A POW Story

By William S. Reeder,Jr., Ph.D, Colonel, U.S. Army (retired)

I began my second tour of duty in Vietnam on December 7, 1971. PresidentNixon’s policy of withdrawal through “Vietnamization” was wellunderway. The burden of fighting the war was being passed more fully to theVietnamese and U.S.troops were being brought home at a dramatic rate. Indeed, and ironically inretrospect, the plan seemed to be going well. There was little enemy activityinside South Vietnamand the insurgent guerilla war had pretty well ended. The calm did not lastlong however.

In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched their major offensive ofthe war. It became known as the 1972 Easter Offensive. It was not an uprisingof the insurgent Viet Cong, as had been the case in the Tet Offensive of 1968.Instead, this campaign was a series of conventional attacks by the regularNorth Vietnamese army across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) from Communist NorthVietnam, and from sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia with advances designed tocut the country of South Vietnam in half through the Central Highlands, and to strike the South’s capital cityof Saigon. TheCommunists failed in 1972 after some very hard fighting by the South Vietnamesearmy and air force, and the determined help of those American forces remaining.

The offensive began in April 1972 with advances of North Vietnamese forcestoward Saigon from out of Cambodia, andattacks toward the ancient capital of Huefrom out of North Vietnamacross the DMZ. The final movement of this well orchestrated battle plan camefrom northern Cambodiaand southern Laosas the North Vietnamese army attempted to replicate the 1954 successes of theViet Minh against the French in wrestling control of a wide belt across thecentral part of the South, and destroying French military capability in theprocess. The Communist armies achieved some initial success, but were deniedevery major objective. In the north, they advanced only to Quang Tri, and werethere defeated by South Vietnamese airborne. In the south, they moved only asfar as An Loc before being defeated. And in the Central Highlands, they captured some outposts surrounding Kontum, butwere again defeated.

I recount this bit of history as background to a personal drama that played outat this time for me, and for a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot named XanhNguyen, or actually Nguyen Xanh by Vietnamese ordering, for they always placethe last name first. When the 1972 Easter Offensive began, I was flying AH-1GCobra attack helicopters from the American base at Camp Halloway,near Pleiku, in the Central Highlands. Lieutenant Nguyen Xanh was flying A-1Skyraider fixed wing attack airplanes from Pleiku airbase at the same time. Wedid not know each other, had never met or even seen each other.

On May 9, 1972, I was launched at dawn on a tactical emergency as mission leadof a flight of two Cobras to support the besieged army camp at Polei Klang– almost due west of Kontum and not too far from the Cambodian border.There were North Vietnamese infantry and tanks attacking the base, and thesituation was grim. We made several runs and expended all our rockets,grenades, and machine gun ammunition and headed to Kontum airfield to re-armand re-fuel. My other crew member in the front seat of the Cobra, myco-pilot/gunner, was First Lieutenant Tim Conry from Phoenix, Arizona.Tim was the most outstanding young officer I had known, and for that reason, Itucked him under my wing as his platoon leader, and from his arrival in theunit, he always flew with me. He excelled as an aviator and as a man. And hewould become a hero that day.

On our way back out, we were diverted to a larger attack taking place atanother camp situated right at the Tri-Border, the spot where the borders of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia allcome together. The place was called Ben Het. There was a Vietnamese rangerbattalion of about 300 and two American advisors. They were under attack byelements for two North Vietnamese divisions (several thousand soldiers)supported by tanks. The tanks had overrun the perimeter, and enemy infantryoccupied much of the base.

Benhet Camp

En route to Ben Het, Iglanced toward Polei Klang as I flew abeam. There was a lot of activity, and Icould see A-1 Skyraiders in their bombing patterns. I then saw one of the A-1shit and crash in flames. The pilot ejected and I could see his parachute. Iradioed for permission to go to Polei Klang and cover the rescue. Permissionwas denied. I asked again, denied, more tersely this time, again. I didn’t yetknow the degree of urgency at Ben Het, but was infuriated at the moment for notbeing allowed to help another pilot in obvious need.

I flew into a hornets nest at Ben Het. When we arrived, we saw five tankswithin the perimeter wire, and enemy infantry everywhere. The friendlysurvivors had consolidated in the command bunker at the center of the camp andwere fighting hard to keep the enemy at bay. We fired some ordinance and thensupported a special helicopter with a new type of tank killing missile. Whenwe’d expended all our ordnance, we returned again to Kontum to once againre-arm and re-fuel. We then launched back out on our third combat mission ofthe day, returning to Ben Het.

