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Vietnam POW Interviews - Volume I

 

Fellowes, John H. (1932-2010)
Commander, U.S. Navy

Based on two interviews conducted by John T. Mason Jr. in August 1975, Fellowes' portion of the volume contains 278 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyrighted 1976 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

Fellowes, a pilot in squadron VA-65, was shot down in August 1966 while flying an A-6A Intruder on a bombing mission from the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64). His target was Vinh in the panhandle area of North Vietnam. Fellowes's back was broken by the time he was captured on the ground by militiamen. His bombardier-navigator, George Coker, also was captured. The oral history describes Fellowes's six-and-a-half-year ordeal in North Vietnamese hands and recounts incidents concerning many of his fellow prisoners. He particularly cited the leadership qualities of POWs James Stockdale, Jeremiah Denton, and Robinson Risner. Included is discussion of such issues as the quality of military survival training and the importance of moral development; interrogation and torture; minimum medical treatment; meager food rations; usefulness of cigarettes; physical fitness exercise; camp policies; deaths of other prisoners; communication procedures; entertainment the POWs devised for each other; visits to North Vietnam by war protesters such as Jane Fonda; being paraded in public in Hanoi; the futile Son Tay raid of 1970; B-52 raids on Hanoi; and concerns about his family members back home and limited correspondence with them. Fellowes was released from captivity in early 1973. The oral history tells of his return, a description supplemented by his article "Operation Homecoming," which appeared in the December 1976 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

 

 

Commander Fellowes: So we had to devise communication techniques. I'm talking now about anywhere from 8-inch thick to, I guess, 14-inch thick brick walls with plaster on either side, whitewash.

A guy named Smitty Harris came in the camp in 1965 and had remembered a code which you could tap across a wall. Of course, you can use the Morse code, but we found it a little bit difficult to use Morse code. A lot of us didn't know all of it.

John T. Mason, Jr.: In your advance training, were you taught anything at all in this area?

Commander Fellowes: This is one of the problems of survival school - what do I tell you about the next war, only what I have in this war and you might get in the next war and find out that you didn't need that communication, they opened the doors to you, they let you room together. So our communication techniques were a sort of stop-gap measure that developed because the Vs treated us the way they did. In China, I understand they had some iso­lation but they had an awful lot of compounds, with 80 or 90 guys in a compound. So they really couldn't tell us this is what to expect, that you're going to be living alone. I guess many got it from a survival school guy who just mentioned that this is one of the tap codes.

By the way, I understand you can get it for fifty cents and a box top off of Wheaties, this code. We called it the tap code. We'd tap with our knuckles across the wall or with a sharp object tap on the wall.

John T. Mason, Jr.: Somebody said you also used your tin cups?

Commander Fellowes: We used the tin cups for something else. I'll get to that.

There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet - I'm not trying to insult your intelligence, but you take K out. Now you have twenty-five letters, so you divide them into five groups - A F L Q V are the first letters of each group, so now what I'm going to do is tap you the group, pause, and then tap you the letter position in the group. C is the first group, third letter, so, one, pause, one, two, three. So if I want to tap to you "hi", I would tap you one, two, one, two, three, one, two, one, two, three, four - second group, third letter second group, fourth letter.

John T. Mason, Jr.: A very simple code!

Commander Fellowes: Very simple. You'd sit and listen to it for a couple of hours and pretty soon you get it. It's a rhythm, just like every other system and you pick it up and all of a sudden you'd be communicating. We used to communicate from one corner of our building, down the back side, up to the front, to the SRO, the senior ranking officer. He'd have a message down the front and back to you with an answer in, say, thirty minutes.

John T. Mason, Jr.: This meant that everybody in the chain had to–

Commander Fellowes: Everybody in the chain was communicating, everybody was clearing. We had our communication sessions generally during the V nap time. They only had one guard roaming around so you could certainly tap.

Now, to get this to you, you don't know it, I've got to go very basic, simple words. It's a difficult code, not difficult to learn but difficult to pick up. I just start tapping. You listen to this and pretty soon - that's exactly what happened to us and this is why I tell it this way. Pretty soon you listen and you start counting. Then you shift it to the alphabet, A, B, C, D, E-

John T. Mason, Jr.: Which is the most logical system.

Commander Fellowes: It's the most logical system in the world to get to you. I'm just trying to get to you. We're not going to use this unless we're in dire straits. So I tap this to you. By God, you listen, and all of a sudden you say, gee, and you pick out a letter - P - and you count down to P, then U, then T, and what we got out of it was "put your cup to the wall, sit on the edge of your bed, and listen."

