It was the worst prison camp of the Vietnam War. Lodged deep in the jungle west of Da Nang, South Vietnam’s second largest city, the prison camp—or camps, for it was a moveable horror—was not easily imagined by a generation that had grown up watching World War II movies. There were no guard towers, no search lights, no barbed wire. Instead, the camp consisted of a muddy clearing hacked out of the jungle where sunlight barely penetrated the interlocking layers of branches and vines. A thatched hut served as the prisoners’ shelter, a bamboo platform was their communal bed.
The 18 young Americans, barefoot, in tatters, and on the verge of starvation were given little rice and forced by the Viet Cong to gather manioc, their potato-like food, which was sometimes poisoned with Agent Orange by U.S. spray planes. They lived under constant danger of being bombed by their own forces. An American turncoat armed with a rifle—Marine Bob Garwood--helped the Viet Cong keep them in line.
Twelve of the 32 prisoners of war who entered the camp died—almost forty percent. Five were freed for propaganda purposes. One defected. The remaining 12 American survivors, plus two German nurses, were saved only by the North Vietnamese decision to send them on a forced march up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi in 1971, where they remained until they were freed with the 579 other U.S. POWs at the time of the ceasefire in 1973.
This story comes from my book SURVIVORS, first published by W.W. Norton in 1975 and still in print by Da Capo. I have edited and combined some of the material for this Internet adaptation. The men were all captured in 1968. In this excerpt, only one officer was listed in the interviews—Warrant Officer Frank Anton, a helicopter pilot. The rest of the POWs were drafted infantrymen though one, David Harker, was a college dropout and another, James Daly, a high school graduate and conscientious objector. In the list of POWs below, I have used the letters “W” and “AA” to signify Whites and African Americans.
Frank Anton, 24, Philadelphia PA - W
David Harker, 22, Lynchburg VA - W
Jim Strickland, 20, Dunn NC - W
James Daly, 20, Brooklyn NY - AA
Tom Davis, 20, Eufaula, AL - AA
Isaiah (Ike) McMillan, 20, Gretna, FL - AA
Frank Anton – We came down a steep mountain, holding on to bushes to keep our balance, and then headed up a heavily wooded hillside. I heard a dog barking in the distance and the faint sound of voices. As we moved closer I saw the outline of several hootches through the trees.
“We rest here, huh?” I said to the guards. They smiled.
A man came from the area of the thatched huts. He had buck teeth and penetrating dark eyes, a high forehead, and a mouth frozen into a smirk.
“You are now in a prisoner of war camp,” he said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I mumbled to myself.
“You! You stand at attention! I did not give you permission to speak.”
We shuffled our feet and he became angrier.
“You will be allowed to meet the other prisoners,” he said. “But if you do not obey the rules you will be punished severely.
David Harker – The camp commander arrived. He was an older man, gray-haired, soft-spoken, and he carried himself in a dignified manner. He spoke only one or two words of English. The younger man served as his translator.
I looked at them blankly. I was still unable to believe I was a prisoner of war. A guard escorted me to the compound, which was surrounded by a crude bamboo fence. I saw an American. He was several inches over six feet, had an unkempt Poncho Villa mustache, and his body was covered with a red scaly skin disease. Russell Grissett.
Frank Anton – Russ Grissett turned to the hootch and said, “Bob, we’ve got company.” Grissett was barefoot and wore a pair of black pajamas rolled to his knees. I had not got over the shock of seeing Grissett’s poor condition when Bob Sherman walked out. He was small and mousy looking, except for his eyes, which had the glint of a cornered cat. Grissett had been a prisoner for two years, Sherman for several months. Both were marines.
David Harker – That evening Sherman and Grissett prepared our food. As night fell we went inside the hootch. Everyone was too excited to sleep. We were swapping life stories when Grissett suddenly interrupted.
“Listen, I’ve been here two years,” he said. “I know how things are. You’ll learn. I don’t want any of you to say anything in front of me I can use against you. Because I will. I’ll tell the Vietnamese anything you say. So if you want to try to escape, don’t let me know. Understand?”
No one spoke. He said it with such seriousness that we had to believe him.
Frank Anton – U.S. Marine PFC Robert Garwood commanded the Viet Cong guard detail that brought Willie Watkins and James Daly to our camp. Bob Garwood was captured in 1965. I think he was the first marine prisoner of war. He crossed over to the Viet Cong side sometime in mid-1967. Why he defected was hard to say. He was such a liar we could never decide.
Garwood was a nice-looking guy, close to six feet tall, brown hair, a full mouth, and he always had a deep tan. He probably weighed no more than 150 pounds, but compared to us he seemed big and healthy.
Ike McMillan – In a few minutes Garwood walked up and said, “How you guys doing?” He spoke fast with a sort of clipped accent. We were shocked to see him.
I said, “What are you, a trustee or something?”
He said, “Yes, I’m supposed to go home soon.” He said they told him they would release him if he crossed over. “They lied to me, man,” he said. “Now they say I have to wait until a better time. They really fucked me over.”
I said, “What are you doing now?”
