"That afternoon we were coming back just south of Quangtri City when small arms fire hit our helicopter. We did a controlled crash into a cemetery and the rotors were chipped off by these obelisk gravestones the Vietnamese have. I was thrown out and when I saw the rotors I knew we weren't going anyplace, so I climbed back in and got my weapon. Four of us ran about 45 minutes, went through a deserted village and out into a field, and then we were surrounded by about 50 guerrillas and told us to surrender. It was clear we were being given a choice. We waved our hands and yelled what Vietnamese we knew. They took our weapons and walked us back through the village. Nobody touched us. There were at least 250 people there, some still climbing out of foxholes. It was obvious we could have been ambushed anytime . . . "
FOR STAFF SGT. Robert P. Chenoweth, 30, that long day, Feb. 8, 1968, marked the beginning of nearly six years in captivity, years that turned his life around, brought him a certain fame and two formal accusations of collaborating. The charges were dismissed, but for Chenoweth and many others of the 566 American POWs, the bitterness lingers on.
"I'd never want to serve with him again," said Air Force Lt. Col. Edward W. Leonard, who as a major was Chenoweth's commanding officer in prison for 3 1/2 years and the man who filed on set of charges. "The dropping of those original charges was a bureaucratic error. Some people were afraid of the hardnosed-military image. I was pressured to drop my charges, too."
One returning internee, Marine Sgt. Abel L. Kavanaugh, committed suicide when he learned he was being charged with alleged misconduct while in a North Vietnam prison camp. He left a note saying he could not face more imprisonment. Another is suing a fellow POW for slander. Though as Leonard says, "It's pretty much wound down by now," angry resentment still smoulders between those who did and those who didn't.
In fact, the prime concern of many GIs being held in the "Hanoi Hilton" and other prison camps was not their treatment by the Vietnamese but their reception when they returned home. Some, like Chenoweth, resisted their captors in every way they could at first, but then "gradually began to lie on," as he put it. Some, convinced the war was wrong but not willing to make a commitment because they feared reprisal back in the States, cooperated part of the time but made a show of resistance when the peace rumors grew. Some held consistently to the rigid "name, rank, serial number, Military Code of Conduct, which later was reworded to allow more latitude.
"We all broke," Leonard said, "It was just a question of time. People with absolute control of your life can break you.The resistance posture is what you do after. You go back to your original position, and make them do it to you all over again. Collaboration is the failure to rebound."
But Bob Chenoweth says: "Most POWs celebrate the day they were released. I celebrate the day I was captured - the day I began understanding another race."
That day must have seemed remote indeed when he enlisted in June 1966, fresh out of a polytechnic high school in Eugene, Ore., a soft-faced blond kid who wanted to be an aircraft mechanic.
He took his basic at Ft. Polk, La., moved on to Ft. Rucker, Ala., for special work with the UH 1, the Huey, the helicopter that proved to be the Vietnam war's Jeep. As a Specialist 4th Class, he was in charge of ground maintenance for his machine and served as a machine-gunner in the air. He got a home leave, and in January 1967, with six months of training, he went to Vietnam.
"I assumed that because we were there, it must be all right."
"I was interested in the war as far as military aviation went," he says, "but I had very little sense of the political side. About Vietnam, I'd read one book on the fall of Dien Bien Phu, and I knew a little history of the French there, but I knew nothing of the Vietnamese resistance movement going way back."
Based in an old French hotel in Saigon, his outfit developed into a somewhat irregular force that ferried supply officers to various bases to check the movement of supplies. It was relatively safe work that gave Chenoweth 400 hours of flying time and a great view of the whole country from the Mekong Delta to the north border. He decided to sign up for 6-month extended duty, mostly because he got a month of paid leave, "and otherwise I would have another year's service Stateside and might have wound up coming back in a combat unit."
When he came home in January 1968, he found he was a stranger. It was hard to explain things: the feeling of uselessness when you saw the bodies being taken off the copters, the guys who carried Vietnamese fingers and ears around with them, or photos of beheaded people - "crap like that," or the practice of taking up three prisoners in a copter and pushing one out to make the other two talk.
