“POW’s, Vietnam and Intelligence” – with Pritzker Curator James Brundage
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week, we explore the important intelligence questions that are generated when we discuss prisoners of war. One side asks, what happened? Are they alive? If so, where? What do they know? Could they provide intelligence that would compromise operations? What conditions are they kept in? Can we get them out? The other asks, what do they know? Is there anything they can tell us that we don't already know? How accurate is what they're telling us? Are they trying to mislead us? What role do they now have in this war? The POWs themselves, meanwhile, they may ask, where are we? What kind of camp is this? Are there any friendlies? How can we pool information to get through this? Can we escape? And if so, how?
Andrew Hammond: To answer these questions, this week I talk POWs, Vietnam and intelligence with James Brundage from the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago. James curated their May 2022-April 2023 exhibit "Life Behind the Wire: Prisoners of War." That explores the struggles, challenges and triumphs of life in captivity. He is a public historian who has also worked at the Barack Obama Presidential Library, the Chicago History Museum and the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. Along the way, we discuss the intelligence dynamics of prisoners of war, how Vietnam POWs were used for propaganda by the North Vietnamese, the difficulty of escape for Vietnam POWs held in and around Hanoi, what set Vietnam POWs apart when compared to World War II and Korean War POWs.
Andrew Hammond: Can I remind you that if you go to the "SpyCast" page on the CyberWire network, you can get full transcripts that accompany each episode, which should prove helpful if you didn't catch the name of a book or reference, want to search by keyword for a presentation or paper or if how Scots roll their R's throws you off your audio comprehension. Hey, English is a diverse, global language. We can't all sound like Her Majesty the Queen or have news anchor speak. Thank God.
Andrew Hammond: Well, I'm so excited to speak to you today, James. It's been really great to meet you in the flesh and to have a tour around your exhibition. So for our listeners, could you just tell us a little bit more about that exhibition? What's it called? Where did the idea come from? What are you trying to do and so forth?
James Brundage: Yeah, I'd be happy to. And thank you for having me here today. Glad to meet with you and talk with you about this. So our current exhibit is "Life Behind the Wire: Prisoners of War." And this exhibition really is a look at the American POW experience from World War II to Vietnam. And this is primarily driven by the collections that we have here at the PMML. Especially - we have a strong collection of World War II prisoner-of-war materials that give a really good insight into the lived experience of those individuals captured during the war, what that life was like in the camps, how they persevered, how they dealt with their captivity, how they got through their captivity and what they took away from it.
James Brundage: And this exhibit really is intended to highlight the similarities of those experiences, the differences between individuals. Certainly, no two service members would have experienced their captivity in the same way, but there were many similarities. And the themes that we explore in the exhibit highlight the fact that even though those similarities existed, everyone took something different from that. And we also - I look at the World War II experience and then compare and contrast it with the experience in Vietnam and how the individuals captured during the Vietnam War experienced captivity in many of the same ways but at the same point, in very different ways and how their experience was vastly different from a number of perspectives. But overall, it's a look at the lived experiences of the prisoners during their captivity and the lessons that can be taken away from that, but also how that fits into the larger narrative of either World War II or Vietnam.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. There's so many questions I want to follow up with, but could you just tell us a little bit more about Pritzker?
James Brundage: Yeah, of course. So the Pritzker Military Museum & Library was founded 19 years ago by Colonel Jennifer Pritzker. And it is devoted to telling the stories of the citizen soldier and looking at military history - past, present and future - and how individuals and service members contribute to military history and to society at large. And so we are really focused on using the individual experiences from the material that we have in our collection to tell larger stories, to show how individuals fit into military history throughout time and various places.
Andrew Hammond: And when we say citizen soldier, we're thinking of people like George Washington or Harry Truman that joins up and goes to serve in World War I but comes back and gets involved in the law and politics and so forth. That's what we mean by that term?
James Brundage: Correct. From our perspective here, it is looking at how average citizens serve their nation, join the military during times of war or times of peace, participate in whatever military conflict or event happens, and then come home and become prominent members of society. They use their skill sets from what they may have learned in the military, and they apply those to their community to service outside of the military.
Andrew Hammond: And it's in a really terrible location, the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, isn't it?
James Brundage: Yeah, we are here in downtown Chicago across from the Art Institute. So, yeah, we're in a great location and always looking for folks to come in and take advantage of the exhibits and the materials and resources that we have here.
Andrew Hammond: And the lake is right there, right?
James Brundage: Yes, yeah. Right by Lake Michigan.
Andrew Hammond: This is not an easy question to answer, I guess, but is there any patterns that you see in the American experience of being a prisoner of war? Did things get better? Did they get worse? Was there waves and troughs, or does it just completely depend on the context, the conflict, the opponent and so forth? So the Civil War, we're talking humongous numbers of prisoners of war - Korea, Vietnam. It seems to me that during the Cold War, because of the ideological nature of the conflict, the prisoners of war were not treated particularly well when they're captured by communist countries. But, yeah, just give us a kind of narrative arc of the American experience of being a prisoner of war.
James Brundage: Yeah, that is not an easy question to answer.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Sorry.
