National POW and MIA
My POW Story
I would like to share with you the
story of the time I left my homeland empty-handed to seek out new
opportunities in the United States of America. When my family and I
arrived we brought nothing with us but hope for a new life.
In 1968, I started my military career as an
Interpreter and Translator/ Non Command Officer at the English Language
Center. I was selected by the U.S. Army to join the Military
Intelligence (Mike Force) at Long Binh Post. After completing training
courses at Bearcat Camp, I returned to Long Binh and served as the Staff
Sergeant Interpreter for the 18th U.S. Military Police Brigade
Headquarter. Long Binh Post was established on a former rubber
plantation on the eastside of the Dong Nai River, about 20 miles from
Saigon and 10 miles from Bien Hoa Air Force Base. It was the logistics,
maintenance, financial, supply, and command headquarters for the U.S.
Army in the Vietnam War. With a capacity of about one hundred thousand
personnel, Long Binh was the largest base.
As a Staff Sergeant Interpreter and
Translator, I often accessed the Second Gate and the Security Office of
Long Binh Post. The first day I came to the unit, I received my combat
equipment including: gray and camouflage clothing, helmet and armor,
boots, a mattress, blankets and mosquito nets, a Colt 45 pistol, an M16
rifle, grenades and ammunition, etc. When I tried to carry it all, I
could barely walk it was so heavy.
I lived in the NCO barracks with my unit and was assigned two
1. Civic Action. I was appointed to the 89th Military Police
Group Headquarters. After reporting to Commander Colonel McClean, I
served in the Civic Action Team of the Section 5 as an interpreter to
Colonel McClean and Sergeant Quicley. My team members and I had the
responsibility of collaborating with the 93rd Medical Evacuation Group.
We conducted health checkups, and distributed medicine and food to the
poor in Vietnam.
Other duties included building
schools, bridges, roads and markets for some of the villages around Long
Binh Post, such as Long Binh Tan, Long Phuoc Thon, Ben Go, Cho Sat, etc.
After each project was finished, the villagers held an inauguration with
the full participation of the American-Vietnamese authorities. It was my
duty to adequately interpret the information accurately and clearly.
2. Combat Action. When North Vietnamese Communists troops
(Vietcong) attacked the Long Binh Post with rockets in 1969, I followed
the 720th Military Police Battalion into combat, despite at times having
to walk through leeches and clinging mud. During one military operation,
we were stationed at a checkpoint on a hill in the Iron Triangle.
Our platoon led by Captain Johnson
was attacked by Vietcong. The disturbance woke me in the middle of the
night. I scanned the surrounding area with an infrared scope only to
find enemy boats full of Vietcong approaching the hill to attack us. I
quickly alerted Captain Johnson who assessed the situation.
He asked me to contact the radio
communications staff of the III Corps, Republic of Vietnam Army to
confirm that no operations were underway in the region before he ordered
us to open fire on the approaching troops. In fighting against the
Vietcong, I was wounded when a B40 shell landed near me and exploded.
I also served the U.S. Military Police,
patrolling in Jeeps, on gunships and helicopters, and in PBR boats on
the Dong Nai River. I worked at Bearcat Camp as an interpreter and
translator for Commander Captain Gettinger who had previously been a
lawyer in New York. Though my interpreter role was hard work, I learned
many new things.
Before the U.S. Army's withdrawal from the
Vietnam War, I transferred to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force as a
Second Lieutenant, where I graduated from the Thu Duc Officer Training
School. I applied and went to the United States of America for my flight
training, where I satisfactorily completed the prescribed courses of
instruction for the Air Education and Training Command.
In 1972, I graduated from Sheppard
Air Force Base in Texas with my Certificate of Aeronautical Rating.
During the more than two years of training in the United States, I
learned about airplanes, propellers, jets, aircraft weapons, bombs,
rocket missiles, air-to-air and air-to-ground tactics at the England AFB
in Louisiana. When I graduated from my military training courses, I
returned to Vietnam and entered military service during the war.
