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The Most Unfortunate of the Unfortunate

While in jail in communist Hanoi, for a few months I had the honor of being a cellmate of a young Seaman, Doug Hegdahl. Doug had been captured at sea after having fallen overboard one night from the USS Canberra as she was shelling highway one in North Vietnam with her 8 inch guns. We had been involuntarily paired as potential early releasees.

The communist Cadre were forever working up individuals and groups for potential propaganda releases to “peace” groups visiting Hanoi and giving aid and comfort to our enemy. In fact it seemed that there was a continuous competition going between prisons and within prisons as to which of the Cadre could produce the most prisoner originated propaganda and prepare the best potential release candidates.

In most cases, the prisoner had no choice over his situation. The policy of our prisoner Seniors was in the finest of military tradition: “Don’t volunteer for nothing!” “Take torture to the point of breaking at each and every confrontation.” Our exploitation was the result of torture, beatings, starvation, isolation and denial of medical treatment.
There were a few, it is true, that betrayed our country and us. Without any adverse treatment or even the threat thereof, they voluntarily cooperated with the communists, snitching on their fellow prisoners, creating propaganda and sucking up to the Cadre to get an early release. I personally knew of eleven, one of whom woke up half way through his incarceration and rejoined us, two never got to go early (they had made themselves too valuable!!) and eight consummated their betrayal with an early propaganda release.

Doug & Dick, in the Yard I was in the barrel because of an outcry as to whether I had been drugged or brainwashed to produce a confession as the “Mad Bomber of Hanoi” in the Spring of 1967. Doug was a candidate due to his relative good health, obvious innocence of any “war crime” real or imagined, and because they underestimated him. His was known to the Cadre as “the incredibly stupid one”.

  In the Fall of ’67, Doug and I had been placed in a show cell isolated from the other prisoners in the jail which we called the Plantation, near the Hanoi ministry of defense, downtown Hanoi.

The quality of food improved. Non-torture interrogations we called “attitude checks” or a “quiz”, were a daily routine. All contacts had the theme: “What do you want more than anything in this world?” They were fishing for the ET like answer: “Home, I want to go home.” Doug would use this to ask for something off the wall, like: “I’d like a pillow; it is unsanitary to use the hand broom for a pillow.” Low on humor at this stage, I would just stare at them uncomprehendingly.

They would try playing us one against another. To Doug they would say: “Stratton is an officer, he would never even speak to you at home.” “Don’t tell Stratton that ... [whatever the message of the day might be].” To me they would say: “Don’t tell Hegdahl, but should you become a good man we might let you rejoining your family before the war is over. He will stay behind.” I don’t recall that they ever interrogated us together.

One day we watched three women in uniform report to the administration building. Our cell was tucked away behind this building and had a surreptitious view of the main gate. It was kind of fun in many ways. For example, there being no indoor plumbing, we would watch one guard come outside and wash his feet in one of the rain barrels. Shortly thereafter, one of the officers would come out and use the same water to brush his teeth.

In any event, the advent of females was always an attention getter for any red blooded American. Usually all we saw were grandmothers who worked in the primitive kitchens.

There was a great to do and bustle in the gatehouse. The ladies came out dressed in white hospital gowns and retired to the gatehouse. Shortly thereafter both of us in turn were called out for a quiz. I was informed that the “Doctors” were going to examine me.

Upon entering the gatehouse I found the three women: two “doctors” and one translator. The MD’s were having a little trouble playing their part. They couldn’t keep their facemasks tied on correctly; their chin(s) vice their mouth and nose ended up being protected. It was a mystery as to which side of the stethoscope you put against the flesh. The blood pressure cuff was so loose that when fully inflated it would drift down to the wrist where the “pressure” was read. The taking of the medical history was so far off the wall and non-sensical that even then I could not remember it.

Finally the tour de force. Stretched out on the table, one physician started gently probing my abdominal cavity checking my internal organs. As her gently messaging hands reached lower and lower towards my pelvic area, the translator leaned closer to me. She firmly pressed her tiny bosom against my side and sweetly whispered:

 “Do you miss your wife?

‘Would you not like to be with your wife?

“Would you not like to go home?”  

I was astounded. What a bunch of nincompoops. The first thing that leaves you when you are denied food and water, when you are beaten and tortured is your sex drive. My reading tells me that your sex drive returns in force just prior to your expiring under these circumstances as nature’s way of trying to perpetuate the species. But I sure hadn’t arrived at that point. Besides these ladies were a bunch of dogs. Even I could do better than that blindfolded. Lacking an appropriate response from me either physically or emotionally, they called the farce off. I was so embarrassed that I forgot, even to this day, to ask Doug if they tried the same thing on him.

