Former POWs see parallels with Iraq captives PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

January 22, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron and Tom Keyser | Thomas W. Waldron and Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun and retired Capt. Edwin A. "Ned" Shuman 3rd have a lot in common -- they're Naval Academy graduates, they flew fighters for the Navy's VA-35 squadron and they were both captured by the enemy on bombing runs -- Zaun some time in the last week, Shuman 23 years ago.

Shuman spent five years in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" prisoner-of-war camp in North Vietnam after being shot down on St. Patrick's Day 1968. He suffered torture and physical abuse he refuses to describe for fear of disturbing the family and friends of American servicemen.

So Shuman, 59, knew what he was seeing when Zaun, 28, and other POWs appeared on television yesterday making statements critical of the war against Iraq.

"Those guys looked like they were dragged in there," Shuman said. "They didn't look like they are severely injured, but they looked like they'd been pummeled a bit."

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein claims to be holding more than 20 allied POWS and has threatened to use them as human shields at military targets. President Bush and other world leaders quickly denounced the exploitation, calling it a violation of international conventions governing the treatment of POWs.

Shuman, like the current POWs, was used for political purposes during his confinement.

"They always wanted something -- for us to write letters to the president telling him to stop the war, or to write statements saying how well we were treated.

"They had to work to get it," he said, again referring to physical abuse.

"I did the best I could," Shuman said. "I never had to make any broadcast or meet any delegations or stuff like that. After long sessions of 'persuasion,' I wrote statements saying how well I was treated, if you can believe that."

The physical abuse dragged on for Shuman's first three years of confinement, after which the North Vietnamese lost interest in him. He said he lost about 50 pounds as a prisoner living on a diet of mostly cabbage or pumpkin soup, depending on the season. His shoulder, damaged when he was shot down, never healed and one hand was left permanently numb.

Despite Saddam's threats, Shuman thinks the Iraqis may want to keep their allied prisoners alive.

"Somewhere down the line, we're going to have to barter for these guys," he said. "It's to their advantage to keep them in good shape."

Calvin Wright, 66, who was held by the Germans for nearly six months at the end of World War II, said the prisoners in Iraq will probably be treated more like political hostages than he was.

They will be shown off in a "very phony, very false sense of what the Iraqis call victory, or power," Wright said. "They'll probably be used to heighten, to rouse the morale of the Iraqi general public."

They will probably undergo much greater mental and emotional strain than he was subjected to in the late stage of World War II, said Wright, who now lives in Takoma Park in Montgomery County.

"With us, it was sheer survival, just constantly dwelling on the necessities for survival, like food and water," he said.

Wright, then an Army sergeant, was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. From then until the end of the war, he spent his time on forced marches, in a POW camp or crammed into a boxcar.

"It's a terrible existence," he said.

Burton Hurwitz, 70, of Baltimore, said the Germans treated him fairly well during his six months as a POW. He was captured during a bombing run also during the Battle of the Bulge.

"At least they tried to adhere to the Geneva Convention," Hurwitz said, referring to the agreement that established a code for the treatment of POWs and others during wartime. "They wanted to know all about my mission, but I didn't have too much to tell them. They knew more than I did anyway. How they got it, I don't know."

There wasn't much to eat, and the Germans who interrogated Hurwitz threatened him with angry words, such as, "You know what we do to Jewish prisoners." But they never harmed him, he said.

Rev. John T. Brown, the chief chaplain at Fort Howard Veterans Hospital in eastern Baltimore County, said most returning POWs don't want to talk about the experience.

"It obviously takes its toll on a person," Brown said. "But, they just say, 'We were just doing our job.' "

Shuman said he doesn't dwell on the physical and mental pain he suffered in Vietnam.

"It's like a woman having a baby," he said. "They don't think how much it hurts, they think about the baby."

As for advice he would give Zaun and the other prisoners, Shuman said, "Just hang tough, keep the faith in your country and your fellow prisoners. We're going to get you out."

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