1,160 days in a Vietnam prison camp

Prisoner of war shares story of survival against all odds

Managing editor
Posted 9/20/22

Retired Maj. Jose Anzaldua shared his story of captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam with a crowd at the Harnett County Resource Center.

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1,160 days in a Vietnam prison camp

Prisoner of war shares story of survival against all odds


The U.S. military has a saying: “Leave no man behind.” In every mission, that’s the mission, but thousands have been left behind.

On every third Friday in the month of September the nation remembers them — the prisoners of war and the missing in action who now account for 81,523 soldiers left behind, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

A dark flag flies for them. A lonely table is set for them. And the few, who escaped war, stand guard of their stories, reminding others not to forget.

Retired Maj. Jose Anzaldua shared his story of captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam with a crowd at the Harnett County Resource Center Friday. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 and deployed to Vietnam in March 1969. He was a squad leader and infantry scout, trained in the Vietnamese language, and was taken prisoner on Jan. 23, 1970. He was 18 and had already been wounded several times.

‘What did I get myself into?’

“We flew into Da Nang (Vietnam) and I remember this just like it happened 5 minutes ago, they dropped the tailgate and we ran out the back,” Anzaldua said in a video interview played before his talk. “I think I took three steps then the rockets started coming in. That rocket attack lasted about 20 minutes and that was my first 5 minutes in combat. That was probably the first time that I asked myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’”

Over the next 10 months, Anzaldua was shot and injured multiple times. He suffered his first battle wound on his 18th birthday.

“The first time you’re wounded, you stay in Vietnam,” he said. “The second time you go to Okinawa. The third time they send you back to the continental United States. I woke up with the third Purple Heart and I was still in the field. My battalion commander would say, ‘I need you. I’m going to keep you out here.’”

He couldn’t say no.

The capture

“... What actually led up to your capture?” Harnett County Veterans Services Director Eric Truesdale asked Anzaldua during the program.

A company commander ordered Anzaldua to take his unit of the Vietnamese soldiers he trained and clear civilians out of an area at 1 a.m., before a planned attack.

“We went about what we needed to do to pull out the Vietnamese and we swept to the left and down to the south of the river and we walked into the back side of a horseshoe ambush,” he said.

It didn’t take long for the enemy soldiers to surround them. Ninety percent of his unit suffered casualties in the first conflict.

“Before I could hit the ground, I was hit three times,” he said.

The firefight lasted about 16 hours. His soldiers who weren’t wounded or dead ran away, but Anzaldua couldn’t run and the Vietnamese scout with him refused to leave. Anzaldua was wounded and surrounded by flying bullets.

“I wound up running out of ammo,” he said. “I knew it was futile. I knew I couldn’t get out of there. And I did not think that anybody would ever come to help me and I just came to the conclusion that what I knew on this earth was fixing to come to an end.

“And I grabbed a red smoke and popped it, threw it out in front of me and looked up at the gunships and what’s supposed to happen then is the helicopter gunships, the cobra gunships, specifically, ... were supposed to turn over and roll in on me and shoot up the whole area. They didn’t do it,” he said. “I don’t know why. ... Darkness started coming and they finally overran us.”

His scout was executed in front of him and a badly wounded Anzaldua was forced to march.

Three-month march

“After two and a half months of walking, one morning I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t put my weight on my leg,” he said in the video.

One of the guards came up and put an AK-47 to his head.

“He told me in Vietnamese, ‘you get up or I’m going to kill you,’” he said. “And to be quite honest with you I didn’t think I could and I started singing the Marine Corps hymn and got up and walked and made it to the prison of war camp that was on the Vietnam-Laotian border.”

When he came into the camp, he was shocked at the emaciated state of the prisoners.

“... Some of them had been there five years or longer,” he said. “I made the 26th prisoner that was held by that Vietnamese unit.”

Out of that 26, “only 12 survived and I was one of them.”

He said his captors had “all the time in the world to devote to indoctrination, humiliation” and beatings.

“The only way you were gonna die there is if they shot you and we had all come to the conclusion we would never do anything, unless something went terribly bad, that would lead them to that,” he said.

Anzaldua spent 1,160 days in captivity. He credits God with sustaining him.

“The Lord is my savior and I am covered by the blood of Jesus Christ. I sincerely believe that I’m here today because of his hand reaching out for whatever reason and bringing me back home and for that I am thankful,” he said.

Anzaldua served 24 years in the Marine Corps. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism, three Bronze Stars for valor, four Purple Hearts, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for valor and the Navy Achievement Medal. He now lives in Coats with his wife, Beverly.

Emily Weaver can be reached at eweaver@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2028. 


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