My roommate's bed, it so happened, was right in the same position on the other side of the wall that the other guy's was in. So he just sat right down on his bed, put his cup to the wall, and you made the cup an earphone. At that time, we weren't using a cup, we were using a blanket. We had to stop using a blanket because it rubbed the wall. You just take a blanket and wrap it like an oxygen mask round your face and you damn nearly choke yourself to death, and just blow your voice through the wall. Then we got to the cup, and you could put it to your mouth and make an oxygen mask out of it, trying to conceal all sound going out so you can get max sound going through it - just blow it through to my ear. Now I can talk to you. The obvious problem with this is that say it's night time, you just got back to your room, you've been tortured, and you really feel bad but you've got some information you've got to put out. We can't clear at night. It's too dark and we can't see the guards and we don't want you to get caught, so we have to go to another device, a tap code. This was a good system during daytime but at nighttime it was kind of tight, so we only use this in day­time.

Okay, I get you on the wall with a cup, and now I tell you the tap code. So now you have available to you three methods of communication, plus the backup being the Morse code if you know it. Of course, the dash in the Morse code is kind of hard, so we used to ripple our knuckles. But nobody could ripple their knuckles for the first three years because they'd all been through the rope tricks, so we had to kind of back off from the Morse code.

John T. Mason, Jr.: But that was not a very effective one because not every­ body knew the code?

Commander Fellowes: Not everybody knew the code. So now we get the tap code and I can send you a message, tell you jokes, or anything I want with the tap code. Of course, the jokes aren't going to be quite as funny, but I can keep a rapport going with you. We can talk about anything, and we will. We'll talk about the girl we knew, the girl we didn't know, the girls we wish we knew, we can talk about stereo, cars, what you drive, how much money do you think we've saved, every conceivable subject. And the beauty of it is there's one subject we're not talking about - how miserable I am, because all of a sudden I'm thinking about $7,000 a year in savings, that's pretty good. I can buy a Rolex wrist watch. I can talk about anything but the subject at hand, which is how god darned miserable I am, I hate it here.

John T. Mason, Jr.: That doesn't help the morale of the guy you're talking to.

Commander Fellowes: Yes, so you just hit on any subject. We had devices I say “we", Smitty Harris with his tap code and the cups and everything, the Americans just kind of dig around and all of a sudden realize, gee, I can do this, and then we start drilling holes through walls so we could pass a note through to him.

John T. Mason, Jr.: What did you use to drill?

Commander Fellowes: I hate to tell you this because it took us four months to work on this thing. We never got the hole through, and Ralph Gaither devised a corkscrew device and drilled right through the wall. We were still pounding, he's drilling. He beat us by three and a half months. He was done in about two days.

John T. Mason, Jr.: Where did he get the wire?

Commander Fellowes: He went around the camp and they always had little pieces of wire lying around. Ralph got the right length wire and he's pretty clever with making tools. He had a complete tool kit. He just went right through the wall, and we're pounding. He met us about half-way the first night. The next night he's through - we're pounding and we get this thing in our ear and it's Ralph Gaither. He's got through already. The object was now to put a note through, take a little stick and just run it through, and you open it up and read the note.

 

Stratton, Richard A. (1931- )
Commander, U.S. Navy

Based on one interview conducted by Paul B. Ryan in September 1975. Stratton's portion of the volume contains 144 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1976 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee's permission is required to cite or quote the material in a published work.

Commander<br />
Richard A. Stratton

Stratton, a member of squadron VA-192, flew off the carrier Ticonderoga (CVA-14) in an A-4E Skyhawk on 5 January 1967. He was on a combination reconnaissance and weather hop when he was shot down that day near Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam. He spent the next six years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. From his experiences, he discussed the leadership structure among the prisoners and the North Vietnamese fear of that leadership; the role of officers such as James Stockdale and William Lawrence as leaders; communications methods; interrogation and torture; attempts to get him to defect; the value of religion; descriptions of the guards; the famous incident in which Stratton bowed stiffly to imply he had been drugged before being put on display for the media; his forced confession; the importance of returning with honor; escape attempts; Stratton's assessment of President Lyndon Johnson's handling of the war; the role of neutral countries; U.S. media coverage of POWs; comparison of the POW

experience to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's book On Death and Dying; no early releases were sanctioned except that of Seaman Apprentice Douglas Hegdahl in 1969 to carry prisoners' names back to the United States; and some of the common traits of the American prisoners. Stratton's wife Alice told the story from the family point of view in a July 1978 Proceedings article titled "The Stress of Separation."