In 1973, U.S. troops went home following
The 1973 Paris Peace Agreement. By that time I had a thousand hours of
combat flying where I fought against Communism and for our freedom. I
flew on bombing missions, anti-communist attacks and supported allied
units. Unfortunately, during one mission, my plane was hit by a SAM 7
missile belonging to the enemy. My airplane’s cockpit filled with fire
and smoke. I was wounded but managed to parachute from the aircraft in
After being downed, I was captured by
Vietcong and became a prisoner of war. I was tortured and suffered many
hardships during my seven years as a POW at a camp I considered to be
the Gulag of Vietnam (*).
- (*) The Gulag Archipelago is
Solzhenitsyn’s attempt to compile a literary-historical record of the
vast system of prisons and labor camps that came into being shortly
after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 and that underwent
an enormous expansion during the rule of Stalin from 1924 to 1953.
The Vietcong used Stalinist methods to
punish prisoners of war. My thoughts about Communist society were shaped
by my experiences during this period: “From ape to man evolution took an
eon (one billion years, Karl Marx)… but in Vietnam, from man to ape…
only took one day.”
On April 30, 1975, the Vietcong attacked
and invaded South Vietnam to turn the country into Gulag. All officers
of the Republic of Vietnam were detained for a long time. The Prison
Administration of the Communist Party called the camps “re-education
camps,” but in fact they were actually POW camps. Prisoners were
required to refer to VC commanding officers in the camp as “Ong Ban:
Mister Staff,” and VC soldiers were known as “Anh Đoi: Brother Troop.”
In the early years I was cuffed by my legs
in the camp of U Minh Forest. The cuffs that they used were called
“Omega shackles,” referring to the famous brand of Swiss watches, since
the two iron rings were shaped like the Omega watch logo. When my foot
was cuffed in the cell, I had to sit on a pedestal with my legs straight
out in front of me.
If Ong Ban had no intention of punishing
me, he ordered his soldiers to place the shackles around my ankles
loosely. Conversely, if he wanted to punish me he could lock my ankles
into the two tighter rings and bind my feet down. When my ankles were in
the Omega cuffs my skin bruised and bled. A few days later they began to
fester and were extremely painful. The soldiers inserted a long iron rod
through the round holes of the Omega cuffs. The iron rod was then
attached to the pedestal. When they locked my cell door, the put the key
outside so I could not free myself.
The Vietcong also tortured and beat me.
They poured water into my nose until my stomach bloated, and then they
stepped on my stomach. Sometimes they hit me with the butt of their AK47
rifles, or kicked me in the face, causing me to lose some front teeth.
After they beat me, they'd often require me to write and rewrite my
biography a hundred times. I always worded it the same way, with no
changes or additions of any kind. They suspected I had served in the
U.S. Army, but I always denied it.
I knew that the Vietcong wanted information
about the U.S. Army in Vietnam. If I misspoke and hinted at my
connections to the U.S. Army, they would have repeatedly exploited me
until they had acquired enough information, then they would have killed
me. Although I was physically abused and tortured, lacked nutrition, and
was ill, my mind stayed sharp, powerful and wise enough to fight the
One day, the Vietcong brought me out of the
dark room without restraints. They let me see my wife very briefly when
she applied for a visit. The Vietcong wanted to use my wife to get more
information out of me and offered the false hope of being released and
getting home sooner. My wife always cried and would tell me, “You must
live." We started praying to St. Vincent (my Holy Saint) to protect me.
I promised Him that if I survived the experience, I would rename myself
as Vincent in His honor.
During my imprisonment, I saw the tragic
deaths of many of my friends. Some had their veins cut or shot, others
were beaten to death. I witnessed society’s many injustices, corruptions
and poverty. My captors were brutal people; domineering and murderous. I
always prayed to God to protect me and guide me to live in the truth,
kindness and peace. After seven years in prison, I was very weak and
always coughed up blood whenever the weather changed. The Vietcong
didn't want to have my death in prison on their hands, so they released
On May 2, 1982 I escaped from Vietnam,
fleeing by boat to a refugee camp in Thailand supervised by the Children
Foundation of Indonesia. On August 10, 1984 my family came to the United
States and settled in Everett, Washington. I changed my name to Vincent
Pham when I became a United States citizen, and worked to earn money for
my American education. As the saying goes, after the rain comes the
Thank you for listening. If you have any
questions, please feel free to ask.