JUICY FRUIT SECRETS
During the American war in Vietnam, allied warriors fighting for the independence
of the Republic of Vietnam, when captured, were never accorded the status
of prisoners of war as defined by the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners of
War. Their communist captors designated them as “The Blackest of All Criminals
in the DRV” (Democratic Republic of Vietnam).
If captured in South Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, allied prisoners more often
than not were executed. This had as much to do with the difficulty of the
logistics of the transportation and maintaining of prisoners by mobile guerilla
groups as to the actual and deep-seated antipathy instilled by the North
Vietnamese communist cadre towards their enemies.
Those Captured in North Vietnam, if they survived the understandable anger
of the peasantry, were incarcerated in isolation after being tortured (95%
of us), beaten, starved and humiliated. After all, for 100 years the Vietnamese
had been taught well at the hands of the French. If the prisoners survived
their initial wounds, they were preserved to serve the interests of the communist
Medical treatment, if one made it through the first 48 hours unattended (“We
do not waste our medicine.”), was accorded to those having propaganda value
and then only for those parts of the body which would show. “Lenient and
humane treatment” advertised by communist cadre and parroted by the wandering
bands of international peace groups, was defined as: “We permit you to live.”
The political indoctrinators were quite open about the grand strategy for
their war against “American Imperialism.”
“Stratton, we have no intention of beating you on the field of
battle; to the contrary, we are not even going to try. We are going to defeat
you at home. We will make friends with any and every group in your country
regardless of their political persuasion whether we agree with them or not.
These groups will force your government to withdraw from South Vietnam and
then we will work our will. Your part in this is to make restitution for
your “war crimes” by assisting us in convincing the American people that
the war is illegal, immoral and unjust. For this we keep you alive. You will
never return home again should you not become a good man and cooperate with
Major Bui, North Vietnamese Army
Camp Commander of American Prisoners of War in Hanoi
It was not until negotiations between North Vietnam and the United States
commenced in Paris that the status of prisoners changed from instruments
of propaganda to that of hostages for political advantage. Used by both sides,
the prisoners gained a measure of value. As the only issue on which divided
America was united, the mistreatment of prisoners of war, served the purposes
of President Nixon in the timing of his phased withdrawal from South Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese saw in the Americans prizing the lives of their fighting
men, leverage for extorting concessions from the Americans at the bargaining
We didn’t mind being used by our own country since we were professional soldiers
at the service of our Commander in Chief. But we had no intention of directly
or indirectly cooperating with our captors. Our basic rules of survival were:
“Whatever they want; do the opposite. Make them work for everything. Whatever
they get, screw it up.”
We were never permitted the communication with our families provided for
in International Law. The Red Cross was never allowed to visit or verify
our status. However, one of the minor benefits of the propaganda show called
“The Paris Peace Talks” was that an initial trickle of communication with
our families commenced. Knowing that anything could be used for propaganda,
we would not initiate a letter unless tortured to do so.
In the early years, the receipt of letters or packages was always in the
presence of cameras. Peace groups were trying to justify their treason in
visiting the enemy capitol by being the only ones the communists would permit
to carry stuff to and from the prisoners. Most of us would never voluntarily
participate in these shows; many times there was no choice.
I was one of the first ones to receive a package from home since a picture
of me, playing the Manchurian Candidate and bowing deeply had appeared in
Life magazine in March 1967. The communists were trying to prove that I had
not been drugged or brainwashed. I had not been drugged or brainwashed. I
simply had been tortured. The package was made up in a shoebox. When I received
it before the cameras it was full. When I received it in my cell, 4/5ths
of the contents were missing.
Once, when torture had ceased and package delivery had been regularized for
those identified as POWs, I dared challenge them on the theft of the contents
of packages. The Cadre was indignant at the charge of impropriety. His response
was: “ Stratton, your post office steals some, the Moscow post office steals
some, the Hanoi post office steals some, we take our share and you get your
share. What are you complaining about?” It is impossible to argue with such
I remember on this first occasion there being some brownies and chocolate
chip cookies, items that my wife, Alice, knew I would treasure. But what
I did not understand was the inclusion of 6 packs of Juicy Fruit chewing
gum. Among things I have an aversion to, and they are few in number, is the
pungent smell of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The mere whiff of it makes me gag.
Juicy Fruit had one of two meanings: either she hated me, or THERIN WAS A
SECRET MESSAGE. Since there were cookies and brownies in the box, Alice must
still love me. The presence of the offensive Juicy Fruit brooked no other
meaning than the presence of a SECRET MESSAGE!
All I knew about secret messages is what I had read in adventure and spy
stories. My roommate, Doug Hegdahl, was no more savvy than I. We both remembered
something about invisible ink being brought out by acid of some kind like
lemon juice. Also there was a possibility that exposure to heat or light
might do the trick. Maybe there would be pinholes in the paper relaying messages
in Morse Code.