"I was told, if I saw the least thing that looked like someone raising a rifle in a village, to shoot it up, I said, 'What if I was wrong?' and they'd shrug and say they were just gooks and anyway my superiors would back me up."
He couldn't explain to his family his uneasy feeling that he wasn't being told the truth: "We saw the Thieu elections on Armed Forces TV, and it looked smooth as glass, but still we were kept in our billets on Election Day. Then somebody came in from Hong Kong and he'd seen it all on TV there, and there was lots of rioting, signs torn down and everything. We saw the wreckage ourselves, after."
His brother, 14 months older and draft-exempted by asthma, was the most understanding because friends had told him the same thing. His father, a telephone engineer and a World War II veteran, understood, but his mother was baffled.
"She couldn't understand why I wanted to get my uniform off as quick as possible when I got home. She wanted to take me downtown and show me off. She'd worked with Gls in the second war, in a uniform store. She was engaged to a Navy flier who was killed in the Pacific."
"It became clear to me that this was an ancient culture. I'd never heard of it before."
Upon capture, Chenoweth's crew was given tea and taken north, walking all night with their hands tied by communications wire. At villages along the way, people fed them more tea and rice. The guards talked constantly with the villagers, who impressed him as highly organized.
After eight days he reached the first camp, near Laos, where "they gave us some reading material, but mostly we just ate and gathered firewood. They asked us to fill out papers telling who we were, where we were born and all that. They said it was just so we could be identified by our own people at the end of the war, but some guys wouldn't fill out the forms."
A kaleidoscopic life began for Chenoweth and a few dozen fellow prisoners: riding trucks at night, hiding by day, living in this village and that for days ro months, sharing their captors' food and work, always moving north.
By the end of 1968 they reached Ha Tay, where they stayed until November 1970, when they were taken to Hanoi.
"There were four buildings for us at Ha Tay, some with three 2-man rooms, some with up to 12 in a room. The most I was with was 10. There were 56 of us there. It was very hot in the summer, and tempers ran high, so the Vietnamese would shift us around every now and then when they saw frictions arising. They didn't like it when we fought because it was their first rule that you can't change people's minds with force. Criticism, peer pressure, is very important in their society, but we don't have that, it means zip to us."
The dinging of a triangle got everybody up at 5 a.m. Bedtime was 9 p.m. The rooms had electricity, but all the lights were on the same generator and all went on or off at the same time, so if one person was sick in the night, everyone's lights went on.
"They brought us food on shoulder poles, and there was a rack outside the building with bowls and plates and aluminum spoons. My room was responsible for washing them." He always spoke of it that way: his room. Some called them cells.
Breakfast: a half-loaf of French-type bread, sugar, tea, a pastry of pork fat and sugar glazed on bread ("it was good!").
Lunch and dinner varied from place to place but usually included fried vegetables, soup, beancurd, rice or bread, and some meat. It was the same food the guards got. "The Vietnamese aren't basically meat eaters.
"There wasn't much to do.We had gardens, we'd pull weeds, pull up vegetables for the cooks to collect, and in summer when the water table fell to 35 feet we'd dig wells. You'd go down this precarious bamboo ladder and slosh around in this shale mud, and if you wore glasses, forget it, you'd be wiping 'em after every other pick blow. It was hot down there, they'd work us a half hour at a time. Mostly we studied. I discovered Shakespeare."
In villages, they lived in grass and bamboo structures. In Hanoi the Plantation, formerly a French compound, was brick and stucco in pastel colors. The Hanoi Hilton was an old French prison, Hao Lo.
"Some resisted when they felt others were watching, but it wasn't really a situation where you had an opportunity to resist."
Chenoweth and his roommates started a magazine for which he did watercolors and cartoons. Men wrote about their feelings and experiences, but the project petered out, much to their disppointment, when the Vietnamese political officer did nothing to disseminate it.
"The guards were under orders not to mess with us, and we were surprised at their tolerance because they knew all the American swear words we yelled at them. Some people gave 'em a hard time, provoked 'em, and got hit for it. Once a friend and I tried to break out of our room when it was too hot. We revolted and banged on the door, and it was a perfect opportunity for them to beat the piss out of us, but they didn't, they just threw us back in the room."
