Tragedy marked the experiences of many during the Vietnam War. On the home front, Americans increasingly questioned the country’s role in the conflict and lamented the loss they watched unfold throughout the first widely televised war. Americans especially worried over the conditions of US prisoners of war (POWs) held captive in North Vietnam—POWs that had been kept in physically and psychologically harmful conditions for extended periods of time. The North Vietnamese captured and imprisoned these Americans, often pilots in the US Navy or Air Force, for nearly ten years. Prisons in Vietnam received nicknames such as “Alcatraz,” for their severe environments, and “Hanoi Hilton,” an ironic name given to a primary torture site. Some POWs never returned home from their internment and remain unaccounted for.
In the late 1960s, the US Department of State sought to improve the treatment of American POWs and stepped up efforts to bring them home. Local communities pursued ways to assist in these efforts. Texas businessman Ross Perot became especially interested in sending humanitarian supplies to POWs, and he believed that ordinary citizens could make more of a difference than the federal government. Citizens of Waco, along with other towns and cities across the country, heeded Perot’s call.
Beginning in 1970, under the auspices of the Prisoner of War project, thousands of citizens in Waco advocated for American POWs through a letter-writing initiative titled the “Write Hanoi Campaign.” After Perot visited and spoke at Baylor University on March 10, 1971, Wacoans further invested in the project. The city, inspired by Perot’s message, proclaimed the day as “H. Ross Perot Day in Waco” and embraced his invitation by forming a local delegation that would negotiate directly with officials from North Vietnam later that year. Twelve men and women formed an advocacy group on behalf of American POWs, and local attorney C. Cullen Smith served as chairman. By mid-March 1971, they had collected 40,825 letters and petition signatures that demanded humane treatment of POWs in Vietnam, and the delegation prepared to present them at the Paris Peace Talks in April.
Supported by the US State Department, the Waco delegation visited Paris for negotiations with officials in North Vietnam in April 1971. Avoiding approval or disapproval of the war, the effort remained focused on the POWs. Once in Paris, a portion of the group met with officials to persuade them to better the prison camp conditions and improve the treatment of American POWs. Though an immediate change did not occur, in 1973, Operation Homecoming resulted in the return of 591 American POWs held captive in North Vietnam. Upon their return, some shared reports of prison conditions, and Waco’s Mayor Karl May contended that the Waco delegation had “some reason to believe our efforts were not in vain, since prisoners who have returned tell of a change for the better after that time.”
When the group left Paris on April 16, 1971, they wanted to commemorate the inspiration for their efforts. The delegation, mournful of the imprisonment of American POWs and grateful for the freedoms they experienced in the US, discussed how to memorialize the moment. Inspired by the architecture of Paris, they decided to construct a fountain. They planned to inscribe the word “freedom” in seventy different languages at the base of the structure. As they began the process of raising money and planning for the duly named “Freedom Fountain,” they refused large donations and instead requested smaller donations from those across the community. This way, as in the Write Hanoi Campaign, all could contribute. Groups like the Waco Jaycees pledged to raise $10,000, and sixth graders from North Waco Elementary School donated $14 in coins.
More than 750 people attended the dedication of the fountain in May 1973. There, two freed POWs, Colonel George Hall, who had recently settled with his wife and family in her hometown of Waco, and Captain Ronald Bliss, who later attended Baylor Law School before moving to Houston, joined the ceremonies. Wacoans also buried a time capsule underneath the fountain, which contained names and addresses of those who donated their funds along with additional information about the fountain and its origins. At the time of the dedication, the community had raised over $50,000 in support. Still in its original location, the Freedom Fountain sits at the south end of the Waco Convention Center with the word “freedom” inscribed in fifty-four different languages. There, Waco residents can remember the community’s efforts to support American POWs during the Vietnam War and reflect on the meanings of national and global freedom.