Summary. American POWs organized themselves and communicated while in captivity. Organization and communication were often key to survival because prisoners could support one another through horrible times. Organization and communication also allowed them to know who was held with them and to report the identity of other POWs when they returned.
Every American who made it into the prison system is confirmed as having returned home or died in captivity, although the remains of some of those who died have not been recovered.
This article tells of one communication system -- the "tap code"
-- and of how the information the returnees brought out with them was analyzed. It
also tells how, in one case, this same information has been deliberately misused.
As usual, my writing will wander around a good bit but I will always come back to the point. And, the point is this: Every American who was observed by other Americans in captivity, and every American held by enemy forces in Southeast Asia, no matter where they were held, has been accounted for either by returning alive, by remains returned, or by being determined to have died in captivity and remains not yet recovered.
The specific topic of this post, the "pink, blue, and white pages" deals only with the Americans held in the prison system in North Vietnam.
First, an editorial comment that has little to do with this article
Training given to US military personnel regarding how they are to behave in captivity covers a variety of topics. One important matter, however, is organization and communication while a prisoner of war. POWs are to establish communications with each other and they are to organize a chain of command. The senior POW is in command and the chain of command lays out along the same structure as a normal military unit would. POWs are to use any method possible to communicate with each other.
The chain of command and communication are necessary for several reasons.
I am critical of the military services in the area of training personnel for being captured. The USAF and the Navy do an excellent job of training their aircrews, especially the pilots, co-pilots, navigators, Electronic Warfare Officers, and other similar people. These guys go through survival school, learn all about survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE). The special operations people and special ops aircrews get a thorough grounding in SERE.
On the other hand, there is precious little serious training provided to anybody else. What about the grunt? Read Zalin Grant's "The Survivors." Those guys, including the officers, had no real training in what to do and how to do it. The fact that they hung on as well as they did speaks highly for them as individuals and as soldiers.
The services do little or nothing to prepare people emotionally and spiritually for what they may encounter. Read Jim and Sybil Stockdale's "In Love and War."
Finally, we do not a damn thing to prepare people for the political side of what they will face. You see, back in The Big One (WW II), the idea of name, rank, and serial number made good sense because enemies up to that point wanted tactical information from POWs. Beginning with the Korean War, the nature of treatment of POWs changed from a tactical interest to a political interest. US POWs from Korea, of all services, underwent very little interrogation about tactical or operational information. We prepared them to resist answering questions about their unit's strength, morale, plans, equipment, and operations. No one prepared them to be subjected to political indoctrination by Chinese political officers who were masters of the big lie and of what was called "brainwashing."
Ditto for Vietnam. The Vietnamese were not interested in tactical or operational information. They wanted men who would spy on their fellow prisoners, who would write leaflets for distribution to other GIs, and who would make radio broadcasts denouncing the US and the war. Returnees tell of very little interrogation about tactical, operational, or technical subjects. The torture was to get them to denounce their country and their fellow soldiers. We were still training people for name-rank-serial number. All the SERE training in the world will do you no damn good when what the other guy wants out of you is a confession that you are bombing women and children or that your country is wrong to be attacking some helpless little nation that wants only to live in peace. Now, back to the subject.
The tap code and other POW communications
US POWs in the North Vietnamese prison system communicated using any means available, which means, principally, the "tap code," "visible codes," and various "message drops."
The Tap Code
Most everyone has heard about the "tap code." You can tap on anything -- rice bowl, wall, water pipes, cell door, whatever will make a sound. If you tap in some sort of code, you can communicate. The tap code used by US POWs in North Vietnam is similar to Morse Code but it is not Morse.
Morse characters require a "dit" (short sound), a "dah" (long sound), and a space (no sound). When you are tapping, you have available to you only a short sound - - tap -- and a space (no tap). The old railroad Morse (the "clickety-clack" code that I heard when I visited Mr. McElwee in the railroad station in Centreville, Mississippi, in the late 1940s) uses only a tap ("click") and the space between the clicks -- a short space or a long space -- to make the dits and dahs. But, railroad Morse is not an easy thing to deal with.
The tap code as used by US POWs uses two sets of taps for each letter. C and K are identical and other abbreviations were developed. The tap code is established by arranging 25 letters in five columns and five rows. Letters in Row 1 are formed by sending one tap then either one, two, three, four, or five taps to identify the specific letter. Same for Rows 2, 3, 4, and 5. The tap code
Thus, to send an A, tappausetap. Pause between letters is twice as long as the pause
between elements. That is, to send the name Joe: taptappausetaptaptaptaptap pausepause
taptaptappausetaptaptaptap pausepause tappausetaptaptaptaptap
Names in the prison system
When POWs communicated in prison in the North, they talked about all sorts of things but a primary goal was to identify one another. When a new guy arrived, every possible attempt was made to contact him and find out who he was. The POWs had themselves organized and, in each organization, one or more were designated as memory banks. Their job was to collect and remember every name. When POWs were moved around, they were integrated into the organization of the place to which they were moved and they were queried as to who they knew in the place from which they came. The system was, in the main, effective. Read some of their memoirs to see how it worked.