A Marine friend, a veteran guard at the San Diego brig, commented that "if we gave the guards in a U.S. brig the kind of s - we gave our guards there on a daily basis, we would never have got out alive."
It was an eerie, poignant experience for Chenoweth to be chatted up and given cigarettes by guards whose families, he knew, were being bombed in Hanoi.
Some Gls still refused to write their biographies, and the Vietnamese "gave them a hard time," but as for torture, Chenoweth said he knows of no more than 35 cases among the 566 POWs.
"Some claim that 95 percent of the prisoners were tortured and that it was Vietnamese policy, but this wasn't true in my experience, and I lived with about 20 percent of the total. Also, this claim gives the impression that torture wasn't a policy on our side, but it was just the opposite: it was customary up to certain official levels. This has been documented."
On the other hand, he emphasized that it depended where you were in Vietnam, that treatment often was rougher in the south, near the fighting, that most mistreatment came in the process of being captured, in the field.
"The officers had it different from us enlisted men. I mean, they had their steak and eggs breakfast, took off from the carrier deck, flew their mission and came back, so they didn't see what we saw of the enemy. A few officer prisoners apparently marked themselves so they wouldn't be thought to be collaborating."
He was referring to Capt. James B. Stockdale, who smashed his own face with a chair so he wouldn't look presentable for a propaganda show. Stockdale, imprisoned nearly eight years, was kept in hand and leg irons, seated in the sun for days at a time, yanked about on a rope and punched in the face.
Other officers reported what one called "war crimes": Col. Robinson Klener was tied so tightly head-to-foot that his shoulders were dislocated. Lt. Cmdr. Everett Alvarez was forced to sit on a stool for five days without sleep or food. Capt. Wendell Rivers was put in isolation nine days on bread and water. Cmdr. Richard A. Stratton, who was shown bowing low to his captors in a much-publicized photo, explained that he had been forced to attend a news conference on the occasion and had acted drugged to discredit the enemy.
Col. Leonard, reached at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas, said he too was mistreated in his five years of prison. Like most commissioned officers in that war, he had the perspectives given by a college education and also by survival schools and special training for resistance when captured. It was not so true of enlisted men, he said.
"We had a policy in the camps: anyone who collaborated with the enemy could come back to our group at any time. Those eight guys (who were formally charged) - we called them 'The Ducks' because they were like some ducks that quacked after the guards all the time looking for rice - they knew that. We all knew we were comming out several weeks in advance, and they could have come back to us anytime, and we wouldn't have had all this."
He and other officers had promised their fellow prisoners they'd bring charges.
"We were all very naive when we returned. We figured after President Nixon's welcome it was all over and the public would forget it and we could then file charges. We'd been told in debriefing to say nothing about the collaborators. We expected a full-scale investigation. But when we did file, it all blew up in the press, and as a result the charges were dismissed. I was worried about the loyal enlisted men, what they might do, so I made a fool of myself and filed new charges.
"What we wanted were convictions identifying those people as collaborationists, with the punishment suspended because everybody had been through enough already. We wanted to have them identified. It was important then, and to an extent it still is. We got ripped off, is all. After a time it doesn't matter, like any ripoff, but it's still kind of sad. An extremely forgiving official attitude just makes things harder on the next ones the next time."
Chenoweth, he added, could be sincere, could have been changed by his experience. But Leonard found little evidence of profound change in prisoners, merely an intensification of qualities already there. "If you were selfish, you became more so. If you were outgoing, you became more so. The collaborators were both egocentric and present-oriented: What's in it for me - today?"
He emphasized that the main thing to remember about giving out propaganda was that "the American people were not the prime target, but rather the North Vietnamese people."
"No one we knew who was there ever doubted our integrity in making our decision."
