Navy and Marine POWs in Vietnam

May 2, 2011

For some time now, the Naval History & Heritage Command has been producing concise studies of the Navy’s role during the Vietnam War. In previous posts, I’ve blogged about Navy Medicine in Vietnam and The Approaching Storm, the latter covering the decade-long run up to the introduction of combat troops in 1965. Today’s subject is The Battle Behind Bars: Navy and Marine POWs in the Vietnam War. The author, the late Stuart Rochester, was particularly well qualified to write on this subject, since he was the co-author of what must be considered the definitive account of POWs in Vietnam – Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973 – published by the Army’sCenter ofMilitary History.

A personal note:This is the first time I’ve written about a book whose author I knew personally. Stuart and I worked together for years, on and off – he as deputy and then chief historian at the Pentagon’s Historical Office and me as a GPO marketing contact for his office’s books. We talked mainly by phone, although we did meet in person a couple of times. He was great to work with, a fine scholar, and I regret he wasn’t able to enjoy his position of chief historian longer before his untimely death from cancer in 2009.

The Battle Behind Bars, as the subtitle indicates, focuses on Navy and Marine POWs. Most of the Navy personnel captured during the war were pilots, so they formed a close-knit group of like-minded individuals. One exception was Seaman Apprentice Douglas B. Hegdahl, who was swept overboard from the missile cruiser Canberra and picked up by North Vietnamese fishermen. In a terrific sidebar, the book describes the incredulity of Hegdahl’s captors when he told them how he had come to be swimming in the Gulf ofTonkin – they understandably found his story so incredible that they assumed he was a spy! Once they accepted that he was a raw recruit, an enlisted man, and had trouble seeing due to the loss of his glasses in the water, he became a kind of camp mascot, perceived as not that bright. In realty, he was smart, alert, and able to serve as a secret mailman for other prisoners under the noses of the guards. He also had a retentive memory that let him memorize a huge amount of information about other POWs, which he revealed to the Navy after his early release by the Vietnamese.  

Another sidebar discusses the use of a “tap code” by Navy POWs to communicate via their cell walls. Initially a simple code, it was changed often to prevent detection, to the point where Defense Intelligence Agency personnel had difficulty in decoding some of the samples the prisoners brought back after their release.

It wasn’t all movie derring-do, however. The book details the poor conditions, attempted ideological indoctrination, and sometimes brutal treatment of prisoners in North Vietnam and the even worse situation of POWS in the South, where they shared the miserable living conditions of their Viet Cong captors. The author is fair-minded enough to point out instances, such as in the area of medical treatment, where the Vietnamese often did provide decent care, albeit under primitive conditions. Overall, though, captivity in Vietnam was a prolonged ordeal which, even as conditions eased after 1970, meant years of misery for American POWs.

This is a fine study of a controversial subject and a fitting capstone to the career of a talented scholar. You can get a copy of The Battle Behind Bars here or find it in a library here.

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