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Winter Soldier

Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971

Sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc.

Part II

MODERATOR. Could you compare this interrogation session, then, let's say, to a command information class?

SMITH. Yeah, you could compare it with the Saturday morning Information and Education classes where they told us about different things that were happening in Vietnam and the way their life was compared with what we were led to believe it was.

MODERATOR. What were the physical circumstances of this class or interrogation session?

SMITH. Well, we sat at tables, approximately like this, except that it was hand made in the jungle, and they served tea and sugar cubes if they had it. They really didn't have chocolate candy for us, but...

MODERATOR. How long would a session last?

SMITH. Usually an hour or so, and they gave us cigarettes while we were in interrogation, and gave us a pack to take back to our hammock with us--or the bed as the case may be.

MODERATOR. At any time--you were a prisoner for two years--at any time were you ever physically abused?

SMITH. Never physically abused. I was really surprised to find that out because contrary to everything we'd heard, they never once laid a hand on me; except when I was captured they pushed me around a little bit, which I would expect to do myself if I captured somebody.

MODERATOR. But still and all, you were a prisoner of war. There must have been difficult times. What was the attitude of the guards towards you and the other three prisoners?

SMITH. Their attitudes varied from time to time. They could be very friendly, and at times they would appear very hostile towards us. We learned during our stay with them that these were reflections of political activities in Saigon, that when the NLF soldier was executed in Saigon it usually influenced their attitude to a certain extent. But it seemed that there was enough control from their commanders that they never took any hostilities out on a prisoner. They may have disliked us intensely because of what was happening, but they still were under the control of the commanders. We were told at one time that our men would like to kill you, but we have discipline and we don't allow them to do so. And I can understand that because of the things that we were doing to them in '63.

MODERATOR. Are you aware that when these NLF soldiers were being executed in Saigon that the American government was being warned against that?

SMITH. Absolutely, they let us listen to Radio Hanoi; they brought the radio around every evening. Of course they didn't force us to listen to it, they turned it on, and if we wanted to talk that was all right. But Radio Hanoi was warning the United States and the Saigon regime that executions had been taking place (we had heard about them) and they were warning the United States if any more executions took place (I think there were three prisoners being threatened at the time) they would definitely retaliate. They said the United States must bear the responsibility for these executions, and so this sort of put us in a crimp, because, you know, who are they going to execute besides American prisoners of war if they want to retaliate against the United States? It worried us a great deal.

MODERATOR. This did in fact lead to such an act. Would you go into that in a little detail?

SMITH. After they had warned for probably a week that the executions would take place, I heard that the executions did in fact take place. At about that time one of the members that was captured with me, a Sergeant Rohrback, was taken from our camp area. And it was later found out that they had reported that they had executed him; the strange thing is that they never told us that they had executed Rohrback; they never used it for coercion. As far as we knew, he had disappeared from the earth and his name was never mentioned again.

MODERATOR. For the record, there was another man executed at that same time?

SMITH. Yes, I understand it was a Captain _____.

MODERATOR. Right. But that was after repeated warnings about the execution of NLF soldiers.

SMITH. Yes, well this was like a final warning. They had warned some months before when they executed somebody in Saigon that had tried to blow up McNamara, but wasn't successful. But they executed him for the attempt. They had warned at that time that they were going to retaliate, but as far as I know, they didn't retaliate at that time.

MODERATOR. How did it make you feel? I mean you were there as a prisoner and the warnings are going out and these executions are still going on?

SMITH. It's kind of a panicky situation, really, you know, that there's nothing you can do about, you know that the United States is so stubborn and bullheaded that they won't listen to someone like the NLF because they don't recognize that they exist. So how could they listen to them protesting? So really we were in a bad position, almost hopeless, because we knew that the United States wouldn't listen to them, and they were saying that they would retaliate, which I didn't appreciate, but gee, they were certainly within their rights. If their soldiers were being executed, there was no reason why they shouldn't retaliate.

MODERATOR. George, I know you can't testify to POWs in the North, but we have heard a lot about POWs in the North, much of which relates to the subject of food. You were a prisoner for two years under some rather strange circumstances in the jungle. How would you describe the food that you had in terms of whether it was sufficient, adequate, whatever?