He said, “I go down to the coast to take pictures of military installations. Or sometimes I’ll talk to the troops with a bullhorn and try to get them to stop fighting. But the only reason I do it is because I want to go home.”
The guys later asked us what story Garwood had given us. He’d told them generally the same thing. It sounded like an apology. I think he was trying to play both sides.
Tom Davis – Garwood wouldn’t look you straight in the eye when he talked. He kept shifting his glance. I think he was ashamed of what he’d done. When he was up at the Vietnamese hootches he was very friendly with them. But when he was among us and the Vietnamese guards got friendly, touching him or patting him on the back, Garwood looked uncomfortable and usually left. All the Vietnamese but the translator looked up to Garwood. He was an American who could do everything they did. He could hump with them and build a hootch. The translator resented him.
Garwood talked to us about racism. There were five of us—Watkins, McMillan, Daly, Lewis and myself. I think that was his job, to try to indoctrinate us.
Jim Strickland – Garwood was in and out of camp all the time. He didn’t trust us a bit. When he got ready to leave he left. He didn’t say to us, “See you guys later.” While he was in camp, he called prisoners up to his hootch for interrogation. He was looking for someone to rat on the others. He called me up several times.
He would lay his tobacco on the table and motion for you to have some. He knew we liked to smoke and seldom had tobacco. He learned that technique from the Viet Cong. It was like one of them interrogating you.
Tom Davis – Our schedule started at daybreak. The translator beat a bamboo gong and ran to our hootch and yelled, “Get up! Get up! Do PT! Do PT!” Some guys tried to stay in bed by telling him they were sick. And some of them really were.
Jim Strictland – We did five or six stretch exercises, bend and reach, things like that. Garwood sometimes came down and made us do them when the translator wasn’t in the camp. I took the exercise period seriously, I thought it was helping me. To some of the other guys it was just a joke. Then I ran down to the creek and washed up. The Vietnamese did that. I guess I took the habit from them.
Tom Davis – After exercises we returned to the hootch, ate a little rice and waited for it to get completely light. A manioc run came up twice a week. If you were going you got ready. We wore our short pants. We went barefoot around the camp but we had saved several pair of boots to make the hike for manioc. You picked out a pair and put them on, then got a bamboo basket and adjusted it, being careful to put a piece of cloth under the shoulder straps to keep it from cutting into your back.
We tried to leave by 6:30 and get to the field before the sun burned off the fog. We were accompanied by two armed guards. The fields belonged to the Montagnards, the native tribesmen whose women went bare breasted and the men wore loin cloths. It took about two hours to reach the fields. The trails were concealed under jungle foliage but the fields were on the open mountainsides and we had to worry about U.S. spotter planes. We ran for the nearest bushes when the planes came over and hid till they went away. We were in enemy territory and dressed like Vietnamese. A bomb couldn’t tell the difference.
A basket of manioc weighed sixty pounds. If a weak man went on the run you’d have to pull yours and probably wind up carrying his basket back to camp too. We usually got back by mid afternoon—tired, sweaty, bruised and cut, irritated with those who weren’t working hard enough.
All of us were having a hard time trying to live with our hunger. When I was young I’d often eaten a quick hamburger and taken off with an empty feeling in my stomach that I thought was hunger. It wasn’t. Hunger takes over your body, dominates your mind. You crave for food and think your imagination is driving you crazy. Some prisoners spent hours making up elaborate imaginary menus. Some actually got into fierce arguments about whose menu was the best.
David Harker – One rainy night I was returning to the hootch before the guard arrived to make a head count. Suddenly someone pushed me from behind. I felt flapping wings under a raincoat. Garwood handed me the coat and said, “Here cook this and save me the two legs.” He was gone.
Frank Anton – Garwood wanted us to think he was trying to help us. But he also wanted chicken. The only way he could get it was by stealing from the VC. He demanded the two drumsticks and left the remainder to be split among 18 prisoners. He was taking a big chance, though. Anything could have happened to him had the VC found out.
James Daly – We left early one morning on a manioc run—Joe Zawtocki, Denny, Weatherman, Sherman, and myself. For some reason, the VC sent only one guard with us. The other guard, I think, stopped off at a Montagnard village.
We were walking along and Sherman said, “Today would be a good time to make an escape. What do you guys think?”
Denny said, “Yeah, you’re right.” Weatherman agreed and asked Joe Zawtocki his opinion. Joe was reluctant.
Joe said, “I think it’s a good idea but why don’t we wait till we get back and try to get everybody to make the break at once?”
The others pointed out how ridiculous this would be with 16 armed guards around the camp.
“No,” someone said, “This is the best time to try when we’ve got only one guard.”
The group asked me, “What do you think about it, Daly, since you’re a conscientious objector?”
I said, “I’ll go along with the majority.”
“Do you think you could kill a guard?”
“Right now I want to go home. I think I would do anything to get back to my family.”
We discussed the best time to make the move and decided to wait till we reached the manioc field. Joe Zawtocki was still not convinced. He hung back at the hilltop away from us and began to fill his basket.
We talked about who should jump the guard. Everybody thought it should be Weatherman, since he’d been a prisoner longer and therefore had a stronger motive for escaping.