James Brundage: Yeah, I will do my best here. The - yeah, I think one of the things that I found in looking at this topic, bringing materials and ideas and the narrative together, there's so many similarities across the American experience, from the Revolutionary War to the present. I think the major themes of capture - being captured, the initial interrogations, the intelligence that the enemy is looking to gather from you and then, ultimately, the housing and the lived experience as now prisoners of war - there's a lot of similarities across time in the American experience that really haven't changed. There's always a struggle to, what do you do with your time? How do they pass time? Making sure that they're getting food or thinking about food or trying to find food - that's always a prominent aspect of the POW experience. Communicating with fellow prisoners of war, creating those communities within POW camps was always a strong part of the POW experience throughout conflicts. And those are themes that I address in the exhibit and I think certainly carry through every single time period.
James Brundage: Now, the Civil War saw hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war from the Union side, the Confederate side, that - the resources needed to be devoted to the - to those prisoners is immense. You see similar numbers when it comes to World War II. All told, the American prisoner-of-war population was over a hundred and twenty thousand between those held by Japan and those held by Germany. And that's - of course, this is just the American perspective. There are hundreds of thousands of Germans, Italians and other belligerents that are held as prisoners of war, as well.
James Brundage: But from the American perspective, you do see changes when it comes to Korea. In the Korean War, there are far fewer prisoners of war than there were during World War II. There's only about 4,000 - a little over 4,000 prisoners of war. During Vietnam, you only have a little over 700 prisoners of war. And in all conflicts since, there's been just a handful of prisoners of war. So Vietnam - the Vietnam War was really the large - the last large-scale conflict in which you saw a significant number of prisoners of war and prisoners of war who were held for a significant period of time.
Andrew Hammond: So let's just zero in on World War II and Vietnam War.
James Brundage: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: What are some of the similarities and differences that you see between both of those cases? So you mentioned that in Vietnam, the numbers are much smaller. Is that just because of the nature of the conflict? It's not two lines of armies that are trying to outflank each other in pitched battles. Vietnam's more ambiguous. It's a different type of conflict. Help us understand some of the similarities and differences between being a POW during Vietnam and a POW during World War II.
James Brundage: Sure. So the - one of the biggest differences right off the bat when it comes to major differences, is that the vast majority of the prisoners held by the North Vietnamese are aviators. They're shot down over North Vietnam and in the course of bombing sites in North Vietnam, South Vietnam. And so, right off the bat, most of these individuals are - they're older. They tend to be officers. They are more educated and, some might say, slightly more prepared for becoming captured, for being prisoners of war. So just because of the fact that they are mostly aviators and there are fewer of them on those missions, that's one of the reasons why you see fewer prisoners of war.
Andrew Hammond: We're talking about people like John McCain, the late senator.
James Brundage: Yes. Admiral Stockdale - there are several individuals who would go on after their time as prisoners of war as politicians. And these were individuals who - yeah, captured in the course of bombing North Vietnam. Generally speaking, these are single or maybe two individuals to an aircraft. And so they're captured far more sporadically than those were in World War II. That's one of the major differences is that, in World War II, while you did have quite a number of American aviators that were captured over Germany - you know, shot down over Germany, there were generally far more individuals to an aircraft at that point. There were - the significant number of air raids that were happening over Germany resulted in far more individuals being captured. Of course, you've got the Battle of the Bulge where thousands of American troops are captured by the Germans. You see a lot - a greater number of prisoners in World War II as a result.
James Brundage: One of the other things that's a significant difference between the two wars is that in World War II, (inaudible) were generally held for a much shorter period of time than they would be in Vietnam. In Europe, American POWs were held for, on average, just under a year. In the Pacific, Americans held prisoner of war by the Japanese were held for almost three years, versus in Vietnam, the average time span - the average, more than 50% or so, of POWs were held for five years or more, with the longest prisoners held for upwards of nine years. So you see a smaller population that was held for a significantly longer period of time versus World War II. That experience was not necessarily a less harsh environment or less harsh imprisonment, but certainly it was for a shorter period of time.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And I was mentioning to you earlier that I have a great uncle who is buried in Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Yokohama, and he was in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan. But it was very different treatment between the Germans and the Japanese. And even for the Germans, the Western allies were treated very differently from what happened on the Eastern front, right?
James Brundage: Yes. And one of the ways, you know, we can look at that is through the approximate death rate. You know, there was 90-plus thousand American POWs held by the Germans with a death toll of about 1,100. So roughly 1% of the POW population perished in Europe at the hands of the Germans versus in Japan and in the Far East. For American POWs, the death rate was almost 40%, and a lot of that was the conditions of the camp, malnutrition. American POWs were targeted unknowingly by other allied forces as the Japanese moved them across the Pacific to varying sites - to Japan, to China, to Korea and other places where they were used as forced labor. Yeah, the experiences there were vastly different. It was a much higher death rate for those held by the Japanese.
