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Picture: CORBIS. American soldier Floyd James Thompson was captured on March 26, 1964 and released March 16, 1973. He spent 10 days short of 9 years (8 years, 355 days) as a POW, he is the longest held POW of the Vietnam war and longest held POW in the United States history.

Picture: CORBIS.
American soldier Floyd James Thompson was captured on March 26, 1964 and released March 16, 1973. He spent 10 days short of 9 years (8 years, 355 days) as a POW, he is the longest held POW of the Vietnam war and longest held POW in the United States history.

 The Glory and Tragedy of a P.O.W.

In the early years of American involvement in Southeast Asia, most Americans were not aware of the situation there. When Floyd J. Thompson told his mother he was being shipped out to Vietnam for a six-month tour in early 1964, she asked, “Where the hell is that?”  He replied, “I don’t know.”

Col. Floyd James “Jim” Thompson of the U.S. Army Special Forces was captured by the Vietcong in South Vietnam in March 1964 and held longer than any other prisoner of war in American history, suffering greatly physically and emotionally.

If there was ever a man who never got a break in his life, it was Jim Thompson. Raised by a domineering and abusive father, drafted into the Army he at first hated military life but then came to love it. But in the military things did not come easily for Thompson. Commissioned through OCS, he did not volunteer for Special Forces but is ordered into it when the Army, at JFK’s directive, rapidly expands the Green Berets.

Sent to Vietnam, Thompson and his team were sent to one the most remote and potentially dangerous outposts the Army had and he and his team found themselves very quickly in over their heads.

Thompson’s saga as a POW for nearly 9 years was a brutal one, isolation, malnutrition, torture. It is not until he has been a prisoner over 4 yrs that he finally met other Americans, a group of soldiers and civilian personnel captures at Hue during the Tet Offensive. By this point Thompson was reduced to about 100 lbs and looked to the other POWs to be in his 70s when he’s actually in his mid 30s.

After his return is even more brutal, betrayal by his wife, divorce, alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, career problems, totally dysfunctional children, attempted suicide, psychiatric hospitalization.The Thompson family was literally destroyed by the Vietnam War and there were almost no survivors.

Thompson was meant to serve only a six-month tour of duty, but was held prisoner of war and, suffered many long years of brutal torture and deprivation in jungle cages and cold prison cells. Yet, he still remains a relatively obscure figure of the Vietnam War.

On March 26, 1964, an L-19 observation plane co-piloted by Thompson was shot down by small arms fire 20 kilometers west of his Special Forces camp at Khe Sanh in the Republic of South Vietnam. Thompson, who suffered a broken back, a bullet wound across the cheek and burns, was captured shortly thereafter by the Viet Cong.

The Viet Cong strapped Thompson to a bamboo stretcher and quickly moved him away from the crash site through a maze of jungle trails which led to a series of camps, from which they conducted their attacks on the South Vietnamese.

The Viet Cong provided Thompson with very little medical care, telling  him there was nothing wrong with his back. For more than a month, Thompson was unable to care for himself, depending on his captors to keep him alive by feeding him rice gruel, the only food he could keep down.

When Thompson inquired about what happened to his pilot, Air Force Capt. Richard L. Whitesides, the Viet Cong told him that Whitesides had been killed. Whitesides is still listed missing in action. U.S. search planes and ground patrols failed to find any sign of Thompson’s downed L-19. No one knew if Thompson or Whitesides were alive or dead.

Thompson began to lose weight rapidly in captivity and then suffered his first attack of malaria. He realized that unless he learned to take care of himself, he would certainly die. He disciplined himself to ignore the pain and began to wiggle his toes and to stretch his arms and legs. By June, 1964, Thompson had recovered to the point that he could sit and walk.

Soon after, Viet Cong interrogators made him the target of three months of torture that almost killed him. Finally in August, Thompson gave in and signed a propaganda statement saying he was being treated well and praising the strength of communist forces.

It was that same month a young Navy pilot, Lt. (jg) Everett Alvarez was shot down over North Vietnam during a retaliatory raid that later became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Alvarez’s capture was highly publicized by the international press. As the war continued to escalate and the public became more interested in the plight of U.S. servicemen held captive in Vietnam, Alvarez was presented over and over again as the longest held U.S. prisoner of war. He and a handful of other prominent POWs, mostly aviators, became the symbols of a national campaign to free captured U.S. servicemen.

The American servicemen held captive in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were virtually ignored. They were mostly enlisted men captured on the ground who were being held in primitive bamboo cages and as a result, had no organized command structure within their peers as was developed by American prisoners in North Vietnamese prisons. Although Alvarez topped every Pentagon list of POWs by 1969, there was no mention of Thompson, whose name the Pentagon refused to make public.

In the late 60’s, when POW/MIA organizations began engraving the names of America’s missing servicemen on bracelets as part of their campaigns to force communist Vietnam to release American prisoners, Thompson’s name was never engraved on a bracelet. The POW/MIA organizations had been refused permission from Thompson’s wife to put his name on POW/MIA bracelets. Thompson had left for Vietnam the day after Christmas, 1963, leaving behind Alyce, his wife of nine years, and three daughters — Pam, 6; Laura, 4; Ruth, 3. He had been in Vietnam less than three months on a six-month temporary assignment from Ft. Bragg, N.C., when he was shot down. The day after he was shot down, an Army officer visited the Thompson home to notify Alyce that her husband was missing in action.

