“All through the seven-and-a-half years of imprisonment in North Vietnam, my Christian faith was a constant source of great strength and comfort. I knew that this was something that my captors could never take away from me, but had they been able to destroy that faith, I do not think that I would have survived with any sense of integrity or honor. The struggle to live an honorable life and to find meaning in that life, no matter how miserable the circumstances, was the most important thing I could do. Over time I developed what I refer to as a Life Statement. It is as follows: I wish, at the instant of my death, to be able to look back upon a full and fruitful Christian life, lived as an honest man who has constantly striven to improve himself and the world in which he lives, and to die forgiven by God, and have, with a clear conscience, the love and re-spect of my family and friends, and the peace of the Lord in my soul.”
A WORSE PLACE
Two days after being shot down northwest of Hanoi in October 1965, I arrived at the Hoa Lo prison, the now-famous Hanoi Hilton. I was put in a small cell in an area that Americans called Heartbreak Hotel, and I was to find that this was a most appropriate name. Interrogations began immediately and increased in frequency and intensity. Every time I answered with “Name, Rank, Service Number and Date of Birth,”—the only information permitted by the Code of Conduct.
After two weeks of threats, beatings, humiliations and filthy condi-tions, the Rabbit, one of our guards, finally gave me an ultimatum in the form of a choice—to answer questions and move to a “nice camp” where I could be with my friends and enjoy good treatment and food, or to con-tinue to refuse to cooperate and be moved to a much worse place where I would be alone and be punished for my bad attitude. Heartbreak was pretty grim—tiny cells with concrete bunks and built-in leg irons, so I could hardly imagine anything worse.
Actually the choice was pretty easy at this point. My prayers and the advice from other Americans in Heartbreak gave me strength and some confidence. There was nothing I couldn’t live with. I did not believe there was a better place, and I was not going to give them anything in any case. So I chose the worse one. Sure enough, it was worse, but different. It was a larger cell in a building that had been named “The Office” in a prison called the “Zoo.” The exterior was pleasant enough—it had been a film studio used by the propaganda branch of the army with stucco building and red tile roofs, a swimming pool in the center and various kinds of trees. On the inside, the windows had all been barred and then bricked up on the inside to within three inches of the top. Since I had been moved in the middle of the night, the cell was completely dark and I had to feel my way around the walls to even know how big it was. The floor was covered in dust and smelled of wet concrete. This smell and the bleakness and the blackness of the cell got to me that night, and I felt some of the terror that Fortunato, Poe’s character in the “The Cask of Amontillado” must have felt as he realized that he had been bricked up in the brick cellar. I longed for and prayed for something green, something alive, and some-thing friendly.
One morning very early I heard a faint scraping at the window, almost an invitation to investigate. I jumped and grabbed the top bricks in the window and struggled up far enough to look over. And there, sticking through the slats of the shutter but beyond the bars, was a green leaf. It was the most beautiful leaf that I had ever seen, and I knew at once that God had instructed the tree outside to move its branch just enough to present me with this gift, this sign that I was not alone. The cell, as well as my spirits, brightened up considerably.
I also received another gift while I was there—a little extra food and a bit of humor. The turnkey appeared unexpectedly one day and gave me two pieces of paper and a small dish containing a little ball of rice. The pa-pers contained the Camp Regulations, one in English and the other in Vietnamese. He pointed to the wall and then left. I thought, This is pretty cool—something to read and a little snack. When the guard returned, he was furious that I had eaten the “glue” and had not pasted the regulations on the wall as I was supposed to. He must have thought that I was the dumbest person on earth, and he dutifully showed me how to use the rice to stick the papers to the wall. At this point I decided that playing dumb was probably a good thing to do and would probably work. Interrogations continued day after day. “Where you from? What kind of aircraft you fly? How many missions you fly?” And again, the same old threat—cooperate or you will move to a much worse place. Soon enough the threat became a reality, and I was awakened in the middle of the night and blindfolded. With my meager bedroll under one arm, I was led across the prison to the back side of a large building that I knew was called the “Auditorium.”
My new home was a storage room in the back, up a few steps from the central room that had been used for larger groups to view films. It had no light but the window had not been bricked up, although it did have bars and tight-fitting shutters. Again I had to feel my way around the cell in the dark and found that it was quite small. I tapped on the wall oppo-site the window but got no response. I realized that I was not only alone but isolated from the other prisoners. Before finally going to sleep on the cold, cement floor, I prayed to God for a long time and asked for strength to endure what was to come. It was the uncertainty of what lay in the fu-ture that was so hard to deal with. However, I had my leaf, and I had faith that God was not going to abandon me in this place.
In the morning as the wake-up gong was sounded, I woke to a dim light to see just how small and miserable my confinement was. From the Vietnamese voices outside the window, I realized that I was close to the “Head Shed” which contained the interrogation rooms and administrative offices. How could I endure this proximity to my tormentors? About mid-morning, the gloom was pierced by a beam of sunlight through an undiscovered crack in the shutters which struck the opposite wall with a sharp brilliance—surely a sign from God once again. Quickly I made a small paper cross from the scrap of what served as toilet paper and glued it to the wall with some rice grains just at the spot where the sun had struck. Each day, as the sunlight illuminated the little cross, I felt the presence of God and it sustained me throughout that lonely and difficult time.
Once again came the demand for a choice—cooperate or go to a worse place. All the way across the prison next to the back wall was a small shed that had been used to store coal, among other things. It was infested with ants, mosquitoes, geckos, and, at night, rats. I was finally convinced that this was really the worst place they had. Food that was barely edible to begin with was left outside the door for hours and when I got it, it was covered with ants. I was weak from constant diarrhea, sleepless nights, and constant interrogation, humiliation, beatings, and loneliness throughout each day. After several weeks, I was very close to the end of my strength and resolve. The worst part was actually having no one to talk to, so my prayers were for strength and companionship. When the time came again to choose, I was not sure I could survive for long in a place worse than this shed, and I was tempted to try and get them off my back by an-swering a few questions. Luckily, I did not give in because their idea of the worst place was in a cell with a black man. I was ordered to care for him as he was badly injured and could do nothing for himself. The Vietnamese must have thought that forcing us together in this situation would set us against each other and break us down.
Major Fred Cherry and I lived together for eight months, and the Vietnamese plan did not work. Fred nearly died several times during that time, but he was too determined and much too tough to die. He says that I saved his life, but he is the one who probably saved mine. He was indeed a gift from God and the answer to my prayers. We became lifelong friends, and it was his example of courage, patriotism, devotion to duty, and per-sonal integrity that set a high standard during those difficult years that fol-lowed. The night we were moved apart was one of the saddest of my life, and we were both to go back into solitary confinement and endure serious torture to force our cooperation. It was strength from God and what I learned from Fred that helped me get through that terrible time.