During their confinement, the American POWs were subject to brutal treatment at the hands of their captors, in clear violation of international law. They were routinely beaten, tortured, and abused. They were denied proper medical care and received meager, often spoiled, food rations. They were often kept in solitary confinement and were denied contact with their families back home.
On February 12, 1973 – three weeks after the Paris Accords ending the war had been signed – the first American POWs landed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
The first man off the plane, Navy Captain Jeremiah Denton, approached a microphone and declared in a firm voice that broke only as he spoke the last three words of this brief statement:
We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander in Chief, and to our nation for this day. God bless America.
Men in the first group of prisoners to be released celebrate as their C-141 lifts off the ground in Hanoi. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Commander Robert J. Flynn homecoming uniform.
Commander Flynn was captured August 21, 1967 and was released on March 15, 1973. The Commander on the day of his release refused to wear the Chinese issued “Mao” style blue uniform, preferring to wear a combination of US Navy and Korean clothing on display here. Commander Flynn was one of only two military POWs held in China.
Excerpt from a conversation between President Nixon and Roger Shields in the White House on April 11, 1973. Mr. Shields was Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense and played a major role in the plans that led to the release of the Vietnam prisoners of war. In the segment Mr. Shields recounts for the President the release of the first group of returning POWs. (White House Tapes, Conversation 89-13).
This flag flew over Clark Air Force Base when the first group of prisoners of war returned under the terms of the Paris Peace agreement. Later it flew over the White House during the dinner for the returning POWs.
Not wanting the flag to fly at half staff during the celebration for the return of the POWs, President Nixon called Lady Bird Johnson to ask if she would be willing to raise the flag to honor the POWs. She agreed that President Johnson would have wanted the flag flying high to honor the men he had also worked to bring home. On display is the Presidential Proclamation ordering the flag to full staff.
On January 22, 1973, just a day after he learned that a peace accord in Vietnam was imminent, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, died of a heart attack. President Nixon declared a thirty-day mourning period, during which the flag was to fly at half mast. Shortly after President Johnson’s, death the US and North Vietnam agreed that February 12, 1973 would be the date of the first release of POWs.