The cell was approximately seven feet by
seven feet and twenty feet high. A barred window was on one end but it was
covered over with a grass mat so that I could not see out. There were two cement bunks, each seven foot
long and about two and a half feet wide on either side of the cell. That left about two feet by seven feet if
one wanted (or could) walk. Each bunk had
leg stocks on one end so that a prisoner’s legs could be confined while lying
on the cement slab which was slightly tilted towards the feet. Any urine or
water that would be sloshed could drain away through the inevitable rat/drain
hole. Gee, they think of everything!
On my second day in
Heartbreak, the guards brought me a pair of striped pajamas, a short sleeve
undershirt, and a pair of shorts. My
worldly possessions had quadrupled! I
was then allowed to go to the adjoining cell and take a shower. It was the first chance I had to clean
up. Of course it was cold, smelled, and
only dribbled out, but was joyously refreshing. I had no soap, but washed off
most of the mud and grime. I still
remember the ecstasy of that first very short shower.
When I returned to my
cell, I found a small black bucket had been placed there and after an hour of
contemplation, I finally figured out that I had my very own toilet! Will wonders never cease? To top it all off, I started getting fed
twice a day. My cup runneth over! The food consisted of a bowl of luke-warm
water and a tubular alfalfa looking green which was absolutely tasteless. It was summer and the soup was either those
greens (which we called "sewer greens"), or a tasteless squash that
we would get for several months. In the
fall our soup was always water and several chunks of tasteless boiled
pumpkin. We would additionally get a
small bowl of rice. About one bowl of
soup in every six, contained a small 3/4 inch chunk of pork fat in it and would
still be covered with pig bristles. At
first I could not eat it, but soon, eagerly looked forward to getting
more. After all, the hair was protein,
as was the larva in our rice, and we needed every bit we could get.
As I sat there the
second week of my captivity, I remembered that the day before I was shot down,
when General Jack Ryan told us that the
White House had just released a large number of targets to the Pentagon and he
felt that we could now hit enough previously restricted strategic targets and that
the Vietnamese would buckle under and the war would be over in six months. I thought hell, I can stand on my head for
six months if I have to. Little did I
realize he would miss his prediction by one thousand two hundred percent! It would have been very, very difficult for
me at that time if I had known it would be nearly six years more instead of six
Another thing that was
on my mind was the fact that I was shot down while going back to the hot target
area to escort my wingman out. The Migs just waited for such a target as he was
making. I made up my mind then and
there that it was the only thing I could have done, and I would never dwell on
it again and it has never bothered me since.
It’s too bad, as I later learned, that he was not worth the experience.
It was about this time
that my cell door opened and I was given the signal (a chopping motion on the
wrist) to put on my long sleeved pajamas (in summer we wore only our shorts and
short sleeved undershirt). I knew that
I was in for another session in the interrogation room. Bug was there and told me I had to write a
short biography for the Camp Commander.
Wow! Would it ever end? He sent me back to my cell to do the
writing. I wrote a small amount of
gibberish and the guard took it out. It
was not long before Bug was in my cell shaking his fist and telling me that my
bad attitude would cause me much trouble and maybe even death. I wrote again and the results were no
better. This time the guard returned,
opened the stocks and placed my legs in the irons.
I was in deep, deep trouble now.
With my injured back, I could not sit up without a back support, and I
could not lie down. The pain soon became excruciating. Sometime during the night, when I could take
no more, I prayed to the Lord to either help me to endure or to take me. I just couldn't stand any more. I began to tell myself I would try to take
just one more minute of this and if I made it, I would try one more
minute. The rest of the night became a
blur of endless minutes.
Sometime the next
morning, a guard came in and I indicated I wanted to write. He had the paper and pen just outside the
cell door and gave it to me smiling and indicated I should write. I wrote as little as possible – the minimum
I felt I could get away with and still get myself out of those stocks. A short time later the guard returned and
not only opened the stocks, he brought me my first small piece of soap, a tooth
brush and tooth paste, and a small towel.
Talk about the stick and the carrot!
I knew then that I was going to have to be very careful in the future or
I might not make it long enough to worry about release.
The next day my cell
door flew open and the Bug entered with an elderly Vietnamese officer who I
soon learned was the camp doctor. Could
I be about to get some much-needed medical attention? The doctor (I use that term loosely!) asked me in French how I
was. I started to tell him, but didn’t
get very far. He stopped me and told me
through Bug, as an interpreter, that I should exercise and walked out of the
cell. Exercise? Hell, I couldn’t walk, I had a severe
compression fracture in my back which prohibited me from lying down, my feet
were still bleeding, and I had in excess of 75 cuts and abrasions of which
about 25 were serious. Couple that with
the filth I lived in, it is a miracle I did not die of infections. A guard appeared shortly after they left and
sprinkled sulfa powder on a few of my major wounds. That is the sum total of medical attention - or medications -
that I received for the next two years, and then it was only an aspirin! As the wounds with sulfa dried up, I picked
off the crusted sulfa and placed it on other serious wounds and in that manner
kept the sulfa going for several weeks.
Several days later I
heard a loud commotion in the hall. The
guards were shouting and an American voice was desperately pleading with the
guards to not put him in that small cell.
He evidently had just been captured, and had a bad case of
claustrophobia. Coupled with the
frightening situation he was in, he was having a hard time coping with it. He sobbed and cried all night long. I desperately wanted to talk to him to
reassure him he would make it, but did not dare risk another beating or another
session in those stocks. After
daylight, I never heard another word out of him nor did I ever find out who he
There were many others
that were severely injured that did not receive medical treatment. One that we knew about was a young Air Force
Academy Captain by the name of Lance Saijan.
He pleaded for medical attention but was denied any until he would agree
to talk to them and answer their questions.
He steadfastly refused and died several days after his capture. He had been well-trained in duty and
honor. He was later awarded the Medal
There were others who
simply disappeared when they were taken out of their cells for what appeared to
be a routine propaganda session.
The weeks slowly passed
and I found that I had to take them one day at a time and not worry about
tomorrow or next week, or even next month.
Next year was not even in my wildest thoughts. How could a country as strong as ours, be thwarted by a backward
bunch of primitives who were not far removed from the Neanderthal age? I was eventually to find out!
One night my cell door
was opened and the guard indicated I was to get into my pajamas and to roll-up
my possessions. I was able to walk now
without crutches but it was more a hobble than a walk. I was blindfolded, handcuffed, and placed in
the back of a truck. We drove for what
seemed like two or three miles. From
the street noises, I could tell we were still in the city. I heard a gate open and we drove in. My hands were uncuffed, but the blindfold
remained. I was taken to a cell that
had two saw horses with large wood boards that were nailed together and resembled
a smooth door. Those boards would be my bed for the next three years.
The following day I was
moved into a larger room that had two other POWs in it! How good it was to see and talk to another
American. One of my roommates was a
Navy pilot shot down several weeks before who had sustained a severe leg
injury. He had considerable difficulty
walking like I had. The other was a
younger Air Force pilot who was not injured and his duty was to look after the
two of us. He would get our food at
mealtime and empty our waste buckets every day. We talked and talked, but soon ran out of things to talk about,
leaving us to spend hours staring at the walls and ceiling - grateful for the
It was at this time that
I first heard of Tom Hayden. He came to
Hanoi sympathizing with the Vietnamese and made a propaganda tape similar to
the one his future wife, Jane Fonda, made.
He said in the taping that the war was wrong, and that we were
criminals. While he was there, I was
taken to the interrogation room and asked by the Vietnamese if I wanted to
write a letter home, and that Tom Hayden would hand carry it back for me. I knew my two roommates had not been allowed
to write and knowing what the answer would be, I said I did not want to write
unless my roommates could write also. I
was again lectured on my bad attitude and told I may never again be able to
write home, and was sent back to my room.
I did not learn until I came home, that my mother had learned that he
was going to North Vietnam. She contacted
him and pleaded with him to take her letter with him and give it to me. He reluctantly said he would. Needless to say, I never got the letter.
We were never allowed
out of our cells when another prisoner was outside. When we went to the cement trough to bathe and wash our clothes,
no one else would be out of their cells.
