Though North Vietnam continued to claim that American POWs were treated humanely and according to the international standards agreed upon at the Geneva Convention, the testimonies of ex-POWs themselves tell a very different story. Almost all American veterans of the Vietnam war who were held captive by the NVA have reported that, despite certain periods and occasions of good will on the part of the North Vietnamese, they were subject to various forms of both physical and psychological mistreatment, most often from beatings and solitary confinement, which at the very least certainly did not meet the standards of the Geneva Convention.
In September of 1972, three US prisoners of war were released by North Vietnam, due to their families’ association with certain anti-war groups based in the United States. One of these prisoners, Markham Gartley, had the most information to offer upon his return to the US since he had been in captivity the longest out of the three (49 months). In regard to treatment of US POWs, he reported that before 1969, prisoners were commonly subject to mistreatment at the hands of the NVA. In camps across the country, POWs were regularly shackled with leg irons, beaten with bamboo poles and rubber whips, or punished with long terms of solitary confinement. However, treatment significantly improved in 1969. The frequency of physical punishment and torture dropped and the authority to implement it became restricted to the camp commander, prisoners were fed better and more regularly, and more exercise periods were granted. Despite this, the NVA continued a method of extortion in which injured prisoners were only treated if they signed propaganda materials supporting North Vietnam. Overall, Gartley stated the camp conditions after 1969 were “satisfactory.”
Another ex-POW, Brigadier General John P. Flynn, who was a prisoner of the NVA for nearly six years after being shot down in October of 1967, was less specific and a little more nuanced in his description of POW treatment. He stated that, overall, it was “sometimes brutal, most often indifferent, and sometimes kind,” but never met the standards agreed upon in the Geneva Convention.
In addition to the hardships POWs endured on a regular basis, they were also subject to particular cases of mistreatment. One example is what has become known as the Hanoi March of July 1966, when about sixty prisoners were marched through the streets of Hanoi while suffering the torments of a jeering and violent crowd. A US government report compiled in February 1973 on the debriefings of ex-POWs described the event, stating that “the crowd became unruly and began throwing rocks, bottles, and stones. The PWs were cursed, spat upon and forcibly made to bow by the accompanying guards…The group had almost reached their destination at the Workers’ Stadium…and literally had to force themselves inside to avoid being killed by the crowd. Once inside the empty stadium, the PWs, badly beaten and bruised, were regrouped and returned to their camps.”