On August 5, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson ordered Operation “Pierce Arrow” – the first U.S. air operation against North Vietnam in response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The operation’s major objectives were to destroy several North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and the oil storage depot at Vinh. In this operation, the U.S. lost two aircraft to North Vietnamese’s AA fire, one pilot was killed and the other, Ensign Everett Alvarez Jr. became the first U.S. Prisoner of War (POW) in Vietnam.
From 1964 to 1973, owing to increasing number of U.S. aerial operations, more and more American pilots and crews of shot downed aircraft were captured and delivered to North Vietnamese prisons. Many prisons were in close proximity to Hanoi; a few, located directly in Hanoi. One of the most infamous was Hoa Lo prison which was sarcastically known as “Hanoi Hilton” by Americans. In these prisons, Americans prisoners had to spend years living in uninhabitable cells – isolated from each other, and were disallowed to communicate with family members. Many were brutally tortured and beaten with fists and clubs or flayed with rubber whips in an attempt not to uncover military information but usually to acquire written or recorded statements which condemned American conduct of the war and praised North Vietnamese treatments. These POW statements would be later used in some propaganda campaigns to influence the world and U.S. public opinions against the U.S war efforts in Vietnam. Many POWs died in captivity due to shortage of food and lack of medical care.
Despite oppressive conditions, POWs made a lot of resistant efforts. They attempted to develop secret communication networks in prison, deliver nonsensical confessions and resist torture. Some of them even tried to escape from prisons. In North Vietnam, at least 20 escape attempts were recorded, in which 5 of them in Hanoi. However, no American POW successfully escaped from North Vietnam. The U.S. also conducted several operations to rescue American prisoners. On November 21, 1970, Operation Ivory Coast started with 56 U.S Army Special Forces soldiers landed by helicopter to rescue around 70 POWs held in Son Tay prison camp located only 23 miles to the west of Hanoi. Nonetheless, the mission failed and no prisoners were freed as they had been moved to another camp some time earlier.
After the Paris Peace Accords
Following the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973, Operation Homecoming was carried out in February 12 to bring former POWs home. Upon its completion on April 4, 591 American POWs had returned home. However, as some government officials expected a greater number of returnees, they urged an accounting mission to estimate the number of POW/MIAs. In 1973, the U.S. military considered more than 2,000 Americans unaccounted for during the war although both the U.S. and the Vietnamese government concluded that all living POW/MIAs had returned home.
In the following years, more evidences were found proving that American soldiers may still be alive in Vietnam. Since the end of the war, thousands of live sightings of American soldiers in Southeast Asia have been reported. In 1980, a reliable CIA report showed evidences of 30 Americans working on a prison road crew in Laos. In April 1993, Stephen Morris, a Harvard scholar, discovered a translation of writings prepared by a North Vietnamese general, stated that North Vietnam held 1,205 American POWs as of September 1972 just six months before the Operation Homecoming.
In 1980s, the United States resumed its recovery efforts. In September 1988, after getting permission from the Vietnamese government, American teams began their searches throughout the country and its neighbors. The searches began in Laos in April 1988 and ended in Cambodia in October 1991. The recovery efforts got some results as 67 Americans returned home in 1993. In 1992, the United States established the Joint Task Force–Full Accounting to focus its accounting efforts on large-scale field operations which still continue until today.