Vietnam POW Interviews - Volume II

Denton, Jeremiah A., Jr. (1924-2014)

Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Based on two interviews conducted by John T. Mason, Jr., in October and November 1976. Denton's portion of the volume contains 147 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1977 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee's permission is required to cite or quote the material in a published work.

Rear Admiral<br />
Jeremiah A. Denton

Denton was shot down on 18 July 1965 near Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam, while flying an A-6A Intruder from squadron VA-75, based on the carrier Independence (CVA-62). In addition to covering his personal ordeal of torture, he assessed the rationale for the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and the methods employed there; positions of President Richard Nixon and advisor Henry Kissinger on conduct of the war; Communist versus democratic value systems; the Code of Conduct; views on marriage and the family; Communist propaganda; the importance of the command structure among prisoners, led by individuals such

as James Stockdale and Robinson Risner; forced confessions; the difficulties of solitary confinement; religious activities in captivity, national security; and speeches to the public following his release. Denton was the first American prisoner freed in the normal release procedure and thus was called upon to speak to the media when he reached the Philippines in early 1973. The oral history interviews are intended to supplement Denton's book When Hell was in Session.

Alvarez, Everett, Jr. (1937-)

Commander, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Commander Everett Alvarex, Jr.

Based on two interviews conducted by Etta-Belle Kitchen in March 1976, Alvarez's portion of the volume contains 134 pages of interview transcript plus an index and appendix. The transcript is copyright 1977 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee has removed previous limitations on the use of the material. 

Alvarez was the first U.S. pilot shot down in the Vietnam War. On 5 August 1964 he was lost while flying an A-4C Skyhawk of squadron VA-144 from the carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64). The mission was a retaliation strike on Hon Gay, North Vietnam, for the Gulf of Tonkin incident a few days earlier. In the oral history Alvarez discussed the lack of preparation at that time for rescuing shot-down airmen; injuries sustained in ejection; the makeshift nature of the early captivity; varying attitudes of different guards; initial period of solitary confinement; the Code of Conduct; his belief that visits by American protesters such as Ramsay Clark and Jane Fonda kept the war going; the value of prayer; propaganda and punishment meted out by the enemy; interrogation details; communication with his wife until he learned tht she had divorced him; the limited food and medical treatment available; ways in which political events affected the treatment of prisoners; gradual improvement of conditions in the early 1970s; opportunities for sports and exercise; interaction among prisoners; the effect of U.S. B-52 raids on North Vietnam; and eventual release and delivery to the Philippines in early 1973. The interviews are a supplement to Alvarez's book Chained Eagle.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

 

Commander Alvarez: Well, we’re military. We are trained to remain as a military unit and through our survival school in a normal POW en­vironment you will maintain yourself as a military unit, so this is the way it is for us. And if you're the senior officer you will take command, just as in the Code of Conduct. Well, any­time we got a group together, whether we were physically together or were just in a building and we could communicate within walls, okay, I'm the senior officer or he’s the senior officer and here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to follow these policies or we're going to follow the regulations as laid out by the camp senior officer if we happened to have contact with him, or just do the best you can. This kind of thing.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Who was the senior officer? Do you remember who they were at various times?

Commander Alvarez: When?

Etta Belle Kitchen: That's my point. When you were at the Hilton.

Commander Alvarez: Yes, I could name every single senior officer but it changed about every other month. The senior officers of the camps were changed. At the time we were there Robbie Risner was the senior officer until Admiral Stockdale was shot down. He was a commander at the time. He remained the senior officer of all the prisoners. He wasn't with us all the time. General Flynn of the Air Force came in in 1968 and we had other people who happened to be the senior officer in the camp. They would change sometimes almost daily, depending on the situation, depending on how active the Vietnamese were, this type of thing. But we found out.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Can you describe more about how the communications took place? You spoke of writing on the bottom of a tin plate.

Commander Alvarez: That was early stages. That was before we developed the tap code. Once we lived in a building and we were in separate rooms, we could tap from one room to the other. We could keep our line of communications open that way. At other times, we learned to communicate from building to building. We developed the hand alphabet code. You could see someone's hand or else tap the code so it could be heard by someone or other means, covert means, message drops and things like this.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Tell me what you mean. I'm interested in this.