At mealtime, only one cell was allowed out to get the food at a
time. We were also not allowed to peek
out of any cracks in our doors that would allow us to see another
prisoner. We did, however, drill a
small hole in the door with a nail picked up in the yard and were able to see
out quite well. We just had to be alert so that we weren’t caught.
It was there that I
learned about the POWs communications code.
It consisted of a series of taps that would enable us to laboriously tap
out messages on the wall to our neighbors.
The Morse code was not usable because it consisted of dots and dashes,
and it was impossible to tap a dash on the wall. The system worked well and we all soon became proficient using
it. We could tap it on the walls, swish
it with a broom while sweeping, write it on toilet paper and hide it in hidden
drops throughout the camp, and found that we could write on the bottom of our
metal soup bowls with an aluminum spoon.
The prisoners were the dishwashers and would get the message when they
washed up after each meal. Another method was to hang your wet laundry on the
common clothesline to dry with a note tied in it. You would hang your clothes next to theirs and the next day you
would take their clothes and they would take yours. As all the clothes were identical and there was only one size, it
would never be noticed. Communicating was strictly prohibited and severe
punishment would result if caught.
Additionally, we had no rank in their eyes. It was an effort to keep senior prisoners from issuing policy or
orders to other prisoners.
The senior POW in the
camp was in the cell adjoining mine, and we found that we could "talk
through the walls" with our tin cup.
The walls were about fourteen inches thick and made up of brick and
mortar. We found that certain spots
conducted sound real well and by putting the base of your cup on the wall over
those spots, and covering the sides of your mouth with your hands, you could
speak into the cup. The person in the other cell would put his ear to the base
of his cup directly opposite and a conversation could quickly be
conducted. We were prohibited from
communicating with others and were not allowed to talk louder than a whisper.
There were about forty
POWs in this camp and it would take about two weeks to get a message from one
end of the camp, to the other.
Communicating with each other became a challenge and when a group of
highly educated people put their bored minds to it, they came up with many ways
In an effort to relieve
boredom and give the POW’s something to think about, the Senior Officer in the
camp, Lt. Col. Hervey Stockman tapped me a message that he was going to
initiate a shoot down contest, whereby the winners would receive a bottle of
brandy or cognac from him on our release.
There would be a prize for the crewmember that bailed out from the
highest altitude, the lowest altitude, the fastest speed, and the slowest
speed. I felt confident that I would
win the fastest speed (about Mach 1.15), and that I had a pretty good chance at
the lowest altitude (about 400 feet).
Due to the distances involved in the camp between cells and the danger
of being caught, it took almost three weeks for him to get responses back from
all of the camp.
He called me to the wall
to talk through the cup, and informed me that I had won the fastest speed for
bail out, but not the slowest speed. He
said, “Swede, would you believe 30 knots and 20 feet!” I immediately thought of a downed helicopter
crewman that might have been shot down, and that is when I first heard of
Seaman Apprentice Douglas Hegdahl.
seems that Seaman Hegdahl was just out of “Boot Camp” and was on the Navy
cruiser USS Canberra as an ammunition handler in the Gulf of Tonkin patrolling
and firing their big guns at shore installations in North Vietnam. It was a hot night and, although it was
against standing orders for crewmen to be topside at night during maneuvers and
firing, Seaman Hegdahl wanted to get some fresh air, and see the guns fire at
night. Just as he got on deck, the
ships guns began firing and he was knocked off his feet to the deck and fell
overboard. Fortunately the ship started
turning just then and he was not hit by the ships propellers. As it was at night and the guns were being
fired, no one saw him go overboard or heard the splash. He was without any floatation gear of any
kind, and had to tread water for approximately 5 hours before a Vietnamese
fishing boat spotted him and pulled him out of the water, totally
exhausted. To say he was lucky would be
a gross understatement. When he failed
to report for duty, an exhaustive search was made for him and four days later,
the ship held a memorial service for him.
It was not until many
years later after my release from Hanoi (1973) that I heard the “…rest of the
story” as I spent most of the remainder of my captivity in that camp, in
solitary confinement. When Seaman
Hegdhal was first brought to Hanoi and told his bizarre story, the Vietnamese
did not believe him and were sure that they had captured a “Yankee Spy.” All of the other POW’s were crewmembers of
aircraft. They were of an age group of
24 to 45 years old, and were almost all college educated. Into this setting, Hegdahl, who had just
turned 18 years old, with a high school education, and unable to see (he had
lost his glasses when he fell overboard) was thrust. He was constantly interrogated for over a month until the
Vietnamese were finally convinced that he really was what he claimed to be and
that, as he was a new recruit, he certainly did not have any valuable military
information for them.
Hegdahl realized that if
he played as dumb as they thought he was, he would be left alone. He professed to be unable to spell anything
but 3 or 4 letter words, and could not understand words over 6 letters
long. They soon ignored him and let him
out of his cell periodically to sweep and do other menial tasks.
He was given a roommate
on 4 different occasions for three or four month duration. It was during these times that he learned of
the torture and gross mistreatment of the other prisoners, of the complete lack
of medical attention, of the Vietnamese constantly forcing propaganda
statements and interviews with the prisoners, and most importantly, he obtained
a comprehensive list of approximately 260 names of crew members who were
captured and in Hanoi. (Of this list,
only about 90 to 100 had been declared captured by the Vietnamese. The remainder were not known to be alive or
dead). What the Vietnamese did not know
was that Seaman Hegdahl had a phenomenal memory and could easily remember 260
names, branch of service, and shoot down dates. It was said by one of his roommates that he could recite the
Gettysburg address forward and backward!
Seaman Hegdahl was
offered early release with two other POW’s but he refused because he knew that
the Senior Officers policy was that there would be no early release, and that
when we went home, it would be in the order that we were shot down and
captured. When it was learned that
Hegdahl might be offered early release with another group, the Senior Officer
that was in communications with the camp felt that the information he possessed
should be gotten out and he ordered Hegdahl to accept early release and take
home the vital information he possessed, as the other 8 individuals that were
released, had little or no knowledge of the true conditions in the camps. (Sad to say, they had little or no desire to
learn any of it either).
Immediately upon his
release, Hegdahl revealed not only the aforementioned information, but had data
and locations of other camps and suspected locations. The Vietnamese were furious with him and embarrassed with much
“loss of face” by being taken in by this “non-entity”. That was the last time there were any early
Not long after I
returned home, Colonel Stockman visited my wife and I in San Antonio. When I opened the door, he stood there
grinning while he handed me my bottle of Remy Martin cognac that I had won in
his contest. He said that he had
already awarded Hegdahl his two bottles.
We spent the rest of that night (and much of the bottle) reminiscing
about Seaman Hegdahl and how he fooled his captors. He informed me that Hegdahl had been discharged from the Navy,
but was now working for the Navy as a civilian escape and evasion
One day as I was peeking
out the hole in our door, I saw one of my best friends walking by with a
guard. It was Ted Guy who I was with at
Luke AFB in Arizona and who I had fished with many times. I knew he was to follow me to Vietnam and
would be flying missions only in South Vietnam and would never be flying into
North Vietnam. I couldn't figure out
how he had ended up here in Hanoi, as everyone else who was here, had been
captured while flying in North Vietnam.
He had been captured in Laos, just across the border from South Vietnam,
by North Vietnamese regulars and taken to Hanoi. We tried to establish communications with him but he didn’t trust
us and thought it was some trick of the Vietnamese. We finally got a message to him with information that only I
could know and he finally got on line with us.
I named him "Dryfly" and we still sign letters and E-mail
Dryfly and Greyfox.
Things started to stir
in the camp but we couldn’t put our finger on it. When you have nothing to do all day but sit and "contemplate
your crimes", you become acutely aware of your surroundings and are aware
of the slightest deviations in day-to-day activities within the camp. The interrogations (now known as quizzes)
increased and the guards were even more surly than normal.
Several nights later, I
was taken to the main quiz room and instead of the stool I was placed on my
knees at attention and left there for several hours. Try it some time on a cement floor. I later learned that a friend of mine by the name of Larry
Guarino had spent the better part of three days on his knees and they swelled
up like grapefruit and infected. They
burst open and drained for two weeks.