After take off from Kontum, we were asked to escort a re-supply helicopter intoBen Het. The beleaguered force was running desperately low on ammunition, andhad no more anti-tank ammunition at all. We joined with a Huey helicoptercarrying the ammunition re-supply, and escorted him into Ben Het, low level, onthe tree tops. We approached the camp with guns blazing, ours and theirs. In myfront seat, Tim was laying down a well aimed path of protective devastationwith the mini-gun and grenade launcher in our turret. I was firing pairs ofrockets. At the same time, we were engaged by numerous enemy small arms andanti-aircraft weapons as we continued inbound. The Huey successfully completedits critical mission, largely because of Tim’s carefully directed suppressivefire. The Huey came to a very brief hover, kicked off the ammo boxes and liftedout. We turned to cover his departure and immediately began taking hits fromseveral enemy weapons. My Cobra came down spinning and burning. We crashed andexploded a moment later. Tim and I just got out. He died later that day. I hada badly broken back, burns on the back of my neck, a piece of shell fragmentsticking out of my ankle, and superficial wounds on my head and face. I was inthe midst of many hundreds of attacking enemy soldiers, but was able to evademy foes for three days before being captured.

I was interrogated for a couple of days; treated pretty brutally. I was aphysical mess. My back was broken. My ankle wound had filled my boot with bloodthat was now dried solid. I was three days unshaven. I’d had no control over mybowels or bladder and had soiled myself badly. And I’d had several leachescling to my body, all of which I’d pulled off, except for one which unknowinglywas half way into my left nostril. My captors got a laugh from that.

I was questioned, beaten, threatened, and had my arms tied behind my back withthe ropes increasingly tightened during interrogation, until finally both myshoulders dislocated as my elbows were pulled tightly together against mybroken spine. Finally, the interrogations ceased, and I was marched for threedays to a jungle prison camp that, by my estimation, must have been just acrossthe border in northern Cambodia.I was given my boots back, but no laces and no socks. After three days ofwalking, my feet were like raw hamburger by the time I limped, in much pain, upto the entrance to my first prison.

The camp was typical of the image many have. It was carved out of the jungleand built of bamboo. The camp was surrounded by a bamboo wall that wasreminiscent of an old cavalry frontier fort in the American West. There was onewall concentrically within another, with a ditch dug between the two, almostmoat-like. In the ditch were many punji stakes – pieces of bamboo, knifesharp, dipped in human waste and stuck in the ground. If you fell on these,you’d die of a wound to a vital organ, or bleed to death, or at least die ofinfection if you were not killed outright. Across this ditch was a log that onehad to balance across to gain entry to the camp.

Inside the walls were many bamboo cages that housed the prisoner population.There were South Vietnamese military, there were indigenous mountain peoplereferred to as Montagnards or Mountainyards who had allied with U.S. specialforces, and there were two Americans, myself and another helicopter pilotcaptured a month earlier. At least a couple hundred prisoners altogether.Conditions in this camp were deplorable. We lived like animals. We were kept incages, most of which were not tall enough to stand up in. That wasn’t necessaryanyway, because they kept our feet in wooden stocks. With my broken back, Icould not lie back; so I slept sitting up. And every night rats scurriedthrough the cages and nibbled on my ankle wounds, and I couldn’t move my feetin the stocks, and couldn’t keep them away, and I hate rats to this day.

The only time we got out of these cages was for a daily toilet call at the camplatrine. The time never seemed to be the same on any given day, and if aprisoner’s internal schedule could not wait for the appointed time (manysuffered dysentery) then he went all over himself in the cage. When they didlet us out, it was a walk to the “facility” in one corner of thecamp. On my first visit, I discovered that the latrine was a couple of holes inthe ground that you squatted over to relieve yourself. Problem was that many ofthe sicker prisoners were not able to hold themselves until getting all the wayto the holes, and left their waste in piles all around that area. Some of thevery sickest prisoners, near death, were placed in hammocks right next to thelatrine, and they would either lay there and soil themselves, time after time,or roll out of their hammock, if they could, and take a couple of steps and gothere on the ground. The result was a substantial accumulation of human wasteall around the holes that were the latrine. Those able to control themselveswere forced to walk through that waste field and squat over the holes. Onreturn to our cages, we had no way to clean ourselves.