James Brundage: And then in Vietnam, of the more than 700 American POWs, there were 73 prisoners of war who perished in POW camps in North Vietnam, which is roughly 10% - so, you know, still a significant percentage of those held prisoner. But one of the defining aspects of the Vietnam POW experience is that they had value as propaganda. They were extremely valuable to the North Vietnamese. And so their death did not help the North Vietnamese messaging about the war and having these prisoners of war. And so it was in their best interest to keep these guys alive. So I think had that not been the case, it may have been a higher death rate for the POWs in Vietnam as well.
Andrew Hammond: I wanted to really dig into the intelligence propaganda aspect of it.
James Brundage: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: But before we get there, just very briefly, people watch movies and get a sense of who the combatants were. So we know South Vietnam. We know the United States. But for some people, it gets a little bit more fuzzy when we're talking about the - who they were fighting against because there's a difference between the NVA and the Viet Cong, isn't there? So if you could just briefly tell our listeners those combatants on the other side.
James Brundage: Sure. You've got the North Vietnamese Army, which is the official military of the North Vietnamese government. They are fighting not only in North Vietnam, but obviously they're in - they're moving into South Vietnam as well. The Viet Cong is more of the guerrilla forces that were armed in South Vietnam. Those are the - between the North Vietnam Army and the Viet Cong, they're the ones who are fighting American forces in the south for the most part. They are also taking captives. There isn't too much of a difference beyond the fact that the North Vietnamese Army is the primary military force of the North Vietnamese. They are fighting primarily in the south. They are the primary forces who are capturing and holding American prisoners of war, though.
James Brundage: So in the POW camps in North Vietnam, which there are 14 of, it is the North Vietnamese army that is running those camps. So they're the ones running the camps, holding the prisoners of war and working with North Vietnamese political entities, essentially, to gather intelligence, but also to manage the camps. There are POWs that are captured by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. They are often released. American POWs do escape from Viet Cong camps in South Vietnam. But then the Viet Cong are also transferring American POWs from the South to North Vietnam. Once in North Vietnam, no American POWs ever escape from the camps. As I mentioned, there were the two individuals who attempted to, but they were unsuccessful. And that ultimately led to their death.
Andrew Hammond: OK. And why is that? Was it completely impossible for them to escape? You watch the Second World War movies. And it's - as a serviceman or a British serviceman, it's your duty to try to escape, to get back into the fight. Help us understand what's going on in North Vietnam.
James Brundage: The biggest challenge posed for American POWs in North Vietnam is where they're held. For the most part, they're being held either in Hanoi or in the immediate vicinity. It is a challenging environment to - as most of these individuals are Caucasian Americans - to blend in with the local population in Hanoi itself. They would have been - they would have stuck out immediately. It would have been nearly impossible for them to have found, essentially, friendly forces or friendly civilians that would have put them up or attempted to help them escape, versus in World War II, especially in Germany, you did have folks that might be willing to do so. There were also - there were no - at least from my understanding, there were no American or friendly intelligence forces that were running underground forces in North Vietnam that could have assisted, should they be able to escape.
James Brundage: The other more glaring issue is that the camps that were established in North Vietnam to hold the prisoners of war were nearly impossible to escape from. Hoa Lo, which is also known as the Hanoi Hilton, had walls that were 15, 20 feet high. They were - along the top, they had barbed wire. The French, who had built the Hanoi Hilton, put broken wine bottles cemented into the edges of the roof. So it would have been almost impossible for them to actually physically escape from the building. The other deterrent was the fact that most POWs in North Vietnam were held in solitary confinement. So they were held away from their fellow prisoners, especially in the earlier years before 1970. And so the ability to work together to corroborate any sort of escape would have been challenging for them.
James Brundage: That's the primary reason. I mean, realistically, it's the fact that their ability to physically get out of their camp, they had very little restrictions. In many cases, prisoners of war were, for a variety of reasons, were shackled in their rooms so they wouldn't have been able to even move around their rooms freely. So they faced a lot of challenges in that regard to even attempt to escape. That's not to say they didn't have other ways that they could resist their imprisonment.
Andrew Hammond: I guess the propaganda game, it can also be influenced by the type of domestic political arrangements - right? - because the United States is the type of country that is - there's more scope to try to win enough of the population over to bring about change. Whereas in North Vietnam, it's not like you're trying to capture the hearts and minds of the people, by and large, because they are living in a totalitarian society where the things that Americans could say about American involvement in Vietnam would not even be thinkable or sayable without being killed or taken away or suffering very serious consequences. So that's part of the propaganda battle, as well, right? This is their type of political system. Here's how we can try to influence it. Whereas with North Vietnam, it's much more hermetically sealed. And that's not really the propaganda game from America's point of view. It's more international opinion. So it's a different type of match. Is that right?
James Brundage: Yeah, I would - I think so. I - from the American - the way that the prisoner-of-war and missing-in-action aspect came up from the American perspective is was look at the way that these American military personnel are being treated, right? Obviously, you have differing opinions about how - the U.S. involvement, as the war progresses obviously, you see more dissension in the U.S. that we're getting ourselves more and more involved in the war in Vietnam. And the POWs were a very neutral aspect that the U.S. could use to say, regardless of U.S. involvement and whether you think it's right, look what's happening to these servicemen. They were just carrying out orders. They were doing what was tasked to them to target North Vietnamese military targets. And now that they've been captured, they're being treated inhumanely. And so they were able to use the prisoner of war as a very visible look at the war.
