Prisoners of War (POWs): In international law, term used to designate incarcerated members of the armed forces of an enemy, or noncombatants who render them direct service and who have been captured during wartime.1
This definition is a very loose interpretation of the meaning of Prisoners of War (POWs). POWs throughout history have received harsh and brutal treatment. Prisoners received everything from torture to execution. However, in recent times efforts have been made to reduce these treatments and to get humane treatment for POWs. These attempts include the Geneva Convention of 1949. Unfortunately, during the Vietnam Conflict, these “rules” of war were not always obeyed, as they are now.
The Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoner of War, signed August 12, 1949, provided restrictions and obligations that a country with captured enemy POWs must meet and abide by. These obligations consisted of feeding, clothing, medical treatment, mail, and delivery of parcels from prisoners.
The official tally of American POWs who were captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) during the Vietnam War totaled 766, and of these 114 died while in captivity2. Those that died were many times deprived of both medication and sufficient food or facilities, and were also ravaged by many diseases that affected the Americans.
The guards and cadre refused to accept the fact that adequate food was all that was necessary to reduce if not eliminate the malnutrition and disease among the POW’s. How many times I had heard, “the Front provides adequately for your livelihood.”3
The Vietnamese prison guards and higher ranking officers (cadre) sometimes did not understand why the American prisoners had trouble eating rice and developed “rice rejection” This was more of a mental instability than a physical disease. The prisoners also routinely developed dysentery, beri beri, and sometimes suffered from constant massive dehydration.
The food that the POWs had available was very little and almost always consisted of a large portion of rice because rice was the major staple crop for the Vietnamese. The American prisoners had a very tough time adjusting to this new diet though. Another of the main parts of any prisoner’s meal was nouc mam. This was a native Vietnamese dish that is fish that has been fermented for a period of time and then is put in pots. This is eaten with rice and sometimes, fresh fish. Not a specific torture, but a very painful experience that POWs had to deal with everyday, was hunger. Malnutrition, and hunger became a POW’s worst enemy, and led to many of the 114 deaths among the prisoners.
Another excruciating obstacle that prisoners sometimes faced was torture. Torture was against the Geneva Accords, but then again, so were many other acts that the NVA and Vietcong (VC) committed against American POWs. Torture sometimes only consisted of a few...