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Garwood: The Last POW? This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

PFC Robert R. Garwood, 2069669, USMC. I was just a driver, ten days left in the country of Vietnam I was gonna go home and be married. September 28, 1965, a day that I would never forget. I was supposed to pick up an officer at Marble Mountain where First Force Recon was being held at. I was driving around looking for First Force Recon for who knows how long. Long enough for the sun to go down. I decided to go back to base, but I was surrounded by over two dozen VC guerrillas with AK-47s who are trained to kill me. I never felt so scared in my life. I jumped to the ground, drew my .45 automatic pistol and fired twice into the advancing circle full of VC. I shot one square in the face, killing him instantly. A bullet ripped clean through my right arm between the bones. The VC swarmed on me, seized my pistol, took off my boots and stripped me down to my skivvies. I went into shock as they tied my elbows tightly together behind my back. They looped the rope around my neck and back down between the elbows. Next they stuck a stout bamboo pole through the bend in my bound elbows and across my back. I didn’t know where I was going, or if I was going to make it out alive.

When I came out of shock, my arm began to throb with excruciating pain. In the struggle, the bullet hole through my arm had become almost completely packed with sand and dirt. My wound was left to fester untreated in this filthy condition for the next three days. I was expected to be executed at any moment. Instead, they blindfolded me and led me off into the night. One VC always held the end of the rope around my neck. Barefoot, unable to see and with no arms for balance, I stumbled very often. Each time I did, the rope around my neck would be jerked tight and began to strangle me. They led me through one VC village after another, all around DaNang. It seemed that I was the first American Marine they had captured and they wanted to show everyone that these giant aliens could be made to look miserable and, especially, to feel pain. At each village, young boys threw stones at my head, at my wounded arm and at my privates. Whenever I yelped in pain, they squealed in delight. They would sneak up behind me and jab sharp bamboo sticks up my butt. The VC marched me all through the second night in a cold, bone-chilling rain. I, wearing only my shorts, shivered violently as I stumbled along on my bleeding and swelling feet. By the third day, my wound had become infected and my arm had swollen up to three times its normal size and it began to stink like rotting meat.

On the tenth night, my guard fell asleep and I had a chance to escape. But, they found me at dawn and marched me up into the mountains to a permanent prison camp. I was the only American there. They had placed me in a small bamboo cage. The next morning I awoken to a fever and the chills of a severe malaria attack. For the next seven days I lay helpless in my cage, too weak to move and unable to eat. As soon as the malaria attacks subsided and I began to eat a little, my bowels were seized by amoebic dysentery. I had to defecate so fast and often that all I could do was squat on the floor of my cage and let it go. No one came to clean up after me and the overpowering stench kept the guards well clear. Between my violent bowel movements I slept constantly, but I never felt rested. When I began to recover and saw how emaciated I was, I became extremely alarmed. I guessed that my weight had dropped from 187 to under 120 pounds. I was suffering from hunger edema. My joints were swollen and my belly was bloated. I couldn't see the large dark circles around my sunken eyes. I escaped again one night before my arm was completely healed. This time they caught me and threw me into a freshly dug hole seven feet deep and barely big enough for me to sit in. For six days I sat in complete darkness as my own excrement piled up around me. When they pulled me out, they locked my ankles into raised bamboo stocks. My slightest movement caused the bamboo to cut cruelly into my flesh. I lay flat on my back for seven more days. When they finally unlocked the stocks, I was so weak that I had to be carried and thrown back into the cage.

Three months later, I met Green Beret Captain Ike Eisenbraun when he was led into the camp. He looked like a Nazi death camp survivor when he weight less than 100 pounds. I was never so glad to see anyone else in my life. Ike spoke Vietnamese, fluently, and knew how to survive. He was weak and sick from months of brutal mistreatment, but to me he was full of strength and wisdom. Most of the time Ike would force me to catch and eat rats for precious protein. He taught me how to speak the language, with his expert tutoring, I became fluent in Vietnamese surprisingly fast. As the war goes on, more American soldiers were taken prisoner and sent to the camp. The new prisoners were shocked by the grisly appearance of Ike and myself. We were wearing the same clothing as the guards. Even the camp administrators kept us away from the new POWs. I was forced to translate for the cadre when they held propaganda and interrogation sessions. They wanted the new POWs to believe that I can’t be trusted. They succeeded! After receiving cruel beatings from the guards Ike died on September 17, 1967 when he feel out of his hammock and punctured his lungs. I’d loved him like a father. I buried Ike with my own hands and thereafter I sank into deep and major depression.

More than a dozen POWs died while in the camp. I tried to convince them to eat the rats to stay alive. They refused to believe me. Most of them died of hunger edema. When a man would stop eating and start sleeping constantly, he was in danger of dying within days. I even stole handfuls of rice and sometimes an egg for them whenever I could. In late 1969, I was finally caught stealing and sentenced to death. I was led away alone to a camp near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In May 1970, this camp was bombed by B-52s. After the blast, I was blind for six months and deaf for a year. When I could walk again, I was marched up into North Vietnam. I worked alone under guard on a farm, growing pumpkins for the enemy.

Upon hearing Radio Hanoi announce in early 1973 that the Paris Peace Accords were signed and prisoners would be released, my spirits rose. I listened very carefully as 591 names were being read. When I didn't hear my name, my heart sank. I wanted to go home so I can see my family again and move on with my life by marrying Donna. Was that too much to ask for!? As weeks passed and no one came to get me, I guessed the awful truth, they weren't going to let me go. I was moved to a large prison camp closer to Hanoi. A guard and a driver took me all around Hanoi to fix broken down vehicles. In the summer of 1977, a stopped train blocked our way. Suddenly a boxcar right in front of them opened and 30 to 40 Americans climbed out cursing the heat in English. I knew then that I wasn't the only one left there for dead. I tricked the driver into dealing on the black market. I was hoping for a chance to slip a note to a foreigner near the hotels.

During Tet in 1979, I finally got my chance. Ossi Rahkonen, a Finnish diplomat took my note to London. The BBC broadcast it to a stunned world. The U.S. State Department fiddled around for a month arranging my release. At that moment, I knew that I was coming home. My captors were really furious. They subjected me to 20 days of electric shock treatments in a desperate attempt to fry my memory. They have threatened to execute all of the other POWs if I have spoken if them after I was release. On the jetliner out of Hanoi, I was toasted with champagne by a weeping French flight crew. I wept with them. I couldn't believe I was finally free after 14 years of hell.

Upon landing in Bangkok, the first Marine I saw, a Gunnery Sergeant Langlois, read my rights and arrested me as a suspect deserter. One hell of a welcome home, don’t you think. He even told me that my mother, my grandmother, my Uncle Bud, and my niece, Tammie passed away during my time in captivity. On February 5, 1981, the court-martial found me guilty of collaborating with the enemy. Of course I did it. I did it because they told me I would go home. My appeal is still pending. Recently declassified files prove that the Pentagon knew I was still alive after 1973. I was abandoned by my own government! They even told my own father that I was dead. On his own, I escaped and returned to the United States. I was charged with Desertion. If convicted, I could have been executed. Were the other American POWs I saw executed by Hanoi? To this day, nobody's talking!

It doesn’t matter what you think of me, or my actions. I lost 14 years of my life. I promised my friend, Ike, I would come home. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so lucky. But, I will tell you this. I am NOT the last American to be released from Vietnam. I still believe there are others out there, and they will come home someday. I’m home Ike. I’m home.

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