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Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971
PRISONER OF WAR PANEL
MODERATOR. Good morning. This morning the first panel relates to the issue of prisoners of war. Yesterday, we heard some testimony, or quite a bit of testimony, some of it very repetitive, relating to the treatment of prisoners, Vietnamese prisoners, in the hands of Americans. Today we are going to talk about the treatment of Americans in the hands of the Vietnamese. It's an emotional issue, and it's one certainly causing terrible discussion in this country right now. It seems like the whole war issue has centered around the prisoner of war issue. On the panel this morning we have more "alleged" veterans, some of whom "alleged" to have been prisoners of war in an "alleged war." Again I would like to remind you that this is not a mock trial. We are presenting testimony into an investigation relating to the prisoner of war issue, war crimes in general. My name is Don Duncan. I am a veteran. I served in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965. I was a member of the United States Special Forces. At this point I will have the rest of the people at the tables introduce themselves in turn to you.
ZINN. I'm Howard Zinn, I teach Political Science at Boston University. I'm a veteran of the Air Force in another war, but I'm here today because I went to North Vietnam in early 1968 with Father Daniel Berrigan to bring out the first three American pilots who were released as prisoners by the North Vietnamese.
FLOYD. My name is Jon Floyd. I was a pilot with the Marine Corps and I served in Vietnam in 1968. I flew missions over both the North and the South. I was discharged in December of 1969.
VAN DYKE. My name is Jon Van Dyke. I'm an attorney. I worked in the State Department on prisoner of war matters in 1966. I'm now Visiting Fellow in the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara.
SMITH. I'm George Smith. I was a member of the Special Forces Aide Team in South Vietnam in 1963. My camp was overrun. I was captured by the NLF troops and held prisoner for two years and released in November 1965.
NELSON. I'm Dr. Marjorie Nelson, and I'm not a veteran. I was in Vietnam from October of 1967 until October 1969. I was captured in the Tet offensive of 1968 in Hue.
CALDWELL. I'm Stephanie Caldwell, and my brother is a prisoner in North Vietnam. He's been a prisoner since October of 1967.
QUESTION. What is your brother's name?
CALDWELL. James Warner.
WARNER. My name is Virginia Warner, and I am the mother of James Warner, who has been a prisoner in Vietnam, North Vietnam, since 1967 in October. I'm here to ask the American people to help get this thing over with.
DROLSHAGEN. I'm Jon Drolshagen. I was a lieutenant. I was a prisoner of war interrogator. I was in Vietnam from '66 to '67.
DZAGULONES. My name is Don Dzagulones. I was an interrogator also. I was with the Americal Division in Southern I Corp. I was inducted into the Army in December 1967. I spent 1969 in Vietnam.
NOETZEL. My name is Steve Noetzel, and I'm from Floral Park, Long Island, New York. I was drafted in 1962, in July. I went to Vietnam June of 1963 and stayed until May of 1964. While in Vietnam, I was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group. I was a member of a psychological warfare civic action team. While in Vietnam I traveled extensively through the Mekong Delta with our psy war efforts, and during this time I witnessed several incidents of mistreatment, maltreatment, of prisoners and that's what I'm here to testify about today. I now work for the Bell System. I'm in management at their headquarters in New York.
MODERATOR. Mr. Noetzel, we'll start the testimony with you. Please explain specifically where you were in the Delta, and elaborate on this mistreatment, some specific instances, please.
NOETZEL. Right. Before I start maybe some of the media people are interested in some kind of proof that I was there, I am who I say I am, was what I say I was, whatever. This is my DD-214 form discharge from the Army. It tells what unit I was in in Vietnam and when I came back. I have a commendation letter from a Brian Mills, who was the psy war director for the CIA in the embassy in Vietnam in '64. Attached to the commendation letter is another commendation letter from Col. Theodore Leonard, who was the commander of U.S. Special Forces at the time.
I have several sets of orders, sending me on different missions in the Mekong Delta. I have an after action report, and official copy of the after action report, from our Civil Affairs Augmentation Team No. 4, U.S. Army Special Forces Provisional, Vietnam Detachment B-5410, November '63 to April '64. I have about 100 pictures from different places in the Mekong Delta, including many recognizable places to any reporters who may have been in the Mekong Delta, including figures like Henry Cabot Lodge, who visited our camp at the time that I was there, and pictures, maybe somewhat incriminating of a forced work detail of Viet Cong prisoners. If that's not enough, I have a copy of a statement that I made to the U.S. Army concerning the things that I had seen.