Keep in mind, however, these inherent problems with about the tap
code and other communications:
The pink, blue, and white pages
When POWs were returned at Clark AB in the Philippines, a primary topic for debriefing was to get them to identify other prisoners. The returnees were asked to simply "dump" -- tell every name they heard. Do the best you can with spelling, pronunciation, and accuracy but the most important thing is to dump it all. We will then start sorting things out.
That first dump -- a listing of everything that the POWs remembered -- was transmitted back to a task force of DIA and military service analysts. This raw, unevaluated data was printed on PINK paper. Why? To call everyone's attention to it. The pink paper is the names. Nothing else goes on pink paper and make no changes on the pink pages.
Analysts then set about identifying everyone on the pink pages. The whole purpose of this process was to identify every name on the list: -- Whose name is this? -- Where did you get the name? -- Did he return? -- If not, what do the person (or persons) who reported his name know about him? -- Is this the name of a man in the prison system, or, was it a name that someone was asking about (squadron mate, classmate, etc.)? Good, clean names were easy to deal with. Then, there were duplicates and misspellings that could be cleared up fairly easily.
For anything that was not obvious, debriefers went back to the source(s) and questioned them about the name: Where did you get this name? What else can you tell us about it? This initial screening took several months and, in late 1973, a cleaned-up version of the names was published on BLUE paper, to separate this initially-analyzed version from the pink pages.
Then, the analysts went back on names that still were not clear. The returnees had some names of men who did not return. In every case, it was determined that these did not represent the names of men who were known to have been in the system. Instead, these were names that people were asking about, not the names of people that someone had actually talked to or had had other contact with.
The results of this final round of analysis were published in the WHITE
pages. These are the final determinant of who had contact with whom in the Vietnamese
An example of how well the system worked
One commonly-held misperception about POWs in the North concerns the LULUs -- the "Legendary Union of Laotian Unfortunates." This was the name that nine of the thirteen Americans captured in Laos by the North Vietnamese gave to themselves.
The common myth is that this group of POWs captured in Laos was kept strictly isolated from other Americans in the North and, by extension, other Americans were isolated, never communicated with anyone, and were kept behind at Homecoming. While it is true that this group of the POWs from Laos were separated from other US POWs in Hanoi, they were not isolated. ("Separate" and "isolated" are two different conditions. And, the US POWs were so well organized that men held in solitary confinement were able to communicate.)
In fact, the LULUs were held in some of the most populated prisons -- Hanoi Hilton and the Plantation. They were held in their own section of the prison and were not permitted to mingle with the other US POWs. However, the other US POWs saw the LULUs when they were out of their cells and communicated with them. The names of these men moved from Laos, and their presence in the system in North Vietnam, were well known to the other US POWs. Orgnaization, discipline, and communcations worked.
An example of misuse of the pink, blue, and white pages
If you review the list of missing, you find the name of Navy LT Philip A. Collamore, a F-4 crewmember lost in February 1967. On the pink pages is the notation that a returnee had "first hand contact via tap code" with Collamore. His name, and the notation, do not appear in the blue pages or the white pages. Why not? Because, in the analysis that was being done to determine which names were of men in prison, analysts went back to the returnee who, according to the pink pages, had had "first hand contact via tap code" with Collamore. He stated that he had had NO SUCH CONTACT, did not know Collamore. The returnee said that he DID have contact via tap code with a "COL LAMAR" (Colonel Lamar).
When he produced that name during his initial debriefing, the interviewers did the prudent thing and looked for variations on COL LAMAR, allowing for inaccurate communications via tap code. COL LAMAR is very close to COLLAMORE, so, in the initial report, Collamore emerged as a possible tap code contact. However, the individual who reported COL LAMAR affirmed that he had no contact with Collamore, that he did tap with COL LAMAR, and a review of returnees showed that, sure enough, Lieutenant Colonel Lamar was in the same prison with the other returnee and was communicating via tap code. Furthermore, the Collamore name did not appear anywhere else and was not reported by anyone else. End of story. Almost.
As the Senate Select Committee was winding down, Senator Bob Smith released a list of 324 "still unaccounted for" MIAs "who may have survived in captivity." One of the names on this list was Collamore and the evidence cited was the entry in the pink pages. I spoke with Dino Carluccio, Smith's assistant, about the pink, blue, and white pages. Dino confirmed to me that his information had come from the pink pages; that, yes, he fully understood that the pink pages were raw, unevaluated data; no, he was not about to clean up the "Smith list" even if some of it was based on erroneous information.
ADM Jim Stockdale contacted the man who was cited as the tap code contact with Collamore who, once again, confirmed that no such contact occurred. Senator Smith's list of still-missing men also contained the names of five men whose remains had been returned years before. And, a review of the records of the men on the list revealed that over half had been determined to have perished in their incidents and there was very little hope that any of the others survived.
In the End
Returning POWs had a lot of information about other men held in prison with them. Their training and ingenuity enabled them to organize themselves and to communicate under inhumane conditions. It's a shame that some of their efforts are misrepresented.
[Note: The original of this warticle was posted on the soc.history.war.vietnam newsgroup
(SHWV). All SHWV messages, FAQs and related files are archived at http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/shwv/shwvhome.html]