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 listed were all captured in 1968. In this excerpt, only one officer was among those interviewed—Warrant Officer Frank Anton, a helicopter pilot. The rest of the POWs were drafted infantrymen, though one of them, David Harker, had dropped out of college and another, James Daly, was a high school graduate and conscientious objector.
Captain Floyd Harold Kushner, 26, was also a major character in this story, as seen through the eyes of the other men. Kushner, from Danville, Virginia, was an army medical doctor with the First Cav when he was captured after his helicopter crashed.
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
Willie Watkins, 20, Sumter SC - AA
Frank Anton – Willie Watkins slowly took over as camp leader. He was the strongest. When there was work to be done he did it. From there it grew to his having the crucial say about what and when to cook. Then he began to make other decisions too. It was never outward that he ran the place. He didn’t say, “I’m the chief.” But he was.
I guess you would call Watkins a good-looking Negro. He was a little over six feet tall, lanky, with very dark skin and penetrating eyes. He kept his hair short and himself neat. He was wiry and as hard as a rock. He could carry two sixty-pound baskets of manioc easier than I could walk. And he seemed never to get sick.
At the beginning Captain Kushner, Sergeant Williams, and I got together and discussed what we should do. The person who led the camp had to be physically strong. None of us was. We decided to try to use our influence as a group. We made no attempt to create a military organization. The VC warned us individually several times that if we did we would be punished.
Moreover, we weren’t sure of our legal rights in the matter. Kushner was a captain but a doctor and therefore a noncombatant. I was a warrant officer, a pilot with no command responsibility. Williams was a first sergeant but wounded.
The Vietnamese went to Willie when they wanted to know something about the camp or to organize an activity. Watkins got the information from them and told us. In this respect he had pushed out Russ Grissett, who served at first as our communications link with the VC because he had been there the longest. But the VC hated Russ and they liked Willie. They liked him because he worked hard and never talked back.
James Daly – Russ Grissett told us when we first got to camp, “In the jungle the lion is king. To survive you must live like an animal.”
Kushner and I tried to argue that it didn’t have to be that way. But eventually it was exactly as Grissett said. We fought and carried on. We lived for a time like dogs. I even took part in it myself, yes.
Frank Anton – Watkins could have whipped anybody in the camp—that was the point. Everyone thought so. Several people tried to fight him. Lewis was one. Watkins took care of him with a single lick.
James Daly – I thought since we were a military group the leadership responsibility should have been Captain Kushner’s. He already said the obligation was not his because he was a noncombatant. He said the one who should be in charge was Sergeant Williams. But Williams was wounded.
We all admired Captain Kushner. He helped us with his medical advice. But the man was lazy. The first time we argued was when I told him it was his turn to sweep the hootch floor. He refused. He said he hadn’t gone to college for so many years to sweep floors.
“Wait a damn minute!” I said. “I didn’t go to school for twelve years to sweep either. But everyone has to take his turn.”
David Harker – Dr. Kushner was an intellectual caught up in a situation where physical strength was the chief virtue. I was famous for jumping on his back. I guess I was letting off steam. It was true that Kushner and Anton were sick. But we were all sick. And sometimes you simply had to push yourself beyond your limitations.
Willie Watkins – Kushner was a nice guy, easy to get along with, but he was soft, and I was especially suspicious of him. I felt he was strong enough to pick manioc. All of us felt that way. We thought it was mainly laziness. He said he couldn’t go. We said, “If you don’t bring back more than two or three that will be helping.” He said walking was bad for his feet, that he could hardly make it. We said we felt the same way. Still, if we didn’t pick them we would probably starve. Finally we told him, okay, no work, no eat.
Frank Anton – I didn’t like Watkins but I had respect for him. What he did was wrong. Yet he didn’t do it with malice. He did it because he was strong and lacked judgment.
Everybody at first tried to work, that’s my opinion. Right away people got sick. I myself was sicker than the others because I didn’t eat rice in the beginning. Kushner and I went down fast and remained weak after that. He didn’t think that being a doctor excused him from working. He was sicker than everybody realized. All they understood was that “I’m doing all the work and he’s eating half the food.”
That’s the way it was.
The Vietnamese saw what was happening to us. I don’t know whether they planned it. But there were signs they encouraged our antagonisms. Yet it was not the VC but a skin disease that pushed us into our darkest period and caused a fatal split between us.
