On this day in history, Hanoi publishes a letter that states that any American pilots that were captured in North Vietnam would not be treated as POWs. A POW or a prisoner of war is a recognized category under international law, these prisoners have definite rights according to the Geneva Convention. If a captured enemy combatant is accorded the status of a POW he or she must be treated in a certain manner and their human rights must be respected.
On this date in 1965, Hanoi announced that American pilots were not regarded by it as POWs and therefore had no legal protection under international law. That is because America and North Vietnam were not actually in a formal state of war. They argued from a legal point of view that any American pilot captured was, therefore, a criminal who was engaged in unlawful violence against their country. This was very controversial at the time and since.
The American government was outraged and they made a formal protest via the Red Cross to the North Vietnamese but they did not relent. The first American pilot was shot down and captured over North Vietnam the previous year and had been accorded the status of a POW. He was the first of many American airmen who were to be shot down over raids in North Vietnam. The US air force bombarded North Vietnam for ten years and dropped millions of tons of explosives.
The Communist nation’s air force was quickly neutralized in 1964 but the Soviets supplied them with state-of-the-art anti-aircraft weapons, including the formidable SAM missile system. These were very accurate and posed a real threat to the American airmen in the skies over Vietnam. Hundreds of planes and other aircraft were shot down over North Vietnamese territory. The Americans were able to rescue some downed pilots but many were killed or captured.
American POWs were held in eleven different prisons in North Vietnam. It is not known how many Americans were captured but there were at least 700 at one stage. Because the Americans were denied the status of a POW, they were treated very badly. They were starved and held in isolation and they were often tortured. One of the airmen captured was the future Presidential Candidate John McCain, who was tortured by the communists. After the American withdrawal from Vietnam, under a peace agreement, in 1973, some 565 military personnel held captive in Communist prisons or camps were released. There is still some controversy as to whether the North Vietnamese released all their American prisoners and some maintained that US servicemen were still being held prisoner many years after the end of the war.