He has terrible scars there today.
I could hear a truck in the courtyard and many cell doors opening and
closing. I knew my premonitions were
right and that there was a major purge going on in the camp that night. An effeminate officer whom we called “Slick”
(his English was better than the other officers) came in and accused me of
usurping the authority of the Camp Commander by helping the senior POW in
giving orders to the other prisoners in the camp and breaking the camp
rules. They had interrogated many of
the prisoners and found out many of the ways we had been communicating with
each other. They were really mad as
they thought they had kept us apart and unable to communicate. When they discovered we knew the names of
everyone in the camp, they really came "unglued'. They transferred the senior officer and his roommate
out of the camp and back to the Hilton that night. I thought I would be next as I was now the Senior Officer.
Instead of transferring me out, they threatened me with the severest punishment
and moved me to a cell that was completely isolated from the rest of the camp
where I couldn’t see or tap to any of the other prisoners. I was to spend the major part of the next
two years in that cell and got to know it like the back of my hand. There were no windows and the door was close
fitting and let little air in from the bottom.
There was a five inch hole in the wall near the top of the sixteen foot
ceiling - and that was the sum total of fresh air that I got. It was unbelievably hot in there in the
summer. Fortunately, I can take the
heat better than most, or I would have expired in that cell in those
summers. I did have severe heat rash
every summer though, but learned to live with it.
While in that cell, I
was for all intents and purposes, completely out of communication with the rest
of the prisoners. I knew that the next
senior prisoner would take over in my absence and that was Ted Guy. I later learned that he was caught giving
orders and suffered severe consequences because of it.
I did receive one note
during that entire time period. On one
of the occasions that I was extremely sick for several weeks, I was unable to
take my waste bucket to the area for dumping, The guard would open the door and
I would set my bucket outside the door.
He would then have some other prisoner take my bucket with his to dump
it and return the empty bucket to my doorway.
(The guards would NEVER touch one of our waste pails). Fortunately the pails all had lids on them. One day after retrieving my pail and getting
ready to use it, I noticed a small string (pulled out of a thin blanket)
hanging down into the pail. When I
pulled it up, I could see it had a small paper package tied on the end of
it. Wrapped in a discarded Vietnamese
cigarette package, was a short note telling me whom lived near by and saying that
they could see me when I was let out of my cell. It felt real comforting to have contact with another
American. I would occasionally be let
out for 15 minutes of sun. I would
stand there and exercise my arms in the tap code, alternating my movements
occasionally. It was slow and tedious
communicating, but it made me feel good to know that I had an occasional
contact with the group and was able to tell them I was OK.
It was late fall now and
I was beginning to have problems with my broken tooth. Shortly after I was captured, I broke a
tooth on a small rock that was in my rice.
That was when I learned that I had to eat carefully and not gulp down
the rice. Putting small stones in our
rice, and dog feces in our soup, was a favorite sport of the guards. Their education level was about the 4th or
5th grade at best and some of them were "not playing with a full
deck". We had to be extremely
careful around them.
I complained of my sore
tooth often, but all I got for it was an occasional aspirin. I found that I could make one aspirin last
several weeks if I was careful with it.
I would place it next to my gum on the outside of my tooth and it would
not dissolve. It deadened the tooth but
had to be removed periodically or it would burn the gum and had to be taken out
at night. I probably got a total of
eight aspirins the entire time I was there, but I sure made the most of them.
Christmas was coming and
I really dreaded to think about it. The
weather had turned cold and those cells were damp and miserably cold. I now had a thin cotton blanket, two changes
of pajamas, and two pair of shorts and short sleeved shirts. In order to stay warm I would "stand in
the middle of my wardrobe", put on everything I owned and hoped the layers
would keep me warm. My feet had healed
by now but were always cold and chewed up by the ever-present mosquitoes. I sat there thinking that if I could have
anything I wanted for Christmas, it would be some warm socks. The good Lord must have heard me, because
the next day the door opened and I was given two pair of thin, green cotton
socks, and another blanket! I cried
unashamedly for a long time that day and wondered what the Vietnamese wanted
now. It didn’t take long to find out.
Christmas Eve, I was
taken to a large room in the complex that was set up like a church for the
occasion. I was the last prisoner to
enter the room and I saw about 12 other Americans sitting there. There was a guard sitting between each
prisoner to keep us from communicating.
A mealy-mouthed Vietnamese Priest got up and told us we should repent
our sins in that we were guilty of killing innocent women and children. It was a sickening performance but I guess
he was also "under the gun" as the Vietnamese officials who were in
power, were certainly atheist. As I was
leaving that room, I saw that they had been filming us for propaganda purposes.
Later that evening, all
of the prisoners in camp were escorted one at a time to the Camp Commanders
office. We were given a small cup of
juice and a cookie. The Commander
stated that because it was our Christmas and "in keeping with the lenient
and humane treatment" afforded us by the Vietnamese people, we were to be
allowed to receive a letter from home!
I got my first mail from Mary and though it was short, it was profoundly
treasured. I knew that my family was
well - and that knowledge was an incredible Christmas present.
The next day we were
given a real meal! Turkey (tough as
boot leather), a small potato, and a traditional Vietnamese food made on
holidays. We also received a half
bottle of beer! Believe it or not, I
could feel the alcohol in that little bit of beer. I thought of how great it was going to be to get released and not
have to spend another Christmas as a guest of the Vietnamese. Little did I dream I would be spending four
more holiday seasons there.
Time passed slowly. Every day I dreaded to have my cell door
opened to be taken to another quiz. It
was always the same thing. They wanted
us to write something of a propaganda nature or it was to try and ply us with
their propaganda BS. People have often
asked how we withstood the physical abuse and treatment, and are always shocked
and skeptical when I tell them that being forced into propaganda situations was
by far the worst. You have to remember
we were all well-educated, career officers who had a real and intense feeling
for duty and country. We tried our best
to thwart our captors every effort and sometimes we were successful, and
sometimes we failed but we always tried. A friend of mine by the name of Nels Tanner thought he would trick
them when they required him to write about discontentment of the pilots on the
aircraft carrier he flew from prior to his shoot down. He wrote that Lt. Clark Kent was always
unhappy and that Commander Flash Gordon and Lt. Dick Tracy stirred up
disharmony, etc. The Vietnamese were
happy over his disclosures and published his information in the Vietnamese
The foreign press picked
it up and several weeks later, Newsweek made a big production of the Vietnamese
falling for such a scam (all of the names being fictional characters in
American funny-papers!). The Vietnamese
lost considerable "face" over this and the Camp Commander and his
superiors were severely chastised. You
can imagine how Nels was then treated!
He was severely beaten on several occasions and made to formally
apologize to the camp authorities. He
was later put in a small prison containing seven "of the worst"
criminals of our bunch. They spent a
year and a half in tiny isolation cells and were put in leg stocks every night
and were not allowed out of their cells except for an occasional bath. One of their group got so depressed with his
situation he stopped eating and refused orders from the senior officer in that
group to eat. He died in that cell and
there was nothing the others could do for him.
One member of that group was Jerry Denton, who later became a Senator
from the Carolinas, and another was Jim Stockdale, who was chosen by Ross Perot
to be his vice-presidential running mate in 1992.
Two others in that group
were Navy Lieutenant George Coker and Air Force Captain George McNight. This was a group of “the baddest of the
baddest” criminals. It seems that the
Air Force had started bombing close to the city proper and the Vietnamese were
worried about their main power plant in Hanoi.
They were fairly certain that Washington knew where the prisoners were
kept, and they knew we would never knowingly bomb our own people. Consequently, they moved Coker and McNight
to the power plant and kept them in a shed adjacent to the coal pile. They had only been there for about a week
when one night the bombs fell on or very near, the power plant and blew the
doors off of their shed. Before they
could gather their wits and think about running, the guards came running back
from their hiding hole and accused them of trying to escape. From then on, they were on the Vietnamese
black list. Sometimes the Vietnamese
acted like imbeciles.
