Document created: 6 February 03
Air University Review, March-April 1977

Question of Honor

Lieutenant Colonel Jon A. Reynolds

AMERICAN prisoners of war (POWs) returning from Vietnam received a homecoming welcome that exceeded in enthusiasm the greetings extended any other group of American servicemen during that long and divisive conflict. They were accorded honor and esteem from a nation which, having torn itself apart through the frustration generated by its inability to resolve or succeed in its adventure in Southeast Asia, needed a group on which it could accord some of the hero worship of earlier conflicts. To many, the return of the paws represented the concluding event in a struggle that most Americans, advisedly or not, were eager to forget.

Books by former paws have tended to enforce the national sentiment that greeted them upon their return. Most of these literary efforts are highly autobiographical, following an established routine of shootdown, capture, torture, boredom, and release. For the most part, these books are highly religious and/ or patriotic in flavor. The first half dozen or so, with the exception of Robinson Risner's account of his unique experience, are fairly similar; the names of authors could be interchanged, or for that matter the name of almost any POW substituted, and the books would read about the same.

However, John Dramesi's Code of Honor* is totally unlike any previous work about the American POW experience in Vietnam. His stated purpose is not to disgrace anyone but to present the clear and convincing truth of our POW experience in North Vietnam "so that we prepare our young men and women for the future." Dramesi, captured on 2 April 1967, quickly dispels any notion that American paws in Hanoi were superhumans. He presents them as they really were. Thus we find men confined in unventilated cells during the long subtropical summers, their bodies raw with heat rash, their future uncertain, their present a daily humiliation in the presence of their captors, their hygienic and biological functions a community project, behaving in a psychologically predictable manner. Under these conditions, which combined to create one gigantic mental and physical frustration, the effort required of each inmate to live in peace and harmony with his fellow captives exacted heroic self-discipline. Consequently, we find Dramesi, along with some of his "roommates," behaving in a manner somewhat less admirable than depicted in earlier works. Instead of the dignity displayed during repatriation, petty jealousies and feuds seem part of the norm. It is not amazing that the paws behaved as they did but that they were able to adjust so well and that confrontations, when they did occur, rarely progressed beyond verbal threats.

*John A. Dramesi, Code of Honor (New York: Norton, 1975, $7.95), 231 pages.

The hero of this book is Lieutenant Colonel John A. Dramesi. Raised amidst the toughs of South Philadelphia, where one is taught at an early age to rely on his skill and determination to win, the author makes it his prison goal to excel in that test as he has excelled in other, less demanding tests during his career as a fighter and fighter pilot. For an individual to excel in Hanoi, he had to adhere strictly to article three of the Code of Conduct: "If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape." It was toward this end that Colonel Dramesi devoted his efforts. Most paws required some kind of philosophy or regimen to endure the daily existence in Hanoi. For Dramesi, the regimen consisted of a program of inflexible resistance and never-ending search and preparation for escape.

Dramesi's goal was not the idle dream of the average POW. He was not the temporal "iron man" who emerged only during the latter days of confinement when others could witness his resolution. He details his two genuine attempts at securing his freedom. The first, alone, within days of his capture and before his arrival in Hanoi, had a reasonable chance of success. The second, with a partner and the tacit blessing and knowledge of all Americans within the camp, was doomed to failure. Dramesi describes the ruthless retaliations of the Vietnamese for this second escape attempt. His partner, Edwin Lee Atterbury, to whom the book is dedicated, was killed. And yet, despite the cruelty of the punishment inflicted on Dramesi, he devoted the remainder of his Hanoi tenure to preparing for another attempt.

For his efforts in Hanoi, John Dramesi was, and is, a controversial individual. To many of his former roommates, he was an abrasive and inconsiderate being. To others, he set the standard for POW conduct, dedicated to conducting himself in the manner expected of a POW as embodied in the spirit of the Code of Conduct. As christened by one of his cellmates, he was a gadfly, whose physical strength and mental will permitted him to resist in a manner that frustrated men of equal determination but weaker flesh. No doubt he did alienate many of those intimately familiar with him. As one who considered any improvement in living conditions a compromise to his program of resistance, he indeed could be a gadfly to other strong men who sought and accepted camp improvements as their just reward. Only another POW would understand this dichotomy, for Dramesi's strict adherence to the often-proved POW adage "Beware of gooks bearing gifts" was not unjustified recalcitrance on his part. That nothing was given away by the Vietnamese was, to paws, a truism that was often reinforced. Unfortunately, as Dramesi notes, the great American public was never informed of this tender issue.