SMITH. I usually had more food than I could eat; I usually ate better than they did. They brought in things like sardines for us, which they didn't eat themselves. They brought in cases and cases of sardines. And it sort of worked in a cycle, like I would be able to eat the food for a certain period of time and then I would build up an intolerance toward it and I would become ill, and wouldn't be able to eat the food for a while. But strangely this only affected Comacho, McClure, and myself; Rohrback thrived on the food. He ate mountains of rice, and everything else he could get. If one of us was sick, he of course ate what we didn't want. The man was really well-fed and he got fat.

MODERATOR. In other words, there was nothing wrong with the food. There was something wrong with your head, is that what you're...

SMITH. I would suspect that this was the problem. It was a matter of being under the circumstances of being bombed daily, and having rice to eat for breakfast with the sardines, and the whole thing of looking into the future.

MODERATOR. Did you ever eat rice before you went into the service?

SMITH. Oh, of course I ate rice, but not that much, but I was rather fond of rice, and I do still eat rice.

MODERATOR. When you were released, finally, in November of '65, it was, right?

SMITH. Yes, November, '65, almost two years to the day.

MODERATOR. What was your weight in relationship to your weight at the time of capture?

SMITH. I probably weighed about the same as I did when I was captured.

MODERATOR. You mentioned sardines, that they were giving you sardines as sort of a special little diet supplement or something. How about other special things?

SMITH. Well, as I said they gave us sardines and they brought in canned milk for us. It wasn't limited to that. On Christmas, our first Christmas, they brought in a woman who spoke English and asked us what we would like to order for Christmas dinner. We told her, well, a chicken would probably be good, with some bread, and of course this was an asinine request as far as we were concerned. But sure enough, they brought a chicken and bread, along with a paper star with a candle in it, so I had it hung in the cell for us.

MODERATOR. And when you say cell, uh...

SMITH. It was like a little house, it was made of poles that they had cut nearby, in the forest there.

MODERATOR. It's not a permanent installation, though, it's something that...

SMITH. It's something they just constructed, with pegs, and bamboo string.

MODERATOR. When you say "bread," they had bread in the camp?

SMITH. No, they told us that they did not eat bread, and they didn't even buy bread, but since we requested it, they sent men to wherever the nearest bread factory was, and got us some bread. It was at least two days away, I'm sure of that, because there were certainly no towns large enough to have a bakery, and when the bread came, it was long loaves of French bread, so it definitely wasn't made in some jungle.

MODERATOR. And how about smoking material, and things like that?

SMITH. Tobacco they usually gave me more than I could stand, because it was an extremely strong variety that they smoked themselves. If they had the tailor-made cigarettes, they gave us what they had. They'd give us a pack if they had a pack. If they had a couple, they'd divide them with us. They gave us cigarettes, and as I went to talk about this Christmas thing, this prompted us to capitalize on the fact that they recognized our holidays. So we told them how important birthdays were, and about Easter and the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. We were trying to just be kind of silly about the whole thing, but it turned out that the people recognized the fact that, you know, we felt this way about our holidays, because they would bring us a bottle of beer and a chicken dinner, usually something special. If they could get bread, which they couldn't always do, they brought us a loaf or so of bread apiece. At Christmas I think we had twelve loaves. That was a lot of bread for them.

MODERATOR. How did your rations of food, tobacco, whatever, how did that compare with your guards? In terms of quantity and so on?

SMITH. Oh, the quantity of tobacco, we always had the biggest share of tobacco. They brought us so much one time we didn't know what to do with it. We had to store it all over the house trying to keep it from being soaked up with water from the rainy season. But the guards would run out of tobacco very soon after we got our supply because they seemed to get just a handful. They would occasionally bum a cigarette from us. They'd come up and ask if they could have it; they never took the liberty to take our tobacco away from us. They always asked us for it, and we would usually give it to them, if we had some. But they would stand around without a cigarette, watching us puff away all day long while we lay around on our beds and they were out working and digging holes or what have you.

MODERATOR. Did you ever receive mail? As a prisoner?

