INCOME TAX DAY, HANOI, NVN 1970
Every April 15th, when Income Tax Day rolls around it is a special
treat. It is kind of a crapshoot. If you played your cards right, you break
even – neither giving the government a free loan of your money nor owing
them a red cent. If you didn’t play it right, then there is the frantic scramble
to come up with the instant cash. Of course the fates in this case also determine
that your car needs new tires and a new transmission. Yet, it could have
gone the other way and you could have given the government its interest free
loan, which means that another branch of government will send you a dunning
notice for repayment of an outstanding student loan to negate that rebate.
You would think that 10,000 miles away, sitting in a communist jail in Hanoi,
North Vietnam serving the third year of an indeterminate sentence, that April
15th would be the least of one’s worries. Surely a grateful US government
would forgive, forget or forgo collection of taxes at least until you returned.
But then there is something perverse about all bureaucracies no matter what
they are or where they are. They seem to be in some kind of supernatural
synchronization aping the ebb and flow of the seasons. L’addition comes due
in season wherever you may be.
In Communist North Vietnam the season in question was what was affectionately
know by captives as the Spring Follies. The Cadre would come out of hibernation
around Easter time challenged with new and higher goals for proofs of submission
on the part of the enemies of the State. Each Cadre would stumble over the
next, each trying to outdo the other in originality, quality and quantity
of material as well as the vanquishment of the most recalcitrant of the Blackest
of All Criminals in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam – the Yankee Air Pirates.
Normally it would be a time for a prisoner to keep a low profile, travel
late at night, low to the ground and below the ridgeline – as any Gunnery
Sergeant would advise. However, in this year Henry Kissinger was playing
‘What Shape is Our Table” with the North Vietnamese Communists in Paris –
otherwise what was known as the “Paris Peace Talks”. Of course we could not
know that it was just a communist propaganda exercise and it would continue
to be such until President Nixon started bombing Hanoi Christmas 1972.
So we figured that one of the first things Mr. Kissinger would do would be
to negotiate Prisoner of War status for those of us held captive in North
Vietnam. It was a reasonable assumption (although erroneous) based on the
fact that since the beginning of talks we started getting CARE packages from
home. Later we found out they came through some peacenick group called Women’s
Strike for Peace, Cora Weiss, via Moscow into Hanoi and not the Red Cross
or the U.S. Government. Additionally, torture for propaganda as a general
rule seemed to have ceased. However, we decided to operate on this basis
- that our status, if not changed, was in the process of change. Furthermore,
based on the Korean POW experience, we were certain that the Hanoi government
would never inform us if our status had changed. Mass punishment had been
the characteristic response of the communists to any sign of organization
or resistance. So we were looking for an opportunity to test out our theory
without endangering the wellbeing of the rest of our prisoner shipmates.
That opportunity would be the Spring Follies!!
As predicted, a Cadre came prancing down the line of cells handing out paper
and pencils for each prisoner to write an essay with a statement of how “lenient
and humanely” we were being treated, how the war was “illegal, immoral and
unjust”, extolling the virtues of the communist cause, decrying the perfidy
of Lyndon Johnson, anguishing over the hopelessness of the battle, terminating
with encouragement for our troops down South to cease fighting and go home.
Failure for one to so write would result in “severe punishment” (code for
torture). The due date was April 15, 1970.
We were in the prison nicknamed the “Plantation” at this time. Our leaders
were isolated in solitary confinement. All references to rank were strictly
prohibited. As “Blackest of All Criminals in Vietnam” prisoners were on a
communist imposed jailhouse ranking below that of pederasts and murderers.
The military salute to be rendered to the camp commander, required by international
law on the first meeting of the day, was interpreted to be a bow enforced
by a rifle butt. One was forced to bow to dogs, chickens, guards, interrogators
and anything else that moved and any time that they moved.
To maintain control, the communists left an empty cell between each occupied
cell to hinder communication. Our covert communication was sporadic
at best. To communicate was to lead; to lead was an offense punishable by
torture, isolation and solitary confinement. The integrity of our covert
communication system was based on the innovation and courage of those on
either side of us and those passing by under guard. At this time my cellmate
and I had been effectively isolated, as we had been identified as “bad men”.
As the most senior in the covert communication system, I was the “Acting
Senior Ranking Officer” until we could reestablish contact with our seniors.
My cellmate and I conferred on the assigned task. We agreed that we were
not going to write their propaganda but would use the opportunity to check
out our theory about Prisoner of War status. Someone had to do it. We couldn’t
consult our seniors; they were isolated. I was the “Acting”.
My roommate would check out if we could be “severely punished” as in previous
years for not writing propaganda by writing some nonsense - I think it was
a page out of Alice in Wonderland. I in turn would write a letter to the
communist Camp Commander demanding the release of our Seniors and that we
be afforded the privileges specified by the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners
of War. It seemed like a nifty idea. So I picked up the pencil and began
to compose a business letter. Obviously the Vietnamese would not recognize
an official Navy letter format.