The issues and questions that Code of Honor addresses are multiple. Many of them were evidently suppressed by official sources during and immediately after the POW's homecoming. In adhering to his purpose for writing the book, Dramesi raises delicate subjects openly, hoping that their acknowledgment and resolution will improve the performance of all paws in later struggles.

The special circumstances surrounding the early release of several POWs should be publicized. The usual public notion on this issue is that the "lucky few" were selected at random by the Vietnamese and then released, with no stigma attached. Remember the gift-bearing gook. Many of those who were in Hanoi, especially those at the Plantation Camp, from which most of the early returnees were selected, will assert that this simply was not the case. With some exceptions (e.g., the case of a seaman apprentice who had fallen overboard, whose status as a POW was never resolved, whose resistance was exemplary, and who was permitted by the senior-ranking officer of the camp to return early), many of those who accepted repatriation early must be suspected of violating the Code of Conduct. An accurate recounting of how and why these men returned home early has yet to be made public. So far, only the men themselves and their Vietnamese captors know all the details.

POWs who came home "on time" have conjectured that the major goals of the early release program were for propaganda and for the divisive and demoralizing effect it would have on those who stayed. To be sure, the early releases were well publicized within the walls of the Hanoi camps. The immediate effect of this news was generally one of disbelief, followed by crushing disappointment at the opportunistic conduct of fellow prisoners. The determination to avoid selection for an early out had a binding influence among those POWs who remained. After the first and second groups were released, the Vietnamese had difficulty identifying others to participate in their "go home early" program. Penetrating questions to and by many former paws today, however, still remain unanswered. What were the circumstances surrounding the early release program? Navy Commander John S. McCain III, who was offered an early release and refused it, has made his story public. Might not some of those who accepted it make theirs public also?

Evidently the decision to take no action against any former POW, even though charges were pressed by senior Navy and Air Force officers, was taken to enable the POW issue to subside. That willing collaborators, although few in number, still enjoy the benefits and honors accorded the majority who served loyally and resisted to the limits of human endurance is an issue that should be rectified. The United States has prescribed a Code of Conduct for American fighting men. Although this code was modified by senior ranking officers to fit the situation in North Vietnam, the line of resistance they set was rigorous, and their directives stipulated that no man would cross it without significant torture. This line was measured within the capability of each POW to endure. Senior American officers in North Vietnam spoke with force of law. That some men did not obey merits hard examination. The United States will fight again. Some of its combatants will become prisoners of the enemy. One should consider the examples they will have before them and question what code they will be expected to follow.

PERHAPS THE most delicate issue raised by Dramesi concerns leadership. The thoughtful reader will note that he examines this quality at all levels; from the individual cell, where a lieutenant would often step forward to acknowledge his responsibility, to the senior-ranking officer in the camp, who might or might not be in a position through which he could exercise his authority. Dramesi identifies those senior leaders who came forward at great personal risk to themselves to lead during periods of extreme stress. He also examines leadership during periods of lesser duress. In the final analysis, there is questionable conduct, but there is also "ample evidence to prove the courage, honor, discipline and determination of our military."

To understand leadership as it was exercised within the walls of the prisons of North Vietnam, one must be familiar with the various periods through which American paws passed. Treatment was often a direct function of external factors, most of which were out of the control of the paws. Rarely did the Vietnamese volunteer to identify these factors, and one cannot say that their treatment was harsh only when the bombing was heavy, or that treatment improved as the war improved or as the peace talks progressed. The only thing of which the POW was certain was that the treatment did change dramatically during certain periods.

From August 1964 until November 1965, before Dramesi's arrival, the American experience in Vietnamese prisons was not terribly harsh. In fact, treatment seemed to indicate that the Vietnamese were not exactly sure what to do with each of their newly arrived uninvited guests (other than to isolate them). The first American POW, Lieutenant (j.g.) Everett Alverez, during his six months as the only POW, enjoyed such niceties as letters from home, physical exercise, and Red Cross packages. As more paws arrived, no systematic routine of interrogation, exploitation, or torture was applied, and the relationship between captor and captive rarely progressed beyond one of mutual animosity and distrust. Most paws were optimistic, convinced that the war would soon end, victoriously, and they would return home to resume a normal life. Most fixed this date as no later than the end of 1965.

