POW share their experiences so others learn

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
Published Sept. 5, 2014

Second in a series, this article is a composite of many reports.

So, why were the Hanoi Hilton prisoners so resilient during and following their imprisonment?  A variety of studies concluded that their faith, in each other, in the nation and in their beliefs gave them optimism in the face of death and immeasurable pain. 

People might also say the prisoners held at the Hilton had a slight advantage because they were generally more educated and mature than the average U.S. service member fighting in Vietnam.  Many were pilots and crew members who relied heavily on their survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) training. Not many escaped, but the great majority survived to lead successful lives.

Lt. Cmdr. Bob Shumaker became the second U.S. pilot shot down over Vietnam Feb. 11, 1965.  He was taken to the Hanoi Hilton and held in isolation.  As more American prisoners arrived, they were also isolated.  Shumaker wondered how they could communicate and support each another. Notes and whispers were attempted, but both were often detected and the prisoners were severely punished.  According to numerous reports, a “tap society” evolved and was primarily how prisoners communicated. 

By August 1965, most of the prisoners had been initiated into the “society” and were communicating by tapping on cell walls to fellow prisoners. "The building sounded like a den of runaway woodpeckers," recalled former Air Force Capt. Ron Bliss, who was imprisoned for more than six years. 

Navy pilot James Stockdale was the senior commander at the Hilton and later retired from the Navy as a vice admiral. He wrote in his book Love and War: "Our tapping ceased to be just an exchange of letters and words; it became conversation. Elation, sadness, humor, sarcasm, excitement, depression -- all came through." 

They often found humor in coming up with abbreviations, a necessity forced by time constraints. "Passing on abbreviations like conundrums got to be a kind of game," Stockdale said. "What would ST mean right after GN?  Sleep tight, of course.  And DLTBBB?”  Stockdale said he laughed to think what their friends back home would think: two fighter pilots standing at a wall, checking for shadows under the door, pecking out a final message for the day with their fingernails: “Don't let the bedbugs bite."

One POW said that at the risk of their lives, two fellow prisoners gave him the means to communicate using the tap code.  He said these “conversations” were how he was able to retain his pride and his sanity through two years of solitary confinement.

Prisoners warned each other about the worst guards, what to expect in interrogations, encouraged each other not to break, and offered consolation and hope when they eventually did break.

Each man would break – they all understood this, but they didn’t give in easily. 

Navy pilot Harry Jenkins refused to give up what his father did for a living.  Once he gave in, he knew the interrogators would only want more information.  Jenkins passed out several times during consecutive torture sessions before he finally said that his father grows flowers.  At one point, the six-foot-five man was hung from his wrists – with his hands tied behind his back – from a meat hook. 

Every day, for years, the torture was constant and the living conditions were horrific. The prisoners said they found ways to remain strong and true.

Cmdr. Jerry Denton was hauled before TV cameras by the North Vietnamese and blinked “t-o-r-t-u-r-e” in Morse code on the air.

Many prisoners thought of themselves as traitors because the guards bested them physically. By communicating with others they learned differently.  They were brought into a “game” of trying to frustrate the guards as much as possible.  And, when they finally did break from torture, they lied. 

It was the only form of combativeness allowed them in that circumstance, said Air Force pilot David Gray.  Shot down in 1967, Gray spent more than six years at various prison camps.  He said many prisoners made up stories during torture so they could survive.

Their sense of optimism didn’t just help them survive imprisonment. It’s likely what helped the released prisoners leave behind the extreme trauma and live productive lives, according to the findings of a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress by the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies in Pensacola, Florida.  Over a 40-year period, the center evaluated more than 400 former prisoners of the Vietnam War.

The study found that faith (hope and optimism) were stronger predictors of resilience than the level of trauma, such as type and severity of torture, a prisoner received. 

One example of this is an Army Cobra Attack Helicopter pilot who was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese.  He endured a three-month journey on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Hanoi Hilton, a trip that nearly cost him his life many times.

Retired Col. William Reeder, Jr., Ph.D., told his story to a young Soldier 30 years ago and continued throughout his life to share important experiences with Soldiers.  He tells them that the Army today is much better than the Army that fought in Vietnam because of factors such as SERE training and Soldiers’ education levels.  Read “I couldn’t give up” on page 14, for more about Reeder’s experience as it was told 30 years ago.

Read first part of series here: http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Media/NewsStories/tabid/6070/Article/494257/from-a-pow-wristband-a-journey-surfaces-with-many-twists.aspx