Click here to Print
THE BOAT SCHOOL BOYS

 


It was a new ball game sitting in solitary confinement in a Hoa Lo [“Hanoi Hilton”] isolation cell.  It was far different than a week previous on the USS Ticonderoga  [CVA 14] goofing off in the Ready Room as a newly assigned Lieutenant Commander maintenance officer of the World Famous Golden Dragons [CAW19, VA 192].  No more A4E’s, no more flight schedules, no more LSO debriefs, no more mission planning, no more manning of the spare or the ready tanker, no more mail call.  It all came to an abrupt halt on January 5, 1967 when I ate my own 2.75 FFAR’s on a weather recon hop.

I was now a tortured, beaten, starving hulk designated as the “Blackest of Criminals” in the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] and an official “Yankee Air Pirate” [eligible to be hung from the yardarm having been caught in the act of piracy].  I was alone; separated from all my shipmates.  I did not know whom to trust, what the rules of my new mess happened to be or what was expected of me in this new and strange form of warfare I was about to embark upon.

The walls had more banging and knocking than the whole hull of the venerable 27C that had been my previous home.  There was a rhythm and a pattern to the noise that had all the class of a wall full of woodpeckers.  I remembered enough Morse code to recognize that what I was hearing was not Morse code; but it sure wasn’t the ghosts of French Foreign Legionaries having a happy hour.

This isolation wing of the prison had a limited number of cells.  Once a day you would put your honey bucket out and your morning soup bowl.  One of the cells would open up and those prisoners would gather up the gear an proceed to a cell at the end of the passageway that had some running water piped into it.  These guys would do the dishes, buckets and their armpits taking their sweet old time, making a hell of a racket and yacking away at each other to beat the band.  But wait a minute, they were not talking to each other, they were talking to the rest of us as if they were talking to each other.  Each cell had a high barred window open to the air.  If you stood on your cement slab pad you could pick up what they were saying.

“If you read me, cough once for yes; twice for no.”  Cough. “Are you Air Force?”  Cough. Cough. “Are you Navy?”  Cough. “Are you an 0-5?”  Cough. Cough.  “Are you an O-4?” Cough “Oh sh__, another Lieutenant Commander!” “Do you know who won the Army Navy game?”  Cough. Cough. “Oh hell, a dumb Lieutenant Commander at that!”  “ Jim Stockdale and Robbie Reisner are the SRO’s [Senior Ranking Officers].  Their rules are: communicate at all costs; when they get around to torturing you, hold out as long as you can, bounce back and make them do it all over again; don’t despair when they break you, they have broken all of us; pray.”  Cough. “Two Thai’s are next to you and have been trying to communicate with you.  They are using the tap code; it is a box; the first letters are: American Football League Quits Victorious. Communicate.  My name is Galanti - Paul Galanti”  BANG The universal danger signal, as I found out later. They were hauled out of the cell block, tortured and I did not see Paul for three years.

The rules of the new ball game were quite simple.  To lead is to be tortured.  To communicate with a fellow prisoner was a de facto sign of leadership resulting in torture.  To fail to bow is to be beaten & tortured.  To fail to do exactly what you were told and when you were told was to be tortured.  Medical attention was reserved to those who might have some propaganda value and then only in respect to the parts of you that showed.  “Food” and water were rationed out only to the extent to keep you alive but in a weakened condition.  Lenient and humane treatment were defined as permitting you to live. You were being held as a hostage and as a propaganda tool; otherwise you had no value.  You were a slave to communist ideology.

Their rank questions made sense - find the SRO. But after all - the Army Navy Game!  Doesn’t that beat all! The pampered nephews of Uncle Sam!! The Boat School Boys are forever with me! I really don’t know if that is a curse or a blessing. Although I must admit that it took a set of cajones for Paul to get the rules of the road and the tap code to me.  I had met Stockdale at Stanford University where I was his numerical relief in the International Relations Program.  He was a Boat School Boy, but I must admit, having already been tortured,  that his rules of the road were a God send to my resistance posture.

You see, I started out in this man’s navy as a Naval Aviation Cadet having been first a Private in the Massachusetts National Guard. I knew what it was to be an enlisted man as my father and brother had been before me.  I did not take it to be a sign of second class status - it was just different.  I was a NavCad for the purpose of being a Naval Aviator not of being an officer; if you had to be an officer to fly from carriers then so be it, no big deal.  But these officers were something else! Here’s how the myth built up in my mind. Recognize, that as far as I was concerned initially, all officers were Boat School Boys.

NavCads ran out to the obstacle course; officers rode out and back in a Cattle Car.  NavCads formed up for church call on Sunday while the officers drove by, shooting us the Hawaiian Peace Sign, to pick off all the best looking girls at Pensacola Beach.  The officers got to go to the O Club and watch the pretty girls at the pool and drink Bloody Marys; the NavCads got to go across the street to the ACRAC [Aviation Cadet Recreation and Athletic Club] - a primitive  but welcome beer hall.  NavCads got to wash SNJ’s while the Officers lounged around.  NavCads got to man fire bottles while the Officers started their engines.  NavCads took the leftovers while the officers got the prime flight times and first shots at available aircraft.  Not complaining mind you; just a fact of life registering more because they were no better nor no worse an aviator than you were.