It's been brought out a few times yesterday, I guess, that some people may or may not be willing to make a statement about what they had seen. I'd like to read to you just a paragraph from the affidavit that accompanies this statement. "I, Steven S. Noetzel, hereby certify the attached eight pages to be an exact copy of a statement concerning my personal observations of war crimes committted by United States and South Vietnamese military personnel while I was on active duty with the U.S. Army in South Vietnam. I further certify that the original of this document was forwarded to the U.S. Army 12th Military Police Group, Criminal Investigations Detachment E, Military Ocean Terminal, Brooklyn, New York, 11250, care of Investigator William H. Bass, on September 12, 1970, for their subsequent investigation. I further certify that since that date Investigator Bass has acknowledged receipt of the original document and has assured me that an investigation is now in progress. To this affidavit and to each of the eight pages of the attached statement, I have affixed my signature and solemnly swear to the truth of all statements therein."
This is the statement that I will be speaking about today, and these are the incidents that are in this statement. Finally I was contacted, I believe on Wednesday of this week, by a reporter from the Detroit Free Press. He called me at my office in New York and asked me if I would give him my Army service number and so on so he could check out my validity at the Pentagon. He had reason to contact Colonel Heath at the Pentagon who said he knew me. I asked the reporter what Heath said about me, and the reporter said that Heath said that "Noetzel is okay." The first incident that I will speak about happened in November or December of 1963. I was stationed in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta and was trying to hitchhike a chopper ride to Saigon. The only flight going to Saigon on that particular day was a five chopper flight.
They were transporting some 16 prisoners, South Vietnamese prisoners, who had been interrogated at several levels before being sent to Saigon. They were transporting these prisoners in two helicopters, double-rotor helicopters, H-121. There were eight prisoners brought onto each helicopter. They were tied, their hands were tied behind their backs, and they were tethered together with rope around their necks, and about a six-foot length of rope to the next prisoner. A string of eight of them like that were put on each helicopter. With them were about an equal number of South Vietnamese or ARVN troops as guards. Also on that flight of five helicopters were three gunships, HUIB single-rotor helicopters. I flew in the first of these helicopters. The point helicopter. We were to fly support for this mission to bring these prisoners to Saigon. Incidentally, during those days, prisoners were brought to Saigon for a six-month rehabilitation program and then they were released after the six months to go back to wherever they wanted to go, that is, South Vietnamese or NLF prisoners. We took off from Can Tho. We heard, or I heard (I had a headset on), the radio message to Saigon. We got in contact with MACV headquarters in Saigon, told them we were coming with 16 prisoners, and they said they would have a greeting party for us at Tan Son Nhut Airport. We flew in one direct nonstop flight. All the ships stayed together the entire flight, about an hour and ten minutes or so. No helicopter left the group at any time. It could never have caught up with us if it did leave, and land anywhere. We landed in Saigon, I got out of the helicopter, and there was a greeting party there to meet us, a colonel from MACV and some other field grade officers. They had a paddy wagon to transport prisoners and so on. When we got off the helicopter, there were exactly three prisoners left on one helicopter, and one prisoner left on the other helicopter. These prisoners were now bound with their hands behind their backs. They were blindfolded, and of course no tether or no rope around their necks attaching to any other prisoners. I instantly realized what had happened and couldn't believe it, although I knew, rationally, what had to have happened. I went over to the American door gunner of one of the transport ships, and I asked him what the _____ happened, and he told me that they had pushed them out over the Mekong Delta. And I said, "Who?" and he said, "The ARVN guards did." And I just shook my head and said, "I can't believe it," and he said, "Go over there and look at the doorway." There are open doorways on these helicopters; they have no closeable door, there's just a door frame.
And I went over to the doorway and stopped when I got about five feet away and didn't want to go any closer because there was flesh from the hands of the prisoners when they were pushed out on the door jambs and on the door frames. And there was blood on the floor where they had been beaten and pushed out of the helicopters. I went back to my own helicopter that I had just gotten out of and there I overheard the conversation between the American pilots and the MACV colonel who had come to meet the prisoners, and he asked them what the _____ happened to the other prisoners and one of the American pilots simply said to him, "They tried to escape over the Mekong Delta." That was the first, or only, incident of helicopter murder that I had seen in Vietnam.
MODERATOR. Steve, could you now relate to treatment of prisoners at a specific A Team Camp or in the Delta?
