North Vietnam.

North Vietnam. North Vietnam.

Status: Finished

Genre: War and Military



Status: Finished

Genre: War and Military



North Vietnam
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North Vietnam

Chapter1 (v.1) - North Vietnam.

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North Vietnam

Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: March 13, 2013

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Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: March 13, 2013




I was hiding under a log. Doing my best to masquerade as North Vietnam
terrain, I'd pulled branches on top of me, smeared mud on my face, and
arranged leaves and other foliage to stick out of my clothes. I was 20 miles
behind enemy lines, having parachuted out of my F-4C fighter aircraft when a
weapon malfunction blew it, along with my wingman, to bits. So far my
terrain act was working; a group of North Vietnamese soldiers had passed,
unaware of my presence, within six feet of me.

I'd heard on my survival radio that two other pilots had been rescued on the
day of our mishap. Now, after three days in the cold and rainy jungle, I
knew planes were on their way for me. It looked like a question of who would
find me first.

I was eventually betrayed by a small hole in my camouflage through which I
poked my radio antenna. Within seconds a zillion rifles were pointed
straight at my head. Thus began a month-long, 100-mile journey to the "Hanoi
Hilton" to begin my five years as a prisoner of war -- where I would get to
know pain on a personal basis.

North Vietnamese policy was that POWs were war criminals, a policy that
supposedly justified brutal treatment and total control. That control was
reflected by a list of regulations posted in each cell. Rule number one was
the catchall: "Criminals will strictly follow all regulations or be severely

The scenario was quite simple. An interrogator would tell you to do
something, like give out military information. When, predictably, you would
refuse, you were told you had violated the regulations and had to be
punished. The word "punish" still evokes in me a slight feeling of nausea
since it meant, at the very least, beatings that would last several days and
nights.  Punishment ultimately meant, and to torture was to extract
submissiveness. I found you could be tortured for accusing them of using

Torture is methodically applied pain to produce a wearing effect -- to make
you submit. Usually the pain would reach a level just short of stopping
vital functions, although it could continue even after one lost

Its preliminary stages could start with something as simple as being sat on
a stool, dressed in long pajamas (in summer) or just shorts (in the winter).
The summer jungle air was suffocating; the damp, cold winter air was
penetrating. After a while, you became a lump of huddled misery, sitting in
the heat or biting cold. During a single session I sat on a stool in the
same position 24 hours a day for 10 straight days.

Sometimes the guards would tie you to the stool with your wrists strapped to
your ankles, but usually you were left untied and told not to move, only
being allowed to get up to visit the putrid waste bucket in the corner. And
the guards were always nearby. If you moved a muscle, they'd pummel you with
their fists and gun butts until they tired. I don't remember sleeping during
these periods -- just pain and the interminable passage of time.

After I spent days being worn down, interrogators would enter the scene,
curiously almost a welcome break from "stool time." Tired and numb, many of
us prisoners at first would give name, rank, and serial number -- like you
see in the movies. But this is fool's play and contrary to our military
training, because this open belligerency would earn some pretty tough
knocks. To survive you had to get your mind going and overcome the tendency
to react wit h your emotions. You had to fight through the haze of fatigue
to recall the specialized training, and it worked. Although the
interrogations and torture rarely lightened up, with the resistance
techniques we were taught we were able to avoid giving any useful or
classified information.

I was fortunate because, as a young lieutenant fresh out of pilot training
on my first assignment, I didn't know anything of real worth. The senior
officers were really under the gun. If the enemy wanted something and knew
you knew it, they would stop at nothing to get it. Thus we were trained to
be clever, an actor, under stress.

What I was not prepared for were the effects of solitary confinement. For
the first nine months of my captivity, and  sporadically later, I didn't
see, hear or talk to another American. Although physical pain was inflicted
on me deliberately and effectively, I would discover what an incredible
burden mental pain would add to my suffering, how a dark fog slowly could
creep over my consciousness, trying to rob me of my remaining power of
reasoning. I saw that the mind could convince life itself to slip awa y
through the beckoning black hole that pain created. I learned how vital it
was to keep the mind as sharp as possible.