Daly came down with it first, which was unusual since blacks were less susceptible than we were to disease. But he was lighter-skinned than the other four, a coffee-and-cream color, and though big, perhaps more fragile. It quickly spread, some catching it worse than others.
David Harker – The disease was probably caused by a lack of vitamins and oil. It was unlike anything ever seen by Dr. Kushner. The epidermis cracked open with water-blister-type sores that first ran clear serum and then pus. Scratching was almost sexual in its relief but only made the disease worse. The pus dried, gluing our pajamas to our backsides. The pain was horrible.
Eighteen of us were jammed together on the bamboo-slatted bed. It was excruciatingly hot. But we had to sleep under our blankets to ward off hordes of mosquitoes.
Men cried out at night, “Kill me! I want to die!”
Guys began to schiz out in the daytime by pulling blankets over their heads to shut out the world. The disease was combined with our growing dysentery and malaria. The hootch smelled like a septic tank. It was best not to get up at night unless absolutely necessary. Probably you would step in excrement.
The VC had divided us several months earlier into two nine-man squads. At the time it meant nothing. The squad leaders, Watkins and Strictland, were mainly responsible for giving the VC a head count in the mornings and evenings. Now Watkins’ squad was moved to a new hootch. Our squad, headed by Strictland, stayed in the old hootch.
Jim Strickland – I did anything the VC said. Other guys argued with them. Some they’d have to hit in the head to make them get out of bed. The VC might come to the hootch and say, “We need five guys to carry grass to build us a house.”
I’d say, “I’ll go.”
Watkins and Davis, we’d go do it. I didn’t mind. I felt I was just getting by. Surviving.
Frank Anton – When the VC separated us into two squads, it just so happened that most of the strong and healthy men were in Watkins’ squad. I was the only one who couldn’t work, besides Long who arrived at the camp already weak and sick. Harker and Strictland were the strongest members of the other squad. But Harker had a terrible case of the skin disease, and Strickland had serious kidney trouble, he was pissing blood.
Separating us into two hootches turned out to be like putting us in two different countries. We became enemies. The VC killed a pig on September 2 to celebrate North Vietnam’s Independence Day.
Russ Grissett said, “Let’s show them today how Americans act. No reaching and grabbing. Two people serve and no one eats till everyone has his food.”
Everyone agreed. The food was placed on the table. Grissett and someone else began politely serving the others.
Suddenly, Grissett said, “Fuck this!” He dumped half a plate of meat in his bowl, squatted on his haunches, and began to shovel it in. The meal deteriorated into the usual reach and grab.
That’s where we were at this point. Our mental condition had begun to match our physical condition. We had no shoes, toothpaste, soap, or mosquito nets. Rats ran rampant through the hootch at night. Sometimes they crawled up and sat on our arms. I guess they sensed we were one of them.
Tom Davis – The split began one day in my hootch. Watkins, Denny, and Joe Zawtocki were talking about the guys in the other hootch being lazy. Everybody had the skin disease. We returned from manioc runs with our hands swollen and bleeding. Petty irritations became hard resentments and then anger. Everybody was sick and feeling sorry for themselves, that’s what it was. So we said why don’t we split up and let each hootch worry about itself.
David Harker – The other hootch said they had taken a vote and decided that my squad had to gather its own firewood and manioc and do its own cooking.
We said, “You’re crazy. Somebody will die.”
They said, “This is the way it’s going to be.”
The decision to split apart was theirs. But we played the game like them. Things became competitive and petty. Some of my squad were in the Vietnamese kitchen after the September 2 celebration and saw a pot of leftover pig fat. We brought it back to our hootch. Instead of going 18 ways, it went 9.
Frank Anton – We had one kitchen, a small shed with a mud-packed stove and an underground chimney to disperse the smoke so it wouldn’t be spotted by American planes. We took turns using it. The other squad took an extra long time when they cooked. In retaliation the people cooking for us also took an extra long time. We ended up eating only two meals a day instead of three.
Harker and Strictland did most of the work for the other squad. Harker had lost a lot of weight and like myself was very thin. He was of medium height, with a shock of brown wavy hair, a full mouth, and teeth that could have used braces when he was a kid. He and I simply ignored each other at first and seldom spoke. He was a hard worker, though, and good with his hands. Everybody respected him for this.
