During the Christmas season of 1972 the North Vietnamese communists were given a long overdue present, overdue since 1964. The present was a multi-service bomber stream hitting strategic and tactical targets in downtown Hanoi night after night.
Those of us imprisoned in the Hoax Lo prison facetiously know as the Hanoi Hilton, stood up and cheered although the very metal rafters in the ceiling twanged like banjo strings and the deck heaved with each string of 750 pound bombs. We cheered because we knew we were going home at last. Some of us had been there for over ten years; others for only a month. Myself, I was there for six years and two months. Sure enough from February through March of 1973 over 500 of us were incrementally released to return home.
Part of the reason we survived and were released was due to the efforts of people who supported our families and our government insisting on humane treatment for prisoners of war and a full accounting of them at the war’s end.
You might well ask what we did to help ourselves resist and survive so that we could answer your call to return home.
The main key to our survival was what I call the three P’s – Patriotism, Persistence and Prayer.
I was in prison with patriots. I never met a man in prison who ever doubted that you would get us out of there. We retained our faith in our country despite torture, humiliation, beatings, starvation and medical neglect. In an age when it became the fashion to spit upon and burn our flag, we were manufacturing our own flags from scraps of cloth, thread from blankets and bamboo needles.
For the last two years in jail Ron Webb and I were part of the cell’s color guard. John Dramesi, our escape artist, had manufactured a flag about the size of the palm of your hand. Ron and I literally guarded John and the flag. Each evening as the cell doors were closed for the night, John would post the colors, hang them on a wire and the whole cell would recite the pledge of allegiance. For you purists, there was always a light on in the cell, so the flag was always lighted. At dawn, John would retire the colors and again the cell would say the pledge. By the way, John, upon our return, presented that very same flag to President Nixon at a White House dinner in honor of the returned POW’s.
In another cell, Mike Christian had manufactured his own personal flag which he sewed inside his shirt next to his heart. One day during a routine cell shake down the prowling guards discovered the flag and hauled Mike out of the cell. The interrogators worked him over verbally and then physically, beating him to within an inch of his life.
They then threw him back into his cell to be an abject lesson to all his cellmates as to what happened to those who defied their communist captors.
The cell learned a lesson the communists never intended.
Mike declined all offers of assistance and sympathy. In the thirty man cell he went from person to person soliciting scraps of cloth: red cloth, white cloth, and blue cloth. He tore out thread from his already threadbare blanket. He sharpened a point on a sliver of bamboo and manufactured an eye in the wider end. All night he quietly sat, bruised and battered, creating an American flag and sewing it inside his shirt next to his heart.
No words were spoken. No words were needed. The tutorial in patriotism and persistence was complete.
Yes, not only did we as officials of the United States government publicly honor the flag we also unreservedly acknowledged that we were one nation under God.
Each Sunday we would be locked down after a midmorning meal. As soon as the guards were out of sight, we conducted a church service. In the early years of isolation and solitary confinement, the service consisted of tapping the letter “v” on the wall from cell to cell so that the whole compound would be engaged simultaneously in private prayer. No one ordered this. It was a spontaneous outpouring of faith.
Each covert message sent by tap code or in writing ended with the letters “g” “b” “u” standing for God Bless You. We end all our communications to this day in the same manner.
At the end of our imprisonment, when we were in larger cells, each Sunday we would hold a public service which service the communists did all in their power to thwart, but never succeeded.
One Sunday we were feeling our oats in cell number seven the new home of most of the senior prisoners, unsuccessful escapees, and folks the communists just did not like.
We had mustered a great choir, the majority of whom could not carry a tune in a wheel barrow, but who made a lot of noise. A couple of frustrated hell fire and damnation preachers in our midst prepared to regale us with our sinful conduct and general unworthiness. The whole even went off with great fanfare, catcalls, amens, hootin’ and howling.
The communists could not stand anything over which they had no control. So they came in and hauled out the two preachers, probably well deserved, the choir director, certainly deserved and the senior ranking officer, always the communist’s fall guy. These great guys were once again thrown into solitary confinement. They were bad but not that bad.
This event really got our collective ire up to a fever pitch. To a man, all twenty eight of us, stood up and started a protest in song that could be heard all over downtown Hanoi. The performance started with the star spangled banner, ran through the whole patriotic medley and ended with God Bless America. . Running out of breath and voice, we passed the lead to the next cell – this is cell number seven, number seven, number seven, where the hell is six? Cell six took up the song fest and passed it down the line to five and so on down to cell number one. By then the communists were frantic. They called out the riot squad and posted guards in all the windows with AK-47’s. Their take on it was that they had a prison riot on their hands. Our take of course that it was a peaceful protest demanding the release of our leaders and freedom to practice our religion. We won, but that is another story.
So you can see why, to this day, i really do not have much truck with or respect for those Supreme Court justices who would deny us the right, as American fighting men and officials of the United States government, to publicly declare our faith in the face of our enemies. Nor do I have any respect for those justices, who while denying our right to practice our faith in god and country, simultaneously protect those who would desecrate our flag and the symbols of our religion. Maybe those worthies would benefit from a sabbatical in Hanoi’s Hoa lo prison.
So it was that we survived, exercising the three P’s - patriotism, persistence and prayer. We did our part and America did its part to ensure that our families were secure, that we were not forgotten in the peace negotiations and that we were returned with honor to our country.
God bless you and God Bless America.
American Legion 85th Convention
St. Louis, Missouri
August 27, 2003