Doug had the task of chewing carefully each piece of gum in case something
was imbedded therein. Torture me if you would, but the chewing of that gum
was beyond my endurance. I had the task of separating the tinfoil from the
wax paper and checking the tinfoil and paper for holes, as well as sensitivity
to light or heat. Six packs, five sticks double wrapped in a pack (less one
stick the Cadre confiscated to check), 64 possible vehicles for THE SECRET
The final task was to subject the wax paper to the only acidic fluid available
in our makeshift scientific laboratory – uric acid. “Never ask your troops
to do anything you are not willing to do yourself”, echoed the preflight
school advice of Gunnery Sergeant Livermore.
As the senior in the cell, it became my task to urinate upon each and every
piece of packaging and wrapping – all 64. Carefully each specimen had
to be positioned in such a manner that not one spot would remain dry which
concomitantly meant that I was assured of wet hands if I did the job to perfection.
Here was I, an officer and a gentleman with two college degrees, a Naval
Aviator with 3000 jet hours, a Lieutenant Commander in the United States
Navy, a thirty five year old father of three, reduced to distinguishing himself
in the face of the enemy by urinating upon himself – how far we have come!
The task was accomplished within a few days (after all a bladder holds only
so much and the water ration was one quart per day). The result – zero, zip,
de nada, de rien. NO SECRET MESSAGE or else we booted it. Doug had clean
teeth and sweet smelling breath. I had foul smelling hands (bathing was a
If the communists were spying upon us in that cell as we conducted our experiments
they must have indeed thought that chewing gum was a strange and wondrous
substance to require such a preparation. Not too outlandish a thought since
they did use our urine and waste to fertilize their “victory gardens”.
It was not until our return home three years later that the mystery was to
be resolved and then with some difficulty. During my intelligence debrief,
I asked the Navy what was the secret message they had sent in that package.
They looked at me as if I had lost my wits and even more so after I described
our decoding efforts. Maybe, I mused, like in every bureaucracy, it was too
secret to even be divulged after the fact to the intended recipient. The
debriefers wrote me off as a madman.
I asked my Alice, if she had lost HER mind in sending me the Juicy Fruit.
She looked at me strangely and denied ever sending me something like that.
Was I in the midst of some sort of a convoluted conspiracy? My reality check
was that I had a cellmate to attest to the presence of the offending material
in that initial package. It was not just one of the many prison nightmares.
This was, as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland observed, getting
curiouser and curiouser. For a while I just sort of laid low, as pursuit
of the truth was making me look like some sort of a lunatic.
About six months later, visiting a loyal and close family friend, Eddie MacGuire,
my Alice, over a glass of Wild Turkey, regaled him with an account of my
fantasy regarding the supposed receipt of the Juicy Fruit since he had been
the one who negotiated the customs, postage and mailing of that first package.
Eddie almost choked on his booze, chortling, roaring, and outright guffawing
as she got to the part of the uric acid experiment. It seems that Eddie,
when transporting the box to the post office, found that it shook and rattled.
He stopped off at a convenience store and grabbed the first things he could
find that would fit into the nooks and crannies of the package to keep it
from rattling – Juicy Fruit chewing gum!! Mystery solved; NO SECRET MESSAGE.
Even today the scent of Juicy Fruit double gags me not only with its own
distinctive odor but also with the phantom odor of urine in 100-degree heat
and the memory of the frustration of an experiment that failed. Indeed, to
this day I cannot even chew a stick of any variety of gum. And even to this
day, doing my daily urological business brings back the memory of Hanoi in
1967. I still do read adventure and spy stories by choice; but no longer
do I consider them to be fonts of scientific knowledge about spy craft.
Let it not be thought that packages were for everyone. The communists never
did acknowledge having some prisoners until the day of release (and we still
have questions about the full accounting they promised). These men and some
of the others never received mail or packages. The communists claimed that
we were allowed two letters a month – one from immediate family and one from
the extended family. My family followed these guidelines. I personally received
about 1% of what was sent throughout my captivity and another 10%, some letters
6 years old, in the 2 weeks prior to our release. This was the norm for most
of the rest of my prison mates.
The torture and mistreatment of prisoners of war by the Hanoi government
were war crimes no matter how you cut it or what a shyster lawyer like Ramsey
Clarke would say about it. The good Lord says we must forgive seventy times
seventy-seven; but He doesn’t say when. My Catholic Church had sided with
my enemy, as did many of those politicians and civil servants who governed
us. They can take care of the forgiving of their friends.
So, for now, I kind of go along with Bismarck – never forgive and never forget.
One of my fantasy dreams has been to return to North Vietnam as a Military
Attaché. On some dark night I stealthily slip our of the Embassy in
downtown Hanoi and repeat my urological experiment upon the crystal coffin
of Ho Chi Minh. There would be no secret about that message.
In the end, those of us who survived, won. We got to go home. Our captors
are doomed to stay back there in their primitive backwater of a prison called
the DRV. Now that’s what I call a victory.
Richard A. Stratton
Dearborn, Michigan May 14, 2003
Birthday of Charles Arthur Stratton Jr.
In Memoriam; Requiescat in Pace