Do prisoners of war pay?

Prisoners of war (POWs) are combatants who are captured by the enemy during wartime. The rules surrounding the treatment and rights of POWs are outlined in the Third Geneva Convention. This convention prohibits torture and other forms of mistreatment against POWs. It also establishes guidelines for their humane detention, access to medical care, correspondence with family, and other basic rights. But one aspect of being a POW that often raises questions is whether they get paid or receive any type of compensation during their captivity. In this article, we will examine that issue more closely.

What are the rules regarding POW compensation?

The Third Geneva Convention does not explicitly require that POWs be paid wages or compensation during their detention. However, it does state that POWs must receive pay and allowances equal in amount to what is given to enemy soldiers of equal rank. So for example, an American POW held by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War should theoretically receive pay equal to what a Vietnamese soldier of the same rank would get. This provision aims to prevent discriminatory or punitive salary policies for POWs based on their status.

In practice, whether POWs actually receive any type of pay depends largely on the policies and resources of the detaining power. Paying enemy combatants is often not a high priority, even if technically required under the Geneva Conventions. Much depends on the nature of the conflict and relations between the warring parties. During extended wars of attrition, like Vietnam or the Korean War, upholding POW pay policies was typically neglected on all sides due to the prolonged nature of the conflicts.

Historical examples of POW pay policies

Looking at some historical examples can help illustrate the inconsistent and largely discretionary nature of POW pay policies:

  • During World War 2, American and British POWs held by the Germans did not receive any kind of pay or direct compensation. However, the Geneva Conventions had not yet been established at that time.
  • During the Korean War, neither the North Koreans and Chinese nor the UN coalition paid their POWs anything. Both sides provided only bare subsistence.
  • During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese did not pay American POWs until 1969 when they started providing token monthly stipends of around $2-3. This was far below what equivalent Vietnamese soldiers made.
  • During the 1991 Gulf War, the US military deducted pay from soldiers who were POWs in Iraqi captivity, generating criticism.

So while the Geneva Conventions established certain guidelines about POW pay, what happens in practice has remained inconsistent. Paying POWs requires resources and implies a certain degree of reciprocity and legitimacy, which captors are often reluctant to acknowledge.

Typical POW Camp Conditions

Since providing a real salary for POWs is rare, their day-to-day conditions in captivity give a better idea of how they are treated. While abuses have occurred, the Geneva Conventions prohibit torture and mistreatment. When implemented, they provide for relatively humane POW camp conditions:


POWs are to be housed in clean, heated quarters comparable to those of the detaining force. During World War 2 for example, American POWs in Germany were housed in compounds of bunkhouses resembling military barracks. Later wars saw POWs housed in more temporary facilities like tents during the Korean War or bamboo cages in the Vietnam War. The aim is to provide shelter from the elements and basic living space.

Food & Water

POWs are entitled to water and food rations sufficient in quantity and quality to remain healthy. Typically this means basic military rations like dry goods, canned foods, and whatever fresh produce is available. Food is usually adequate in calories but lacks variety and freshness – a common complaint of many POWs. Access to clean drinking water is also critical.


POWs generally wear their own standard military uniforms. The detaining power is expected to replace worn out items and shoes as needed. Specialized clothing like coats and boots may be issued depending on the climate. American POWs in the Korean War recall receiving simple cotton uniforms and rubber sneakers from their Chinese captors when needed.

Medical Care

The Geneva Conventions specify that POWs shall receive free medical care to the same standards as the detaining force. In practice, Communist forces during the Korean and Vietnam Wars provided medical care from fellow prisoner medics with occasional access to outside doctors. Care for wounded or sick POWs was inconsistent.


POWs are allowed to send correspondence to immediate family back home. Usually this means occasional heavily censored letters. POWs also communicate amongst themselves within the camp. Communication privileges are entirely at the discretion of camp authorities.

POW Rules and Discipline

In addition to basic provisions, POW camps run on strict discipline and routine. While resisting and escaping are accepted in combat, the Geneva Conventions prohibit such acts inside a POW camp. The aim is to prevent chaos and violence. Daily life follows demoralizing but generally non-abusive military discipline:

Forced labor

POWs may be compelled to work, typically in manual labor jobs like agriculture, mining, or manufacturing. NCOs may also be made to run smaller work units. Refusal to work results in reduced rations as punishment. Such labor programs seek to tap POW manpower, offset costs of detention, and reinforce captors’ political narratives. Conditions are often similar to forced civilian labor.

Indoctrination and propaganda

Political indoctrination and propaganda are common fixtures of POW internment, especially in wars driven by ideology. Communist forces during the Korean and Vietnam Wars subjected American POWs to daily indoctrination sessions touting Communist ideals and denouncing capitalism. Religious services and politically conservative speech were often prohibited.


POWs are required to give only a few pieces of personal information upon capture (name, rank, serial number, etc.) They cannot be compelled to provide additional intelligence. However, interrogations for tactical military information are allowed. Torture is prohibited but intense psychological pressure was applied to POWs during the Korean War and Vietnam War eras to extract false confessions or propaganda statements.