It was during my second
summer (1968) that I started having swelling in my legs. As time went on, they got bigger and
bigger. The skin was stretched so tight
on both legs they felt like they were on fire.
The Vietnamese were perplexed by this and finally sent the doctor (!)
around to see me. When the flesh on my
leg was pressed in, it left a dent in the flesh that was slow to come back
out. The doctor shook his head and
walked off never saying a word. It was
evident he didn’t know what was wrong and it later became very evident. The guards were intrigued by my legs. When I was out of the cell they would press
my skin and be in awe, as it stayed depressed.
I guess their days were as boring as mine were! I started getting my soup in a bowl that had
been dipped out of the big kettle before the salt was put in. My "special" soup was always cold,
summer and winter. Being tasteless to
begin with, being cold and salt-less made it all the more difficult to
eat. I had to force it down, as I was
considerably down in weight. With an unknown
malady, I certainly needed to eat all the food I got.
On Sundays, there were
no quizzes, no baths, and only one meal.
It was a day I looked forward to.
One particular Sunday, the peephole in my door opened and a guard I had
never seen before, motioned me to come to the door. He handed in a fruit I had never eaten before and I was
flabbergasted. Being a Yankee, I had
never tasted a Mango although I knew what they looked like. I was delighted and ate everything but the
skin and was even tempted to eat that.
It was not long before I became ill and that Mango was soon coming out
both ends! To say I was sick is a gross
understatement. I had diarrhea so badly
I practically lived on my little pail.
It got worse the next day and when I pantomimed my problem to a guard, I
got one aspirin! As the days went on,
it turned to dysentery and I was really ill.
I became dehydrated and was so ill I could not eat my regular food. It took better than two weeks for me to get
over that bout and I couldn't eat a Mango today if my life depended on it. That vindictive guard knew that he was
giving me an overripe fruit and that if I ate it I would be sick. There was never a really dull moment
there. It was really hours of fearful
boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror.
I have often been asked
how I maintained my sanity with almost three years of solitary
confinement. Some of my fellow POWs got
mentally involved by designing their future home in their mind. After they designed it, they would put it together
board by board and nail by nail.
I got involved with
raising chickens! I mentally started an
operation raising chickens for eggs.
Each time I designed and built an operation, I would decide it was not
big enough and would double or triple the size of it. I found that by total concentration I could dredge up things
about chickens that were in my subconscious; knowledge I didn’t know I even
possessed. Things I came up with were
gestation time for eggs, how long a chicken would lay, how old before they
would start laying, etc. It was amazing
how much I came up with, never having been closer to chickens than spending
summers on a farm as a boy. I built
complex cage operations that were fully automatic and kept all the figures in
my head. I would get so involved, that
many nights I couldn’t let go of it and would stay awake all night long with
the project. It was an escape and kept my mind off my surroundings and
plight. I spent over a year with this
project and it occupied my every free moment. It was not good to brood over
family and loved ones, as it made one very depressed and those moods of
depression were very hard to shake.
A few of the POWs were
not so lucky. Two that I know of could
not stand the pressure and over a period of time lost track of reality. They were separated from the rest of us and
as they could not take care of themselves, the Vietnamese let them slowly
die. Another young pilot tried to come
up with some way to thwart the Vietnamese from using him for propaganda purposes. He told his roommate that he should
"go-along" with his scam the next time he was taken to a quiz. A guard came for him and when he went out
the door, he started his mythical motorcycle and rode it to the quiz. He acted like he had flipped in front of the
Vietnamese. They tried to make him
admit he was faking it but he steadfastly kept up the charade. He was separated from his roommate and put
in solitary confinement. The longer he
kept it up, the more he believed it and he got so deep in his subterfuge, that
he was not able to ever bring himself out of it. He eventually died in
captivity and could have been saved if he, and the other two I mentioned, would
have been allowed to live with their fellow prisoners so they could feed and
care for them.
It’s interesting to note
that no seriously injured prisoner was released. In violent situations where aircraft are shot down by large
explosions, and many ejection's under much less than optimal conditions, some
of the over 400 prisoners had to have had injuries so severe that amputations
would have been normal. The few that we
knew about who were severely injured never surfaced in the camps and were never
heard from again.
One prisoner had a large
hole in his shoulder that was caused by shrapnel. The wound was so large and severe, it never did close up, and it
drained the entire five years he was there.
Another had his ankle
severely fractured and was held together by ligaments and muscles. Had he lost his foot, we seriously doubt he
would have been released, but would have disappeared with the rest.
One night in 1969, I was
taken out of my cell to the large courtyard and saw that the guards had strung
wire up and had draped blankets up on the wire to make small cubicles. In each cubicle sat a POW and a guard. No talking was allowed and we were told not
to look around. HA! I was the last to arrive, and as soon as I
sat down, they started a movie that turned out to be several propaganda movies
from the states that depicted many violent anti-war demonstrators across the
country. They were foreign looking
young people and we wondered where they found them to act in their movies. They all had long hair, and wore funny
looking clothes, and most seemed to be smoking. All we could think of was how dumb can these people get. Those were not even Americans! We went back to our cells shaking our
heads. When asked what we thought of
the movies, everyone told them it was a badly cast propaganda film and we did
not believe one bit of it. That is the
last time they tried that. It turned
out that the joke was on us however. It
was not until we were released that we found out about “hippies”, polyester
clothes, long hair, pot, and how serious the anti-war movement had been. It turned out that the movies were TRUE and
we refused to believe them! Boy, talk
about a rude awakening!
Each cell had a speaker
mounted in the ceiling that played propaganda several times a day. When they played it after lunch, we were
required to sit on our bunk and listen to their garbage. When Jane Fond made her infamous trip to
Hanoi, she made a tape addressed to the POWs. She accused us of killing women
and children told us we should repent for our sins and should be grateful for
our "lenient and humane treatment".
The Vietnamese were so pleased with that tape they played it over 30
times and made us sit at attention and listen to it each time! Ted Turner can have her with our blessings.
It was not just us who
received propaganda. Almost every
street corner in Hanoi had a loudspeaker.
As there were no private radio stations there, only the state radio was
available and it played only propaganda all day long. It started at 5:30 every morning when the radio played 30 minutes
of exercise cadences and every citizen was required to participate. All citizens were required to work or they
wouldn’t eat. Mothers had to put their
children in day nurseries run by the state while they worked. All citizens over school age, and who were
under seventy, were required to attend night classes, three nights a week. One would be educational and the other two
were strictly propaganda indoctrinations.
Every week! Talk about mind
One Sunday late in 1969,
the speakers on the corners (which we could hear) started playing very strange
music non-stop all night long. In the
morning we were not allowed a bath and got our soup late in the day. The guards were very somber and strict. One afternoon the Camp Commander got on the
camp radio and informed us that their venerable hero and leader, Ho Chi Mihn
had died and that if we knew what was good for us, we would respect their
national mourning and act accordingly.
I knew if we acted foolishly in any manner at that time, they would have
an excuse to take it out on us. We
remained locked up for three days until they had their funeral and the routine
returned to normal.
About a month later, we
started noticing small changes in our treatment. After 2 years and 3 months in solitary confinement away from the
rest of the camp, I was moved to another cell that had much more air and was
not completely isolated from the rest of the camp. We were now eating bread that had been made from wheat brought in
by the Russians, instead of rice. I
started getting outside my cell twice a week for 30 minutes at a time. That sunshine really felt good! To top it all off, I got a package from
home! It consisted of a pair of long
underwear! I couldn’t have asked for
anything I wanted or needed more. The
Vietnamese confiscated about 2/3rds of every package we got - but what did come
through was truly treasured (especially that fabulous new invention,
One day I was let out of
my cell for some sun and fresh air and another POW was out at the same
time! I was forced to sit facing away
from him but I recognized him and wanted desperately to communicate with him. I started communicating with him with my
hand behind my back, whenever the guard was not looking. I was wagging away at him and did not see a
guard sneaking up on me. He didn’t
cough a warning and the guard had me cold.
