VAN PUTTEN, THOMAS HARRY
Name: Thomas Harry Van Putten
Rank/Branch: E4/US Army
Date of Birth:
Home City of Record: Grand Rapids MI
Date of Loss: 11 February 1968
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 112120N 1060100E (XT100750)
Status (in 1973): Escaped POW
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: Road grader
Other Personnel in Incident: held with: James U. Rollins; Charles K. Hyland;
Norman J. Brookens; (all released POWs)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 October 1990 from: raw data from
U.S. Government agency sources, published sources including "Civilian POW:
Terror and Torture in South Vietnam" by Norman J. Brookens. Updated by the
P.O.W. NETWORK 2008.
REMARKS: 690417 ESCAPED
SYNOPSIS: In the early morning of January 31, 1968, a 15-man Viet Cong suicide
squad blew a hole in the tall masonry wall surrounding the U.S. embassy
compound. Within seconds, the VC were inside the walls. After hours of fighting,
five Americans, five South Vietnamese, and 15 Viet Cong were dead.
Saigon was not the only city struck by the Viet Cong. The communists had
launched the Tet Offensive. The Viet Cong penetrated 13 cities including Saigon,
Da Nang and Hue; the latter being the longest and bloodiest of the battles.
Five days after the attack on Saigon -- on February 4 -- Richard Utecht, a
maintenance officer for General Service, USAID, left to pick up a tire from a
nearby U.S. Army compound to deliver to one an AID bus that had gone out of
service. It was 11:30 on a bright Sunday morning, and a maintenance employee,
Norman J. Brookens accompanied him.
Brookens and Utecht left the apartment and took a side street to the compound.
They stopped when their way was blocked by a cyclo (a small motorcycle with a
seat mounted on the front for passengers). Within seconds, three Viet Cong armed
with U.S. carbines moved in on Utecht's Jeep.
Assuming that their vehicle was being confiscated, Utecht followed VC orders
directing them out of the city limits to a small village. It was here that the
two men were bound with dynamite wire and they knew they were in trouble.
Brookens and Utecht were marched to Cambodia, a 50-mile trip. The Americans
endured taunts from villagers and were hidden from U.S. military. They were
bound so tightly that their arms swelled twice their normal size.
Two days after Brookens and Utecht were captured, an Australian businessman
named Keith Hyland was also captured very near the village where the two USAID
employees were captured. He also was marched northwest, and shortly joined with
an American civilian, James U. Rollins, who had been captured on February 4 at
Cholon near Saigon.
Around mid-March, they arrived at a camp with a group of grass huts in the
middle of a field. Outside the huts, 14 VC guards were watching over 10 captured
ARVN soldiers. They were allowed to wash in a shallow, dirty water hole, and
given plain rice to cook. After several days at this camp, two more civilian
prisoners were brought to their hut -- Rollins and Hyland, who had been captured
the month before.
The punishment for speaking to one another was buffalo iron shackles and
starvation. The men began to lose weight fast. They dreamed of food and escape,
but with shackles on their ankles 24 hours a day, it seemed impossible.
Before long, the prisoners were moved again. It was a mental challenge to try to
keep track of their location, and at this time, they believed they were in
Cambodia. They later they walked to a trail which they believed to be the Ho Chi
Minh Trail. During the journey they were held in cages or in deep holes.
On April 22, the four POWs dared an escape. They had secretly learned to remove
their chains, and on this rainy night they made their break. Within seconds of
their freedom, they were soaked. It was impossible to walk in the thick jungle,
so they crawled on hands and knees. They immediately became separated, and had
had barely reached the camp border when they were surrounded and recaptured.
For the next ten days, they were given only several spoons of rice and a pinch
of salt. They were chained and bound with ropes so tight their arms and legs
went completely numb. The ropes were removed after a month, but the chains
remained. The four were rotated between a cage and a pit. Brookens remained in
the pit for several months, lying in his own body waste.
In mid-July, the prisoners were moved to another camp, but Keith Hyland was left
behind. Hyland was released on November 26, 1968. For the first time, State
Department learned that Brookens and Utecht had definitely been captured.
For the next three years, the Americans were moved frequently as U.S. air and
artillery strikes came closer. The journeys were pure torture, and the POWs were
often chained to trees while cages were were built for them. They were sometimes
held in swampy areas teeming with snakes and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Some
of the marches occurred during monsoon season, and the prisoners, still wearing
leg chains, walked in neck-deep water. During the frequent U.S. strikes, some of
them thundering B52 and artillery strikes, the men hid in bunkers. During one
such raid, a camp was completely destroyed.
The POWs' health began to reach its limits. Brookens was suffering from
dysentery and beriberi from which he never completely recovered. In April, they
moved again, living in the jungle until a new camp was built in Cambodia.
In early April 1969, an American prisoner escaped. Army Cpl. Thomas H. Van
Putten had been captured near Tay Ninh as he operated a road grader on February
11, 1968. After making his way to friendly forces, Van Putten tentatively
identified Brookens as one of the POWs held by the Viet Cong in his camp.
In July 1969, a POW committed a minor offense for which the entire camp was
severely punished for 30 days. The prisoner who caused the commotion was later
taken from the camp. Some POWs reported that they last saw the man, who was only
21 years old, laying on the ground near his cage covered by a piece of plastic.
They believed he was dead. The other prisoners said that the man had died of
torture, starvation and lack of medicine for his ailments. [NOTE: Brookens does
not give the name of this POW who apparently died in July 1969.]
On April 29, four new prisoners [unnamed in Brookens' account] joined the group.
They eventually reached a nearly-completed camp with above-ground cages, which
they believed was northwest of Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border. Brookens and
Utecht were put in the same cage, and it was the first time Brookens had had a
chance to talk to an American since the aborted escape attempt two years before.
By June, encroaching artillery forced the POWs westward into Cambodia, but on
July 14, they returned to the border camp where they remained until December
1970. At this time, they were moved deep into Cambodia. Again they were chained
while cages were built. The POWs remained here until April 1972, when they were
moved to a new, and final camp.
The POWs were in terrible condition -- painfully thin, with all manner of skin
ailments, dysentery, and malaria. Brookens was so physically depleted that he
could barely walk without the aid of walking sticks. Then on the morning of
February 12, 1973, the men were told they were going home. There were 27 in all,
five of them civilians. The group was taken to a small airport outside Loc Ninh,
and after 11 hours of waiting, finally started for home.
Norm Brookens had lost 55 pounds since his capture, and was treated for a
ruptured colon, a heart condition, jungle rot, malaria and beriberi.
Thomas H. Van Putten had a leg amputated in September 1990 as a result of
complications stemming from injuries during his captivity. He residesd in
Michigan with his wife, Evelee until his death.
Harry Van Putten Sr.
|PUTTEN Thomas Harry Van Putten,
Sr., born September 12, 1947, passed away on Saturday, October 25, 2008.
....Thomas was an Army Veteran as well as serving 18 months as a POW-MIA
during the Vietnam War. .....