Given regular lectures and access to antiwar material, much of it from America, Chenoweth began to see a political armature beneath all the rhetoric. He already knew about the American competition for body counts - the reward being 3-day leaves - which led to bodies being dug up and civilians murdered. He felt the Domino Theory was proved false by Burma, which has a 1,000-mile frontier with China yet has not gone communist. He learned about the dynamics of social revolutions, the need for popular support to win them, the failure of efforts to impose socialism artificially.
"The way some of our people switched back and forth, collarborating awhile and then cleaning up their act when peace seemed near, gave me a sense of how opportunistic our culture is, how self-centered our people are encouraged to be.
"I was amazed at the dedication of the Vietnamese people to their society. We don't have this concept, we think they're robots if they work collectively. The idea of collective living is frightening to us, but they're a flood-plain culture, they've had to work together just to survive, for centuries."
Our own pioneers, he recalled, had a tradition of collective living after all: barn raisings, harvesting and so on.
He came to feel that that the Vietnamese people (the distinction between North and South being our idea, not theirs, he said), while they wanted better housing and food and comfort, didn't want it all shoved down their throats along with the materialistic values of an industrial society.
"You want to believe what your culture tells you, but the reality just didn't fit the rhetoric. One reason the guards were friendly was that they knew we were victims too, that we'd been sent there by someone else."
Chenoweth and seven other prisoners came to be called "the peace committee," along with others in other camps, though he said it was merely a way of identifying them and never was an actual organization. "It wouldn't have been accepted by the Vietnamese anyway because it would have been impractical, but some POW's interpreted it as more than an idea."
He wrote letters urging an end to the war. He built model planes for Vietnamese target practice. He went on the radio, met American delegations, spoke at length with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.
(Fonda, reached in Hollywood, said she remembered Chenoweth well and had worked with him in the antiwar movement after his release. "Most of the guys I knew there weren't political when they went into the war," she said. "But when one's personal experiences are in strong contrast to the official government line, it tends to change you. Now, everyone seems to want to forget the whole thing. It's too bad.")
Said Chenoweth, "We weren't allowed to be rhetorical, we could only speak of our own experiences. Nothing like, 'I urge you to defect,' because that wouldn't be credible. I tried to make others start thinking about what they were doing. I asked them to remember the Geneva Convention, which we were taught in training.
"I wanted to read up on socialism and Marxism, but the Vietnamese wouldn't let me because then people would think we'd been brainwashed."
"It was clear the Army had tried to build a case, but the people we were with wouldn't testify against us."
That statement, Leonard says, is not true.
On May 29, 1973, two months after Chenoweth - promoted to Staff Sergeant - was released from Vietnam, Air Force Col. Theodore W. Guy, a former POW camp commander, filed charges against him and four other Army enlisted men and three Marines.
He cited Articles 81, 92, 104 and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: conspiracy to undermine discipline and loyalty; failure to obey a lawful order; aiding the enemy, and a catch-all accusation (134) later declared unconstitutional.
The charges were dropped three days after Kavanaugh's suicide because of "insufficient admissible evidence," by Navy Secretary John W. Warner and Army Secretary Howard Callaway. Another factor was a Defense Department policy of not holding trials for alleged propaganda statements. Leonard's charges, filed in July, were similar and were similarly dismissed.
Chenoweth spoke on radio and TV programs, drew a flood of calls and letters, basically sympathetic. "Even the pro-war people felt we'd been through enough by then." He entered Laney College in Oakland, went on the road with the Indochina Mobile Education Project, met his future wife Barbara in Cleveland, attended Cleveland State and in 1975 came to Washington for a job that didn't work out.
"I'm the only member of my family who's been to college," he said. "I did a semester in Federal City College and about two years ago I started at American University, majoring in anthropology. Barbara is a hospital cardiac technician."
Today Chenoweth works at the liberal Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. He seems to have settled down to civilian life as well as any veteran of the war. But he is concerned for his mother and stepfather, an automotive engineer, who now live in Anchorage.
"You know," he said earnestly, "their life experience should have taught them different. They believe in the American dream, but he's worked since childhood and has nothing, nothing. His health is bad. He's anti-union and has no job security. And neither does my mother, who works in the title end of a car dealership. They believe whatever the government tells them. They don't realize they've been taken."