NOETZEL. Right. This occurred at one particular camp, this was an A Team at a place called Tan Phu which is in the Caman Peninsula, deep in the Mekong Delta, the southernmost A Team. It was in a completely isolated area. It was completely VC controlled (around the A Team camp). In January or February of 1964, I'm not sure exactly which month, I witnessed an almost public, or not almost, a public display of electrical torture of Vietnamese prisoners.
MODERATOR. Excuse me, Steve, when you say public, who was present or who was witness to this specific one?
NOETZEL. Well, the way the camp was situated, it had about four or five foot walls around the compound, maybe even a little higher than that. There were at least 100 or 150 ARVN strike forces watching from inside the compound, all of the American A Team that was there watching, and also there was a little bridge at a canal right next to the camp, a little camelback bridge, and if you stood at the middle of the bridge, on the highest part of it, you could see down into the camp. And the torture was done outside at a place in the camp where anyone standing on the bridge could watch it. It was done for a psychological effect, I suppose, to show off a new invention, or a new kind of lie detector that they had conjured up. A captain there, the commander of the A Team, had conjured up a system of electrical torture, whereby they took a Sony tape recorder, a plain tape recorder with the w-meters on it, and hooked that up with some field telephone batteries (hooked up in series) and a toggle switch, that was held under the table by a Special Forces sergeant.
Then the captain asked questions of a prisoner, who was stripped naked, and electrodes from these field telephones were attached to the back of his neck to his armpits, to his genitals, and his feet. He was told that this apparatus was a lie detector, that he would be interrogated, and that every time he didn't tell the truth, the machine would give him a shock. He didn't know the difference between a lie detector, or had never seen a tape recorder, I guess. In truth, the captain simply asked questions and the interpreter asked them in Vietnamese, when the captain didn't like the answer, he gave some kind of signal to the sergeant who gave him an electrical charge and the fellow would jump and scream. Everyone was very impressed with this new lie detector except, I guess, the fellow who was being questioned and couldn't understand why the lie detector was working so badly. He may or may not have been telling the truth. At any rate, they got information. Whether it was valid or not, I don't know.
MODERATOR. In your testimony on your sheet here, you mention something about snakes?
NOETZEL. Right. At the B Team in Can Tho, this was the headquarters for the IV Corps, they had an eight foot python snake which was kept at the camp in a cage, supposedly for rat control. When we had prisoners or detainees who were brought to the B Team, they were immediately questioned, and if they balked at all or sounded like they weren't going to be cooperative, they were simply placed in a room overnight. This was like a detention room; the door was locked, and this snake was thrown in there with them. Now the python is a constrictor, similar to a boa. It's not poisonous. It will snap at you, but it's not poisonous, and it probably can't kill a full-grown American or a large male, but it sure terrified the Vietnamese. Two of them usually in a room overnight with the python snake, struggling with it most the night, I guess, and we could hear them screaming. In fact, on one instance, they had to go in there and gag the prisoners, so they wouldn't keep everyone awake all night. In the morning they were usually more cooperative.
MODERATOR. Steve, traveling around through the Delta as you did, just in two words or less, how would you summarize the general treatment of prisoners throughout the A Team camps in the Delta during that period of time?
NOETZEL. I didn't see any humane treatment of prisoners, but I didn't see that many prisoners. However, every time I did see them, they were being mistreated in one way or another. If it wasn't electrical torture, it was the snake torture. If it wasn't the snake torture, it was barbed wire cages, which are also used in Tan Phu. This was a coffin-like cage made of barbed wire, about the shape of a coffin--barbed wire strung around stakes. A prisoner was stripped naked and put into this cage for about a 24-hour period. In the daytime he would bake in the sun, and in the night the mosquitoes would eat him all night I guess. If the mosquitoes weren't particularly attracted to the Orientals, which they're not, they were sprayed with some kind of a mosquito attracting liquid, and they'd be full of bites in the morning. Finally, if it wasn't that, at the B Team at Can Tho, there was another form of torture, a water torture. Prisoners were taken, usually two in a small canoe, out behind the compound in a small rice paddy. They were bound, their hands behind their back. They were blindfolded and were put on this little canoe. An American Special Forces sergeant was there, another Vietnamese soldier was there, and they poled the boat around in circles in this rice paddy. Except that it wasn't a rice paddy anymore, it had been a rice paddy. Now it was used as a latrine really. That's where the drainage from the B Team latrines went, into this rice paddy. It was filled with urine and feces, and it stank to high heaven. The prisoners were rowed around in that water and were asked questions. And when they balked, the fellow who was poling the boat simply took the pole and knocked them out of the boat into this water where they sputtered around for a few minutes. It was about four feet deep or so. They were blindfolded with hands tied behind their back. Finally they surfaced somehow, after drinking half of it, I guess, and were dragged back into the canoe. That was about the only kind of treatment of prisoners I saw.