SMITH. Yes, I think I received about four letters, three or four letters, anyway, while I was a prisoner, from my mother.

MODERATOR. Back in the jungle.

SMITH. Right.

MODERATOR. Were you allowed to write?

SMITH. They allowed me to write as often as I wanted to. I didn't write often because I didn't believe that the letters would be delivered if I wrote, and possibly they might use it against me at some time or another. I wrote two letters, I believe, two solid letters. But they asked me and said, "You may write every week. We'll furnish you with the paper and material which is necessary to write." But I normally declined. McClure wrote a number of letters himself. How many were delivered, I don't know. The ones I did write were finally delivered to my mother.

MODERATOR. How would you describe the attitude of the prisoners towards your captors?

SMITH. Well, I can speak for myself. I was extremely hostile and very arrogant with them. This ethnocentrism thing was strong enough that even though I was a prisoner I still looked down upon them. And how they were able to tolerate my attitude for a year or so until I finally decided that these were people, and I could look upon them as such, I don't know. But I was really a bad prisoner, and they told me at one time that I was the worst prisoner they had.

MODERATOR. But despite that, you were never physically abused.

SMITH. Never physically abused; and finally released, which was the most unusual thing.

MODERATOR. Did you ever make any statements while you were a prisoner?

SMITH. Yes, I made statements. Like I was telling you, these classes that we had where they presented their views and we would go back and discuss them at some length. I stated that I believed that they were basically right about Vietnam--that I didn't have any business there, that the war in Vietnam was wrong, that we were violating the Geneva agreement, that I certainly didn't want any part of it, and that all the troops should be withdrawn. This was basically what I said. We, of course, elaborated on different points of it. But these are statements I made, and I wrote a letter to that effect in one of the letters to my mother, describing the situation there and how I now felt about it, according to what I had observed from that frame of reference.

MODERATOR. You've been out of the service now five years, about. How do you feel about those statements now?

SMITH. Well, when I first came back, I was not positive that I was taking the right position, so I did considerable research on my own to find out just where I was. The more research I did the more entrenched I became in my beliefs. And now I feel very strongly that what I said then was right. In fact, I say even more then than I do--even more now than I did then, and I'm not under the duress of being a prisoner of war.

MODERATOR. How old were you when you joined the Army?

SMITH. I was seventeen.

MODERATOR. And what are you doing now?

SMITH. I work for the post office in New Cumberland, West Virginia.

MODERATOR. You going to school?

SMITH. I go to the Kent State University branch in Ohio.

MODERATOR. Rather appropriate. Did any of the other prisoners make statements while they were there?

SMITH. All of the prisoners as far as I know made statements very similar to mine and McClure made more statements than I did, I believe, because he wrote more letters to his wife than I did. But everybody that was there were making the same statements because we got together and talked about it after the interrogation. We all generally agreed that it was a bad situation, we really didn't belong there, and that we would just be glad if the war ended and we all went home.

MODERATOR. And, Sergeant Comacho made these statements also?

SMITH. Oh, absolutely, he and I lived together. In fact, he was the senior NCO among the prisoners and when they were asking us to make a statement one time concerning our views (a written statement so they would have something to retain in what could be considered our records I suppose) Comacho said he thought that was a good idea. That we should go ahead and write a statement if we felt that we wanted to do so. They didn't tell us that we had to write anything, but they said that if you would like to write something they would be glad to have it.

MODERATOR. It's a matter of public record that in 1965 Sergeant Comacho, Isaac Comacho, escaped from the same camp that George was at, thereby becoming the first prisoner of war to successfully escape since the Second World War. At the time that he did escape, as it appeared in Life magazine, Comacho made the statement that what made it possible for him to escape was the fact that George Smith was the one that covered for him, so he could. In other words, one man could go and one man had to stay and cover for the other to give the other one a head start. What was the net result for Comacho after he got back?

SMITH. Well, from what I heard after I got back (the Army refused to tell me where Comacho was even), after I got back...

MODERATOR. I mean, what recognition was given to Comacho?

SMITH. This is what I was getting to. I found out after I got back that Comacho had been returned to the United States, to his home in El Paso, and that President Johnson made a special trip to El Paso to personally decorate Comacho with a Silver Star for escaping.

