966, 485,000 in 1967, and 543,000 in 1968.

March 24: The first antiwar teach-in is held at the University of Michigan. At first, both supporters and opponents of the war attend the teach-ins. Before long, the campus teach-ins become anti-war rallies.

Anti-war demonstrations are held all over the United States. In 1967, 300,000 people take to the streets in New York City, and in Washington 100,000 people try to shut down the Pentagon. Expressing the views of more and more Americans, Women Strike for Peace, a women's anti-war organization, writes, "Stop! Don't drench the jungles of Asia with the blood of our sons. Don't force our sons to kill women and children whose only crime is to live in a country ripped by civil war."

The increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam adds 389 Americans to the ranks of captured or missing during the year. In 1969, 189 more are added.

January-February: North Vietnamese forces mount a surprise attack on provincial capitals and other towns in South Vietnam, known as the Tet offensive. In Saigon, Viet Cong forces strike the American embassy, Tan Son Nhut air base, and even the presidential palace. The attack is beaten back, but the offensive is a psychological victory for the North Vietnamese.

May: Two American POWs, Air Force Capt. John Dramesi and a cellmate, Air Force Capt. Ed Atterberry, attempt to escape from the "Zoo," a prison facility southwest of Hoa Lo. The men get out of the prison, but are caught a few miles from the prison and returned. The failed escape attempt has disastrous results for the POWs. In "Honor Bound," their book about American prisoners of war in Southeast Asia, Stuart Rochester and Frederick Kiley write: "Beginning with the escapees and then rapidly moving . . . to other camps as well, prison authorities conducted a sweeping inquisition and crackdown that, for the scope and intensity of the reprisals, was the most violent episode of the captivity."

May: In a major policy reversal regarding POWs, Secretary of State Melvin Laird goes public with the statement that U.S. POWs are not being treated humanely. Until then, the U.S. government policy was to make no public statements about POWs in the belief that publicity about poor conditions would only lead to worse POW treatment. Sybil Stockdale, wife of POW Jim Stockdale, had worked with other POW family members to publicize the plight of POWs and had urged the United States to condemn the brutal treatment. Speaking of the policy change, she later said: "That was a great satisfaction to me and to all of us wives who had been working so hard."

July: Wives and other family members of American prisoners of war and those missing in action form the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. The group's goal is to attract national attention to the plight of their imprisoned and missing family members. They also work together to increase public awareness about the inhumane treatment of POWs by the North Vietnamese -- a struggle that leads the U.S. government to speak out against POW treatment.

September 3: Ho Chi Minh dies at the age of 79. His death coincides with a dramatic improvement in the treatment of POWs, a link many believe is not coincidental. The era of steady torture and poor treatment is replaced with lighter punishment, better food, and generally improved living conditions. As Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale remembered later, after Ho's death there was "a lot less brutality -- and larger bowls of rice."

The New York Times publishes a secret Department of Defense account of the American involvement in Vietnam, known as the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, a defense analyst, is responsible for leaking the papers, which reveal some of the fabrications and faulty assumptions that have guided America's involvement.

December: To convince the North Vietnamese to return to the negotiating table and achieve Nixon's goal of "peace with honor," the Nixon administration conducts the most intensive bombing campaign of the entire war, targeting North Vietnamese factories and ports.

Christmas: Nixon again orders a massive bombing of North Vietnam, including Hanoi, and also orders the mining of Hanoi Harbor. American prisoners of war watch from the Hoa Lo prison as anti-aircraft missiles light up the sky.

January 27: A cease-fire is signed in Paris between North and South Vietnam. Americans have lost 58,000 men in the war, with far more wounded. Over the span of the war, the United States has spent over $150 billion.

February 12: The first POWs to be released under the cease-fire go home.

March 29: Only 24 hours behind schedule, the last of the known 591 American POWs leave Hanoi. The men are flown to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where they are greeted with cheers. They receive medical examinations, new uniforms, and for the first time since their captivity, all the servings of food they want. For many Americans, the POWs' return home marks the final chapter of the country's involvement in the Vietnam War.

South Vietnam falls to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. After thirty years of revolutionary civil wars and repeated conflicts against colonial powers, peace comes to Vietnam.

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