History: Dahl helped improve life for enemy POWs

From the May 24, 2001 Sangre de Cristo Chronicle

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Lt. Col. John Dahl in his military uniform. (Photo courtesy John Dahl)

By Jessica Johnson

It was 1972 and Lt. Col. John Dahl was stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he was chief of the Physical Security Division for the United States. He was visited by two colonels from Washington, D.C.

“They said, ‘Johnny, you’re going back to Vietnam” Johnny recalls. “I said, ‘That’s not fair, why me?’ And they said, ‘You’ve been hand-picked to go to a POW (prisoner of war) camp on Phuquoc Island.”

As it turns out, that assignment was one of the most memorable in his almost 22-year stint with the Army. Phuquoc Island, explains Johnny, is located off Vietnam’s southeastern shore and is about 8 miles wide and 25 miles long.

The camp for North Vietnamese prisoners had consistently received low ratings for its mistreatment of prisoners and had become a “major concern” for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), according to a 1975 article in The Washington Post which called it “stinking,” “rotten” and “catastrophic.”

The colonels told him what they wanted him to do. “There are four things we know you can get done,” they said. “Number one, eliminate all inhumane treatment to the prisoners; two, provide and ensure that every prisoner is in the best health he could be in and immunize them all for the plague, smallpox and cholera; three, ensure the escapes from the prison are eliminated and four, account for all the prisoners, including those who have died.”

So back he went, after having served as assistant provost marshal of military police in Long Bien from 1966 to 1967. It was during that first year in Vietnam that Johnny walked the perimeter of his compound through areas cleared by Agent Orange, a duty which eventually claimed his eyesight, leaving him legally blind in 1993.

Phuquoc

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The Phuquoc Island P.O.W. camp was ‘home’ to about 30,000 North Vietnamese prisoners during John Dahl’s time as senior U.S. advisor. (Photo courtesy John Dahl)

At Phuquoc, he was senior U.S. advisor at the camp of about 31,000 prisoners. His counterpart, the commanding officer, was a South Vietnamese man, Lt. Col. Bui Bang Duc (pronounced “zuke”).

“I was told I had to be a very firm leader to the camp commander,” remembers Johnny.

He got to work right away. “When I arrived, the camp commander requested my presence. I walked into the room which was full of my advisory team and all his officers. He motioned for me to come in and sit down in a chair.”

Duc spoke to Johnny in Vietnamese (though Johnny later learned he could speak English), rudely asking what he planned to do about the prisoners who wouldn’t work. “I looked at my interpreter and said, ‘You tell him I’ll tell him tomorrow.’ Then, because he had been so rude, I got up and left,” he said, adding the roomfull of people watched him in astonishment.

But Johnny didn’t ignore the commander’s request. “I put my staff to brainstorming and they stayed up all night. When I went over there the next morning, they didn’t have an answer for me. I asked them, ‘What do we do with our own unruly prisoners? Put them on bread and water. That’s what I’m going to tell the commander.’”

This meeting proved to be much more amicable, perhaps because Duc saw he couldn’t push Johnny around. They agreed to try the bread and water diet and got clearance from Washington. But the prisoners wouldn’t eat.

“For 12 days, every day, we put out the bread and water and they wouldn’t come out and pick it up,” says Johnny. “On the twelfth day, each one of the leaders of the (prisoner) compounds wanted to meet with me. We brought them in and the commander asked them, ‘If the senior advisor will give you back your regular diet, will you go back to work?’ They said yes.”

That first butting of heads was not without cost, however. Johnny said 12 prisoners died, though a medical team checked each prisoner every day.

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(Photo courtesy John Dahl)

More housekeeping

Another change Johnny made as soon as he got there was to eliminate “tiger cages.” He described them as barbed wire boxes about 2 feet high, 2 feet wide and 5 feet long. “They’d wire the prisoners in there and leave them in the hot sun every day.”

In their place, he brought in 6-foot metal cubes with barred windows — the same used for American prisoners — in which to confine unruly North Vietnamese.

The escapes were next on the list to deal with. “The prisoners were cutting off a piece of tin from the roof and cutting teeth in it to make a saw,” he explains. They would then saw a hole in the floor and start tunneling out.

Johnny and his team identified the compounds which did the most tunneling and found a solution. “I said, ‘We’re going to move them every 6 weeks.’ I had no more prisoner escapes after that.”

He also worked to get the prisoners’ cemetery cleaned up. “You couldn’t even hardly find it. I told the camp commander, I wanted the graveyard cleaned up, markers for every grave and a diagram of the cemetery.”

Things ran pretty smoothly after all that, he recalls. The camp didn’t receive any more unsatisfactory ratings and the ICRC reported, “In general terms, mistreatment no longer exists at the Phuquoc camp.”

Delays

But there were still a few more mishaps along the way. When the war was over and it came time to release the prisoners, a 4-party investigation team from North Vietnam arrived on the island to go through the compounds and inspect the prisoners.