MODERATOR. In November 1965, you were finally released. Did they ever tell you why you were being released?

SMITH. Yeah, the NLF told me that I was being released in direct response to the peace movement in the United States, and more specifically to replace Norman Morrison and a woman who had immolated themselves, Norman Morrison in front of the Pentagon at that time, I believe. They stated that they realized that the American people were basically peace-loving people and did not condone the actions that the United States government was taking in South Vietnam, so they were returning two of their sons to them for the replacement of the two who had given their lives for the cause of peace in Vietnam.

MODERATOR. Where were you actually first released?

SMITH. I was turned over to the Australians in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

MODERATOR. And when did they tell you this about the peace movement and so on?

SMITH. Well, they had mentioned the peace movement back at the camp before I was actually taken to Phnom Penh. And at Phnom Penh of course they set up a press conference for us. International reporters were there. And someone asked me a question of what I intended to do when I got back to the United States. I told him that I was going to tell the true story of Vietnam as I could see it, from my experiences. That the United States had no business in Vietnam, that it wasn't in the best interest of the American people, and that therefore we should all get out immediately. And someone asked me, "How do you intend to tell this story?" I said, "I'll probably get in touch with the peace movement when I get back because I understand they're asking similar things."

MODERATOR. Had you ever heard of the peace movement before you were captured?

SMITH. On Radio Hanoi. I had heard of demonstrations.

MODERATOR. But not before you were captured?

SMITH. I didn't know anything about such a thing existing.

MODERATOR. You had no way of knowing what the attitude of Special Forces toward the peace movement would be?

SMITH. Right, I didn't know what the peace movement did, even.

MODERATOR. So, did you look up the peace movement?

SMITH. No, I never did.

MODERATOR. Now, if I can get this straight, Sergeant Comacho, who made the same statements, and who escaped with your assistance, was given the Silver Star?

SMITH. Right, exactly.

MODERATOR. And you are now under court-martial charges which hold the ultimate penalty of death.

SMITH. Seems rather curious.

MODERATOR. Yes. Would you comment on that?

SMITH. Well, I suspect the fact that I opened my mouth and said I was going to look up the peace movement when I got home didn't set very well with Special Forces and the Army. And to be able to stop me from doing this, they brought the charges against me, which allowed them to hold me on Okinawa indefinitely, until maybe the peace movement forgot about me or I forgot about the peace movement.

MODERATOR. Before you were released, you had to sign a piece of paper relating to classified information, and they specified certain information you were not to discuss.

SMITH. Right.

MODERATOR. Would you give us a couple of examples, a couple of things you weren't supposed to discuss?

SMITH. Well, one of the strangest things (this was a secret you know, I'm under violation of the National Security Act if I discuss this thing, so I expect to be arrested as soon as I finish saying this) but I wasn't allowed to tell anybody that I received a Red Cross parcel while I was a prisoner of war.

MODERATOR. You did receive a Red Cross parcel back in the jungle?

SMITH. Oh, yes, yes we received--Comacho, McClure and myself each received a large Red Cross parcel, probably weighed fifteen pounds apiece.

MODERATOR. They had to be tracked on somebody's back into the jungle?

SMITH. Right. They had to carry it maybe fifty miles at least because they certainly didn't have any roads in the jungle.

MODERATOR. Thank you, George. We're now going to hear from our second prisoner of war, Dr. Marjorie Nelson, and I wonder if she could just begin by saying in her own words how she was captured and what the experience was like in the hands of the Viet Cong.

