Col. Larson's Bio p. 1
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PoW Christmas

Former PoW Col. Gordon Swede Larson, USA Today Hotsite


Biography of: Col. Gordon "Swede" Larson - Page Four


For some unknown reason, as I grabbed for the handle, I couldn't find it and I knew I only had time for one more attempt before I would crash into the ground. I leaned over to visually see the handle and immediately reached for it and pulled it before I had a chance to straighten up for ejection. (As the ejection seat has such a powerful force, itís necessary to sit erect with your chin tucked in and your head back against the headrest to prevent injury during the ejection). I knew there was no time to spare and I remember hearing an explosion as the canopy fired and blew off the aircraft. That was the last thing I remember until I came-to about 300 feet above the ground hanging in my chute. Fortunately the ejection sequence is fully automatic. When the handle is pulled, the canopy is jettisoned, the ejection seat fires, and youíre automatically separated from your seat and the parachute is automatically deployed. I didnít have time to think about the proper landing technique as the ground came rushing up too fast. By some freak quirk, I landed on my feet and stayed upright on the landing.


By this time the adrenaline was pumping through me at a tremendous rate. My immediate reaction was that I had a sudden tremendous thirst. I had heard other pilots tell of this phenomenon when they ejected. For this reason and for survival purposes, we all carried plastic baby bottles filled with water. I had four of them fastened on my survival vest. All I could think about at that moment was a drink of water. I unhooked my parachute harness, grabbed a baby bottle, tilted it up, and started draining it as fast as I could. As I was finishing the bottle, I looked ahead for the first time and noticed that I was surrounded by about thirty armed men - and all of them had either rifles pointed at me or were waving machetes at me. I had landed on the very top of a small volcanic mountain known as a karst and the people from the nearest village were using it as an observation post for downed aircraft and here I was, landing right in their "laps". As they were no more than 60 feet away from my landing spot, I was their prisoner the moment my feet touched the ground. So much for escape and evasion!


Thus begins the saga of almost six years of indescribable brutality, degradation, suffering, and loneliness that is hard to even imagine. I am going to attempt to relate those years so that the reader might have some insight as to what that horrendous experience was like.


Fearing that my captors might be vicious and nervous, and not wanting to be shot for a false move, I put my hands slowly on top of my head and waited for them to make the next move. They slowly came forward and started shouting at me in Vietnamese. It was soon apparent I couldnít understand them so they grabbed me and all of them started to undress me. My watch was first to go and several squabbled over it. They stripped me completely, tied a rope around my neck, and we all started trotting down this karst. The first several hundred yards were not so bad, but as my feet were bare, the sharp volcanic crusts cut savagely into my feet and I fell repeatedly. They would jerk the rope and jabber excitedly until I got up and we trotted on. My thirst by this time was worse than my bleeding feet and I didnít think I could go any further. About this time I could see a stream ahead of us that we would cross and I was determined I would get a drink in the stream even if they, or the water, killed me. I fell down on purpose as we entered the stream and gulped down as much as I could until they pulled me up and I fell again on the far side and again drank as much as possible.


I was in a bad state of shock and donít know how long it took to get down off the mountain and reach their village. I was completely exhausted, in shock, and had not begun to feel my physical problems yet. They put me in a straw hut and had me put on my undershorts. Evidently they didnít want the women and children to see me naked. By then I was in a daze and my next recollection is of a truck pulling up outside as it was just turning dusk. About five minutes after the truck pulled up, they came for me and took me to the large communal hut in the village. There was a long rectangular table and two chairs in the room. All the rest of the villagers were standing around the sides and at the table was a Vietnamese officer from the prison camp and the headman of the village. The Officer spoke understandable English and became known to me, and all the rest of the prisoners, as "Bug", a squinty eyed, heartless bastard who took sadistic pride in humbling, berating, browbeating, and torturing helpless prisoners.


Bug asked me my name, which I gave him, and then asked for my service number, which I gave him. He then asked what kind of aircraft I had flown and I told him I was not required to tell him that under the Geneva Convention. He told me that war had not been declared between my country and his and that the Geneva Convention (requiring only name, rank, and service number) did not apply - and that if I didnít answer his questions, he would "punish" me until I showed "the proper respect". I was very soon to learn what "punish" and "proper respect" meant. When I still refused to answer his questions he motioned to the guard who had accompanied him and I had my first look at an exceptionally tall and strong Vietnamese guard. I later learned he was called "Rope", because he sadistically liked to tie POWs up in ropes and torture us. He was a real sadistic bastard who thoroughly enjoyed his work. He threw me to the floor and tied my elbows together behind my back and pulled with all his strength until my elbows not only touched behind my back but also even crossed - and then he tied them up that way. The pain was soon excruciating - and they left me that way long after the circulation had stopped in my arms. It seemed like an eternity before they removed the straps and I could begin to feel a little circulation in my arms and hands. Bug asked me again what my aircraft was and since they had seen me bail out and already knew, I thought why not tell them and get this over with. How naive and dumb that idea was! They knew that once they got me to start talking they could get what they wanted from me. Theyíd had lots of experience with several hundred others before me.