Shortly thereafter the communist officer in charge of all American POW’s in Hanoi, Major Bui, called me in for a quiz. I guess he figured out that this last go around was kind of stupid. He laid it out on the line. If I would become a good man and cooperate with him, he would see that I went home before the end of the war and within the next six months. He reminded me that the war could go on for another twenty years. I told him in no uncertain terms that I would go only when everyone else left and then only after the sick, wounded and those junior to me. He replied:

“That is too bad, Stratton, I stood to smooth your way out of here.”

I was not to see Doug again face to face for six years, until after our release. I was marched off to an isolated area of the prison, locked up in a totally blacked out cell with no lights, a bamboo pallet and a waste bucket not to see the light of day for forty days. But therein is another story.

As time wore on it appeared that early releases would take place in spite of us, we determined that we might just as well put one of our own in the pack to establish contact with our government. Doug was the perfect candidate. The communists had already written him off as “the incredibly stupid one”. Joe Crecca, a fellow prisoner, had taught him over 250 names of aviators who we knew were downed in North Vietnam; most of those names our government did not have. Doug had (and still has) those names memorized by service, by rank and alphabetically. He recalls the names by singing them as words to the melody of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm”. Finally, Doug was the most junior prisoner we knew of; it was not unreasonable that he go even if not sick and/or injured.  

Doug knew first hand the facts of torture, beatings, etc. which in most cases were unknown to the traitors. A totally honest man, a man without guile, Doug had credibility that even the most cynical of interviewers could not deny. Doug did not want to leave us and be classed with the “Slipperys” and the “Slimys”. Besides, he was having a ball getting into the skive shorts of the enemy every day, holding the respect of all his shipmates and fighting his own war. Our leadership gave him a direct order. I know because I personally passed it to him in a written message. Favoring releases in three’s, the communists used Doug as fill to replace a failed candidate for early release, and he was on his way. “I love it when a plan comes together!”

One of the many detriments to being 10,000 miles from home in isolation is that you never get reasonable feedback. You don’t know if anything worked in real time and sometimes for years. One boring day a guard came to my cell (in solitary again) and signaled for me to bathe, shave and suit up for a quiz. Seldom did they let you bathe and the combination with a shave meant propaganda or pictures - not a good sign.

They marched me off to a cell where waiting for me was an obvious high roller. He had a tailored uniform of very fine cloth. He had real shoes spit shined to a high gloss. His hair too appeared to be spit shined to a similar high gloss. He was smoking the high end of Vietnamese cigarettes (Dien Bien). His fingernails were clean and manicured. His gleaming white teeth were perfect in every way. He was a handsome man, slight of build and carried himself as one having authority. His English was better than mine and he spoke easily with no accent. He gave me a cigarette, lit it for me and came right to the point:
The Unfortunate one
“Do you know Douglas B. Hegdahl?”

“Of course I do. You know that already”

“He says you had a nail torn out?  He lies!”

“Not one.”

“See I know. A lie!”

“It was two.”

He paused a moment and consulted his notes.

“He says you were tortured. You lie!

That was not even worthy of a reply. I simply rolled up the sleeves of my prison uniform stripped  PJ’s. With an unblinking and unbroken stare directly into his eyes, I pointed to two-nickel size scars on the back of my wrists where manacles had bit through my skin to the bone. I pointed to distinctive scars some six inches long across my elbows where torture straps wore through my skin to the bone.

He stared. He took a breath. He quietly whispered:

“You are indeed one of the most unfortunate of the unfortunate.”

He pushed his pack of cigarettes across the table to me. Without another word and without a backward glance, he softly left the interrogation room. His departure was so quiet and so abrupt that the guard did not even realize he had left. I sat there for easily another half an hour silently rejoicing. Our faith in Doug had not been misplaced! Doug had got out! Doug had relayed the information! They had believed him! “I love it when a plan comes together!”

After our return I was able to confirm that our government did indeed believe Doug. Furthermore, when Alice had not heard from me or about me once I had been sent to the Black Hole of Hanoi, she asked Ross Perot to have Doug confront the Vietnamese delegation in Paris about my torture, mistreatment and silence. We think that the word went back from Paris to Hanoi and the communist state department to check out this “perfidious allegation”. The result was my séance with a communist Foreign Service type. The timing for this was right.

After this I was never again tortured and subsequently beaten only one time. “Thank you Alice, Doug and Ross.”

Richard A. Stratton
Dearborn, Michigan
May 19, 2003 Victoria Day
In Honor of:
Douglas B. Hegdahl, Friend