POW MIA Heroes
(I wrote this in March 1998.)
On a good day, there were three cups of water to take a bath. On a good day, there was food. On a good day, the tapping sounds, the flapping towels, the scraping rakes and swishing brooms they used for communication made sense and were understood.
On the bad days, the guards beat them. They were locked in rusted iron stockades which contorted them into unnatural positions. The pressure to sell out was continuous and unrelenting. Some would sit in solitary confinement, starving and rotting. Many died. Those who followed the Code of Conduct, those with courage, those who had the will to uphold the chain of command, watched as those who could not — who would not — walked away and were released from the camps. The bad days were very bad.
Eight former POWs talked about these experiences March 13 at a symposium attended by more than 800 military members, including retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman. One by one, they made their way to the podium to address the crowd of eager listeners in this 25th meeting of Freedom Flyers.
The Freedom Flyers are a group formed after the Vietnam War. Most were shot down over Southeast Asia and held as prisoners of war. As part of their return, they were reoriented back to the cockpit and given a final “champagne” flight as their official welcome home. More than 180 aviators were part of the program and four new members were inducted March 13.
Some of the members endured in the camps longer than others. Some served together. That made the experience more tolerable, all said, but not easier.
Retired Col. “Smitty” Harris, Freedom Flyer No. 105, was one of the first shot down. In about the six hours it takes to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Harris had been shot down and become prisoner. In the time it takes for a captain today to be promoted to major, about seven years, Harris survived as a POW.
Before Harris was captured, he’d heard about a system of communication used in World War II, a tap code of sorts, used to tap out letters from one person to another. After being shot down, unable to communicate verbally (the guards threatened death) to fellow prisoners, Harris started using the code around the camp. No one could figure out what he was doing at first.
The code used a matrix of the alphabet, five by five, removing the letter ‘K’ and using ‘C’ in its place. For instance, if a prisoner wanted to tap out the letter ‘O,’ he’d tap three times, indicating the row, pause and tap four more times, indicating the letter.
Eventually, the code caught on and the system was used camp wide.
“We would go to unbelievable risks and dangers to teach the code to new people,” Harris remembered. “The importance of the tap code could not be underestimated. It helped morale. It kept the chain of command alive and gave us support.”
The code also helped save Harris’ life. At one point, the colonel weighed less than 90 pounds, suffered from nausea and disentary and couldn’t sit up without graying out. Fellow prisoners used the tap code to get the ailing man food and water over a six-month period.
“Indirectly, the tap code saved my life,” he said.
Freedom Flyer 55
Freedom Flyer 55 was retired Lt. Col. Laurie Lengyel. Lengyel, like many prisoners, was held in a camp called “The Zoo” in an area known as the annex. He stayed in a cell with nine other men. They planned for almost a year what every POW can only hope for — escape.
Lengyel knew the task ahead was a daunting.
“If you were walking through the middle of Germany, it’s not that difficult. If you were walking through the middle of Hanoi, that was more difficult,” he quipped.
All in his cell knew the obstacles. The walls were made from heavy cement. No windows. The doors were thick wood and “very strong.” Above the men, almost 12 feet up, were two ventilation holes, that spanned 18 to 24 inches across. Those holes, covered in barbed wire, were the only way out.
The men, given permission for the escape action, chose a rainy Saturday night to leave — when the camp’s staff would be at its weakest point. Using the beds stacked like Lincoln Logs and lifted by four other prisoners, two men managed to squeeze through the holes and get out.
To disguise their exit, the escapees had the remaining men disguise the empty bunks with blankets and mosquito netting. The remaining prisoners thought the escape was successful. They were wrong.
Here come the guards
“When the guards found out they were gone, all hell broke loose,” Lengyel said. It wasn’t too long before the escapees were recaptured. “The next morning, they were brought back to the camp. They might have made it four miles or so.”