MODERATOR. George Smith, where were you stationed in the Delta, with your A Team?
SMITH. We were at a camp called Hiep Hoa; it was about 30 miles out of Saigon in the Delta area.
MODERATOR. During what period was this?
SMITH. This was from July 1963 until November 1963 when I was captured.
MODERATOR. So we're talking generally about the time relating to the time that Steve was talking about. This was the same period of time.
SMITH. Right. We were under the jurisdiction of the B Detachment that he was attached to.
MODERATOR. The same B Detachment we just talked about. Did any of this type of treatment of prisoners occur at your camp?
SMITH. Our treatment wasn't as sophisticated as what he had described. We just beat them and put them in barbed wire cages that were about three or four feet high.
MODERATOR. You were captured the 23rd of November 1963?
SMITH. That's correct.
MODERATOR. The same day that President Kennedy was assassinated, right?
MODERATOR. Would you just briefly describe the circumstances of how you got captured?
SMITH. We were in one of those isolated Special Forces camps but we had a strike force of South Vietnamese that were on our payroll and about midnight on November 23rd, I was awakened by an explosion and mortar shells were falling on our house. The camp was very quickly overrun by a large NLF force, and I was captured along with three other Americans.
MODERATOR. You were taken captive. What specifically, you know, did they do. What were your feelings? How did they treat you at that specific moment?
SMITH. During the excitement of battle of course they were a little rougher than they were later on, but they didn't mistreat us terribly bad at the time, and I was sure that we were going to be shot, because all the stories that I had heard at Fort Bragg and after coming into Vietnam was that they didn't take prisoners, and if they did, that they tortured and eventually killed them, if not immediately.
MODERATOR. Were you with the other three prisoners at this time?
SMITH. I was by myself when I was captured, but I was later taken behind the latrine in the camp where I met Sgt. Comacho, who was one of the mortar operators and a string was attached to us sort of like a leash and I thought that we had been taken behind the latrine, of course, to be shot. They set us down in a cross position but nothing happened to us at this time.
MODERATOR. Quite apparently, you weren't shot, what did happen?
SMITH. After they had rounded up all the equipment, the ammunition, weapons in the camp, they took us out over the barbed wire apron surrounding the camp through Madame Nhu's sugar cane field that we were guarding, to a small village on the Oriental River.
MODERATOR. What were your feelings as you were being led away from this camp at that time?
SMITH. I thought they were taking us to another place to execute us. And I was worrying about that along with the air strike that we were under by that time. The South Vietnamese Air Force was attacking the cane field and burned down a lot of sugar cane. I thought they might accidentally drop something on us. But other than that there was no immediate fear, 'cause the guards seemed to have relaxed once we left the camp.
MODERATOR. What did happen in the village?
SMITH. When we arrived in the village, everybody sat down, lit up a cigarette, offered us one, gave us some bananas to eat, patted us and reassured us that everything was going to be all right. That they had no intentions toward us.
MODERATOR. And the next step?
SMITH. After they took their, sort of their break after the battle, we crossed the river and went farther into the Delta area. We traveled for about three or four days until we finally reached a place where we met up with Rohrback and McClure, who were also at our camp and had been captured. This was the first we had seen of them. After we met these two people, the four of us were taken in those little boats that they have through the canal system down into what is probably the Plain of Reeds, the swamp region, and we stayed on a little island there. They constructed a small shack just big enough for the four of us; they slept out in hammocks in the water. And they allowed McClure's foot wound to heal so he would be able to travel at a later time.
MODERATOR. What kind of medical attention did they provide for McClure?
SMITH. They provided immediate attention for him when he was captured. He told me that they dressed his wounds the best they could. He had a fragmentation wound of the foot which was extremely painful for him it turned out. It was difficult for him to walk. They treated it the best they could.
MODERATOR. How about in the swamp?
SMITH. In the swamp then they had time to do things and they got a medic from someplace and he was quite a good medic; he was well-trained; he had penicillin; he had the instruments to probe the foot and find if there were any foreign objects in it. Soon McClure's foot did heal quickly enough that we were able to move out in about ten days, I think.
MODERATOR. So, apparently what you're saying is, is that this stopover at the island was specifically for the purpose of taking care of McClure's foot for future movement.