Commander Alvarez: Some things I can't tell you.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Oh, because of some security?

Commander Alvarez: Yes, but, you know, message traffic. We'd leave a note in a message drop or a hand code, hand alphabet, the tap code, or just plain talking, if we could do it. Some way to send signals. If you could get hold of a piece of glass and make a mirror out of it, you could use that.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Building to building?

Commander Alvarez: Right.

Etta Belle Kitchen: What leadership training and disciplinary training in relation to the Code of Conduct had you had before?

Commander Alvarez: Just survival school. That’s general, there wasn’t any­thing specific. We had to make up and improvise our own method of communication, and we had to improvise our own policies as far as the way to go in this situation. Here's our situation and here’s what we’re going to do.

Etta Belle Kitchen: But you did have training, of course, in the Code of Conduct before you went over there?

Commander Alvarez: Yes, but the Code of Conduct is a very general directive. It’s to give you a guideline. When you're in a specific situation, you have to adapt yourself, you have to adopt a policy or course of action that’s within the guidelines or to the best of your ability. You have to decide, now, is this worth dying for? By God, I don’t think that this is worth dying for, but I’ll resist as much as I can do it.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Did you ever come in a situation where you had to make that decision? Many times?

Commander Alvarez: Yes, several times. When I had to give these propaganda tapes, I said, is this worth dying for? Who in the United States is going to believe this?

Etta Belle Kitchen: And you thought negative?

Commander Alvarez: I thought that nobody in the United States would believe that garbage when they listened to that, but nobody in the United States that I know of hears this, except perhaps some anti-war groups. Actually, what it comes down to is it's not the people in this country, it's for their own people as much as for other peo­ple in other parts of the world.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Did the training and the awareness of the Code of Conduct play any part in your interrogations?

Commander Alvarez: Oh, yes, continually. It was always the guideline. This is what you live by or you try to.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Do you think any changes ought to be made in it other than what I guess you perhaps have already said of adjusting to situa­tions as they arise?

Commander Alvarez: I think the code as it exists now does give you the lee­way to do that. It does enable you to look at a specific situa­tion and say this is what I think I will do. The code has given me the guidelines and now I can apply myself to this particular prob­lem. The code is under a lot of fire, but I don't think it's justi­fiably so. I think the code did a lot for us. People say the code didn’t do us any good. It did. It did us a lot of good. In other words, we weren’t able to live up to the code itself, but the code is just a guideline. We were able to live up to an objective that we set. You know, everybody’s different. What it did for us was to enable us to come back and not be ashamed of anything. I don’t have anything I’m sorry for or anything I'm ashamed of. In other words, I’m not going to hide my face from anybody because I did some­thing I shouldn’t have done, because when I did do something I held out as long as I could, and I think that’s all anybody could ask of me and that’s all the code asks of you.

Etta Belle Kitchen: I’m curious to know whether you feel that when they did tor­ture people or threaten them with things of that nature, did that harden their resistance, do you think? Did it actually accomplish anything for them?

Commander Alvarez:  Well, everyone’s different, but as for myself I wouldn't say it hardened my resistance, but it hardened me to the point where when I gave in it angered me because they'd made me give in, to the point that when they came again I’d say no again and I’d keep saying no as long as I could. But then others, I think it scared them to the point where they were afraid to say no and it bothered them not to say no because they didn't want to do anything. Others did. It angered them and hardened them. Every person has his own limits and every person has his own reactions.

Psychologically speaking, it was a big psychological game.

Etta Belle Kitchen: The people who came over there, Ramsay Clark, Jane Fonda and their visits and their activities, the release of the Pentagon papers, things of that sort, do you think that had any effect on the length of the war?

Commander Alvarez: Oh, yes, I do.

Etta Belle Kitchen: Do you think you’d have been brought home sooner?

Commander Alvarez: I think that these people who went over there, all these things that happened here, did a lot to keep the Vietnamese going. They had told me before it even started that they were ready to fight a long protracted war, and when they say that they're talking about a war similar to the war they fought against the French, in which they just kept hammering and hammering, but hoping that eventually the French - and in this case we - would become dis­gusted, discouraged, and turn away, hoping that it would lead to dissension like it did with the French. They told me this before the war even started out there. They started their war with the French in 1945. When it got to the fifties the people of France were tired of this drain and it even caused a change in their government. This is what they had experienced before, so when we got involved this is what they were shooting for.

 

(Ranks of the officers listed above are as of the time of the interviews.)

 


 
 

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