James Brundage: And, you know, one of the primary kind of motivations for the way that the North Vietnamese treated American POWs was that they consistently said to the prisoners, when did the U.S. ever declare war on North Vietnam? Why should we abide by the Geneva Conventions when, you know, this is essentially an unjust war, and you're nothing more than war criminals? There was a point where the North Vietnamese considered holding war crimes trials against the prisoners of war for those reasons. They ultimately did not because they viewed it as - international opinion would probably go against them for doing that. I think both sides recognized the prisoners of war could serve both sides from a informational warfare perspective.
Andrew Hammond: Is that similar to World War II or to other American conflicts? Were the Nazis trying to change the minds of Americans or - tie that into the Cold War. Is this because of the ideological nature of the conflict, as the liberal capitalist democracy versus the communist country? Like, help us understand Vietnam a little bit more in terms of that propaganda struggle.
James Brundage: I would say what you just hinted at or what you just pointed out is much more of what the reality of the situation is, that you don't really see this - these levels of sort of propaganda - using prisoners of war as propaganda tools in any other conflict like you do in Vietnam. Their treatment, the establishment of certain prisoner-of-war camps in Vietnam for the sole purpose of being propaganda sites, at least from what I've seen, doesn't really happen anywhere else. In World War II, you don't have prisoners of war who are being used solely for propaganda purposes. The Japanese and the Germans, of course, do attempt to influence some prisoners of war. They try and get prisoners of war to speak out against their home country. In some instances it's successful. In others it's not.
James Brundage: And I think, like any war, in some instances, folks agree to - under duress. And they do so because of either the way they're being treated or because certain benefits are offered, but nowhere near the level that - what's happening in Vietnam. And I think that's because of the larger Cold War and the narrative and the fact that the Vietnamese are trying to use American prisoners of war for their own goals of countering the West and saying - they're saying communism is bad and - but look what they're doing to us. They're waging this war against this idea, and as a result, (inaudible) of our citizens are being killed.
Andrew Hammond: I was just thinking about this topic. And, to me, there's all kinds of intelligence-related questions that get generated when we discuss prisoners of war. So for the - your - the country that you're fighting on behalf of, like, where is James Brundage? You know, where is he held? What happened? Those types of things - obviously, we don't want to bomb an area where he's being held. Is he alive? What information did he know? Is there anything he could have given away that could have compromised things, even if it was just at a tactical level and it was maybe intelligence that would be old in two days or something? So there's that. There's - for the combatant country of the POW and their - and, for the opponent, it's what does this person know? Is there anything that we can get out of them that we don't know at the moment? How can we use them in this conflict? In terms of the North Vietnamese, what's the propaganda value of having them? What's the propaganda value of having an admiral's son like John McCain?
James Brundage: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: And then for the POWs themselves, it's - you're in this camp and it's, where are we? What's the - what kind of camp is it? What's the order of battle? Is there any weak points in the camp where we can escape from? Who else is here? Is there anyone else I know? Can we pool knowledge? How do we get through this together? As you have said, they came up with devices for countering North Vietnamese propaganda. So there's a whole host of things that get generated when we think about intelligence and POWs. So I just wondered if you had thought about any of them or if you had any words of wisdom or reflections.
James Brundage: I'll talk a little bit about both perspectives. The prisoner of war - from their perspective, the North Vietnamese did everything they could to prevent their ability to communicate with one another. They held them in isolation. Some prisoners of war spent years in isolation without seeing other prisoners. And this was an attempt by the North Vietnamese to prevent efforts to collaborate with one another, to counter North Vietnamese propaganda efforts, so that they couldn't conspire. They didn't know what was coming. They wouldn't know the kind of questions that were being asked or what one person might have told them and what somebody else didn't tell them.
James Brundage: Now, did the POWs have a lot of valuable intelligence that they could share? Not necessarily - the Vietnamese would often know what kind of plane they were flying. They might know what carrier they were based off of or what base, maybe in Thailand, that they were coming from. So there was maybe minimal intelligence information that the prisoners of war themselves could provide. Generally speaking, the more senior prisoners captured - and there were several that were commanders, colonels, captains that were captured, and they would have more operational information that they would probably have at their disposal. But for the most part, the average prisoner of war did not have a very deep knowledge or deep intelligence archive, let's say, that they could share with the North Vietnamese, or at least nothing that would probably be of great value to them. Their greatest value truly was as, essentially, mouthpieces of the North Vietnamese government. And most were not willing to do that.
Andrew Hammond: That - yeah, the average person that's shot down is not going to say, I was at the Paris peace talks and I was Henry Kissinger's note taker.
James Brundage: Exactly.
Andrew Hammond: Here is the inside scoop on, you know, U.S. foreign policy or thoughts behind stuff.
