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The war in Vietnam was a long one for the Americans. Of course it was even longer for the citizens of the Republic of Vietnam; but that is their story. The first American prisoner to be captured alive in North Vietnam was Ev Alvarez who was shot down in August of 1964. Whenever the later shoot downs were inclined to feel sorry for themselves, all they had to do was think of Ev, how long he had been down, what a great sense of humor he had maintained and what a positive attitude he had. It placed everything into perspective.

After the courageous Son Tay Raid in North Vietnam by American troops in 1970, the communists gathered the American prisoners, with few exceptions, into two large groups. One group of younger men on the Chinese boarder; the second group were stuffed into the main downtown Hanoi prison, Hoa Lo (facetiously called by the Americans – the Hanoi Hilton).

Hoa Lo (Ariel)

Torture for propaganda as a daily routine had ceased except for those who challenged the communists for leadership of the prisoners. Torture for military information seemed to be reserved for aircraft, squadron and air wing commanders as well as electronic warfare officers.

Our seniors covertly organized us into the Fourth Allied Prisoner of War Wing and they formed the Wing Staff. Each cell was considered to be a squadron and the senior in that cell the Commanding Officer. The communists would only recognize the most junior man in each cell in dealing with its inmates, which had the effect of consolidating the senior officer’s position, by implicitly recognizing rank in reverse. They never figured out their mistake.

Camp Unity

Each squadron (cell) had its department heads and was divided into divisions and sections. The divisions would form a mess, take one meal in common each day and share the contents of any package received. We operated on a self-imposed régime living by a plan of the day, a duty roster, designated functions, training periods and common recreation periods. Education consisted of languages, history, social science, international relations, math and hard science. Adult education (no tests; no homework) covered all subjects from auto mechanics to the complete Toastmaster syllabus.

Each man was required to teach one subject in his field of expertise. This was all without paper, books or writing instruments. The movie officer was required to present or arrange for a presentation of a movie every evening after chow, just like on board ship. No film, no projector, no screen – just his memory and skill. It was perhaps the most challenging of assignments before a crowd of 39 movie critics.

The Paris Peace Talks had been an international propaganda show until we resumed bombing in North Vietnam. They started really cooking as we mined their rivers and harbors, starting to target areas, which for years were regarded as safe zones. In November of 1972 we had indications of increased seriousness directly proportional to the increased nutritional value of our heretofore subsistence level rations.

We got wind of Kissinger’s “Peace is at hand.” pronouncement when it fell through as reported on “Hanoi Hannah” - the voice of Vietnam - a program, which was piped into our cells each night prior to taps. We never got any good news but always got the bad. However, continuation of serious air warfare and improved rations were the real indicators of meaningful progress in Paris. Our spirits arose accordingly.

Just before Christmas 1972, I knew for sure that we were GOING HOME. What was my first clue? It was when President Nixon, Lord rest his soul, committed B-52’s to missions over downtown Hanoi. Navy A-6 Intruders and Air Force F-111’s of course joined them; but this is the first time B-52’s had been employed.

The raids came at night. As the BUFs (B-52’s) laid their eggs, the steel I beam rafters in the cell twanged like plucked banjo strings. The accumulated detritus of 100 years came loose from the ceiling. The cement pad upon which we slept jumped and quaked. The sound was a rolling “whoomp, whoomp, whoomp whoomp . . .” as each pattern was laid down with amazing accuracy. They must have been using us as an offset point in their bombing runs; for we were never hit.

Unity Cell #4

To a man we stood up and cheered, stretching to see anything we could find out the narrow windows twelve feet above us. Surface to air missiles (SAMs) and flack could be seen lighting up the sky. Sadly we saw the explosion of one BUF being hit. As the bombing progressed night after night, the SAMs and the flack became less and less. They must have been running out of ammunition.

The communist Cadre of any country cheerfully will send thousands off to die as long as those sent are not their family or clan members. They will commit thousands of square miles to death and destruction as long as it is not their square mile. When it comes to losing their own lives and property, they become eminently practical.