The covert leadership organization during this period was also somewhat casual. Subjected to no tough or regimented program of interrogation or exploitation and mentally unprepared to accept the reality that one was indeed a prisoner and facing a protracted incarceration, most newly captured paws felt that guidance or directives from a senior-ranking officer were not really necessary. Random advice to abide by the Code of Conduct seemed to suffice, and each man proceeded to make plans for the anticipated leave period that would soon follow what each expected to be his imminent release.

With the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Risner (now Brigadier General retired) in September 1965, a campwide organization of the paws began to function almost immediately. The covert communication system was improved, and a coordinated POW drive for improvements in living conditions began. Soon after Risner's assumption of command, he distributed a written note throughout the camp. Basically, the note encouraged intracamp communication and contained a series of guidelines for paws dealing with such items as escape and attitudes toward the guards and interrogators. For the first time, a directive dealt with more items than just the Code of Conduct. Discovery of the note by the Vietnamese precipitated a thorough search of all POW cells which, due to a heretofore unnecessary security system, revealed "contraband" (in the form of nails and razor blades) and much of the clandestine activity underway. The response of the Vietnamese to these discoveries was swift. Possibly impelled by increased United States participation in the conflict, the prison authorities now developed and applied a well-defined program of treatment, discipline, and exploitation. The application of this program began the second phase of the American POW experience in North Vietnam.

The period from late 1965 to October 1969 marked the harsh and ruthless era of POW incarceration in North Vietnam. Enter John Dramesi on 2 April 1967. The period was characterized by brutal beatings, extended isolation, and protracted and deliberate torture on the part of the Vietnamese. Violations of the "camp regs" met with swift and cruel reprisals. Purges, generally designed to disrupt efforts at communication, were frequent and intense. Prisoners were held near prime target areas, such as the Hanoi thermal power plant. Protracted isolation was common. The hardcore camp of Alcatraz, where particularly difficult and senior paws were locked in leg irons every night for sixteen months, was opened. Efforts at indoctrination, although primitive and generally ineffective, were continuous. Guest interrogators, such as the Cuban "Fidel," paid their visits. In short, the life of the American POW was one of day-to-day survival sustained by the hope that one day it would all be over.

The major thrust of the Vietnamese efforts during this phase was to prohibit communication and any semblance of organized leadership. The Vietnamese were well aware of the relationship between these two factors. Several members of Hanoi's Central Committee had spent long periods held by the French as political prisoners. Drawing on their experience, they recognized that if their efforts at indoctrination and exploitation were to be successful, communication and leadership had to be eliminated. Consequently, in addition to the aforementioned severe treatment, satellite camps such as Son Tay and the plantation were opened in an effort to further stifle communication and organization.

The largest and "most prestigious" camp for American paws, however, continued to be the famous Hanoi Hilton, where problems associated with assuming and/or exerting leadership were substantial. Although four Air Force 0-6s (colonels) had arrived in Hanoi, none of them assumed command at this time. In the tactful words of Dramesi, "for some strange reason they were unavailable for command." To be sure, this was a period during which even the cleverest paws found it difficult and risky to communicate. The plight of the senior men, due to isolation, was of even greater magnitude. Since they were not present during the formative years of POW clandestine methods, perhaps--and this is speculation-these four were simply ignorant of how to join the intricate communication net. Risner was able to do it in June 1968 only by a note drop with Las Vegas* dishwashers, a risky venture at best. Another possibility--and this is also speculation--is that as senior American officers their knowledge of sensitive military information was of such magnitude that they did not wish to risk the brutal punishment and potential disclosure of this information by participating in the "forbidden" communication system. In any event, to lead one must communicate, and, for the most part, the authority of the 0-6s lay dormant during this harsh second phase.

*Las Vegas-A section of the Hilton complex.

Most paws today recognize Commander James B. Stockdale and Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Risner as the men who, during this difficult period, acknowledged and accepted the crushing responsibility of the acting senior-ranking American officers. For their efforts, both men were subjected to torture and humiliation far beyond that of the average POW. Colonel Risner told his story in The Passing of the Night. The role of Admiral Stockdale is less well known. For fifteen months he led the men at Alcatraz. On returning to the Hilton, he tried to convince the Vietnamese of his determination to be a symbol of POW resistance, and he gained the lasting recognition of Dramesi as well as all the "old school" paws. Recently, to memorialize his efforts, Admiral Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor by the Congress of the United States. Hopefully, someday, he will tell his story, presenting it in the eloquent and dignified manner so characteristic of him.