James Brundage: And that's the thing is that there wasn't much value that could be gained from that sort of standpoint, from an intelligence standpoint. From the POW's perspective, though, they were sponges gathering up information that they could. One of the more notable instances is Doug Hegdahl, who was an enlisted Navy sailor who actually was knocked off of his ship in the Gulf of Tonkin from the ship firing into Vietnam. He was captured. He was brought to the Hanoi Hilton. And initially, the North Vietnamese suspected that he was a spy, suspected that there's no way that somebody falls off a Navy ship in the middle of the sea and is captured. So they just didn't believe his story. He was able to essentially convince the North Vietnamese that he was not very intelligent, that he was rather stupid, essentially. And - but what the prisoners of war did was in pushing this narrative that this guy was not very intelligent, they fed him information of all the prisoners of war that were known to be alive in North Vietnam.
James Brundage: And so over the course of several years, they - he would continue to gather that information. And ultimately, in 1969, the North Vietnamese released him, along with two other prisoners of war, in a show of goodwill. And immediately, he came back to the U.S., to the Department of Defense, and he recited all the names of the individuals that he knew that were prisoners of war. And so in doing so, he was able to provide valuable intelligence to the U.S. government about airmen who were thought to have been killed in action or missing and had no idea of their whereabouts were now confirmed to be prisoners of war in North Vietnam. So there were efforts like that that the prisoners themselves retained a great amount of knowledge that they could then pass on when the opportunity arose. And something like that was maybe not a huge victory necessarily but certainly brought an awareness of who was being held by the North Vietnamese and would have provided a great source of joy for the families of those individuals knowing now that they were at least alive.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. That's really, really fascinating. How many of the prisoners were released during the war? Or how many were released after it ended? And we hear about the POW's MIA. There's people that believe that there's still a significant number in North Vietnam. Just help us understand, when were they released? What happened when the war ended? And do you think there are any still there?
James Brundage: The, I'd say, general timeline is the first airman that was shot down over North Vietnam was August of 1964. So he was held for almost nine years before he was released. During the buildup 1965, '66, '67, those were significant years that Americans were shot down, captured by the North Vietnamese, often held in isolation. Those were the darker, very hard years for prisoners of war. After the death of Ho Chi Minh in late 1969, the treatment of POWs began to improve. They saw improved rations. They began to be put into cells with other prisoners of war with more frequency. And as the war progressed, as there were cease-fires later in 1972, they began to be housed in larger facilities in the POW camps. Their treatment began to improve in those - in that sense.
James Brundage: There were, though, a number of new prisoners of war in late 1972 with the bombings - the resumed bombings of North Vietnam. And so you actually had several dozens of prisoners of war that were actually held for maybe a few months, just at the end of the war. But all that ceased with the Paris Peace Accords signed in January of 1973, which one of the main stipulations was the immediate release of prisoners of war, both held in North Vietnam and South Vietnam. So it was dual. There was an exchange of North Vietnamese prisoners as well. But within a couple weeks, first American POWs began being released from Hanoi.
James Brundage: And the numbers are - there are often conflicting numbers when it comes to how many prisoners of war there actually were, from a military perspective, were released in 1973. And now there were civilian prisoners as well, American civilians that were held. But from a American military service members, 591 were released between February and April of 1973. Their release was very orderly. They were driven by bus to Hanoi airport, where they were officially greeted by American representatives, put on airplanes and sent to the Philippines. And they were liberated. Whether or not - I don't know that I have an official view on whether or not there were or are other American prisoners of war held in Vietnam after the war. I think I am more inclined to say that there probably were not, that they were mostly missing in action, likely killed in action, shot down.
James Brundage: And that seems to be really just because, at least from my perspective, the vast majority of American POWs held in North Vietnam were held at one of these 14 main camps. They were often moved around from the camps. So there was a good understanding by the POWs themselves of who were prisoners of war, who were not - or, I guess, they wouldn't know who was not. But they certainly know who was prisoners of war. And there does not seem to be any indication that there were other prisoner-of-war camps that were just not known about. That, at least, would seem to be the case.
Andrew Hammond: OK. When they were released, either the ones that were released during the course of the war or the ones that were released in 1973, what was the repatriation process like in terms of intelligence? Who were they debriefed by? Was it Army intelligence, Navy intelligence, CIA, a team from various components, all of the above? Yeah, help us understand their process of their coming back, and obviously, it's a long process...
James Brundage: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: ...Of reintegrating and becoming a citizen and not a...
James Brundage: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: ...Soldier anymore. But there's also that immediate, let's get intel before they go on to the next phase.
James Brundage: Yeah. The - so the immediate for - I'll start with 1973 and the vast majority of those who were released. They were flown to the Philippines - Clark Air Force Base - and that's where they were initially debriefed by military intelligence. That's where they underwent a number of medical testing, psychological testing. For the vast majority of the POWs, they had been held for often more than five years. There was a lot of information that, obviously, intelligence wanted to learn about the experience, but they also needed to know that these guys were mentally and physically fit or in a good place. Interesting that you mentioned about of those released, roughly 80% of the prisoners of Vietnam actually resume their military careers. So they continue to serve. They don't actually leave the military, which I find rather fascinating that so...
Andrew Hammond: Absolutely.