I don’t remember water being a problem. It was delivered in pieces of bamboo,and there seemed to be sufficient quantities. It was supposedly boiled, but Istill came down with bloody dysentery. Food was a problem. Our diet was almostexclusively rice. We’d get one grapefruit sized ball mid-morning, and anothermid-afternoon. Occasionally, we’d get the treat of a tuberous root calledmanioc. It is very much like (and may be the same as) yucca in Latin Americancountries. My weight went from around 190 pounds to something around 120 in justa few weeks. I was skin hanging on bone with beard that grew very long overtime. I did not shave for over five months. And I received no medical attentionat all. And no one fared any better. The South Vietnamese next to me in my cagehad a severe chest wound that had been bandaged long ago, but I never saw thedressing changed, and the hole in his chest wall was never repaired. He wasyoung and strong, but I’m certain he did not survive.

We lived like animals, and under these filthy, starvation conditions, withoutmedical care, it seemed that someone died almost every day. The bodies would becarried out and buried on a hillside just outside the camp.

On July 2, 1972, Iwas taken outside my cage and lined up with a group of prisoners. There wereabout 25 South Vietnamese and one other American. I would soon learn that oneof our group was a pilot who had been shot down the same day I had, in an A-1Skyraider at Polei Klang. His name was Lieutenant Xanh. I would never forgethis name. Never.

We were addressed by the Communist camp commander and told that we were goingto travel to a new camp, a better camp, a place where we’d get better food andmedical care; where we’d get mail and packages from home. He said the tripcould take as long as eleven days, and that we should try hard to make it. Ienvisioned another jungle camp, somewhat better situated, staffed, andsupplied, somewhere not too distant in northern Cambodia, or just across the borderin Laos.The comment about trying hard to make it did not register in my mind at all– until some days later.

I set out barefoot with all of us tied loosely to one another. After a fewdays, we’d no longer be tied because we all struggled to just keep movingforward. I was weak from malnutrition, sick with untold disease, and sufferingfrom wounds that were infected and worsening with the aggravation of thejourney. I soon began to become plagued by more leaches, on top of everythingelse. They’d suck blood and cause infections of their own. I must have been asite. Lieutenant Xanh was there suffering the same conditions, fighting his ownpersonal demons, that every step of the way, threatened to destroy yourphysical ability, or derail your mental willingness to continue. And if you didnot continue to march, you would die. In normal life, you have to take someovert action to die. You have to kill yourself. As a prisoner of war, underthese circumstances, that truth is reversed. You have to reach deep withinyourself and struggle each day to stay alive. Dying is easy. Just relax, giveup and peacefully surrender, and you will die. Many did. They died in thatfirst jungle prison camp, and they died along the trail. Some would complete aday’s journey and then lie down to die. Others collapsed on the trail and couldnot continue. The group would be marched ahead, a rifle shot or shots heard,and the pitiful suffering prisoner was not seen again. We lost at least half adozen of our small band of 27 captives, and by the time the journey was over,Wayne Finch, the other American in our group, would be dead as well.

The trip turned out to be not an eleven day hike to a new camp in the samevicinity as the one we’d departed. It turned out to be a journey lasting over athree months, taking us several hundred miles all the way up the Ho Chi MinhTrail into North Vietnam and then on to the capital city of Hanoi. It was anightmare, a horrid soul wrenching nightmare. Every step, every day wracked mybody with pain. My infections became worse; disease settled in me. I was near death.My leg swelled at least double in size, darkened in color, filled with puss. Itswelled so much, long cracks formed in the skin and puss and bloody stinkyfluid oozed from the cracks. I drug my leg like a pendulous sodden club, andits every movement lashed my whole being with the most searing pain; pain thatkept my face contorted and a cry shrieking within every corner of myconsciousness; pain that was burning a blackened scar deep into the center ofmy very being.

My bloody dysentery worsened, and I got three different kinds of malaria andseveral intestinal parasites. And I hovered near death as I tried to reach theend of each horrible day’s journey of eight to ten awful, grueling miles. Eachmorning I’d begin a personal battle to stand and loudly moan or scream tomyself through clenched teeth and pressed lips, as blood ran into my leg andbrought a surge of new pain as gravity pulled blood and bodily fluids down intothe carcass of leg and pressure grew against decaying flesh and failing vessels.And there was Lieutenant Xanh, suffering badly himself, but always encouragingme, always helping as he could. We’d eat a paltry morsel of rice for dinner,and he’d tell me this was not how Vietnamese ate. There were many fine foods inVietnamese culture. A Vietnamese meal was a delight. Don’t judge the cuisine bywhat we were given to eat. I believed him, and did not. And he was right, ofcourse. I tried to maintain a sense of humor. It was hard, but it wasnecessary. Your spirit is the most important factor in survival, and a sense ofhumor, even under the very worst conditions, helps maintain spirit, and inspirit lives hope. And again, Lieutenant Xanh helped. He was always concernedabout me, and did all he could to help me remain positive, to be hopeful. Asbad as things got, I never gave up hope, not even the day I would have died hadit not been for Xanh.

