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Lethbridge Herald Newspaper Archives

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Lethbridge Herald, The (Newspaper) - March 1, 1973, Lethbridge, Alberta 24 THE LETHBRIDGE HERAID Thursday, March 1, 1973 THE REAL STORY OF THOSE POTFs W VIETNAM Loyalty, comradeship: but also fist fights, anger By SEYMOUtt M. IIE11SH New York Times Service WASHINGTON Tile Amer- ican prisoners ot1 war inside North Vietnam maintained strong over-all discipline antl rapport, sources close to the prisoners report, but day-to-day camp life also included many serious personality disputes and some bitter divisons over the Vietnam war. Pentagon officers, asked about tills, acknowledged that divisions existed but maintain- ed tliat they were not deep. The sources said, however, that along with comradestiip and group loyalty, camp life in- cluded occasional fist fights, a few near-suicides and many cliques. In addition, it. was said, much miger was directed at those few prisoners who were de- scribed as having defied the or- ders of their superiors by con- tinuing to make antiwar state- ments at the request of the North Vietnamese. Military of- here acknowledged that some of the senior officers have returned from North Viet- nam had expressed a desire to bring court martial charges against at least two former prisoners. Diversity According to the sources, there was a wide diversity of opinion about the war and how it should be ended among the pilots returning home alter up to nine years in captivity. One former prisoner compiained about what he termed strong psychological and military pre- sure to conform. Many of the disputes were personal as well as political, this former prisoner noted, and were exacerbated by debates over such events as the ill-fated raid in 1970 on the Son Tay camp near Hanoi, which pen- tagon officials incorrectly be- lieved to be holding Ameri- cans. Most of the pilots considered the raid a morale booster, the former prisoner said, but a few "didn't want to get shot on the way to the helicopters." The sources said that the ten- sions over the continued United States involvement in the war were felt most acutely among the more than 300 men im- prisoned between 1364 and late 19CS, when the Johnson admin- istration undertook to halt the bombing o! the north in ex- change tor peace negotiations in Paris. Co-operate Those men from the 18M-1968 group who chose to co-operate with their Vietnamese captors in recent years were considered 'house radicals" by others, the sources said, and often lived in quarters with men captured more recently. "There's a real a senior American officer said of the returning prisoners. "They want all this to come out, but they don't want it to come out now." "These guys have decided to clam he added. "They feel it is important to their com- rades not to say anything that will jeopardize anybody or de- lay any future releases." More than a fourth of the American prisoners in North Vietnam have been returned un- der terms of the Vietnam peace agreement concluded last month, with the remaining 400 scheduled to be released in the next five weeks. Another senior Pentagon offi- cial who is familiar with the prisoner situation had a differ- ent point of view. He urged pub- lication of an account of prison- er strife in the camps, saying that Ihe press had to set the stage for future investigations and analyses of prisoner behav- ior in depth. "There were ser- ious he added. One pilot reportedly pulled a knife on another prisoner dur- ing an argument. Whole story Government officials ack- nowledged that the published descriptions of joyous plane rides from Hanoi to Clark Air Uase in the Philippines were accurate but far from com- plete. One plane, he noted, held two prisoners, both senior offi- cers and pilots, who were b> licved by their fellows to have collaborated with the enemy. 'Nobody said a word to the official related. "They tried to make conver- sation, to be buddy-buddy, but ucbody said anything. They were completely ostracized." Adding to their fellow captives' anger, the official continued, was North Vietnam's decision to permit them to return with the first group although they had been shot down in 1967 and 1963 and, under the terms of the accord, should have been re- leased later. Tile two prisoners were list- ed by the North Vietnamese as being among the sick and wounded and therefore eligible off .13 to 24.94. for return in the first group, the official said. Neither was in fact sick or wounded, he added, which was known to the others. Military sources said that the charges some prisoners were planning to file against the two officers would be based not on their antiwar activity hut on their refusal to stop making statements when directly order- ed to do so by senior Ameri- cans in their camp. Bygones A Pentagon official expressed) the hope that "with the pass- age of time these guys will let bygones by and aban- don their plans. There was disagreement among Ilia returning pilots. One former prisoner estima- ted that as many as 20 per cent of the men held in the north favored the election of Sen. George McGovern as offering the best chance for their early release. He added that most of the Democratic presidential candidate's support came from among the 100 or so pilots who were shot down after the 1913 bombing halt ended in April, 1972. His estimate was that 40 per cent of the prisoners were "hard-line" military men who became even more hawkish during captivity. An official who spent many hours with the men after their arrival in the Philippines a time in wliich dissidence was less likely to be voiced de- scribed the estimate of prison- er support for McGovern as an overstatement. He estimated that upward of 90 per cent of the men with whom he came in contact support President Nix- in's policies. Furious The pilots indicated, the offi- cial added, that of all (lie anti- war figures who visited Hanoi, they were most furious with former attorney general Ram- sey Clark. "They really got ticked off about the offi- cial said, apparently because Clark had reversed his public position on the war. He was a member of the Johnson administration at the time- many of the returning prisoners were shot down. From 1SG5 on, one soiree said, the prisoners began or- ganizing themselves along mili- tary lines and eventually set up an elaborate coinmand-and- control system. "It embraced he said. The senior officer of one camp, Col. John P. Flynn of the air force, from Shall mar, Fla., was eligible to be with th.3 first group, another source said, but chose to stay and over- see tlie return. During the early years ot captivity, it was said, condi- tions in the camps were harsh, with isolation and poor food commonplace. Many pilots were subjected to brutal inter- rogation and forced to sign anti- war statements or make anti- war addresses over the Hanoi radio. Some of those who later be- came widely admired hard- liners, such as Col. Robinson Risner, a jet ace, and Lieut.- Comdr. John S. McCain, son of a retired admiral who had headed the Pacific fleet made such antiwar statements. Details of mistreatment could not be learned, although mili- tary officials have said they will discuss such incidents af- ter all of the prisoners are back. In October, 1969, the North Vietnamese suddenly changed if from day to one official remarked conditions were drama- tically eased. A former prison- er told of suddenly being al- lowed to see others and being provided with better food, In- cluding daily cups of fruit juices and milk. The men were allowed to live in groups as large as 26 and had more opportunity for exer- cise and. recreation. The senior officers immediate- ly took on responsibility foe maintaining discipline and mor- ale, military sources said. Com- mittees were set up and many activities were organized. The men held debates, played a variety of games and began a number of education projects. Many books most of them antiwar were made avail- able. One returned prisoner told of recently reading "Fire in the Lake" by Frances Fitzgerald, a besUselling study of the Viet- namese people published last year. The returning prisoners gen- erally believe, a government official said, that the Nixon ad- ministration's decision to lake the issue ot Iheir fale to the public early in 1989, with re- sulting international concern over their condition, led to Han- oi's decision to liberalize condi- lions. Vindication The official added that he and others believed that the dramatic change "vindicates" the much-criticized decision to make a worldwide plea for more humane treatment. Shortly alter the liberaliza- tion, the official noted, the pris- oners decided to forbid any in- terviews or meetings with jour- nalists or other visitors to North Vietnam. Between 1865 and 19G9 more than 70 prisoners were sefn or interviewed by antiwar delegations or news- men. 7 wr'a r a >j t-C RETURNS TO MS Ety! vsfa fsi si pfl fe3 WK (IAC FINANCING No Down Payment (On Approved CrediJ) No Payments Till May SHOP AT 75 150 NEW and USED CARS and TRUCKS-ALL MAKES-ALL MODELS ll'F3' Direct Line to Pavilion 327-0377 ;