This was necessary to get through interrogations and also for survival. If
you didn't keep your mind clear, the "V," as we called the North Vietnamese,
would crush you through a steady dose of pain that eroded mind and body like
a vicious chemical.

The body is first to give up. You cannot keep yourself from passing out,
throwing up, screaming. I discovered that the more the body convulsed
involuntarily, the more I could observe it as though it belonged to someone
else. I found I could intellectualize pain, which allowed me to take a
quantum leap in my tolerance of it. Sometimes, though, the problem was
staying in touch with reality enough to keep alive. Detaching oneself too
much has an insidious narcotic effect that invades one's reason and dulls
normal danger signals. This is probably the way nature helps us die without
being all tensed up.

I walked a psychic tightrope between too much pain and too much mental
retreat from reality. That meant fighting back against the siren lure of
pain-free death. Sometimes I knew I needed to feel pain. Pain could keep my
senses sharp, my contact with reality stronger. I recalled the saying, "Pain
purifies." This may not be entirely sensible, but it was curiously relevant
then. Sometimes I would try to observe the pain process and translate the
feeling into some sort of metaphysical experience -- somethin g interesting
to contemplate, something detached.  Sometimes when the pain got to be too
much for the physical side of me, nature would take over and I would simply
pass out.

I based my mental retreats not on fantasy but on real things. I designed and
built homes, about 10 of them -- some dream houses, others more practical.
First I made a floor plan, then the exterior, and then I would build them in
my mind nail by nail, down to the most minute detail. I'd design it, lay the
cement, put up the two-by-fours, drive each nail, and even saw each board --
slowly. If it progressed too fast, I would envision a bad cut on a board and
resaw it.

I made lists. I made a list of every country I could think of, then every
capital. I even made a list of all the candy bars I could think of. I tried
to think of everything I had ever learned; once I reviewed everything I'd
learned about trees.  Sometimes I'd derive mathematical formulas, spending
hours in the process. I could get completely wrapped up in this, completely
escaping into my mind. With mental exercise came resolve -- if I could help
it , this was not going to be the place where I cashed it in.

Isolation lasted about nine months, until I was moved to another prisoner of
war camp in Hanoi. There I got a roommate, Myron Donald from Moravia, New
York. For more than a year we lived together in a windowless concrete bunker
we called the Gunshed. During that time Myron would save my life.

It was a hot box, the Gunshed, so hot we could hardly breathe. It was so
stifling that just to breathe we often lay by a small slit under the door
through which our jailers slid food.

The food itself was used against us like everything else.  It usually
consisted of watery green soup (we called it weeds) and a chunk of tasteless
bread. The soup was delivered boiling hot in the summer and stone cold in
the winter. When it was hot we couldn't take a mouthful, since eating raises
the body metabolism and thus body heat. If the guards didn't return too
quickly, we would let the food sit until dark and the room temperature had
slacked off to, maybe, 110 degrees.

We perspired so much our skin became waterlogged, looking like pale cheese,
a crumbling coat of slimy flesh often festering with rash and fungus.
Horribly dehydrated, we got only two little teapots of putrid water a day,
and we used some of it to dampen our faces and wash off the crumbling skin.
On top of this, mosquitoes were thick, their wings creating a constant
chorus, and the room stank of the waste bucket. Rat droppings seasoned the
food along with razor blades, glass, stones and pieces of wire. Ac tually
some of this unexpected booty came in handy.

After about a year of captivity when, oddly, I was getting accustomed to the
harshness, my journey took me down an even darker path. The situation
developed slowly. First I was told I might win an early release if I would
cooperate and meet with some visiting delegations -- anti-war groups or
radical Hollywood personalities -- and tell them I had been treated well. I
refused these special favors and at any rate would not participate in their
propaganda. When they kept pressuring me, I went on a hunger strike -- an
emaciated prisoner would not make good propaganda I reasoned. This got me
off the go-home-early list but angered my jailers if only because I was not
submissive. Thus began the really hard stuff.