POWs charged with disciplinary infractions may face punishments like solitary confinement, loss of privileges, or extra fatigue duties. Corporal punishment and other forms of cruel treatment are prohibited. However, beatings and torture still occurred historically as punishment, especially during the Korean War.

Coping with POW Internment

Despite challenging conditions and uncertainty about when the war will end, many POWs remain resilient by developing physical and mental coping mechanisms:

Building community

Fellow POWs provide critical social support. POWs often form tight friendships for mutual emotional support and entertainment through activities like sports, crafts, religious services, and educational classes taught by prisoners. This simulates normalcy and boosts morale.

Maintaining mental stimulation

Boredom is a common enemy in confinement. Many POWs develop routines involving exercise, sports, handicrafts, reading, board games, and trivia to stay active and engaged. Opportunities for correspondence, education, recreation, and entertainment help greatly.

Keeping perspective

POWs concentrate on keeping their confinement in perspective as a relatively brief phase that will end with repatriation after the war. They focus on memories of home and future hopes rather than current limitations. Faith, humor, and camaraderie help maintain perspective.

Resisting collaboration

POWs must resist pressure from captors to denounce their country or collaborate actively with the enemy. This requires solidarity against indoctrination and building mental fortitude against exploitation. Strict military discipline and honor codes help POWs resist collaboration.

Planning escapes

Dreaming up often unrealistic escape plans is a common mental exercise. While few POWs manage to escape low security camps, the planning helps motivate and excite prisoners. Successful major escapes include the “Great Escape” by Allied POWs from Stalag Luft III in WWII.

Repatriation of Prisoners After War’s End

When hostilities eventually cease, processes begin to repatriate POWs back to their home countries:

Ceasefires include POW exchanges

Preliminary ceasefire terms usually include stipulations for POW releases. This occurred in Korea and Vietnam with incremental and staged releases from both sides as truce talks progressed. This incentive helps move negotiations forward.

Neutral intermediaries mediate

The International Committee of the Red Cross often helps mediate logistics of POW repatriation as a neutral third party. They may facilitate communication, transfers of custody, and aid distribution during releases to ease the transition home.

POWs are transported home

After ceremonial releases, POWs are transported home via neutral ships, planes, or through designated border crossings. Medical facilities at transit points help nurses returnees back to health for the trip home.

Special flights and ships for POWs

During Operation Homecoming in 1973, North Vietnam released nearly 600 American POWs from the Vietnam War. Many were flown home on C-141 medical flights dubbed “POW Freedom Birds.” POWs from WWII returned home on dedicated troopships.

POWs reunite with families

Repatriated POWs are greeted by emotional homecomings with family and friends. Support programs assist with transitioning and readjustment challenges related to captivity. Most POWs eventually resume civilian lives.

Ongoing Impacts of the POW Experience

The POW experience leaves lasting impacts even after former prisoners reintegrate into society:

Physical health effects

Malnutrition and inadequate medical care take a toll during captivity. Diseases, chronic conditions, and physical disability lingering after release are common. Many former POWs continue needing medical treatment.

Psychological effects

Prolonged captivity and pressure from interrogations, isolation, and indoctrination result in high rates of mental health conditions. PTSD, anxiety, depression, and survivor’s guilt are common issues former POWs face.

Post-war controversies

Debates often emerge about how some POWs behaved in captivity, such as accusations of being too cooperative with the enemy. Some Korean and Vietnam-era POWs faced criticism over recorded propaganda statements or anti-war activism after release.

Legal status

Repatriated POWs are no longer classified as prisoners or combatants, but they remain military members on active duty in most cases. Their long absence requires administrative processing to address back pay, benefits, and discharge status.

Ongoing advocacy

Former POW groups advocate for government recognition and veteran’s benefits. Associations like the American Ex-Prisoners of War provide mutual support and lobby for POW/MIA accounting and repatriation of remains.


POWs are widely recognized for their sacrifice and service. Their stories of survival are inspirational but also sobering. The POW experience connects to debates over military policy, rights, and national reconciliation.


The complex realities of life for prisoners of war often remain out of sight and obscured during wartime. But understanding their treatment and conditions provides insight into broader human rights standards, military ethics, and reconciliation. While POWs do not receive salaries, their contact with the outside world remains constricted, and their agency is severely limited during confinement, international norms prohibit torture and cruelty. And POWs maintain dignity through ingenuity and solidarity with fellow captives. The POW experience represents a difficult but formative crucible that shapes national identity and veteran health for generations after wartime service.

War POW Numbers Key Conditions
World War 2 Over 35 million total captured No pay, barracks housing, adequate rations
Korean War Over 7,000 Americans captured No pay, improvised housing, Communist indoctrination
Vietnam War Nearly 600 Americans captured Token pay started in 1969, harsh conditions, war crimes

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