The camp commander had 15 jeeps waiting for the team and their staff — all bearing South Vietnamese flag stickers on the windshield.

“They turned around and headed back to the airplane, saying ‘We refuse to ride in South Vietnamese jeeps.’” And they left the island.

After some discussion, the North Vietnamese team flew in a second time. This time they were met with jeeps bearing U.S. flags which they agreed to ride in.

Johnny says Duc took the crew to the top of a hill overlooking the camp where machine guns were lined up. “You can’t go any further,” Duc told them. So once again, they turned around and flew back to North Vietnam.

“My boss called me and asked what was going on,” Johnny remembers. “I told him, either you send them back again or you give me the authority to relieve (Duc) of his job.” The boss wanted to keep the peace, so he sent the team back a third time.

“This time they had a 4-star North Vietnamese general with them.” They were allowed into the camp, but instead of being able to inspect each prisoner compound, Duc had brought a representative from each into camp headquarters.

“The (North Vietnamese) general was going around giving them a cigarette and talking to them. When he handed out the last one, Col. Duc said something and they all gave the cigarettes back.

“I asked my interpreter, ‘What did he say?’ He told the prisoners, ‘I can’t be responsible if you smoke that and die.’”

So once again the team left without accomplishing its duty.

This was over a 12-day period and no U.S. prisoners were being released during that time because of the standstill at Phuquoc, says Johnny.

The team, however, did come back a fourth time and were finally allowed to inspect the compounds.

Shortly after that, Phuquoc began releasing the prisoners. “We did it in 30 days with 10 planes per day and 100 prisoners per plane. They were flown to different locations (around Vietnam) and released.”

John Dahl (far right) listens intently as Lt. Col. Duc (center) talks to a group of officials at Phuquoc Island P.O.W. camp. (Photo courtesy John Dahl)
John Dahl (far right) listens intently as Lt. Col. Duc (center) talks to a group of officials at Phuquoc Island P.O.W. camp. (Photo courtesy John Dahl)

A tour of Hanoi

Once all the prisoners were gone, Johnny and his few remaining officers flew to Saigon. “My boss said, ‘You did a good job,’ and asked me if I would like to go to Hanoi on a 4-party investigation team.”

Upon arrival, Johnny and his team members were met by North Vietnamese officers of the same rank. “We had a tour,” he remembers, recounting his impressions of Ho Chi Minh Square and the city in general.

“They took us to an industrial park that the Americans had bombed and bombed and bombed. My interpreter looked at me and said, ‘Look what you did to our country.’ It looked like a meat grinder had shredded everything. I said, ‘We did a good job,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Yes, you did.’”

When it was time for the American prisoners to be released, Johnny and his team sat in a grandstand along the road. The prisoners were brought in on a bus which parked about a block away. The prisoners walked past the stands one at a time to a waiting American officer. “They would salute the officer, saying, ‘Lt. “So and so” reporting back for duty,” remembers Johnny. “I cried every time one of them walked up there.”

Johnny received a Legion of Merit for his work at Phuquoc. The Legion of Merit, says his wife, Kay,  is the highest military award which can be bestowed on a living officer.

Mmm… chicken blood

These weren’t the only adventures Johnny had in Vietnam — he also recalls adventures with food.

One time, he was invited to a party with the South Vietnamese officers at the POW camp. There was a tray of red stuff cut into squares and sprinkled with brown sugar. Johnny picked up a pair of chopsticks and dug in. Pretty soon, he noticed the officers all grinning at him. “I said, ‘this is really good, what is this?’ They said, ‘It’s chicken blood.’”

Another time, he was invited to a feast given by the officers. He was placed at the head of the table. After the main courses, a dish with an egg was placed before him and the officers watched him expectantly.

He asked his interpreter what he should do. “Crack the shell with your spoon,” he was told. “It’s a delicacy.” Inside, Johnny found a dead furry baby duck and knew he had to eat it or he would be insulting his hosts. So he picked it up in his spoon, put it in his mouth and swallowed it whole. “They all cheered for me,” he remembers, adding, “I knew I couldn’t eat it piece for piece.”

Kay and Johnny Dahl in 2001
John and Kay Dahl in their Eagle Nest home. (Chronicle photo by Jessica Johnson)

Home sweet home

Johnny finally ended his stint in Vietnam, finding himself stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, as the 19th Military Police Battalion commander, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as operations officer of the Command and General Staff College and a position as team chief in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Pentagon where he dealt with highly classified information.

It was about that time — 1978 — that he left the military. “Things changed for me personally,” he says.

“He met me,” smiles Kay.

With a little help from Johnny’s “scheming” mother, the two fell in love and were married Nov. 23, 1978. The couple now happily resides in Eagle Nest where Johnny is mayor and businessman. And only occasionally does he bring out his war stories and relive those days at Phuquoc.

 

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