Things started with long sessions of standing immobile  around the clock;
next I was put on my knees for three, four, six hours at a time. This went
on for days. It was the first phase, sort of a limbering-up session to wear
me out and take the edge off my powers of reasoning. Then I was told to
write a war-crimes confession, saying I was sorry I'd participated in the
war. When I refused, I got to serve as a stress reliever for about 20 guards
-- each took his turn beating me to a pulp. They pounded me f or six or
eight hours. By then I was getting pretty shaky.  Then they got serious. I
was introduced to a bowl of water, some filthy rags and a steel rod. The
guards stuffed a rag in my mouth with the rod, then, after putting another
rag over my face, they slowly poured the water on it until all I was
breathing was water vapor. I could feel my lungs going tight with fluid and
felt like I was drowning. I thrashed in panic as darkness took over. As I
passed out, thinking I was dying, I remember thanking God th at we had made
a stand against this kind of society.

When my senses returned I discovered I had been blindfolded and trussed into
the "pretzel" position. Thick leg irons shackled my ankles, my wrists were
tied behind me, and a rope bound my elbows just above the joints. The guards
tightened the bindings by putting their feet against my arms and pulling the
ropes until they couldn't pull any harder. Then they tied my wrists to my
ankles and jammed a 10-foot pole between my back and elbows. After a few
hours the leg irons began to press heavily on my shins a nd feet like a
vise. The ropes strangled my flesh, causing searing pain and making my arms
go numb and slowly turn black.

In the middle of the night, one of the less hostile guards, whom we called
Mark, sneaked in and loosened the ropes a little. If he hadn't, I'm sure I
would have lost both arms. In this case I would have vanished with the other
badly injured POWs who never were repatriated.

After a few hours, the guards came back and jerked up on the pole, lifting
me up and down by my elbows then slamming me to the floor on my face or
backward on my head. This went on through the early morning hours.

At dawn two Vietnamese officers casually strolled in. I told them they might
kill me, but I still wasn't interested in their propaganda. They laughed and
calmly said, "It's easy to die but hard to live, and we'll show you just how
hard it is to live."

Indeed the pain got to the point where I truly wanted to die. My mind games
weren't sufficient to help me manage any more pain. I tried screaming to
relieve the stress until the grimy rag was stuffed back into my mouth. I
tried doing anything to take my mind away from what was happening, but I
couldn't. My prayers became desperate gasps. The only solution was to stop
living, but what can you do when you're tied up? You can't will your heart
to stop beating.

After about a week I finally told the guards I'd write the confession. I had
to get out of the ropes, collect my thoughts, and perhaps muster a bit more
strength to still do nothing or at least moderate what would happen. My
hosts knew exactly what I was thinking and simply said, "It's too late."
They brought in a guard who sported the only leather boots I ever saw in
North Vietnam. I don't know what they told him, but he looked like he wanted
to kill me. He looked insane, his eyes wide open, and he prac tically jumped
up and down when they turned him loose on me.

From my point of view, what went on next didn't last long.  He began by
kicking me in the back with all the strength he could exert. After this
first savage kick, just one kick, I knew I'd been badly injured, maybe
mortally. The pain was grave, more of a deep sickening feeling. My mind
floated free of my body as if I were a spectator, not a participant. I was
beyond pain.

Sometime the next day the guards untied me, and I sprawled on the bloody
floor, red fluid oozed out of every opening in my body. I had no strength to
sit or stand; I just sort of unrolled. In spite of my sorry state, I did not
want to look undignified, so I tried to get up. I managed to crawl to a
corner and sit leaning against the wall, trying desperately to gather my

We spent the next three days working on the war-crimes confession, but the
guards would wave whatever I wrote in my face and scream that it wasn't
satisfactory. Were they seeing through my innuendos and double meanings? I
could feel myself starting to panic as I could feel my last remaining
defenses slipping.

