Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket
fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who
hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending
the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the
hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any
true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a
cross of iron.
-- Dwight Eisenhower April 16, 1953
I didn't know when I flew off the deck of the USS Midway in my
A-4C Skyhawk on the night of April 20th 1965 that I was
embarking on the worst time and the greatest challenge of my life. I
would later describe those endless days and nights of captivity
this way: I wouldn't trade anything in the world for the
experiences that I had, but I wouldn't do it over again for
anything in the world either.
My mission was to fly from the Tonkin Gulf where our carrier was
on station to "Highway One," the major transportation route that
the North Vietnamese used to carry military supplies to their
troops in the south. They did most of their transporting at
night when they would be less visible, so that's when we were
sent out to intercept and destroy them.
My wingman and I spotted trucks on the highway and rolled in on
our bombing run from 12,000 feet. We descended in a 45 degree
dive at full power to an airspeed of over 600 miles per hour and
2,500 feet above the ground. I had the trucks in my sights and
pressed the bomb release button on my control stick. Then,
instantaneously, my airplane just exploded. All six of my own
250 pound bombs had
malfunctioned and exploded under me. The wings and tail section
of my airplane were instantly blown away and I found myself hurtling toward the ground in
just a cockpit.
There wasn’t a second to lose. I didn’t have even a second to think but my
training took over. I reached between my legs and pulled the
auxiliary ejection handle. Because I was being thrown against
the top of the cockpit by the force of the spinning aircraft –
or rather, what was left of it – when the ejection seat slammed
into me I was probably six inches above it. It struck me hard as
it blew out of the cockpit. But that was the least of my
worries. I was already close to the ground and my parachute
barely had time – maybe three or four seconds – to open. I
remember the silence then, the cold, black night as I descended.
But I don’t think my parachute was completely intact, having been
partially shredded from the enormous wind blast. Thankfully I
wound up crashing down through a canopy of trees. Welcome to
I would spend
the next four days and nights trying to evade the enemy and get
out of Vietnam into
Laos where I might have a chance of
getting a helicopter rescue. But that was not to happen. I was
captured by the North Vietnamese, and then spent the next 2855
days and nights as their prisoner.
It was an
extraordinary span of my life, with moments of hope and heroism
amidst days and weeks and months of pain and despair. There were
times when I thought I was about to die; times when I thought
that death would be better than what life meant to me then.
I learned a great deal in those nearly eight years – about
myself, about my country, and my world. I learned the truth
about torture up close and personal; since my captors obviously
thought of me as a criminal.
So this “During
the War” chapter of my life was not just a horror story, though
that was certainly a part of it. More, it was a story of
patriotism and honor. For the details, you’ll have to read the
book. But I have a page online here with some photographs of
that time, and a picture, as the old Chinese expression has it,
is worth ten thousand words.