James Brundage: ...Many of them continued to serve and continued to want to serve after their experience. But, yes, from a sort of intelligence gathering, they did speak with military intelligence. They talked to the Department of Defense and - so that they could gather information, especially about who were the guards? Who were the sort of political officers from the North Vietnamese government that were interviewing them? In addition to the camps having military overseers or military commanders, there were also political officers that were present during interrogations of POWs. And so that's the type of information that the government wanted to know, was who were these individuals or what were the nicknames that people had for them? They often didn't know their real name, but they were looking for anything that they could gather about the way that the North Vietnamese were operating these camps and what they were looking for.
James Brundage: This was also an - obviously, an opportunity for the prisoners to express the fact that everything that they were doing was under duress. So when they did give these statements or they would confirm what intelligence officials knew, which was that they were sending messages in there, if they made statements, that they were often doing things to make it very obvious that these were statements under duress. One of the more famous aspects that was well-known well before this time was Commander Jeremiah Denton, who had blinked torture during an interview with a Japanese news crew.
James Brundage: And so these are the kinds of things that U.S. intelligence had been tracking, is when prisoners were put in front of the public - the international community, what were they doing? How were they acting? Was there any signs of - could they get anything, gather any intelligence from those interviews? And so this is when they confirmed a lot of what they had already been gathering, what they learned. And so I think that was - it was an opportunity for these guys to express what had happened to them. But I think it also confirmed that the U.S. intelligence, to some extent, knew what was happening. This was just the opportunity to tell the full story.
Andrew Hammond: I was also wondering, as well, was there ever any worries that there would be a "Manchurian Candidate," someone that was programmed either to do - or even if it wasn't that their brain has been hacked and taken over, maybe they've just been turned? Maybe they've realized, like George Blake, that, you know, that we're fighting on behalf of a country or for an evil cause...
James Brundage: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: ...And, you know, actually, communism was the way of the future. How did they deal with that? Like, the - 'cause it's a very difficult...
James Brundage: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: ...It's a very difficult process - right? - these people that are terribly brave, that have served their country, that were shot down, that were at a POW camp. But yet, you almost have to put a question mark over each one of them...
James Brundage: Yeah. And I think that...
Andrew Hammond: ...To some extent.
James Brundage: Yeah. And so that was likely one of the things that, during their debriefs, after their release, that U.S. officials were looking for. I should have mentioned this earlier - there were, in fact, I believe, eight American POWs that were court martialed for - I don't know if it was officially treason or not, but they were unofficially known as the Peace Committee. I believe they were held at the zoo in Hanoi. And these were Americans who willingly corroborated with the North Vietnamese during the war. I believe they were all enlisted members of the military who had been captured in South Vietnam and then brought to North Vietnam. I believe they were court martialed after they returned back to the United States. And part of the reason for that is that the other prisoners of war essentially outed them as such as saying these guys openly worked with the North Vietnamese, were willing to speak out in exchange for better food, better conditions.
James Brundage: And so there were those instances. I don't think - those individuals were never, in my opinion, actually working for the North Vietnamese. I think, truly, those were individuals who recognized their situation and were - saw - probably recognized that no one's going to believe that I'm actually this angry with the United States, or I'm actually not working for the North Vietnamese. But if this is what gets me through this ordeal, if this is how I survive this, then - and I get better food and better treatment, then I'm going to do that. I think maybe just - it was motivated by more selfish survival than it was about any real intention of harming the United States or the perception of the U.S. to the international community.
Andrew Hammond: So there wasn't an ideological conversion. It was more just a pragmatic, this is going to help me - one day at a time, this is going to help me get out of this place eventually.
James Brundage: Well, I think that's what the court martials were essentially all about. I don't believe any of them served any prison time as a result of - if they were convicted of any sort of crime against the U.S. But I've recently seen articles by some of these individuals. These guys are very much still alive. I believe one individual that was court martialed did commit suicide during either the course of the trial or within some time frame after - shortly after returning from captivity. Yeah, it was something that happened. But I would - from what I've seen, I think it was driven more by survival - a survival mentality than it was a - they've been turned into a North Vietnamese asset, and now they're working for them.
Andrew Hammond: For those enlisted men, were they - do you know if they were conscripted, or were they volunteers? I'd actually be quite interested to know, are there any patterns that we can detect in terms of people that were conscripted versus volunteers? Because you would expect the conscriptees (ph) to be more willing to...
James Brundage: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: ...Listen, I never wanted to be here in the first place.
James Brundage: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew Hammond: Whereas if you sign up, and you - you know, you're a believer in the cause, then you have a different motivation.
James Brundage: Off the top of my head, I don't know how many POWs were draftees. I know that there were a number of enlisted men who were fighting in South Vietnam who were captured and brought to North Vietnam. I - my understanding, though, is the vast majority of the POWs were all volunteers. You know, the vast majority of them were officers. Overwhelmingly, they were officers. They tended to be older than POWs in World War II were, for example. I think the average age was something like 25 - It varied by branch, but anywhere from 25 to 28 for (inaudible) in Vietnam. So they tended to be - I think they had a better understanding of their situation.