Ike McMillan - Even before the split Willie Watkins told Kushner, Daly, and me that either we worked or he would cut off our chow. It surprised me as a black man he would do that to another black man. Any man in his right mind could have seen we weren’t able to work.
I walked into the kitchen to get some water when Watkins was cooking. He told me to wait until chow was ready. I tried to get the water anyway.
He said, “If you get it I’m gonna knock your teeth down your throat.”
Damn, man, I’m looking up a big dude, almost twice as big as I am. Plus that he had once boxed in the Golden Gloves.
I said, “Okay, man, if that’s the way you want it.”
David Harker – I got up before dawn in early September and went to take a leak. When I returned I saw Cannon lying on the floor near the fire-pit. He often sat up at night and slept in the daytime. He was in terrible pain and there was so little room on the bed that his movements disturbed the others. He was making a strange noise. I went to investigate.
He said, “I’m trying to get back on the bed.”
But he wasn’t moving. I realized he was in a sad state. He went into a coma later that day and passed away after a few hours.
The VC made a bamboo coffin. We dug his grave. They came to our hootch and said, “Here are some white clothes to bury him in.”
We said, “Take your clothing back. We don’t want anything. You didn’t give him anything when he was alive.”
They felt insulted and left. They must have realized that we felt very strongly about it for us to talk back to them. Later they called us to a meeting and the camp commander said, “Why do you think Cannon died?”
We said, “Because he did not have proper medical care or adequate food.”
The VC said, “No, he died because of his wounds and because he didn’t clean himself.”
We argued with them. They became irritated. We backed off.
Frank Anton – Sergeant Williams had a bad case of edema. The fluid had swollen his testicles three times their normal size, they were unreal, watery looking. His legs and stomach were swollen and the fluid had begun to press toward his heart.
Williams lay fatally ill for some days. Watkins carried him to the latrine, others washed him. That was Watkins. He hated Williams, yet he helped him. We awoke to hear Williams breathing strangely. In a couple of hours he was dead.
A few weeks later it was Sherman’s turn. He had never recovered from the time he spent in stocks after the escape attempt. He was like a walking zombie. We reminded him of his Marine Corps stories, trying to make him talk and take an interest in living. Sometimes he laughed and smiled. But he wasn’t there. And finally he died.
Ike McMillan – Usually the two squads didn’t talk to each other. But that night in November we did. Joe Zawtocki called me. Joe and me got along pretty good because Joe blew pot. All the guys who blew got along.
Anyway, Joe said, “Hey, Ike, you want some pussy?”
“You’re gonna have to eat it.”
He had the camp cat with him. Grissett, Harker, and Strictland had planned to kill the cat and eat him. Trouble was nobody could catch him. I returned and told everyone we had the cat.
Somebody said, “Who’s gonna kill him?”
“Not me,” I said. “I’ve done had enough bad luck with cats.”
Tom Davis – I didn’t want them to kill it. I thought it was bad luck and also knew the camp authorities would miss it. The cat was meowing loudly. The guys were gathered around petting him. They tried first to drown him in a pot of boiling water. He jumped out scratching and spitting and almost got away.
Then Grissett said, “I’ll kill him.”
Ike McMillan – Russ took the cat outside. We heard this ka-loomph! He returned. The cat’s head was bashed in. Someone got a rusty razor blade and began to skin it. Kushner was detailed to hide the fur and entrails. Strictland watched for the guards.
Then Qua the Montagnard guard came in and began poking around. He spotted the paws we hadn’t been able to skin and shouted, “Meo! Meo!” [Cat].
All of us ran from the kitchen and left the cat laying there. We went to our hootch and jumped on the bed. The VC arrived and ordered us outside.
Frank Anton – We watched from our hootch. It was an eerie scene. The lamp light distorted the VC’s features and made them appear even more sinister.
They said, “You killed the camp’s cat. The camp commander loves his cat. All the guards love the cat.”
It was ridiculous. They had loved the camp’s dog too. Yet one day several months earlier, when meat was in short supply, they had beaten their lovable dog to death with sticks and eaten him.
Ike McMillan - They asked who killed the cat. We stood firm for a half an hour. Then Russ Grissett said, “I killed the cat.” The guards tied up Grissett and beat and kicked him.
