Remembering Ed Carlson, Vietnam POW

Since last Veteran’s Day, Ken Burns’ in-depth documentary on the Vietnam War has aired. It is a powerful reminder of an unpopular war in which many “baby boomers” fought and died. It also prompts memories of the brutal treatment of American POWs and 1,350 who were listed as missing in action after the war ended. Some remain lost today.

Among the 571 American prisoners released in the winter of 1973 was U.S Army Maj. Ed Carlson, whose last assignment was senior Army advisor to the Washington National Guard.

Carlson, a 29-year veteran, was captured near the end of the war. He was held in a jungle camp along the Mekong River. He was a captive for 312 days. By comparison, Capt. Floyd Thompson, whose observation plane was shot down in March 1964, spent nine years as a POW, the longest in U.S. history.

Carlson grew up in San Lorenzo, CA, and was commissioned as an artillery officer upon graduation from San Jose State in 1963. He served two tours in Vietnam.

In early April 1972, Carlson was heading home after completing his second stint. He was an artillery adviser to the South Vietnamese army (ARVN). He drove 90 miles from Loc Ninh to Saigon and turned in his gear.

The only thing standing between him and his family back home was an optional appreciation dinner at Loc Ninh with his South Vietnamese counterparts. Out of loyalty, Carlson helicoptered back, but the dinner never happened.

Just after the Huey dropped him off, 20,000 North Vietnamese assaulted the base cutting off supplies and reinforcements. After a fierce two-day battle, direct air support from helicopter gunships and fighter jets was lifted despite the pilots’ objections.

The base was quickly seized and Carlson and four other Americans were captured, put in tiny wooden cages and moved deep into the jungle. Carlson was suffering from chest wounds.

During their initial interrogation, they believed they would be executed. North Vietnamese guards put AK-47s to their heads and ordered them to talk. They never did.

Carlson’s weight dropped from 185 to 135 pounds from a meager diet of rice. There were no medications and his wounds were crudely treated. However, it was the discomforts of dysentery and the lack of sanitation which weakened his system and his will to live.

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