James Brundage: But I would guess that, yes, if they were draftees, they probably - and taken prisoner, that they probably would have been more likely to maybe try and improve their situation by working with the North Vietnamese. I don't know that for sure. I can't say that for sure. I don't even know what the actual number of POWs that were draftees is. But I'm sure there were some.
Andrew Hammond: It's an interesting question.
James Brundage: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And they were all men.
James Brundage: I believe, as far as I know, all the POWs in Vietnam were all male service members, yeah.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Just moving on to the final part, I want to discuss codes, which I find really fascinating...
James Brundage: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: ...And also the Plantation. But before we get there, these camps - we were speaking before this podcast, and you mentioned that there were, was it 14 of them?
James Brundage: Fourteen, yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And then they all had up to a dozen or so subsidiary camps that were part of them, but they were all around the Hanoi region. And help us understand what the Hanoi Hilton is. Is that one of these camps, or is that a name for all of them? Or - because there's a - one of the most famous hotels in the United States, the Palmer House Hotel's a Hilton 'round the corner. When the Hilton gets used for the Hanoi Hilton, it's kind of meant ironically, right?
James Brundage: Yes. Yeah. So the vast majority of the camps were in the vicinity - either in Hanoi itself or in the immediate vicinity within several miles. And I think that was for logical reasons, just for maintaining the camps, for their ability to move POWs around the camps, which they did quite frequently. Yeah, the Hanoi Hilton, which is - was called Hoa Lo, the Hanoi Hilton was a name given to it by the prisoners themselves in an ironic way, saying, you know, welcome to the Hilton kind of a thing. Yeah, it was obviously not a good place to be. Most of the camps were actually known by their American names. So there's The Zoo, Plantation, Dogpatch, Potholes, Alcatraz. All of these - Briarpatch. All these places were essentially names given to these camps by the POWs themselves - nicknames to help describe it. You mentioned the Plantation. That was a camp that was set up for the explicit purposes of propaganda.
James Brundage: But the Hanoi Hilton was the first place that American POWs were brought to. And that's because it was a - had been originally a French prison that was built around the turn of the 20th century, and it was extremely well fortified - 20-foot walls, impossible to escape from. So they used the facilities that obviously made sense to house the POWs. But then with the Plantation they set up these facilities with much nicer accommodations, where they provided better food to the POWs. And those are the places that they generally brought foreign journalists and others when they were doing any sort of propaganda event.
Andrew Hammond: OK. And the Plantation - is that pretty unique in terms of the other conflicts that you've looked at where Americans have been held prisoner? Is having a camp specifically for propaganda pretty unique, or is it common, or it's not super common, but it does happen?
James Brundage: It seems like it's fairly unique. You know, in World War II, you had various types of camps, but they were more logistical. You know, you had camps that were for intake and interrogation. You had camps that were for just airmen. You had camps that were for NCOs. You had camps that were for lower enlisted. So they were more broken down by who was held at them and what the purpose of the camp was. In Vietnam, it seems like it was more so the camps were established to isolate POWs from one another - in the case of the Plantation, as a way to serve as a political propaganda site. It was also a former French site, as many of the places in Vietnam were.
James Brundage: But a lot of the camps were - really were set up as in some ways punishments for prisoners of war. They were moved when it became clear that POWs were communicating with one another, that they were establishing a structure and organization within the camps. And so they were moved as a way to break those up and to cut off lines of communication between the prisoners themselves.
Andrew Hammond: I just want to finish off looking at codes. So you mentioned Jeremiah Denton. If you could tell our listeners a little bit more about that, but also just this idea of using Morse code or other codes to communicate, because for our podcast, a lot of it revolves around it's OK stealing information; but if you can't get that information to someone else, then there's no point. But that transferral of information from A to B is one of the most vulnerable parts of the whole enterprise. So help us understand the role that these codes played for these prisoners of war. So let's start off with Jeremiah Denton and then move on to tap codes and, you know, the poetry and other things that were discussed.
James Brundage: Yeah, of course. Commander Denton - he was captured early in the war and was used in propaganda films and in the summer of 1966 was put in front of Japanese news crew to speak about - you know, he was reading from a script that was provided to him by the North Vietnamese. But during the course of his interview and during the course of that newscast, he used his eyes to blink in Morse code the term torture. And he just continued to blink torture over and over and over again. U.S. officials picked up on this and recognized what he was doing, that he was spelling out torture. And so for intelligence officials, this was the first confirmation that they had that American POWs were being subjected to torture as POWS. Prior to this, they believed that this was happening, but they had no evidence. They had nothing from the prisoners themselves that would have indicated that it was, in fact, happening. And that's because the North Vietnamese heavily controlled communication into and out of the camps.
James Brundage: Most prisoners of war did not receive any letters from home. They could not send letters from home with a few exceptions. And generally speaking, those exceptions were related to propaganda purposes. So they might give a prisoner letters from home, and then they would record the POW reading that letter. But yeah, communication was very tightly controlled by the North Vietnamese, and so prisoners didn't have a lot that they could go off of. To your point about the Morse code or the tap code and the mute code, POWs' greatest asset was each other. Obviously, you had a constantly expanding POW population. Prisoners continued to come in. Airmen continued to be shot down. And these guys brought with them a wealth of new information about not only the war effort, what was happening back home, efforts to find these guys, to rescue the prisoners. These were things that were gathered from other prisoners that were coming in.