The demands increased now to a taped confession. Somehow I still found the
strength to refuse -- perhaps a little bit too resolutely, because they
reverted to the hard stuff again. I was having trouble remembering those
precious resistance techniques I had been taught so many light years ago. I
started making a tape, pushing my sluggish brain to come up with ideas to
show acceptable submissiveness to my wards yet useless for propaganda. My
attempts were not convincing, so the torture continued. I told my self just
to make it one more day, and then just one more. ...  Anyone trained in such
affairs knows that constant torture can make captives reach a point where
they can't maintain mental equilibrium, and my captors knew it too. They
could break me, and I was becoming frantic, fearing my strength would not

Then, they stopped -- just like that. Some weeks had gone by, and perhaps
they had other business. Maybe they figured I might not make it. Although
they had murdered prisoners, I believe most of my colleagues who died were
accidentally tortured to death. The North Vietnamese knew they could not win
the war militarily, but they might succeed if they garnered world sympathy.
It would be difficult for them to look good if too many POWs "died in
captivity." But I came pretty close, as did many of my mates.

My immediate challenge was to recover from the kidney and chest injuries
from that wild night of "kick the Yankee." My entire body was bloated, my
eye sockets two puffy slits. You could stick your finger into me up to your
knuckle and pull it out leaving a hole that would slowly fill with fluid.
Myron didn't recognize me at first when I was thrown back in our cell.  He
set my broken ribs with his fingertips and used our shirts to bind my chest.
Occasionally the ribs w ould click out of place, and he would reset them.
But it didn't take long after I was on the mend for the torture sessions to

As I grew more and more weary, I had to cope with one of the most corrosive
elements of the human spirit -- hate. Hate is a terrible distraction, a
horribly destructive human enterprise.  Hate invades the consciousness when
the mind's reasoning power fades. Hate is a way we assign blame for our
plight when our faith weakens and our resolve becomes clouded. Pain
intensifies hate, making us want to strike out at something.

I stumbled into this blackness and, with vivid flashes of bitter invectives,
cursed everything I had held sacred. I bathed in self-pity and resolved all
my sufferings with the most wicked solutions. Although I drew some strength
from hate, I finally realized I was drawing it from the devil. I journeyed
into the lowest point in my life. And then I was truly exhausted.

I "came to" after a particularly horrific torture session, alone, lying on a
stone floor, more naked than clothed, bruised, filthy, gaunt, and panting in
little puppy breaths. I felt surprisingly free of pain and acutely aware of
every inch of my surroundings. I knew I wasn't very healthy, and I was
startled at how my body looked like a bag of leftover chicken bones.

My knees looked huge compared to the rest of my scrawny legs. Lying on my
side, I could place a fist between my thighs and touch only air. But I
didn't hurt anywhere. I thought maybe I was dead. I thought about many, many
things as I lay there almost motionless for days. I prayed and prayed and
prayed. ...

Finally the cell door peephole quietly opened and an eyeball squinted into
the darkness. Then it was gone. A few minutes later the heavy wooden door
opened with a clanging of keys and sliding bolts. An enamel plate skittered
across the floor and halted just short of my slowly blinking eyes. On it was
a mound of raw salt crystals piled on top of some rice. "The salt is for
beriberi," the voice said, and the door banged shut.

I thought for a moment: Does he mean the salt will give me beriberi or
prevent it?  I chuckled to myself. My feeble attempt at humor was an elixir.
Even though I would spend several more years as a guest of Uncle Ho, I knew
I was over the hump. Humor, faith and mental focus would allow me to endure.
I felt human, mentally whole and refreshed.

Maybe there is something to that old saying about pain purifying, but I
would not prescribe the treatment.

© Copyright 2017 Alexander The Alchemist. All rights reserved.


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