But Weatherman said, “I just can’t kill somebody in cold blood. He’s got to do something to make me want to kill him.”
Everybody else said the same thing. Finally Weatherman agreed to do it.
The guard sat under a tree. His SKS carbine was propped up nearby. Weatherman walked over and asked for water. The guard gave it to him. Weatherman began to play with the camp dog, which had followed us on the run. The guard was nervous. He looked as if he was too scared to make a move to get his weapon. You could tell Weatherman was nervous too.
Weatherman finished drinking his water and rejoined us. He said, “I just can’t kill anybody in cold blood.”
Denny said, “Well, if you can’t let’s forget about it.”
When he said that, Weatherman spun around and went back to the guard. He asked for more water. The guard was positively jumpy now. Weatherman drank the water and then returned.
“Forget it,” he said. “Let’s get the manioc so we can get back to camp.”
I started pulling manioc, a little relieved that Weatherman had decided not to try it. But unseen by me he had gone back a third time to the guard. This time he jumped him. Next thing I knew he was calling for us to help him.
Denny ran over. He and Weatherman beat the stew out of the guard, who was pleading for them to stop. Weatherman told Sherman to get the guard’s weapon and shoot him.
Sherman said, “No, I can’t shoot him.”
Denny shouted, “Open the bayonet and stab him, Bob!”
Sherman flipped out the bayonet and stood with the weapon in his hands.
He said, “No, no, I can’t. I can’t.”
Sherman ran over to me and said, “Here, Daly, you take the weapon and do it. I can’t.’
I said, “Bob, I can’t either.”
Weatherman screamed, “Stab him, Bob! Stab him!”
Sherman threw the rifle down. At that moment the guard broke free and ran. Weatherman and Denny chased him across the field and brought him down with a tackle. They began slugging him. Then they let him go. They grabbed his weapon and ran to where we were.
“Come on! Let’s go!” said Weatherman.
Sherman said, “I’m not going.”
“If Sherman’s not going,” I said, “neither am I. You let the guard go and he’s gone for help. There’s no way we can get away.”
Weatherman said, “Bastards! Dirty cowards!”
“I’ll get you for this, Daly!” Denny said.
They headed down the mountainside.
Joe Zawtocki came from the other side of the field where he’d sat the whole thing out.
He said, “Let’s wait awhile and give them time to get away.”
I said, “There’s no use hanging around here. We were too damn yellow to go. Now if we don’t get back to that Montagnard village before the VC get here we’re going to wind up getting shot anyway.”
We ran for the ville. The guard had alerted the Montagnards and they had their warning system of gongs sounding. When we entered the village it was like King Kong coming. Women ran and screamed and grabbed their children out of the way.
As we passed some kids in a hootch reached for an old musket and pointed it at us. They were as scared as we were and I was praying for them not to pull the trigger. The villagers soon calmed down and came to tie us up.
David Harker – Later Denny told us he and Weatherman could hear the Montagnards searching for them. They hid in some thick brush and decided to lay low till nightfall. A Montagnard kid stumbled on them. They had the guard’s rifle but they chose not to shoot the kid. He scrambled out and ran away.
A bunch of Montagnards arrived a few minutes later and told them to come out with their hands up. They left the rifle behind and crawled out. Denny was a little behind and to the right of Weatherman.
Weatherman stood with his hands in the air. A Montagnard with an old rifle approached. Weatherman said, “No!” The bullet took off the back of his head, splattering Denny. The Montagnard pointed the rifle at Denny and pulled the trigger. It misfired.
Denny turned and ran down a creek bed. The Montagnard shot, wounding him in the fleshy part of his calf. He was coming to finish him off when the VC guards arrived from the camp. They saved him.
James Daly – On the way back to camp Joe Zawtocki said he was going to tell the truth.
I said, “What do you mean, Joe? Look, Weatherman is dead. The guard’s alive. He knows that Denny beat him and Sherman had the rifle in his hands. Denny and Sherman are going to be punished no matter what. We don’t know what they will do to us. But there’s no use admitting we planned to escape.”
The VC held a day-long trial a week later. That was when Ratface, the North Vietnamese, arrived to become the camp director. Joe told the truth about his nonparticipation. I said I didn’t go because I thought we couldn’t make it. Denny was given 90 days in stocks and Bob Sherman 60 days. I got 30 days’ suspended sentence. Joe Zawtocki was let off with a warning.
The VC said this showed the lenient and humane policy of the National Liberation Front because each person got something different. Denny and Sherman were placed in a special hootch below the compound. They couldn’t move and had no protection from mosquitoes.
Sherman lost his mind. When he got out he had a faraway look in his eyes. He talked crazy and couldn’t remember his name at first. He didn’t want to eat. We took turns feeding him. He knew how people were about food. So when it came your turn to feed him he would offer you the food. But nobody took advantage of him.
Frank Anton – The escape attempt took place on April 1, 1968. We talked little about escaping after Weatherman was killed. It was a subtle thing. We began to speak about holding out till the war ended.
Zalin Grant volunteered for Vietnam and served as an army officer. A former journalist for Time and The New Republic, he is the author of four books on the war, including
SURVIVORS: POWs Tell Their Stories.
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