James Brundage: And the way that they did that was through either tapping - the tap code was very prominent, was introduced early on by a prisoner of war. Carlyle Smith was his name. And he introduced the tap code, which was a series - it's essentially the alphabet, with the exception of the letter K. And it is done by tapping out the position of the letter by row and then by column. And this was a way for POWs to communicate between cells with one another. So they could tap out - essentially, letter by letter, they could tap out phrases, talk with one another, find out who - maybe a new arrival to the camp, who was there, what was going on.
James Brundage: When possible, if they were visible to one another, they would use what was called the mute code, which is a form of sign language, to communicate. They would often scribble notes on scraps of toilet paper to share with one another if they had physical contact. So they spent a good deal of their time just attempting to talk with one another in whatever way they could - not only to share information. That's how they would talk about what was happening to one another. They would often share that they've introduced a new form of torture on the prisoners or something like that, often if prisoners had been moved to a different camp. This was a huge lifeline for these guys and a very important source of morale for them.
James Brundage: At the time, First Lieutenant John Borling was someone who came into the camps in 1966, and he would eventually create, memorize and then tap out poems to his fellow prisoners of war. And after the war, we here at the PMML actually helped him publish a book of his poems. And so these are things that during the course of his captivity helped him get through that experience. So he would not only create them. He memorized them, and then he would tap them to his fellow POWs. So they would tap all kinds of things to each other. They would create meals that they would tap out, you know, anything to help get them through. It - they had essentially nothing else to do. They were essentially stuck in their cells most of the day for weeks, months on end. And so this was a way for them to have some kind of lifeline to the outside world, even if it was just to the cell next door to them.
Andrew Hammond: And the tap code and the mute code, they were both in plain text. They weren't encrypted. They were - it was just a way to communicate? And if the North Vietnamese had been sitting with binoculars, like, watching them, they'd be able to know what they were saying, but this...
James Brundage: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: ...Was just a way for them to communicate?
James Brundage: Yeah, essentially. And so they did have to go to often great lengths to hide what they were doing. When it came to tapping, they would often cover the taps with coughing. So they would just cough as they were tapping. Tapping through often these heavy walls of their cells, they would use their drinking cup as a way to amplify the sound but they would often do it very lightly. Generally, these guys very quickly got very good at the code. They would often be able to do things - if they knew what someone was starting to tap, they would just say, got it, move on to the next word. And so they had to cover their tracks because if they were caught communicating with one another, they were punished for that.
James Brundage: But, yes, they generally had to do so in a clandestine manner. As the war progresses, eventually, they are - start to put into other cells with one another. But even once they were in the cells, they were essentially prohibited from speaking to one another. So they had to do so very lightly. They would often just tap on each other's legs in order to communicate at that point because that was a very easy way for them to talk. But, yeah, communication was a huge part of their lives in the camp, and the tap code, the mute code - these were two of the most prevalent sources of communication internally that they would use.
Andrew Hammond: OK. And just to wrap it all up, what were the kind of after effects of the prisoner of war experience in Vietnam?
James Brundage: Yes. From my understanding, they - the Vietnam POW experience really allowed U.S. military intelligence and military personnel to develop more improved SERE training so that if military personnel are captured, they have a very good understanding of what's going to essentially happen to them, and they can find ways to counter that.
James Brundage: Since the Vietnam War, there have not been, from a military perspective, long, long periods of captivity for service members. But, yes, it was - the Vietnam War certainly impacted the way that the military addresses and looks at what's going to happen if you're captured as a prisoner of war. Yeah. The fact that it hasn't been - POWs haven't been held for significant periods of time or in significant numbers since, I mean, you had a couple dozen during the first Gulf War, about a dozen in the current global war on terror, all of whom have been released. It's hard to say...
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
James Brundage: ...Whether or not lessons learned were successful or not. Generally speaking, the folks who have been taken prisoner since have been ground troops. And I think after Vietnam, the sort of SERE training that exists is very much still targeted towards aviators, with the expectation of if they're shot down over enemy territory, if you can't evade and then make your way to friendly lines, you're going to be expected to survive your captivity. So I think that's the way that, at least, I see it - what's come out of it.
Andrew Hammond: Well, it's been really great to speak to you, James. And I was wondering if you could just tell our listeners, how can they view it? So it's here at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in downtown Chicago, just looking on to Lake Michigan. How long is it going to be here for?
James Brundage: Yeah. So the exhibit - we're at 104 South Michigan, but it'll be up through spring of 2023. We are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 to 4. So the museum - the exhibit itself can be viewed in person here at the museum. We have some resources and overviews on our website, pritzkermilitary.org. And, you know, we'll be doing programming and have other events associated with the exhibit and the topic throughout the course of the year and throughout the course of the exhibit being up.
Andrew Hammond: Thank you so much. It's been really great to speak to you.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @intlspycast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.