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An Ace in the Hole

Most people who express an interest in the Vietnam Prisoner of War (POW) experience, at some point place themselves in that same situation and wonder if they could or would survive it. They inevitably ask: “How did you do it?” Some tentatively inquire if the returnee “found God” in the prison camp or experienced some sort of spiritual awakening or conversion.

INSERT HANOI HILTON 1 &2

The people I had contact with in the prison system were made up of believers and non-believers, atheists, agnostics, deists, Christians and animists. Some had an awakening, others a conversion, many a return to the faith of their childhood and some were just too busy keeping soul and body together to analyze the condition of either.

We did find out that the common factors contributing to survival were not age, rank, educational accomplishment, college, flight training, Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape (SERE) indoctrination or branch of service. What the survivors did have in common was growing up in a nurturing family system, neighborhood, school and church with a deep appreciation of what it meant to be a free American. The one addition for most was an abiding, irrepressible sense of humor, gallows at time, but none the less sustaining. The majority had a deep sense of obligation and loyalty to the well being of their fellow prisoners.

I can speak to religion and survival from my own vantage point, no one else’s.

I did not find God in the prison camp, I never lost Him.

First Communion 1938 Confirmation 1944

I was bought up in the deep, rich tradition of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Faith. I was steeped in the doctrine and practice of my religion within and without my family through example and instruction during my whole childhood. Our public school day started with the Pledge of Allegiance, a bible reading (King James) and the “Our Father”. I spent six years in the seminary (Juniorate, Novitiate and Scholasticate) of a religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

First Vows OMI 1952

I graduated from Georgetown University when it still was an unashamedly a bastion of Catholic education. Upon graduation, I enlisted in the military as a Naval Aviation Cadet and received a solid grounding in military ethics and tradition at the Naval School of Preflight from the finest of the U. S. Marine Corps Drill Instructors – Gunnery Sergeant Livermore and Sergeants Rafael and Jones. They mustered us for church call outside our barracks every Sunday morning and marched us off in formation to either Protestant or Catholic services. [Catholic Mass was most popular in the summer even among the non-believers, because the Catholic Chapel was air-conditioned and the Protestant was not.] Throughout my 18 months of flight training I proudly practiced my religion, faithfully and voluntarily attending Mass as a public display of that commitment: Pensacola FL, Milton FL, Warrington FL, Foley AL, and Beeville TX.

Throughout my career, ashore or afloat, I kept the Faith, prayed (the rosary) constantly and quietly, never missed Mass and painstakingly and painfully sought out a Catholic partner in marriage. On first meeting I was noted for asking: “Are you Catholic?” I married in the Church and we raised our children in the Faith.

When I was “shot down”, my Air Wing (Nineteen) was stationed on the USS Ticonderoga (CVA 14). I was attached to Attack Squadron One Ninety Two (VA-192) as the Maintenance Officer. My good friend, the late Michael Estocin (MOH – Posthumously), Operations Officer and I would attend Mass on board ship every day when not on the flight schedule. It was automatic, voluntarily, low key and most natural.

INSERT Estocin & MOH

As my aircraft exploded underneath me over North Vietnam, my first action after radioing a Mayday was to say an Act of Contrition. My mental process, interestingly enough, was a theological debate centering on the issue of taking extraordinary means to save my life. [The destruction of my aircraft was caused by the misfire of my own 2.75” rockets and my ejection seat was powered by a – rocket!]

My only crisis of Faith in prison came after the Communist torturers succeeded in getting me to give more than name, rank, serial number and date of birth. I felt that I was the only on of my peers to have been so weak, that I had betrayed all my shipmates and that I was not worthy of living. Had I the means of committing suicide I may have considered it; however, at that point I doubted that I had the courage to even accomplish that.

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Throughout the early years of imprisonment the concepts of penance for sins, longsuffering for the good of the soul (Job), “offering it up for the poor souls in purgatory”, and working through our current existence in this “vale of tears” on our way to our eternal reward were just as much a part of my existence as they had been throughout my life. I was most conscious that my suffering was inconsequential compared to that of the martyrs and saints I had grown up to admire. There were certainly others within the prison walls and at home that had it far worse than I.

After the death of Ho Chi Minh and the Son Tay Raid, conditions improved in the Vietnamese Communist prison system. Isolation and solitary confinement became the exception rather than the rule. Over the years, all internal covert communications ended with G B U (God Bless You). Every Sunday a tap on the walls of the solitary cells called one and all to Church Call so those in solitary could pray in common. Now, in larger living groups more formal voluntary religious services were organized. Sunday services became common with song and sermon. One Catholic, former altar boy, actually recreated the entire Latin Mass, and would recite it every Sunday for his shipmates.

At one point, our leaders used the Sunday services to challenge the Vietnamese in an attempt to gain the protection of the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners of War. They decided that violating the strictures regarding the number of people allowed to lead church services was a non-violent, legally sound method of confrontation. It didn’t work. The Communists hauled all senior officers of the cells and isolated them in a remote section of the Hoa Lo prison. For the Vietnamese it was a tactical victory but a strategic mistake. The seniors formed the leadership of the Fourth Allied POW Wing and formed a prisoner resistance posture that the Communists could not break.

My personal Faith just chugged along helping maintain my sanity and effectiveness as it does today. As I observed my peers, I was reinforced in my belief that those who had a religious faith had AN ACE IN THE HOLE. Others, without Faith, drew on hidden wellsprings of strength from somewhere in their background or military code of ethics. Those with Faith never had to search. There always was the bedrock of Faith to fall back on, take off from and provide limitless sustenance.

So when asked the Faith question as to if I lost it, did I find it, why do I not highlight it, or where is it mentioned in my talks or writing, I say “What you sees it what you gets”. I am my Faith, my Faith is me. Like Popeye the Sailor Man: “I am what I am.” Or as my sainted mother used to say: “You’re not much, but you’re all I got.”

Richard A. Stratton
Atlantic Beach Florida
May 22, 2005
In Honor of:
Mary Loretta (Hoar) Stratton and Charles Arthur Stratton
Parents RIP

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