They Wouldn’t Let Us Die: The Prisoners of War Tell Their Story
The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese
These books have one central purpose: to present the case that American prisoners in North Vietnam were subjected to physical torture, humiliation, and psychological torment. They inevitably raise large questions about motive and guilt, ends and means. But first one has to answer a factual question: Is the case made out? Were the prisoners really tortured? My answer is Yes.
Major Konrad W. Trautman was one of many returned prisoners interviewed by Stephen Rowan, a CBS television correspondent, for his book. Major Trautman said:
Let me try to tell you what it really feels like when they tightly bind your wrists and elbows behind your back with nylon straps—then take the strap and pull the arms up, up your back, to the back of your head. If you can remember when you were a little boy, the fooling around you did, and someone grabs your hand and just twists your arm up to your back, and says: “Say Uncle.” He does it with just one hand. And this, as you remember, is a very severe pain. Well, imagine this with both arms tied tight together—elbow to elbow, wrist to wrist—and then, using the leverage of his feet planted between your shoulder blades, with both hands, he pulls with all his might, till your arms are up and back over your head, forcing your head down between your feet, where your legs are between iron bars.
The pain is literally beyond description, but it was so excruciating to me that I let out a loud scream. And then, when I did, I learned that you are not allowed to scream when you are being tortured. You are not allowed to scream! As soon as I screamed, the guard grabbed one of the shackles lying on the floor and he just rammed it into my mouth, and if I had not opened my mouth to absorb the impact, I would have lost all of my teeth…. People are going through physical pain that’s beyond description, yet you can’t hear a sound. You can hear the irons drop, you can hear limbs being compressed and stretched….
A number of former prisoners mentioned that same form of torture—trussing the body with straps or ropes. Colonel Risner says in his book that he felt a shoulder start to slip out of its socket under the pressure. Commander Robert H. Shumaker, maintaining a tone of remarkable calm in a talk with Rowan, described the rope treatment and then said: “To keep me from screaming, they had a rag on a long metal rod that they shoved down my throat. You know, these guys are just not skilled at this thing. They did some damage to the extent that I have a little trouble swallowing now. They did some nerve damage. It was a bad summer. I can recall praying for death….”
That is not the only kind of mistreatment described. Men were beaten and limbs broken. Their legs were clamped …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Torture of Our Prisoners May 2, 1974