I was sure I was going to get a good beating out of it and I was
immediately put back in my cell with only a stern scolding in Vietnamese. I went to sleep that night wondering what
was going on. About 10:30 my cell door
flew opened and the guards were there telling me to hurry up and get
dressed. I was taken to the Big House
and made to get on my knees in front of the Camp Commander. We rarely dealt with him and I was really
scared. He ranted and raved and
threatened me for about an hour before sending me back to my cell without any
physical abuse! What gives? It would be a while before I had the answer
to that, but our treatment had a slight improvement. We even started getting a 1/4 piece of bread fried in sugar for
breakfast. Our cup runneth over!
On the 9th.
of December of 1969, I was awakened in the middle of the night and told to pack
up my things, as I was moving again.
Instead of going to another cell, I was handcuffed, blindfolded, and put
in a truck with several other prisoners.
A guard accompanied each of us and told us not to talk. As we drove, we tapped our names to the
other prisoners with our feet until I inadvertently started tapping on one of
the guard’s feet and that ended that!
The other three were Ted Guy, John McCain, and Ernie Brace.
When my blindfold was
removed, I recognized my surroundings and knew I was back in the Hanoi
Hilton. I was put in a cell in
isolation in a part of the camp I had not been in before. It was not five minutes before I was
contacted and found out who my neighbors were and they found out my name and
where I had come from. Lying on the
floor and looking for the guard’s feet while I tapped was not the easiest thing
but I felt good knowing that others knew whom and where I was.
On Christmas Eve, I was
summoned to see the Camp Commander.
After a little chitchat, he said that on the occasion of Christmas and
in keeping with "the lenient and humane treatment" afforded the POWs,
(where was he when I was in the ropes?) I was to have a roommate! At long last, someone to talk to!
I was taken back to my
cell and told to pack up again and was taken out of the main POW camp and
headed for the main interrogation room!
What did they have in store for me now?
I entered the room and saw only one bed and it seemed to belong to
someone. The guards brought in another
bed (saw horses and boards) and left. A
few minutes later, the door opened and a POW was escorted back in cell and I
noted that I had never seen him before.
We just looked at each other until the guards backed out of the
door. I had been in solitary
confinement for almost two and a half years and Robby had been in solitary for
the past three and a half years. We
warmly embraced, shed some tears, and started talking non-stop for two days
without sleep. My roommate turned out
to be Robby Risner, a well known Ace of the Korean War and a decorated hero of
the Vietnam War (It was his gross misfortune to have been on the cover of
Newsweek just a week before he was shot down.
The Vietnamese showed him the cover and tried to continually exploit
him). He is one of the finest
individuals I have ever known. Robby is
a very religious individual and every Sunday we would spend the entire day
talking about the Bible, reciting the 23rd Psalm, and taking Communion. We would save a small piece of bread on
Saturday night and hide it under our cups to keep it away from the rats. We were very compatible and became close
It was then that I
learned how bad it really was for some of my fellow inmates. Robbie had been severely tortured on
numerous occasions. He told me of the
Hanoi March that he was on in early 1967 when he an about 45 other prisoners
were handcuffed in pairs and taken to downtown Hanoi to be paraded through the
streets. The streets were crowded with
people who were shouting and shaking their fists at the slowly plodding
prisoners. Ahead of the prisoners, a
sound truck was exhorting the crowd and whipping them into a frenzy. The crown began throwing rocks and darting
in and punching the handcuffed prisoners.
It soon became apparent to the prisoners as well as their guards that
the situation was out of hand. Robbie
said that he was knocked down several times and they feared for their
lives. A sports stadium was about a block
away and they all ran for the safety of the stadium where they could close the
gates on the crowd. The event really
frightened all of them.
It was several months
later that we finally realized that the Vietnamese had stopped torturing
prisoners. We were called to a quiz and
were confronted by Major Bye, the senior officer in charge of all
prisoners. We learned from him that he
had been severely chastised for the harsh treatment of the prisoners and was
now the Commandant of the main prison.
It was obvious he was just a scapegoat because Ho Chi Minh called all
the shots with the captured airmen.
"Uncle Ho's” death was the start of our better treatment! He wanted us to make a recording of the camp
news (strictly propaganda), and when we refused to participate in their
propaganda efforts, we waited with great trepidation to see whether we would be
punished or not. The Vietnamese finally
gave up asking us and we knew we had passed a real milestone. Maybe we would get out of here yet!
The tooth that I had
cracked, was really bothering me. As
part of their "lenient and humane" treatment, an individual posing as
a dentist, came around once with a portable drill and with an assistant
pedaling the device to turn the drill. He would hollow out your tooth and put
in a ceramic substance. Those that had
it done, all had trouble with their bad tooth, and as he drilled without a
deadener, I wanted no part of it. My
tooth was too far-gone anyway for any recovery techniques available in
Vietnam. One night I was blindfolded
and handcuffed before I was taken by truck to a hospital that had a dental
clinic. It was very late and the place
seemed deserted. A short, squat woman
appeared wearing an officer’s uniform and motioned me into a dental chair. She was real hard looking and was very
brusque. She looked at my tooth, then
reached for a pair of pliers and began wiggling the tooth in an attempt to pull
it out. I thought "lady, you
forgot the painkiller". Before
long, the tooth crumbled and I knew I was once again, in deep trouble. She picked up a device to pry with, and
proceeded to pry the many small pieces out of my gum. She always rested the pry on the part of my lip that was on top
of the edge of my teeth. She cut my
lips in many places by prying on that bar and cut completely through one
time. I passed out in the chair once
and was completely soaked in sweat by the time she finished and was so weak I
could hardly get out of the chair. Up
to that point she had not said a word to me and I assumed she could not speak
English. As I got out of the chair, she
said in perfect English, "your pain threshold is very low"! She really took perverse pleasure in hurting
me and there was not a thing I could do about it. Pieces of that tooth worked their way out of my gums for over a
For a period of about
three weeks, by peeking out our cell door, Robby and I could see three American
prisoners walking slowly up and down the courtyard during the siesta period at
noontime. They were very emaciated looking, weighing little more than 100 pounds.
They appeared so weak they could hardly walk.
They also seemed indifferent and unaware of their surroundings. They were let out one at a time and were
only out about 20 minutes. They were
the three I previously mentioned and were slowly withering away. We later learned that they were removed from
the Hilton and taken elsewhere to die.
We were the last ones to see them alive.
I awoke one morning and
felt a large puffed up band in the small of my back. It was about the thickness of my arm and stretched completely
across my back. I noticed that my legs
were even larger. I was in a small
panic by this time because I didn’t know what was happening to me - and I
thought the worst. The doctor arrived
the next day and decided that I had "piss rocks" (they couldn’t
interpret "kidney stones"). I
was taken to the hospital several nights later (blindfolded and cuffed) where I
was injected with a dye and x-rays taken.
The next day I became very ill from the dye and couldn’t eat or get my
head off the bed. Bug came to our cell
several days later and said that the x-rays were bad and that I would have to
go back and do it again! Several nights
later I repeated the procedure and was told they were using a different
drug. I became really ill this
time. My head ached so badly I couldn’t
hold it up - and I still couldn’t eat.
The Vietnamese started bringing me 3 bananas each meal to build me
up. I couldn’t even look at them. Except for that overripe mango, I hadn’t
seen any fruit over there and to be unable to eat it really hurt. I insisted that Robby eat them so that they
might continue to bring more. He ate
those bananas, peel and all!
About five days later,
“French” and "Bug" came to our room looking like they had swallowed
the canary. They showed Robby and me an
x-ray that showed a very bright round spot about the size of a small marble,
that was located at the base of my bladder and was obviously too large to
pass. They said I would have to have an
operation to remove it and would go to the hospital in two days time. Now I was really scared. I didn’t want them operating on me. I had seen enough of their
"medicine" to know I wanted no part of it. I was also afraid that if I didn’t have it removed, I could well
have more complications than I already had and could well expire there.
Robby and I prayed and
prayed that the Lord would put his healing hand on me and that I could pass the
stone and not have to go under the knife.
On the appointed night, I sat all night long waiting for them to come and
get me. They never appeared and nothing
was said to me. I felt sure they would
come the next night, but they didn’t come and nothing was said to me about why
or when. Time passed and I didn’t get
any worse. In fact, the band around my
back went down and my legs slowly got better.