What I failed to realize was that they thought that as a Squadron Commander, I would know more targeting data than most of the recent shootdowns. When I told him I was flying an F-105, he asked me what squadron I was in. They had my flying suit with the 469th squadron patch on the sleeve so I told him I was in the 469th. He then asked me who was flying with me in my flight and I drew the line and quoted the Geneva Convention. I should have saved my breath. When I steadfastly refused, he motioned to "Rope" who proceeded to retie my arms even tighter. Only this time, after tying my arms, he bent me over double with my head between my legs, passed a rope around me and jumped up and down on my back - pulling the rope tighter each time. It didnít take long for the pain to become unbearable.


After a considerable time, Bug asked me if I was ready to "show proper attitude" and I thought if he wanted me to be servile, it would be worth it to get out of those ropes and stop the pain. When I was released, he asked me again whom I was flying with and I politely told him I couldnít tell him that. That was when I was informed that I had a "bad attitude" (boy, was I ever to hear that again and again over the next 6 years) and that I would be punished until I had the proper attitude. Back into the ropes - and each time it felt like Rope jumped a little harder and got the ropes a little tighter. I was in and out of the ropes 4 or 5 more times that night. Sometime during the night it rained and water flowed across the floor of the hut covering me with mud. The third time I was back in the ropes they lifted me up on the tableís edge and Bug shouted in my face that I was the worst of the worst "Air Pirates" - and with that he pushed me off the table all trussed up. I landed on my shoulder that time and my arm popped out of the socket. I screamed but it did little good.


After another eternity, I felt I could not take any more and agreed to tell him the names of the other three in my flight. I knew they had my wingman, and they couldnít touch the others. When I was untied, Rope deftly popped my arm back into the socket and acted like nothing had happened. I later learned that this had happened to others. Unfortunately the questions didnít stop there and back in the ropes I went. By this time my arms were hanging uselessly and I had no feeling in them. My back began to ache painfully. I hadnít realized at that time that I had badly fractured my back in the ejection, because I had been bent over when the seat ejection charge fired. I was to learn later after my release, that due to the compression fracture in my spine, I had lost a permanent full inch in my height.


By this time the villagers had blood lust on their mind and were constantly shouting and reaching in to get a poke at me. As I stood there, one of them repeatedly twisted a sharpened bamboo stick in my foot at the base of each toe and twisted it in as far as it would go. That really smarted and I still carry the scars. Back into the ropes - and this time Bug decided he would leave me in them until he had broken me completely. I was rolled off the table again and landed on the side of my right foot. This broke several of the bones on the right side of my foot and I lost feeling in my little toe and the right side of my foot. I still cannot move my little toe and have little feeling in that area. I know I passed out several times and came-to when kicked and doused with water. I remember I wished for death that last time in the ropes. The pain went on and on and seemed like it would never end.


I know I screamed and pleaded to have the ropes taken off and that I would "have the proper attitude" (I finally knew what they meant by that). I think the severity and lengthy duration of my interrogation was also for the benefit of the villagers. As the Bug was on his own, without the Camp Commander looking over his shoulder, he and Rope could enjoy their work even more. He also wanted to bring me back docile and not have further problems with me. I was later to learn that the two interrogation rooms were in use at the Hanoi Hilton with my wingman and a young Lieutenant shot down that morning, and he was in no hurry to return.


I was finally taken out of the ropes and was a completely broken and beaten man. I was in constant pain from my back, and I couldnít stand because by now my knees hurt so badly they wouldnít hold me up. The high-speed ejection had broken the insides of both knees due to the flailing action of ejecting at such a high speed. I had no feeling in my arms or hands and it would be several days before I started to have feeling in them again. (I learned later that one of the biggest worries others had in being tortured, was the distinct possibility of permanently loosing the feeling in arms and legs. Several reported loosing feelings for several months). The bottom of both feet were completely raw and bleeding, and my arms at the elbows were deeply cut as were several tendons and muscles in my biceps. My arms are still weak and scarred from the rope cuts.


It was now daylight and I was thrown on the floor of a large truck where I bounced around with more jolting pain as we drove to Hanoi and the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison.


I was unable to walk and had to be half carried and half dragged inside the inner door which opened onto a large courtyard which was the center of the prison. There were two interrogation rooms to the left while the main group of POWs remained in a large complex of cells to the right of the door. On the far end of the courtyard, just in front of the large compound where the civilian prisoners were held, were eight small cells that held the newly captured "Air Pirates". The POWs had named this area Heartbreak Hotel.

Seven of the cells were used for a single prisoner and the eighth cell was a shower of sorts with a hole in the rear wall that was used for a drain and a garbage and waste dump. I was put in the large, main interrogation room, just to the left of the main door. There was a table with a soiled blue cloth draped over it and three chairs and a low cut-off stool. I was in a severe state of shock by then and the day is very fuzzy in my memory. I remember I had to urinate and there was no place or receptacle to do it in. As with most rooms or cells in Vietnam, they all had a drain hole cut in the side of the wall so they could slosh water on the floor occasionally and let water drain off the floor. Whether by intention or not, they made excellent rat holes through which the jillions of rats in that country could freely travel.

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