April 15, 1970
Prisoner of War Camp
17 Ly Nam Dai
Hanoi, Democratic Republic of Vietnam
Dear Camp Commander,
It is respectfully requested that the military officers and men currently
incarcerated in your camp be immediately accorded the status required by
the Geneva Conventions Concerning Prisoners of War (As Amended).
It is furthermore requested that our Senior Officers promptly be released
from solitary confinement and restored to their rightful place as our commanders.
Finally it is demanded that all torture, interrogation, starvation, beatings,
degradation and harassment of prisoners immediately cease and those responsible
for inflicting the same be severely punished.
It should be noted that failure to accord the status of Prisoner of War to
those captured in combat and in uniform is considered by civilized nations
to be a war crime.
Very respectfully submitted,
Richard A. Stratton 602087/1310
Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy
Senior Ranking Officer (Acting)
We adjudged this composition to be a rather nice piece of work - a succinct,
to the point, official sounding communication rendered with an appropriate
measure of formality, politeness and courtesy. One of our shipmates, Doug
Hegdahl, while rooting around the prison courtyard, had found a piece of
paper with the prison address on it. He verified the prison’s street name
by grabbing a quick look over the wall when his guard was distracted. His
verification was based on the sighting of a street sign. We felt that the
fact we knew our location ought to get their attention since we were not
supposed to know where we were.
The Cadre came prancing back by on the 15th to pick up the finished products
from each of the prison cells. We passed ours in and held our breath. It
was sort of like when you filed your tax return at the last minute, listing
all kinds of deductions without knowing just where all the documentation
was located. You would send up the “no audit” prayer to the tax Gods as you
posted the return.
About three days later (all bureaucracies work slow), a guard came to the
cell door, pointed to me, gesturing to get into my “mess dress” (prison striped
pajamas; the prison uniform) and follow him to the interrogation room. The
Cadre was there with an unidentified personage of some stature (he had real
shined shoes). He asked me if I had written the infamous letter. I acknowledged
that I had. He responded that I had a bad attitude. Now the games began.
The Cadre ignored the letter and its substance. He asked me to read the “camp
news” (camp propaganda, tape recorded and played each evening prior to taps).
I refused. He then ordered me to read the news. I again refused. He informed
me that continued refusal would result in my being “severely punished.” The
personage exited – stage right. The Cadre ordered again; once more I politely
but firmly refused.
At this point, two guards, without ceremony, threw me face down on the floor.
One guard held me while the other commenced flaying my backside from ankles
to shoulders with a bamboo switch. He administered some 36 strokes with great
vigor. He stopped to rest and the Cadre asked if I was ready to “read the
news.” I decided that I had found out what I wanted to and agreed to read
the news. I screwed up the reading royally; but they didn’t care. It was
submission they were after.
The Cadre declared that I was not punished for the content of my letter but
that I was punished for disobeying a direct order of the Camp Commander to
record the camp “news.” (Jane Fonda was to later say that any punishment
[torture] we received was well deserved as it was administered to those who
refused to obey orders.) The Cadre then ordered me back to my cell to show
my cellmate what happened to those who displayed a bad attitude.
My cellmate counted the stripes on my back and we tried to make sense of
what we had learned. First, the benefits of the Geneva Conventions obviously
had not been negotiated for us, or, if negotiated, were not to be implemented.
Second, the punishment had been moderated from the norm based on the facts
that they left my clothes on when they beat me, that they used bamboo instead
of the usual fan belt and that they were careful not to draw any blood. Third,
if I was allowed to stay in that Camp it did not bode well for my shipmates’
welfare, as my beating would be used as an example to extort propaganda from
That very evening, a guard came to our cell, pointed to me, gave me the sign
to suit up and roll up (mess dress and pack belongings). I was blindfolded
and transported back to the main downtown prison, Hoa Lo (“Hanoi Hilton”).
I was returned to solitary confinement in isolation, right back where I started
three years ago. By moving me out of the Plantation, they were signaling
that something had changed. We had guessed that part right. What had changed
was that, except for unusual circumstances (like writing demands to the Camp
Commander), torture for propaganda as a routine event was all over.
There was no punishment for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
On reflection, it appears that about this point in time we ceased being criminals
despite the fact we had been tried by the communists in absentia and sentenced
to varying terms of incarceration depending on rank. We became instead hostages
being held for negotiating advantage in the Paris Peace Talks. We were more
valuable alive than dead. We were more valuable whole than in pieces.
It would not be long before we would be placed in larger living groups, which
immeasurably enhanced our quality of life and our survivability. This change
was accomplished as much by our wives and friends in their letter writing,
bracelet wearing and publicity campaigns protesting our maltreatment as by
any diplomatic maneuvers.
So on this Income Tax Day, April 15, 1970, there was an audit, a bill due
with interest and restitution to be rendered. And don’t you think I remember
this as each April 15th rolls around. Yes, I’d do it again. My only regret
is that I did not force them to torture me rather than just beat me. It turns
out that, unbeknownst to me, they had more to lose than did I.
Richard A. Stratton
May 11, 2003