The story doesn’t unfold until after I am released which I will cover
I’m convinced that if I
had not been in a cell with Robby Risner, I would never have had that tooth
looked after - nor would I have been taken to a hospital to be x-rayed. He and Admiral McCain's son, John, were
their prized possessions and they were genuinely concerned that if and when we
were released, people would listen to him and he could relate my treatment (?)
as a demonstration of their new found "lenient and humane" treatment
Early one afternoon in
November 1970, we heard a big commotion in the courtyard when it would normally
be a quiet time. Peeking out the door,
we saw large numbers of civilian prisoners (over half of whom were boys and
girls aged about 9 to 14) chained together and being herded out of the
prison. This went on all afternoon and
into the early evening. Shortly after
things quieted down, our door was opened and we were told to roll up our
possessions. We were taken to a cell in
the area where the other Americans were being held and we weren’t
blindfolded! What was going on?
We soon established
contact with others and thought that at long last we were back in the same area
with our friends. On Christmas day of
1970, in the early evening, we heard what sounded like all of the cell doors
opening. Anytime anything out of the ordinary occurred, we were very
apprehensive as it could mean almost anything, and most of them were not good. We rolled up our possessions and were
escorted outside. There were about 30
other Americans there and they were all talking to each other! What was happening? We were told to be quiet and were marched to
the civilian part of the compound and all put in one large room that had a
raised cement dais in the center that was large enough for about 40 people to
sleep on with 20 to a side. Communal
living for the first time! No one slept and we all talked throughout the night,
catching up with old friends and meeting the person behind the names we had
heard about through the clandestine communications system.
We spent the first
several days getting to know each other and found that the room contained the
23 Lt. Colonel’s and Navy Commanders, including the junior officers, who had
been confined in “Alcatraz” (Nels Tanner and the three who had tried to
A very unusual thing was
observed as soon as we moved in the new area.
We observed many of the guards aiming their weapons at small cut outs of
helicopters mounted on the roof. They
seemed very serious and we thought they were nuts! Helicopters in Hanoi!
What we did not know was that a rescue attempt was made to rescue POWs
from a camp about 45 miles West of Hanoi called Son Tey, and that was the
reason we were all moved into one camp located in the center of Hanoi. Unfortunately all of the prisoners were
moved from Son Tey several weeks before.
It was not until much
later that we learned the reason for our all being put together in one
prison. When the Administration authorized
the Son Tay raid to liberate a group of POWs in an outlying camp (it was
unsuccessful, since the inmates had been moved several weeks earlier!). The Vietnamese realized Nixon was getting
serious and they had to take steps to protect their only bargaining chip - 350
communications were soon established and we found that the compound contained
seven such buildings and they were each filled with our fellow captives. The Vietnamese had brought in all of the
captives from outlying camps and we were all together for the first time. We were still missing the four colonels who
were captured but felt they would turn up sooner or later.
One of the men in our
room (John Dramese) had a terrible tale to tell. He and another cellmate (Ed Attebury) decided to escape from an
outlying camp with the intention of reaching the Red River, which flowed
through Hanoi, and escape to the ocean by floating down the river at
night. On a stormy night, they climbed
through a hole in their ceiling and made it over the high wall undetected. They reached the river at dawn buy didn’t
have time to adequately hide themselves before daylight. They were soon spotted and captured. The Vietnamese were so angry that they beat
Attebury to death and Dramese barely survived.
He was severely tortured and spent several months in leg irons strapped
to a bunk as punishment.
Another of the men in
that room was my wingman.
I hardly recognized him. When he
was shot down, he was a model prisoner and cooperated with his captors. My initial interrogation was extra lengthy
and brutal because of my wingman, who was just around the corner from me, refuted all
the lies and half-truths I was telling them which caused me considerable
problems. Here he was, now that the
torture had stopped, acting as the big defiant one. He received a picture from his wife that indicated he had been
promoted to full colonel and he now wanted to go home a big hero. Since the
torture had stopped, he became “the big resistor”. He wouldn’t shave and
refused to take soap and toothpaste from the Vietnamese because they insisted
we sign for them when they were issued.
How dumb can you get? He was in
filthy, greasy, dirty clothes and smelled so bad, he was ordered by the Senior
Officer to sign for new supplies, shave, bathe and wash his clothes.
Several of the prisoners
got together and wrote out the Geneva Conventions on a large sheet of toilet
paper and posted it up on the door of our cell. We knew it wouldn’t last long, but would at least let them know
we were fully aware of what was required of them regarding our treatment. It didn’t take long before a guard pulled it
down. My wingman saw it happen when he was
out in our small courtyard bathing. He
argued with the guard and started shouting four letter obscenities at Ho Chi
Minh as loud as he could. This was too
much for the Vietnamese to take and they hauled him out of there and beat him
severely. He was in Heartbreak Hotel,
which was just behind us, and we could hear him crying through the night as
guards took turns taking their licks at him.
Vilifying Uncle Ho was about the stupidest thing that you could do and
my wingman was evidently not playing with a full deck by this time. Several days later he was returned to our
room and was a much-subdued prisoner after that.
When we were released,
he kicked his wife and children out of his house, and as she was destitute, the
Air Force gave her a job in Washington so she could eat and take care of their
children. My wingman tried to enter
politics in New Mexico and wrote scathing letters to the Air Force demanding he
be given command of a Fighter Wing.
Senior Air Force Officers convinced him that the best thing he could do
was to retire. He took their advice,
hooked up with a young girl, bought a motor home, and traveled the State of New
Mexico running for political office. He
would rant and rave so much while at a podium speaking, that occasionally he
had to be physically removed from the platform and, needless to say, faded into
The Vietnamese were
extremely worried that we were going to cause some kind of uprising, now that
we were together. They had numerous
armed guards outside our cells and built a small platform outside our high
windows so that they could look in and monitor our activities. We were told that we could not have any
large gathering inside our room and whenever 5 or more prisoners gathered in
one spot, they were told to disperse.
How dumb can you get? Over
thirty of us in one fairly small room and we weren’t allowed to gather? It was decided that we were going to have
church service on Sunday and it was elaborately planned. When the guard told us to break it up, we
ignored him and continued the service.
The next day, the Senior Officer was taken out and told in no uncertain
terms that it would not be tolerated again.
We finally had an issue that we felt we could defend and a service was
scheduled for the following Sunday. The Vietnamese were told about it and when
we started the service, armed guard came in and broke it up with bayonet
points. They took the individuals
conducting the service out and locked them up in Heartbreak in solitary
We were quite upset and
seethed with pent-up anger all afternoon.
About dusk, George Day jumped up and started singing God Bless America,
as loud as he could. Soon everyone else
joined in and it became a frenzy. He
then led the "chorus" in "This is cell number 1, number 1,
number1, where the hell is 2?" It
didn’t take long for the prisoners in cell 2 to chime in and in no time it had
gone around the camp to all 7 of the cells.
The Vietnamese now thought they had a full-fledged uprising on their
hands and took the Senior Officer out of the room under bayonet point. Things were very tense and the next senior
officer in the camp came up with a real "doozie". He decided that we would show them! We would go on a hunger strike until they
returned those they had taken away.
Boy, talk about dumb and dumber!
Here we were 25 to 45 pounds underweight, and desperately needing
protein, and he calls for a hunger strike.
The Vietnamese must have thought we were all going nuts. They brought us food but no one ate it due
to orders and peer pressure. Several days
later they came and took him out of the room, along with the next three Senior
Officers. The remaining Senior Officer
immediately declared “soups on” and a ravished group ate. The following day
they took the next man in line out. The
Vietnamese were told we could be removed down to the last two men and whichever
man was senior, would be in charge.
They had had enough of
our antics and decided to end it once and for all. The 23 Lt. Colonels and Commanders were all put back in cells in
a new cellblock. They were 7 foot by 7 foot with the familiar cement slabs for
bunks. We had done it to ourselves and
as I pondered being back in solitary confinement, I wondered if it was worth
it. We would spend almost all of our
remaining time in Hanoi in those cells, while the rest of the group (the junior
prisoners) lived together in large rooms.
