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In February and March, 1973, following the Paris Peace Accords, 591 Americans (26 of them civilians) were released by the Communist authorities. All had been held as prisoners of war, principally in North Vietnam, and the vast majority were USAF or USN airmen shot down during operations Rolling Thunder (1965-68) and Linebacker (1972). Some had been held in confinement under inhumane conditions for up to eight years; one of them, USN Lieutenant Everett Alvarez, had been shot down during a Pierce Arrow retaliatory strike on Hon Gai in August, 1964.

Any U.S. airman who ejected over the North faced immediate problems. In many cases, the process of ejection led to physical injury. This, coupled with the trauma of suddenly being shot out of the sky and the fact that, as a pale-skinned American, he could not hide among the local people, made evasion extremely difficult. Although air rescue was possible and did occur, most airmen were quickly picked up by the Communist authorities--in many instances not before being beaten by irate civilians.

The usual procedure was for the captive airman to be paraded before the people (and the propaganda cameras) as a "capitalist hired gun" or "imperialist air pirate" before being transferred to the old French colonial prison of Hoa Lo in the center of Hanoi. Here he would be stripped, searched, and--usually after a period of solitary confinement to increase disorientation--interrogated in "New Guy Village," part of the Hoa Lo compound reserved for new arrivals. At this stage, he would be aware that he was in the "Hanoi Hilton" and that escape was impossible. He would be allowed no contact with fellow prisoners.

This isolation would continue in other compounds--nicknamed "Las Vegas" and "Heartbreak Hotel"--where he would be subjected to more questioning and, more often than not, brutal torture. The latter was in violation of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of PoWs, but the Communists' view was that because war had not been officially declared, the Americans were acting illegally and so deserved no protection,

There was even talk of war-crimes trials of U.S. airmen being held, although this idea was dropped after intense diplomatic pressure on Hanoi. Under torture--which included tying the prisoners so tightly that joints were dislocated and breathing was restricted-- many Americans wrote "confessions," couched in such ridiculous language that no one took them seriously outside the Communist bloc. One PoW, brought before the press in Hanoi, even winked the word "torture" in Morse code to alert the U.S. Government.

Such bravery was indicative of the resolve of the majority of the PoWs, who maintained their dignity and discipline throughout their ordeal. Contact between them was established by means of a simple code, transmited by tapping pipes, winking, or coughing, and, after the unsuccessful U.S. Son Tay raid in November, !970, most of the men were brought together in the Hanoi Hilton from outlying compounds such as the "Briarpatch" (35 miles northwest of Hanoi) and the "Zoo" (in Cu Loc}. A more communal life was then possible, The prisoners were eventually returned by the Hanoi government to the United States in early 1973--an event that was highly emotional for both the men and their longsuffering friends and families.

The personal effects brought home from North Vietnam by an American PoW include locally produced cigarettes, matches, and toothpaste.

Lieutenant Colonel James Lindbeg Hughes, shot down over the North in 1967, is marched into custody in Hanoi by his captors.

The layout of the Son Tay prison camp is shown in this aerial view. The U.S. raid on the camp on November 21, 1970, to liberate American PoWs was well exectued but fruitless: the PoWs had previously been moved to another location.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Strim is welcomed home by his family in March, 1971. An enormous outpouring of public emotion accompanied the return of the PoWs to the U.S.