RICHMOND, JAN. 23 -- For Paul Galanti, the distracted look on the faces of American prisoners of war on video from Iraqi TV was familiar, bringing alive 25-year-old memories of his own captivity in Vietnam.

Galanti watched as the downed U.S. airmen recited their names and repeated stilted messages to their families.

"I'm sure none of them had been allowed to sleep, and they had the daylights beaten out of them," Galanti said, sipping coffee from a mug inscribed with the words "Hanoi Hilton."

"The same guards who beat them up were standing behind the interviewer, along with five English speakers to make sure they didn't slip something by."

Considering the circumstances, Galanti said, "none of the statements were too bad. It was all scripted."

As a young Navy pilot, Galanti spent nearly 6 1/2 years -- the exact figure, etched in his memory, was 2,432 days -- as a POW in North Vietnam.

When he was photographed behind the bars of his stark cell at a prison called "The Plantation," Galanti flashed an obscene hand gesture that he told his captors was "the Hawaiian good luck sign."

The photo showed him sitting on his bed, which was a board stretched between saw horses. It wound up on the cover of Life magazine on Oct. 25, 1967, but it had been retouched to remove the offending gesture. "One of my relatives thought my fingers had been cut off," Galanti said.

The first time he saw an interview of a POW was about seven months before his own capture. He was sitting in an officers' club in Tokyo in December 1965, "watching Jerry Denton blink the word torture with his eyes" in Morse code. Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., who was released at the same time as Galanti, later served a term as a U.S. senator from Alabama, and like many former POWs, remains a close friend of Galanti's.

Galanti, then a Navy lieutenant, was shot down on June 17, 1966, on his 97th mission over North Vietnam. After he parachuted from his stricken A-4 Skyhawk fighter, he was shot through the neck before landing in a field near Qui Vinh, about 100 miles south of Hanoi.

Unlike the latest American prisoners of war, who have appeared on television within hours of their capture, Galanti was offically listed as missing in action until a Paris newspaper published an interview with him four months later.

But his wife, Phyllis, buoyed by the knowledge that he had talked to his squadron mates by radio immediately upon landing in enemy territory, was certain he was alive.

Her advice for families of the newly captured U.S. pilots: "Be happy with any kind of confirmation that he's alive."

She added: "Insist that the military service puts you in touch with other POW families. Nobody else understands what you're going through."

She also said that families should resist the temptation to change their daily routines.

"My first inclination was to go back to California," and the base where she and her husband had lived before he was sent overseas, she said. But she realized that "the Navy knew how to get in touch with me," so she stayed in Virginia, where her parents were renovating an old farm house.

"Wherever you are is the place to stay," she said.

She said she was pleased to learn that after initially announcing the home towns of the Persian Gulf POWs, the Pentagon has reversed that decision. "The families don't need any harassment," she said.

During her long vigil, Phyllis Galanti banded together with other relatives of missing or imprisoned Americans, and became a leader of the National League of Families of POWs-MIAs, serving as chairman in 1972-73.

While she said she would welcome the chance to talk with the new POW families, Phyllis Galanti said the best people for the families to communicate with are the relatives of the other current POWs. "This is a different war, a different enemy. All the circumstances are different," she said.

Paul Galanti, who was freed from captivity in February 1973, figures that today's POWs have the same determination that he and his fellow prisoners had.

"They are a lot tougher than you think," he said, picturing a 1990s version of his cellmates. "They are optimistic and happy-go-lucky. They'll get through. As long as they are allowed to live, they'll be okay."

After his release, and a period of recovery from medical problems caused by torture, Galanti was assigned to the Naval Academy, where he remained until his retirement as a commander in 1982. He now is executive director of the Virginia Pharmaceutical Association here.

Except for arthritis in his shoulders, elbows, knees and wrists, brought on by beatings, and blind spots from a vitamin deficiency, life today is good for the 51-year-old Galanti and his wife. They have two sons, Jamie, 15, and Jeff, 12, who seldom ask about their father's war experience, preferring to play a "Top Gun" video game with him.

"They seem to be able to catch three wires" when they land their planes on a simulated aircraft carrier, Galanti said, "while I usually end up in the water."