I mustered all my will each day just to wake, stand, and take a step. Then Ifought hard for the remainder of the day to just keep going, to keep movingalong the trail. I could barely walk, but somehow I continued, and survivedeach day, to open my eyes in the morning to the gift of one more dawn.

On the worst day of my life, I fought so very hard. I faltered. I dug deeper. Istaggered on. I faltered again, and I struggled more, and I reached deeper yet,and I prayed for more strength. And I collapsed, and I got up and moved along;and I collapsed again, and again; and I fought, fought with all I had in mybody, my heart, and my soul. And I collapsed, and I could not get up. I couldnot will myself up. I was at the end of my life. And the enemy came; the guardlooked down on me. He ordered me up. He yelled at me. I could not. It was done.

And then there was Xanh. Looking worried; bending toward me. The guard yellingto discourage his effort. He persisted in moving to help me. The guard yelledlouder. Xanh’s face was set with determination, and in spite of whateverthreats the guard was screaming, Xanh pulled me up onto his frail, weak back,pulled my arms around his neck and clasped my wrists together, and pulled mealong with my feet dragging on the ground behind him. Xanh drug me along allthe rest of that day. Occasionally, he was briefly relieved by anotherprisoner, but it was Xanh who carried the burden that day. It was Xanh wholifted me from death, at great risk to his own life, and carried me, and caredfor me, until we completed that long day’s journey.

The next morning, I went through the normal agonizing ritual of waking up, andstanding, and dragging my leg through those first determined steps. It was moreof a struggle than ever before. I mustered the will, and I went on. At the edgeof the encampment was a broad log that spanned the rapids of a river. I startedacross, tried to balance. Pain awful, very weak, equilibrium gone. No sense ofbalance, worthless leg is throwing me off; begin to slip off the side of thelog, then falling onto the rocks in the rushing water below. Xanh and Waynemoved back off the log and came to my rescue. They pulled me from the river andonto the bank. They pleaded for the group to remain at this camp until I wasable to travel again. They were ordered away. They would not leave me. Theywere drug away and forced across the log bridge at gunpoint. And they weremarched away with the rest of our prisoner group. I never saw Xanh again.

As far as my fellow prisoners knew, I was left at that camp to die, as othershad been. But for some reason, the Communists decided to give me penicillininjections for several days. I began to show some improvement. After a time, Iwas able to stand, and as soon as I was able to walk again, I was put back onthe trail, this time traveling with groups of North Vietnamese soldiers movingnorth, and accompanied by my own personal guard. It continued to be anagonizing trip, but the worst was behind me. I even found the opportunity toescape once when I got one turn ahead of my guard on the jungle trail. But hequickly tracked me down, and once he decided not to shoot me in his rage, herecaptured me, and the journey continued. Eventually, I joined with anothergroup of South Vietnamese prisoners as we entered North Vietnam, and ultimatelyreached Hanoi.There I went into North Vietnam‘s prison system, and ended up at theinfamous Hanoi Hilton from where I was released at the end of the war.

I inquired about Lieutenant Xanh after I returned to the United States.I could not find any information. I asked Vietnamese military studentsattending U.S. Army courses. No one could find any information. After the fallof South Vietnamin 1975, I intensified my search. No information. After several years, I wasreunited with one former member of my first group of South Vietnameseprisoners, Tang van Pham, and also one from the second, Ke Nghiem. They soughtinformation for me. First nothing, and then word that Xanh had beenre-imprisoned after the fall of Saigon, andthen the conclusion that he’d probably died after years of imprisonment. But Istill hoped to find some information about what had happened to Xanh and maybea little about him and his family.

I’d done internet searches in recent years, always with no luck. Then a fewweeks ago, I tried again. I stumbled onto a site for pilots who’d flown A-1Skyraiders in the Vietnamese Air Force, some from Xanh’s old unit. I dropped anote to the webmaster, and within days found myself in e-mail contact withXanh, and then a phone call – the first time we’d spoken in 35 years. Iwill see Xanh soon, probably in the fall. I will see him for the first timesince I watched him forced across that log and marching away, knowing that Iowed him my life; what there was left of it. But since he’d worked so hard tohelp me live through those two toughest days of my life, I felt like I owed himmy very best effort to try to do my part to make his efforts worthwhile. Whathe’d done for me saved my life, and Xanh’s selfless actions gave me even moredetermination to overcome everything between me and the freedom that waited atthe end of my captivity. Xanh Nguyen has always been a great man, and now he isa great American. I am so thankful he was my friend when I needed him, and I amgrateful I have found my friend again.


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