On the nights of the bombing, the communist officers and guards brought themselves and their families inside the prison right under the walls of our cells. They knew the safest place in town would be in a location where there were Americans. The communists knew that Hanoi and Hoa Lo had been identified by the United States as a major POW location. And they were not wrong in that assessment.

Naturally there had to be a Christmas bombing halt; there always had been one and there always would be one, world without end, Amen. Encouraged by the irrational but seemingly universal international cry of outrage over the bombing of Hanoi, the communists decided to renege once more on that which had already been negotiated. Not to be cowered, President Nixon resumed the bombing after Christmas with a vengeance and peace indeed was at hand.

Up to that point, we of course were told nothing. One day we were all mustered outside our cells, all at the same time for the first time ever. Things were obviously in disarray. Our seniors took charge without any interference and lined us up in military formation standing at the head of their troops. A high ranking communist military officer read an official announcement declaring that a peace treaty had been signed and that there would be a release.

Cameras at the ready to record a mob of simpering fools overcome with joy, the communists were amazed when this announcement was greeted by the sepulchral silence of a formal, disciplined military formation.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes. I understand.”
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
“We would like to go back to our cells.”
Our SRO turned, dismissed the formation and ordered us back to our cells. We all silently and orderly filed back into our cells. From then on, the cell doors were never locked behind us until after dark. Thereafter, each morning, the guards would open the cell doors and deliver to each cell a steaming cauldron of coffee and sugar coated bread.

Suddenly cells were broken up and rearranged. It became obvious that people with similar shoot down dates were being grouped together. Sick and injured were placed in a single cell. Early one morning a glum Cadre, instead of prancing about as usual, shuffled from cell to cell passing our mimeographed sheets of paper, one for each prisoner. It appeared that a peace treaty had been signed. One provision was that those parts of the treaty effecting prisoners were to given in writing to each prisoner written in his own language. This was to occur within three days of the signing of the treaty. Releases were to be incremental: sick and wounded first; then, by date of shoot down – those down first departed first; those down last, left last.
Risner & Stockdale

The first group went out on February 12. We assumed that there would be that one release and then the communists would once more screw it up for another ten years. Suddenly bunches of books and letters were literally thrown into each cell. I got a packet of letters some dating as early as 1967. I picked up a book: “Adele Davis on Dieting”! What maniac would send a prisoner a book on dieting? One evening we were told that we were going to have the privilege of being entertained by a communist combat “USO” entertainment group. The cell doors were opened. No one person ventured out. The guards set up basketball backboards and volleyball nets; no one played for the cameras.

Somehow the word spread that Henry Kissinger was going to visit Hanoi and that the communists were going to, unasked and against the treaty, grant him a group of 20 POWs to take back home with him. The 20 were culled out and put in an isolated cell. The day they were supposed to go, 18 February, they refused outright. In the middle of the morning, a fatigue clothed U. S. Army Major came storming into the courtyard cursing and swearing up a blue streak at a volume sure to be heard out on Yankee Station.

He made a beeline to the offending cell, demanded: “What the hell are you guys trying to do, screw up the whole goddamned release? Get your asses outa here! Get into your clothes, and get the hell out of this country!” As he paused for breath, there was no doubt he was American, the group’s SRO told him that the only was they would go is if they had the personal face to face permission of our overall SRO and Wing Commander, Colonel John Peter Flynn, USAF. What was being asked was contrary to the treaty and our own standing orders.

The Major was dumfounded. Sputtering to himself he explained the nature of the holdup to the communists. The 20 men marched across the prison courtyard to the cell of the Senior Ranking Officer, saluted and formally requested permission to go ashore.  Under the major’s glaring eye, permission was granted. It was kind of funny in a way, but made us wary, as the communists were screwing with the treaty even at the outset.

Sure enough, the release sequence was delayed as the communists played more games. I smuggled a letter to my family out with the first group. I was that sure that this release business was a farce. President Nixon understood his adversary. The entire minesweeping task group steamed west over the horizon, leaving the Red River, Haiphong harbor and other ports still replete with mines that only we had the capability of clearing.

They got the message; the releases resumed. And I was GOING HOME!

Richard A. Stratton
Dearborn, Michigan
May 18, 2003
With gratitude to the late, great
President Richard. M. Nixon