The news sent Alyce into labour and she gave birth that evening to the couple’s only son. Alyce, now with a newborn and three more small children to care for and not knowing if her husband was alive or dead, felt overwhelmed. In the beginning, relatives, friends and sympathetic neighbours gave her much needed support. But that slowly dissipated until she was again alone. In the spring of 1965, Alyce sent word to the Army to forward Thompson’s allotment checks to an address in Massachusetts belonging to an Army sergeant she had met a year before at the post bowling alley. She gathered her kids and moved in with the sergeant who had just retired to Massachusetts.

Alyce, insisting she needed privacy for the sake of her children, warned the Army never to release Thompson’s name to the public. “He went through hell, but I went through hell too,” she later claimed. “There are certain things I did I’m not too proud of. But I felt I had to do them for my children and to keep my sanity.” In the meantime, the Viet Cong continued to brutalize Thompson with constant beatings and deprivation.

In July 1967, the Viet Cong started Thompson walking, blindfolded, on a long journey up the Ho Chi Minh trail toward North Vietnam. He was kept isolated from other U.S. prisoners. Upon reaching the eighth POW camp on the trail, his Viet Cong interrogators escalated their torture. They wanted him to sign statements proving that the United State’s involvement in Vietnam was criminal and when he refused, his guards beat him with bamboo sticks. They choked him and hung him by his thumbs. They tied his elbows behind his back and hung him from a rafter until he passed out.

At night he was tossed into a tiny wooden cage in which he was handcuffed and shackled in leg irons. When he refused to bow to his captors, they denied him food for three days and nights and followed with a “lesson” in bowing. The guards grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head onto the hard earth until he was unconscious. It wasn’t until Thompson was nearly halfway through his captivity that he was confined with other American prisoners. He later made an escape attempt with Lew Meyer, a Navy civilian employee.

The Viet Cong captured them within two days. Both men were severely punished for the attempt. Thompson was finally moved to the “Hanoi Hilton” in Hanoi on January 28, 1973. Two weeks later, Alvarez was released from there in the first group of prisoners to go home. Headlines all over the United States declared that Alvarez, the longest held POW, had finally been released. A month later, the “mystical” Thompson was returned to the United States.

Tom Philpott, writing for the Air Force Times described Thompson’s family reunion:

“On the morning of March 20, 1973, one wing of Valley Forge Army Hospital, Pa., began to crackle with excitement. A small crowd gathered expectantly in the hallways as word spread. In his two-room suite, Jim Thompson donned his green beret at the proper rakish angle and walked with Alyce and their escort officers down the corridor through double glass doors and outside into the crisp morning air. Though terribly thin and pale, and sporting deep circles under his eyes, Thompson wore a broad smile as he waited at the top of a cement ramp.

“Medical staff and fellow patients pressed against every available window to glimpse a scene that would burn in their memory for a lifetime. America’s longest held POW was about to meet his daughters for the first time in nine years and to hold a son he had never seen. Suddenly the children rounded the corner and turned into the sunshine. The girls had grown from golden haired toddlers to teen-age brunettes. The only towhead now among them suddenly bolted from his sisters and ran up the ramp. “Jimmy!”

“The boy leapt into his father’s arms and knocked the skinny soldier to the pavement. There they sat hugging each other as Pamela, Laura and Ruth piled on. The escorts remembered they had lumps in their throats the size of golf balls and tears blurred their camera angles. At that moment, Alyce says, she decided to return to Jim, if he would have her, so the children would know their father.”

After the homecoming, Alyce did return to Thompson, but their marriage fell apart in the summer of 1974 and they divorced soon after. Thompson said he could not forget how Alyce lived while he was in captivity. He began to drink heavily.

Coming home, it was not to parades and cheers, but rather to a cynical public jaded by a war that had ripped the nation’s soul apart. Thompson said. I never gave up hope I would come home again.” “There still may be American soldiers being held in other parts of the world.”

“I still wonder and think,” he said. “I care for them and I don’t want them forgotten.”

Alyce remarried and Thompson’s second marriage failed in 1977. He went into depression and finally ended up in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. After several years of therapy and regular sessions with Alcoholics Anonymous, Thompson’s life had begun a turn for the better. In January 1981, Thompson, who was still on active duty, suffered a mild heart attack. Then a few weeks later, a severe stroke left him unable to read, write or speak effectively.

Thompson moved to Key West in 1981 after being medically retired from the U.S. Army, where he remained active in the community, according to the Monroe County Office of Veterans Affairs. On July 8, 2002, the staff of JIATF (Joint Interagency Task Force) East and some of his close friends threw Thompson a birthday party. He was described as being in high spirits and full of excitement. During the celebration, he quoted General Douglas MacArthur: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

Eight days later, Thompson was found dead in his Key West By the Sea Condominium on July 16, 2002, at the age of 69. His body was cremated, and his ashes scattered at sea off the coast of Florida and there is a memorial marker for him at Andersonville National Cemetery.

Ted Sampley

The Glory And Tragedy Of a P.O.W. Scorned

Floyd J. Thompson, 69; Held Longest of Any U.S. POW

J. Thompson, 69, Longtime P.O.W., Dies

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