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PoW Christmas


Former PoW Col. Gordon Swede Larson, USA Today Hotsite



 

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

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 months.

 

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 was.

 

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 of Honor.

 

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 silence.

 

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 to communicate.

 

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.


It 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 releases.

 

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 instructor.

 

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 newspaper.

 

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 control.

 

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, freeze-dried coffee!).

 

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 friends.

 

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 year.

 

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 later.

 

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 of prisoners.

 

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 escape).

 

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 prisoners.

 

Clandestine 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 obscurity.

 

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 confinement.

 

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 interrupted careers.

 

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!

 

"Dat" was 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 months.

 

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 delayed.

 

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 that evening.

 

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 rock"!

 

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 stick!

 

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 our return.

 

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 few.

 

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

October 1996



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Col. Larson's Christmas Card to You

Tribute to Col. Ted Guy - PoW

The Video: Stolen Honor

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