SMITH. Right, I think it was sort of to allow us time to recover from the initial shock of being captured and for McClure's foot to heal so we could be transported.
MODERATOR. Were you ever bothered by American aircraft at this time?
SMITH. In that area there were some overflights, but no harassing fire in the swamp. But the day that we met Rohrback and McClure, that same day we were under extremely heavy attack by B-26s, helicopters, and everything that the Air Force had in '63. They strafed us, bombed us, and we happened to be in a village. They evacuated us from the village into a swamp area where we were luckily not bombed by B-26s.
MODERATOR. By this point you seemed to have the feeling you were not going to be tortured or executed but you had made reference to that. Why, specifically, did you think you were going to be tortured or executed?
SMITH. Well, that was what I would call common knowledge among the Special Forces people that if any of us were captured in South Vietnam, that we'd had it. They certainly hated us very much, and they would surely do everything to us, at least as much to us as we did to them, and that was kind of frightening from the stories that I heard in Vietnam.
MODERATOR. Did you ever think about the way you'd been treating prisoners before you were taken prisoner yourself? How your camp was treating prisoners?
SMITH. Oh, certainly, I was sure that I would be subjected to at least that bad a treatment, the beatings and living in barbed-wire cages, and probably much worse than that because they were reputed to have chopped heads off and tortured prisoners by any means that you could imagine.
MODERATOR. So now you left the swamp, and where did you go then?
SMITH. We went on a long march that led generally north or northwest, I would guess because we passed by the Tay Ninh mountain and went into the heavy jungle area. It was a long walk and very difficult for us because we didn't have shoes, three of us. It wasn't because they had taken our shoes, they did try to give us some shoes, but unfortunately the Vietnamese have small feet compared with Americans, and they just don't fit.
MODERATOR. You say it was difficult, was it because the Vietnamese were making you do something that they weren't doing or what?
SMITH. No, as a matter of fact we carried only the things that were necessary for existence, our hammocks and a change of clothes.
MODERATOR. And they carried the rest?
SMITH. And they carried all the food, and the weapons--and those big weapons they were carrying were some of the ones that we wouldn't carry because they were too heavy, like the BAR rifle that weighs 20 pounds fully loaded. They were carrying those plus sacks of rice around their neck which can weigh 10 to 15 pounds, all of their equipment, and some of our stuff that we weren't able to carry.
MODERATOR. Were you bound and gagged?
SMITH. Never at any time was I gagged; I did, as I mentioned earlier, have a rope around my wrist, that they sort of held on to me so that if I would decide to run away that they could pull me back a little bit.
MODERATOR. Not around your neck though?
SMITH. No, not around my neck.
MODERATOR. And you arrived at something like a permanent or semi-permanent installation?
SMITH. Yes, as permanent as they could build anything in the jungle there, because nothing was very permanent; if it wasn't eaten by termites they went away and left it after a month.
MODERATOR. Were you ever interrogated in this swamp?
SMITH. They asked us what our names were, that was the only thing they asked us.
MODERATOR. No attempt at interrogation?
SMITH. Absolutely none, it was very surprising.
MODERATOR. Were you ever interrogated?
SMITH. Finally, I was interrogated after about three months.
MODERATOR. After you were a prisoner for three months, they finally got around...
SMITH. Right, about three months.
MODERATOR. What type of military information were they looking for?
SMITH. Well, he told us that he certainly wasn't interested in any military information that we had, because it would be outdated anyway, and he reminded me that their intelligence was far superior to any information that we might have.
MODERATOR. Well, what form then did this interrogation take? It sounds like they weren't after information, so what, what were they after, or what form did it take?
SMITH. He wanted to present the views of the National Liberation Front, concerning the war in South Vietnam. In other words, tell their side of the story. And he asked me if I would think about it, and try to rationalize whether we were right or they were right, and to come back later and talk with him about it, and try to have a discussion about South Vietnam.
MODERATOR. Would you think of this as brainwashing?
SMITH. I would think not, unless you would say that what they did at Fort Bragg was brainwashing.
MODERATOR. If you could, elaborate a little bit. In what sense?
SMITH. Well, before we went to Vietnam, they tried to impress upon our minds that the South Vietnamese were something less than human, and that it was quite all right to go over there and kill them because this was the only war that we had anyway. Yeah, it's a report from a Lieutenant in a secret class, they call an area study, and he said that I'm sorry, you know, that it's not much of a war, but it's the only one we have, so we'll have to make the best of it.