The last period of POW treatment began at some undefined date in late 1969 and lasted until the negotiated release in the spring of 1973. Generally, this period was characterized by an attitude of tolerance on the part of the Vietnamese. Although this attitude was often strained, it generally prevailed.

Following the Son Tay rescue effort in the fall of 1970, although improved treatment continued, all American paws were moved from the various satellite camps to the Hanoi Hilton. Here, in a "new" section of the Hilton complex, they were confined in large open bay cells. Communication was simple. Although the Air Force O-6s were still sequestered away from the main unit cells, contact with them was established. It was at this time that Colonel (now Lieutenant General) John P. Flynn identified himself as the senior-ranking American officer in North Vietnam and proceeded to organize all Americans under his command.

Operating under the code name of "Sky," Colonel Flynn applied himself to the enforcement of strict discipline and the maintenance of morale. Taking advantage of having all the POWs assembled in one camp, Sky formalized and disseminated uniform policies and instructions. There were no ambiguities with respect to conduct, attitudes, or the prospect of early release. Each man knew precisely where to stand and what was expected of him. Orders were "issued" under the aegis of the newly formed 4th Allied POW Wing, an organization that Colonel Flynn administered and led in an exemplary manner. Vietnamese efforts to render it and its commander ineffective were overcome by a now efficient and swift communication net. By early 1972 the relationship between POW and captor had evolved into one of live and let live. Just before release, the North Vietnamese finally acquiesced, recognized, and dealt with Colonel Flynn as the legitimate commander of U.S. forces in Hanoi.

COLONEL DRAMESI remains a controversial figure. Most former POWs who know him, or who have read Code of Honor, give him either their wholehearted endorsement or condemnation. Very few take their stance in-between. To be sure, he deserves a measure of criticism. That which he leaves unsaid destroys, in part, his credibility. For example, he might have mentioned the barbaric reprisals by the Vietnamese on all members of the Zoo compound for his attempted escape--reprisals of such intensity and duration that many were reluctant ever again to endorse or authorize an escape that lacked any reasonable chance of success.

One also grows weary of reading in the first person singular. John Dramesi wrote the book. That he is its hero is admissible. But there were more tough men in Hanoi than he would lead you to believe. And there were men equally committed to that ultimate form of resistance--escape. The well planned escape of McKnight and Coker, for example, was far more successful than Dramesi's. And it was not a spontaneous operation, as the uninitiated reader is lead to believe. Dramesi's greatest Haw, however, was in his own physical and mental strength, so singular and of such forcefulness that he apparently could not comprehend or tolerate the performance of those who could not match it. One wonders how he interpreted Admiral Stockdale's prison mandate: "unity over self."

In the final analysis, however, John Dramesi's presentation of the American experience in North Vietnam is basically accurate. The important issues that he raises merit examination and resolution. There were opportunistic prisoners who were willing to pay the price for an early release. Unfortunately, efforts to prosecute deficient conduct were quietly set aside, and their example is still before us and the POW of the future. Why? 

There also remains the delicate issue of leadership. To be sure, leadership as exhibited within the walls of Hanoi prisons was a curious quality that existed in various degrees and forms throughout the long incarceration. The names Risner and Stockdale evoke such respect that even today the memory of their performance boggles one's comprehension of the limits of human dedication and endurance. To list those who willingly assumed this very burdensome responsibility, who were willing to send directives through a tenuous and hazardous communication net, and were willing to put their name upon them would be both awkward and, no doubt, unjust to others. But to accept responsibility was the norm. The issue tactfully raised by Dramesi is "Why were some senior men unavailable for command?" Perhaps the O-6s could answer this question and lay the issue to rest.

In reading Code of Honor, one should consider the issues raised and take care to avoid making generalizations. For the most part, the Americans in Hanoi demanded of themselves standard of conduct that were based on moral fiber and personal integrity of the highest order. As one who spent more than seven years their midst, I have nothing but the highest regard for the vast majority with whom I served. The real value of Dramesiís work is embodies in this purpose--to illuminate issues so that we might, in our quest for excellence, importance our performance in the next conflict.

United States Air Force Academy


Lieutenant Colonel Jon A. Reynolds (M.A., Duke University) is faculty member and Director of Research in the Department of History, United States Air Force Academy. Entering the Air Force in 1959, he has flown F-100s and F-105s and was assigned as an ALO/FAC to the 22d Infantry Division (ARVN). In November 1965 he was shot down over North Vietnam and imprisoned until February 1973. Upon repatriation he obtained his master of arts degree. His articles have appeared in Air University Review and the Naval War College Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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