The guards, angered by the escape attempt, started pulling the prisoners out one by one. Lengyel paused at this point of the story, obviously caught in the emotion of the moment. “I don’t like to talk about it, even though it was 29 years ago.
“The amount of muscle tearing, and beating that went on,” he continued. “We were in irons for six months. They closed up the ventilation in our cells.”
One of the two escapees was killed — somehow. No one was sure. Lengyel said the senior ranking officer was beaten so badly he passed nothing but blood for a time. Retired Brig. Gen. Ken Fleenor, a fellow prisoner and speaker earlier that day, was whipped 100 times a day for nine days with bamboo canes.
Lengyel looked up from his notes and answered the question the audience wanted answered — why?
“We wanted what every POW wanted — freedom. Not wanting to be a POW. The goals were achievable. The price was terrible,” he told the crowd.
So many heroes
Other speakers talked of the Hanoi Hilton, including Brig. Gen. Ed Mechenbier, Freedom Flyer 159, whose daughter, an airman in the Air Force Reserve, helped him with his presentation. He described the living conditions and showed slides where he and others like Arizona Senator John McCain served time.
Retired Lt. Col. Gene Smith, Freedom Flyer 28, followed Mechenbier, talking about life in the Son Tay camp and the raid on that camp that changed the prisoners’ living condiitions afterward for the better.
“The raid on Son Tay was one of the most important things that improved our living conditions,” Smith said.
Retired Col. Mo Baker also served time in the Hanoi Hilton. Baker, Freedom Flyer 97, stepped up to the issue of leadership. “The Air Force doesn’t teach it to you. It cannot. It’s built in to you. At the Hanoi Hilton, leadership was convened upon you,” Baker said.
“In the end, military discipline paid off,” said Baker, who ended up teaching things like calculus and learning languages to pass time in the camps. “It’s what really backs you up. It explains your actions.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner, Freedom Flyer 160, was given a standing ovation when he approached the podium. Risner discussed leadership. He also described the sincere commitment he gave to get to know fellow POWs better and to set a “go the extra mile” example.
“It’s the extra willingness to come early and stay late, give the extra attention and stick out from the crowd,” he said.
Retired Maj. Gen. “Bud” Breckner, Freedom Flyer 16, saluted Risner as both POW and retiree. “He was a leader then and he’s a leader now,” Breckner said.
Breckner was shot down later in the war and, consequently, conditions had changed. There was no torture and many prisoners were kept in downtown Hanoi. “We were beaten and coerced but it was nothing like what Smitty Harris went through,” he said.
The general reinforced his belief in the Code of Conduct (“Everything starts with the 10 Commandments and ends with the Code of Conduct”) and what former POWs had done before him.
Lt. Col. Charlie Huff also had memories. Huff was not a Freedom Flyer but rather one of the pilots who helped Freedom Flyers get back into the cockpits. Huff gave rides to several flyers.
“We were so very, very excited to hear the POWs would be requalifying here,” he said.
At one point, psychiatrists gave Huff and the others some traits to expect from the POWs. For instance, Huff was told the returning mens’ alcohol intake would be low, they wouldn’t eat a lot of rich food and they’d be emotionally distraught. Such was not the case.
“It was all I could do to stay with them,” he said, tongue in cheek, “but we gave it a very valiant effort.”
Summing it all up
Air Education and Training Command Commander Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton summed up the memories of bloodied hands, days of torture, the Hanoi Hilton, and lost comrades by saluting the speakers.
“We are just humbled by your presence and moving words,” he told the men. “We sat there in awe, trying to understand the sacrifice you went through. I have never seen an audience captured like they were this afternoon. It’s the kind of thing we as warriors need to understand.”
Harris may have captured the feeling of all the speakers by categorizing the POWs who came before him and after him, who kept the spirit alive, on good days and bad, and kept the American POWs’ collective hearts beating and helped save his life more than three decades ago.
“They were the real heroes,” he said. “They risked all to save the life of one of their own.”