Frank Anton – Grissett never recovered from the incident. Taking that terrible beating must have made him give up all hopes of being freed. He became quiet and meek. He stopped eating and began to regress. He lay on his bed all day in the fetal position with a blanket pulled over his head, sucking his thumb and whimpering like a baby.
Tom Davis – Everybody pitched in when someone was really down. Personal differences were forgotten. Russ had dysentery very badly. We washed his clothes and brought food to his bed. We tried to make him eat, to make him get up and move about. But we were fighting against impossible odds. At a certain point in starvation a lack of vitamins brings a loss of appetite. A man will ultimately lie down and die staring at food piled in front of him.
David Harker – Russ Grissett went harder than anyone. Kushner and I stayed up all night with him. He knew he was dying. He asked us to tell his sister that he loved her. He passed away about 3:30 in the morning the day before Thanksgiving.
Several days later it was Bill Port. You could tell by his bone structure that Port had once been a very big guy. He was taking a squad from LZ Baldy to reinforce a unit getting hit. Just as they jumped from the choppers mortars started coming in. And then a ground attack. He arrived at our camp with one of his ears half blown off, his toes ripped away, and a deep arm wound that drained continually. Through it all Port kept a good sense of humor. He was taken in his sleep.
Ike McMillan – The split lasted till people started dying like hell. Nobody brought it up to anyone’s face. But the squad that wanted the split saw what was happening. They could see others were run-down and might die too.
It didn’t end all of a sudden. We gradually got back together in early December. The Vietnamese had something to do with ending it. They moved us five blacks into another hootch, making it three squads instead of two.
David Harker – The Vietnamese half-stopped it in a way, and we did too. The split was so absurd and should have never happened; and didn’t. No one spoke about it.
We had a small celebration on Christmas Eve. We listened to Radio Hanoi. American pilots held in Hanoi read beautiful warm messages about how they missed home and the children who were growing up without them. We allowed ourselves to linger over thoughts of our families. The camp commander made a brief speech.
“You are allowed to enjoy Christmas because of the Front’s lenient and humane policy,” he said. “We are sorry you are not with your family. But Johnson prolongs the war. Maybe next year you will be home.”
He didn’t promise but he sounded almost certain that Nixon, who had been elected the month before, would end the war. We clutched at his optimism. Our spirits rose.
We received an extra can of rice for our Christmas meal and two chickens. On New Year’s we had another celebration, with extra rice and several cans of U.S. Army ham. But if our spirits were rising, they suddenly fell the next day.
Frank Anton – Fred was captured on his first mission. He had been an excellent student and had won a scholarship to Notre Dame. But he was having problems at home. He considered his father weak. His mother wore the pants in the family. Instead of going to Notre Dame, he joined the Marine Corps to prove he was a man.
David Harker – You watch the changes in him. His legs swell with edema. You see his hair become frizzy, his eyes begin to bulge. Before, he was a nice-looking guy. Now he looks foreign, strange.
Five of us were in the hootch, McMillan had built a fire, and we had let Fred come over to sit by it. It gets down to the ridiculous but you try to develop some sort of incentive for making them want to live.
“Fred, you can have your blanket if you wash yourself.” Or: “Fred you can sit by the fire if you don’t crap in your pants today.”
He had that faraway look in his eyes. When he saw us watching, he smiled gently. I wanted to cry.
Frank Anton – He began to make a lot of noise at night, crying over and over, “Mama, oh, Mama, I want my Mama.”
Once, in the middle of the night, someone yelled, “Die motherfucker, die!”
No one was shocked. Several people laughed. It was that kind of situation, so pathetic, but the realism of the moment because nobody could get any sleep. Later people talked about it and said what a rotten thing to do.
David Harker – Prison didn’t change him as it did others, didn’t make him harsh and nasty, foulmouthed like many of us became. He kept his manners through the hardest of times, always said thank you for the smallest gestures, and remained a devout Catholic when others had their faith shaken. When he died the day after New Year’s all of us realized that some part of ourselves had died with him. He was nineteen.
Right before New Year’s 1971 the VC said, “We have some good news. What do you think it is?”
“We’re going home.”
“No, you’re not going home. It’s something even better.”
We were going on a forced march to Hanoi. In February 1971 we left the jungle forever. We were released at the time of the ceasefire in 1973 with the other POWs at the Hanoi Hilton.
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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