NELSON. Well--can you hear me?--I had gone to Quang Ngai in October of '67 and I had been there for four months when the Tet holiday was coming up. I went to Hue for Tet to visit friends and, of course, you know, Hue was overrun and held for some time by NLF and NVA forces. I was staying with a friend, Sandra Johnson, who was working for International Voluntary Service teaching English in Dong Thaien High School, which is a girls' high school in Hue, and she and I spent the first four days of the attack in an improvised bomb shelter in her dining room while the fighting went on outside. On the fourth afternoon, NLF soldiers came to the house and pounded on the front door. We were too frightened to respond, so they went around to the kitchen door and broke in through the kitchen. We could hear them kind of rummaging around the kitchen, and then they came to the door between the dining room and the kitchen, which was bolted from our side by two bolts, and they began to shoot the bolts off the door. I said to Sandy, "I'm going to talk to them." And so I asked them in Vietnamese, "What do you want?" and they said, "Open the door," so we did. There were five of them. They came in, asked just a few questions--asked us if we had any weapons in the house, to which we replied, "No," and then they searched the house. We talked a bit more; they attempted to reassure us that we should not be afraid and that they did not intend to take anything. Then the fighting sort of began again and we moved out of the living room and just about that time I heard something coming. I don't know what it was, but I jumped back into the bomb shelter and whatever it was hit the living room where we'd just been, and demolished the living room.

So they went back outside and left us alone for two more days. Then, on the sixth afternoon, they came back and told us that we should go with them.

We were in Hue about three more days before we were officially registered as prisoners of war. We had to fill out forms in triplicate, giving our passport number, our name, who we worked for, etc. And then, finally, someone who spoke English--for the first time we met someone who spoke English--he told us that because of the continued heavy fighting in the city they couldn't keep us safely; that we were going to be taken to the mountains to study, and that when there was peace, we'd be returned to our families. So we expected to be there for the duration of the war.

That night we left with about fifteen or twenty Vietnamese prisoners. We walked into the mountains and were held then in the mountains for a little over six weeks before we were released.

MODERATOR. Just to emphasize one point, when you were captured, Hue was still very much a battlefield, was it not?

NELSON. Absolutely.

MODERATOR. And so, they seem to have taken a great deal of care with you. All this was done while a huge battle was raging throughout the city. Now, once you were in the mountain camp there, and even before, could you say whether there was any physical molestation of you, any abuses taken of you as a woman or as a person?

NELSON. No. This is a question that I know comes up in the minds of, well, certainly of any GI who's been in Vietnam, and many other people. Certainly this thing could have occurred and I think on a couple of occasions, we were simply lucky that it didn't. However, once we were in the camp, it was quite clear that the cadre also were concerned about this, and they made sure that our privacy was respected. In the first camp we were living with a Vietnamese family, and were living family style--I mean we didn't have a separate room. And then in the second camp, we had our own house.

MODERATOR. How many other prisoners were there with you at the second camp?

NELSON. At the second camp Sandy and I, that is, my girl friend and I, were the only ones there during the whole time. When we were separated from the main group of American prisoners, two fellows came with us. They stayed a couple of days and then went on.

MODERATOR. And in the first camp, you were with how many other people?

NELSON. We were with about fifteen or twenty Vietnamese prisoners, and when we got there we found about twenty-five American men already there, all of whom had been captured in Hue.

MODERATOR. Do you have any knowledge that any of these other American or Vietnamese prisoners were mistreated by the Viet Cong?

NELSON. I can't speak about the Vietnamese prisoners. I didn't see any Vietnamese prisoners mistreated. I talked with all the American men. None of them had been maltreated or mistreated, except that at the time of capture, I mean when they were captured, several of them had their shoes or watches or rings taken away from them. One man said that he had been, and I think I quote exactly, "They made me walk over barbed wire on the way out." He did not indicate whether he thought that was a deliberate act or simply an order to go that way and he went.

MODERATOR. This of course was during the heat of battle.

NELSON. This was during a battle, when he was captured. I think two or three others had received wounds before they were captured, you know, fragments and that sort of thing.

MODERATOR. And was there medical attention given to the wounded people?

NELSON. They received medical attention and a nurse came two or three times a week to dress their wounds, which was adequate except for two of them: that was the man I mentioned, whose feet were in bad shape, and another man who'd taken a big piece of something in his side; they needed more medical attention. I spoke to the camp commanders in the best Vietnamese that I could about this. I said that I felt they needed more medical care and they should be sent to a hospital, if possible. He seemed very uncomfortable with this. He said, "I'm sorry. We'll do the best we can. The situation is temporarily very difficult for us, but please don't worry. I'll do the best that I can for these men."

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