What is the saying---Rank has its privileges!
It wasn’t long until the
four colonels arrived and we now had the senior 27 POWs in the same cell
complex. The communications experts
soon got to work and established communications with all the other POWs in the
camp. Talk about "Rock and
Roll"-- The most senior established a chain of command and started issuing
orders and directives faster than the poor communication teams could send or
receive them. Looking back on it now, I
realize it was only the result of pent-up frustrations but I sat there and was
amused at their antics. They had rules and
regulations for everything. The 6 or 7
most senior were trying to make their leadership evident so that when released
(we now felt we would eventually be released), they might enhance their
Our hunger strike
originator had another idea to put pressure on the Vietnamese, and it was
decided that we would stop writing our 7 line letters home. It was assumed that the American people
would become angrier and help the effort to press for our release. The only people it effected back home were
the families involved. Naturally the
Vietnamese did not give us letters from home in retaliation. Their attitude was that it was less work for
them if those crazy Americans didn’t want to write home after pleading for
years to be able to write. After three
months the moratorium was called off and we started writing once again.
For entertainment and
something to occupy our minds with, we would wait until the siesta period after
lunch (I use that word rather loosely) when the guards were elsewhere, to
conduct our lessons from behind our closed cell doors. We held classes in French, Spanish, and any
other subject anyone thought they knew a little bit about. I conducted several on the stock market and
buying and selling stocks. Our favorite
though was “telling movies”. Two of our
group that were in the same cell were movie buffs and both had remarkable
memories. They could relate a movie to
the rest of us (speaking out the door of their cell) that was loud enough so
that everyone in the hall could hear.
My favorite was Dr. Zhivago and took them two, two-hour sessions to tell.
Throughout this period,
two senior individuals by the name of Miller and Wilbur, decided to take the
path of least resistance and cooperate with the Vietnamese. They wrote anti war propaganda and made
recordings that were played to the rest of the camp. They had a group of about 6 other junior prisoners that felt much
the same way but followed Millers lead.
One of their group “saw the light” not too long before our release and
asked the Vietnamese to put him in with the other prisoners. Not wanting him to contaminate their prize
group, the Vietnamese complied and he was put in with the large group of
prisoners. He related what went on with
that group, and as Jim Stockdale put it, “let’s welcome back a repentant
sinner”. He related that Clark Clifford,
the former Attorney General who was visiting Vietnam, had been introduced to
Millers group and that Miller had asked him what might happen to them because
of their anti war attitude, when the war was over and they were released. Clifford is supposed to have told him not to
worry about it. If anyone threatened
them, he would defend them in court!
Sweet justice, where is thy sting?
Unfortunately the repentant sinner had trouble living with his past and
expired behind the wheel of a car under questionable circumstances a short time
after his release. The Senior Navy
prisoner, Jim Stockdale, tried to have Miller and Wilbur court-martialed for
their activities, but President Nixon intervened and said he wanted to be rid
of the issue and they were allowed to retire.
All Stockdale could do was salute and say Aye, Aye Sir. So much for justice.
Unfortunately we were
not through with Mr. Miller. He went
back to college, obtained a law degree, and entered politics in
California. One evening in about 1980
or 1981, I got a telephone call from an old friend of mine named Alex
Butterfield. We had gone through flying
school together and palled around a little after graduation in Germany and Las
Vegas. Alex was a campaign manager for
a man that was running for assemblyman in Los Angeles and was behind in the
polls by almost 2 to 1. His opponent
was none other than the Mr. Miller of Hanoi fame and Alex wanted to know if I
knew anything about him. Did I
ever! I told him I would have two good
friends of mine who lived in San Diego, call him and they would be only too
glad to help him. As a result, a
petition was started and signed by about 150 of us in which we related that we
did not think the City of Los Angeles wanted a person like him to help run
their government. Miller had a
commanding lead until a full-page ad appeared in the Los Angeles paper two days
before the election. Alex’s man won by
a 2 to 1 margin. Miller was so mad; he
filed a defamation of character suit against all of us and sued us for one
million dollars each. He did not have
a legal leg to stand on, and eventually the statue of limitations ran out and
the court threw the suits out.
One day about this time
we were able to shout out the back windows to Millers group, which was about 200
feet from us. Miller was relayed a
direct order from Jack Flynn, the camp senior officer, to stop all cooperation
with the Vietnamese. He refused the
order and there was nothing that could be done about it at that time.
There was a Vietnamese
and a Laotian prisoner who had been seen throughout the years, in and around
our camps. We didn’t know who they were
and had no communications with them.
They could very well be spies for the Vietnamese. One day they were moved into a cell in our
cellblock and we found that the Vietnamese was a South Vietnam pilot shot down
early in the war who could speak excellent English, and the other was a Laotian
Sergeant. His name was
""Dat" and it soon became evident that he was a very sharp
individual. He soon learned the tap
code and became more proficient with it than many of us including me. He could hear the speakers on the corners
and would translate everything he heard.
We were having trouble making something to write with and he showed us
how to improvise an excellent pencil.
He also showed us how to make an excellent candle. We were constantly trying to bore small
holes through the thick walls with various instruments picked up in the
yard. One such project was underway and
two cellmates had been drilling for three weeks and had only gotten about five
inches through a fifteen-inch wall.
"Dat" heard about this and told them how to find the right
area of the wall and how to drill it.
They went through the wall in one day!
released to South Vietnam about the same time we were released. One of our group by the name of Howie
Rutledge was subsequently assigned to the Philippines as the Commander at Subic
Bay and got in contact with "Dat" and offered to help him get out of
South Vietnam and into the States.
"Dat" refused to leave unless all of his family (13) could
leave too. The red tape was mountainous
and when South Vietnam began to fall, Howie commandeered a large Navy transport
and flew to South Vietnam on an unauthorized mission to pick up "Dat"
and his entire family and flew them to the Philippines. Howie got in a lot of hot water over the
flight and they threatened to send "Dat" and his family back. Howie got in touch with Ross Perot and Ross,
with his great political clout, got the State Department to let them in the
States under his sponsorship. Ross sent
"Dat" to computer school and today is an executive working for
Perot's company. He and his family now
have full citizenship and is married to a pretty Vietnamese refugee he met in
California. Howie Rutledge
unfortunately died a few years after his release.
Robbie and I were still
in solitary confinement although we could talk to others and were now let out
to bathe as a group. They were still
mad at him and on Christmas day of 1972, Robbie was the only one of us to get a
letter from home. (It was 5 months
old!) We soon found out why. In it, his
wife told him that his Mother had died that summer. The “freedom loving Vietnamese people give you letter on the
occasion of Christmas.” So much for
“Good will to man.”
One evening when we were
all tucked in and going to sleep, we heard the air-raid sirens going off. It was unusual for a night raid and it had
been a long time since we had heard the sirens, as there appeared to have been
a bombing moratorium. It was the first
time we had heard a nighttime raid.
We could hear the
anti-aircraft batteries firing all around us and soon started hearing Sam
missiles being launched. We started
hearing numerous, loud explosions and I immediately knew that the B-52s were
bombing Hanoi! The bombs fell all
around us and shook plaster from the ceilings.
We were confident that the Air Force knew exactly where we were and that
they bombed with great accuracy. It
soon became apparent to us that Nixon had finally taken the gloves off and that
those bombers were the beginning of the end of our incarceration. We were all so excited that night, that
sleep was impossible. I remember that
even though we were glad of the bombing, some of our compatriots were taking a
beating in those airplanes at 35,000 feet.
We saw several direct hits out our cell windows and could see huge
fireballs in the sky. It was a heavy
price that was being paid and our hearts ached for those aircrew members.
Captured B-52 crewmembers
began to trickle in to the Hilton and communications were soon established in
spite of the Vietnamese attempt to keep us apart. We were starved for news as we only had access to propaganda. We soon learned of the results of the last
election, who won the World Series the past 4 or 5 years, which football teams
were winning, how much pay we were getting (now that we were being promoted),
how returning soldiers from Vietnam were being spit upon by anti-war
demonstrators, short hair was out and long hair was in, polyester was in and
wool was out, and a host of other tidbits that were eagerly received. It was hard digesting the news and changes
that had been occurring during our absence.