As a plow back instructor in advanced training, I started to sort out the Boat School Boys.  They hung in there together [not bad]. They were adventuresome but over confident [reasonable for aviation]. But they were as a rule unprepared for hops, careless about academics and cavalier about performing for grades.
As a plank owner in a new fleet attack squadron forming up, it became obvious that the leadership put the Boat School Boys in desirable positions of trust. In the wardroom their napkin numbers kept them together at the formal sittings. They tended to pull liberty together.  They had contacts ashore and afloat  that enabled them to get things done and take care of their troops in a manner I could only aspire to.  They got the recommendations to Test Pilot School and nifty post graduate programs.  Sound green eyed with envy? Jealous? Left out?  Angry?  It may sound like it, but it is not so.  They were different and I was different.  Someday they would be in command and in the Flag Mess.  If the Navy kept faith with me I’d fly my butt off and aspire to have a shot at Commander and maybe even get my own squadron.  We were different.

And how different the Boat School Boys were!  During the six years I spent in prison I had the good fortune to be in a position to be in the middle of the internal prisoner communication nets that the VC [Viet Cong - Vietnamese Communists] never could eliminate.  I watched good SRO’s stand up and be counted, only to be cut down like firewood.  I saw their replacements come and go.  I assisted in building up new communication nets when old ones were compromised.  I got a good feel for those of my shipmates - the vast majority of whom were sterling, outstanding warriors - who had that something extra to rally the troops, restore faith, charge the hill one more time and be there when you needed them.

What we as survivors all had in common was neighborhood, church, school, friends and family that made us the people we are today.  Our education and training only built upon, refined and honed what already was there.  However, it did not take me long in Hanoi to discover that the Boat School Boys, BSB, were in a class all by themselves.  Indeed my first life saving contact was with Paul Galanti, BSB extrodinaire.

At great risk to life and limb, you would try to  communicate.  The purposes or communication were to formulate resistance plans, escape plans, resistance to enemy propaganda ploys, names of downed and imprisoned Americans and their allies, setting up the chain of command, establishing our rules of the road, build morale and basically to screw the VC over in any way that we could think of.  We had our own war to fight and could not do it without communication.

The last thing you needed when you started to set up a communication net or pass the word was to have some overly educated jackass try to debate with you the theology and philosophy of what you were trying to do, especially when you were tapping.  Some guys wanted convincing, others wanted it to be fair, still others thought it was too something [dangerous, frivolous, demeaning, childish, hard, soft, etc. etc.].  You don’t know what a thrill it was to find that on the other side of the wall you had a BSB.  He would get it right the first time around.  You would get no guff. “Roger WILCO Out”  Later on he might come back and ask you if you or the SRO knew what you were doing, or suggest a better way, or tell you frankly that he thought it was useless.  But he never passed that down the line.

One of our acting SRO’s [a BSB] took it into his head that the POW’s would all go on a fast to show the VC that we would not tolerate the torture and beating of prisoners.  We would fast until the VC granted us the rights of POW’s under the Geneva Conventions.  He passed the word down the line to his emaciated, already starving, sickly troopers via a net made up of mostly BSB’s.  We went on the fast much to the amazement of the VC who were only to glad to eat the rations themselves [since we actually were winning the war about the time LBJ knocked off the bombing].  Meanwhile, the BSB’s went back up the net to convince our stalwart but misguided leader, that the fast was counterproductive and got the order rescinded.  Obey - an easy word - but with critical implications for survival. Innovation- not always productive, like a fast for the starving; but better than sitting on your duff.

All of the lessons that Mother Bancroft taught her sons, many of which did not have the approval of the Academic Committee, were played out on the VC.  A BSB during a filmed propaganda session blinked out “torture” in Morse code.  A BSB is on the cover of Life magazine showing and inverted Hawaiian Peace Sign [Life airbrushed the fingers out lest their customers be scandalized].  A BSB, seriously injured and on a stretcher refused the offer of an early release at a time when our own internal policy for release would have let him go with honor.  The stories of the sons of mother Bancroft go on and on.  But BSB’s were a life saver through unflinching leadership and an inspiration through example to me.  I came out of the prison experience vowing to become a part of the BSB system, which was certainly a change from all of my earlier NavCad and JO carping.  And indeed, my Navy twilight tour was within the USNA system.

The United States Naval Academy  performs a unique service for the country that other institutions, like my Georgetown and Stanford, never could nor should perform. USNA is in the business of forming from the raw material of society a group of leaders of men and women, a class of warriors, a cadre of men and women who are willing to sacrifice their treasure, bodies and very lives for the constitution and citizens of the United States of America.  USNA recreates the dedication of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who gave their all for their beliefs. USNA is in the business of developing integrity, honesty, courage, stamina through rigorous physical and intellectual conditioning.

The product  of USNA is not an engineer, a political scientist, a chemist or a physicist.  The product is a citizen, a person formed in a heroic mold, who we hope will never have to be a hero, but who we are confident has the fortitude to go in harm’s way to protect the Republic. The product is a person who will do the right thing for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. The product is a person who recognizes excellence and is willing to strive for it.  The product is a person dedicated to the caring for the enlisted men and women of the U. S. Navy,  those people who do most of the work and most of the dying in our Navy. The product is a person that well represents the nation no matter what port he enters or sea she sails upon.  No other institution does this.

The greatest accolade given the USNA in the Vietnamese Communist prison was the statement the Camp Commander, Major Bui, made to John Sidney McCain III, BSB, when John, son of the Commander in Chief Pacific, John, a man born to serve, refused an early propaganda release:
 “They have taught you too well, McCain!  They have taught you too well.”

May we always continue to teach the Midshipmen “too well”.