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American POWs in Vietnam

From 1961 to 1973, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong held hundreds of Americans captive in North Vietnam, and in Cambodia, China, Laos, and South Vietnam. In North Vietnam alone, more than a dozen prisons were scattered in and around the capital city of Hanoi. American POWs gave them nicknames: Alcatraz, Briarpatch, Dirty Bird, the Hanoi Hilton, the Zoo. Conditions were appalling. Prisoners were variously isolated, starved, beaten, tortured, and paraded in anti-American propaganda. “It’s easy to die but hard to live,” a prison guard told one new arrival, “and we’ll show you just how hard it is to live.”

American POWs in Vietnam struggled to survive horrid conditions, physical pain, and psychological deprivation, often for years on end. They exercised as best they could. Some played mind games to keep themselves sane, making mental lists or building imaginary houses, one nail at a time. They drew strength from one another, secretly communicating via notes scratched with sooty matches on toilet paper, subtle hand gestures, or code tapped out on their cell walls.

The code was based on two-number combinations that represented each letter. It enabled prisoners to establish a command structure, keep a roster of captives, and pass information. “Our tapping ceased to be just an exchange of letters and words; it became conversation,” recalled former POW James Stockton. “Elation, sadness, humor, sarcasm, excitement, depression—all came through.”


Exhibition Graphics

American POW in a staged photograph showing clean, spacious accommodations, 1969

American POW in a staged photograph showing clean, spacious accommodations, 1969


Related Artifacts

Hanoi Hilton “Pajamas”
Vietnamese Cigarettes given to Prisoner of War
Prisoner of War Vietnamese Cigarettes
Prisoner of War Metal Comb
Toothpaste Tube
Prisoner of War Tin Cup with Writing
Prisoner of War White Cup with Lid
Prisoner of War Tin Cup with Lacing on Handle
Metal North Vietnamese Army Issue Spoon for POWs

POWs in the Public Eye

Over 4,000 Americans were captured during World War I; more than 130,000 were taken prisoner during World War II; 7,000-plus were held in Korea. The American public knew little of their plight. But Americans were painfully aware of the nearly 800 who were prisoners of war in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese paraded them in a sophisticated propaganda campaign to erode public support for the war. POW families launched awareness campaigns, and the media gave the POW situation extensive coverage. At war’s end, about 600 returned home. Some Americans believe that thousands more “missing in action” were left behind.


Exhibition Graphics

North Vietnamese displaying American POWs to the press

North Vietnamese displaying American POWs to the press

Released POW arriving at Travis Air Force Base in California, 1973

Released POW arriving at Travis Air Force Base in California, 1973


Related Artifacts

POW Bracelets


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