The Vietnamese began
anticipating our release and increased our food allowances to include fish from
the Soviet Union, and gave us more time outside in the sunlight. I gained 7 or 8 pounds during the last three
The day finally arrived
when each group was called together and the protocols of the cease-fire and our
release were read to us. We knew it was
coming but, when finally confirmed by the Vietnamese themselves, we were in a
sort of stunned silence. Some of the
men around me had been there 7 years or more.
Our release was to be in three increments, with the sick and injured
first, followed by the order we were shot down in. I was in the second group and dreaded having to wait an extra two
weeks to go home, but then there were many more that had to wait two weeks
after I left.
The night before my release,
I was issued civilian pants, shirt, jacket and a pair of shoes. They were the first shoes I had on my feet
since I had lost my boots almost 6 years previously. That night was long and sleepless. I imagined all kinds of things going wrong and our release
The next morning, 3
March 1973, we dressed in our new issue and were finally put on busses to be
taken to Gia Lam (Hanoi's main airport).
We could see a great deal of destruction on the way and noticed the poor
condition of the city and outskirts. We
had to wait for the evacuation aircraft to land and the longer we waited, the
more nervous we became.
Finally we heard them
land and we were passed over to the senior American representative, one at a
time. I strapped in my seat and just knew
something would happen and we would not get off the ground. Finally we were airborne and everyone on the
plane shouted and cried at the same time.
We were free at last!
Shortly after takeoff, a
civilian wearing a suit asked if he could sit beside me. It turned out that he was sent from the
Department of Defense to make certain that my wingman did not disrupt our
arrival in the Philippines. He wanted
my opinion of the situation, as the preceding group that was released, were
very concerned. I told him that I
thought he was very subdued at that time, but I noticed that he accompanied
my wingman off the aircraft.
We landed at Clark Air
Base in the Philippines to a reception of several thousand cheering
people. As the Senior Officer, I was
asked to say a few words as the first one to deplane. As I shook hands with the reception group, I noticed that the
third person in line was an old friend of mine, by the name of Maxine
McCaffery! Maxine was an artist that
was commissioned by the Air force, to paint representative pictures of our
group in Southeast Asia. She had been
attached to my Squadron, and was following my flight through the preflight
briefing, and walk-around of the aircraft, the day I was shot-down. As I climbed into the aircraft, Maxine said
“I’ll meet you when your return”. As I
hugged her at Clark, she said, “I told
you I would meet you when you returned”.
We were whisked off to
the large base hospital where we were greeted by an enthusiastic and caring
staff. We were assigned rooms and given
time to shower (with real hot water!) and change into hospital garb. We then went down to the hospital cafeteria
where we could order anything we wanted.
I had steak and eggs with bacon and ham, with a side order of potatoes,
and a waffle. I then tried to eat pie
with ice cream, but had trouble eating it due to the chocolate sundae I had
previously devoured. Needless to say,
we all had stomachaches from too much rich food, but were ready to do it again
We were tested for every
disease known to man, had eyes, ears, and teeth checked, and were thoroughly
prodded and probed. I asked to see a
specialist about my kidney stone and when I had told him my story he said he
would x-ray me. I did not want to get
sick again before I went home and he assured me that I would not feel a
thing. He said that early dye used 40
years ago caused problems but that no one used it anymore. I had news for him! The x-rays showed nothing in my
bladder. When I described the size of
the "stone", he said it would have been impossible to pass one that
large. I asked him to show me an x-ray
of a patient who had a real stone in that area. When I looked at a real kidney stone on the x-ray, I immediately
knew that “Frenchy” had dubbed in a ball bearing on my x-ray. The "stone" on his x-ray was not
only perfectly round buy also very bright in the film, while a real stone was
dull colored on the film. He was unable
to diagnose my problem and to save face, "manufactured" my "piss
We were given several hundred
dollars and taken to the Base Exchange the next night to purchase toiletry
articles and a few clothes. I bought an
inexpensive watch and felt like I was really living high. I continually looked at that watch to tell
the time. I wasn't going anywhere but
just felt good being able to look at it.
One of our group had
other ideas though. He was a young
spunky pilot by the name of “Spike” Nasmith, and had been a prisoner for 61/2
years. While he was coming out of the
BX, (they had it closed to everyone else) he met a pretty young girl who
invited him to a party that night. We
were really locked in and there were guards all around the hospital to not only
keep us in, but to keep others out. He
called her up and found out where the party was and sneaked out of the
hospital. He did not get back until daylight and he had the biggest grin on his
face you have ever seen!
We were able to call
home and it was a very unnerving event.
I was very nervous and probably did not make too much sense when I talked,
but was relieved to find out that my wife and children were all O.K. and that
my mother was still alive and well.
Many of my fellow
returnees were told by the base Chaplains that they were no longer
married. Others were told that their
wives had a new life and wanted a divorce.
Still others were told of family deaths. It was hard for them to take as they had spent countless days,
and even years, dreaming of this moment.
The fortunes of war often leave the soldier with the short end of the
We flew from the
Philippines to San Antonio where I was put in the hospital for more
evaluations. It was there that I
learned that my problems were not kidney stone related. I had a kidney disease
that was incurable but that 10% of the cases became dormant. It eventually turned out that I was one of
the lucky 10% since I have not had any further problems with my kidneys. I also was diagnosed with serious
osteoporosis in my bones from the long inadequate diet. My back had a severe compression fracture
and that alone would prevent me from ever flying in an aircraft with ejection
seats. My fighter days were over! It was hard to take.
I was told that I might
get a waver to fly non-ejection aircraft and I accepted an assignment as Vice
Commander of the Air Forces Officer Training School, where I was slated to
relieve the commander upon his transfer.
It would also mean a promotion to Brigadier General. I was on a one-year physical waver for
flying and as that year was running out, I was informed that I was to be
permanently grounded. Grounding meant
that I was no longer eligible to take command of the school. (At that time you had to be on flying status
if the command included aircraft. The
screening program for future pilots was part of the school and was located at
Hondo). They had taken away my only reason for being in the Air Force and, as I
had 25 years of service, I accepted a medical discharge and was retired in May
of 1974, with a permanent 60% combat related disability.
Coming home after a
six-and-one-half year absence, where we had almost no news, was like the fable
of Rip Van Winkle. Everything and
everyone were like strangers. The hair
was long, everyone wore polyester, Hippies were a strange phenomenon, drugs
were unknown to us, and anti-war activists were hard to take and understand,
especially from our perspective. Our
wives were a little apprehensive of us, as were our children. My little girl was almost five when I left
home and when I returned, was eleven.
My oldest boy was graduating from college and Bob was graduating from
High School. I soon learned about
affirmative action. The blackboard that
I used in school, was now a chalkboard and a Negro was now a black man and not
a colored man. It was not easy
adjusting and it did not occur overnight.
The tremendous response
we received from the general public was overwhelming. We received hundreds of letters offering encouragement. Hearing from over a hundred strangers who
wore my name bracelet overrode the anti-war activists and Hippies who soured
Since my departure from the Air Force, I have been involved
in many things. I became a stockbroker,
but didn’t enjoy lying awake at night worrying about other people’s money. I got into real estate sales and sold new
homes for San Antonio’s largest custom homebuilder. I didn’t work very hard but did really well at it. I had a neighbor who knew of an oil prospect
south of San Antonio but didn’t know anything about drilling for oil. (Neither
did I but knew I could learn!). I was intrigued and found a man to walk me
through the process and drilled my first shallow oil well. It was not long before I was up to my
eyeballs in drilling and operating a small oil company. They were shallow wells, which didn’t make
us rich, but we had a good time with them.
I ended up drilling almost 30 wells and when oil prices dropped, I got
out of the business. Raising and racing
horses became my life, and although I no longer raise horses, I still race a
In closing, I am
compelled to state that if I could do it all over again, I would certainly not
want to end up in Hanoi again, but must declare that I have few regrets and
would not have missed flying for "all the tea in China"!
Gordon A. Larson
San Antonio, Texas