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The Son Tay Prison Rescue Mission
By Benjamin F. Schemmer
BALLANTINE BOOKS Son Tay Prison
Copyright © 2002 Benjamin F. Schemmer.
All rights reserved.
In North Vietnam early in 1970, Air Force Captain Wes Sehierman was fighting for his life in a cold, dingy, cramped prison just west of a small town called Son Tay Citadel. For weeks he had been gasping for every breath of air. His fellow prisoners watched him "almost die" several times, unable to help him, outraged when the guards ignored their cries to get him a medic.
The men at Son Tay had learned that flying over North Vietnam was not an easy way to earn a living. So had hundreds of other POWs held captive elsewhere in North Vietnam.
Navy Lieutenant (j.g.) Everett Alvarez, Jr., was the first American to find out what a North Vietnamese prison was like. His A-46 jet light attack aircraft was one of two planes shot down in 1964 during the August 5 retaliatory strikes over Haiphong Harbor ordered by President Johnson after the Tonkin Gulf incidents. As Southeast Asia exploded into a full-scale but undeclared war in 1965, air strikes over the north mounted rapidly, averaging about 70 planes a day. So did the number of planes shot down and Americans taken prisoner. By the end of that year, 60 American pilots and 3 air reservemen were held captive. They were the "lucky" ones. Most of the aircrews in planes that were shot down, almost one plane every other day in the north, never lived to see the inside of a NorthVietnamese prison. In 1966, 223 planes a day were hitting the northbut the North Vietnamese had built up the heaviest air defenses ever seen in the world and their gunners shot down an American airplane about eight out of every ten days. That year, 84 more Americans found themselves in "Heartbreak Hotel," that part of Hoa Lo Prison, the huge old French jail in downtown Hanoi, where North Vietnam took new captives for their first weeks of interrogationand torture. Hoa Lo was aptly namedin Vietnamese, it meant "the place of the cooking fires."
By the end of 1967, air strikes over North Vietnam were averaging close to 300 planes a day. And almost daily, one of them fell mortally crippled from the skies over Hanoi, Haiphong, or the Vietnamese panhandle above the Demilitarized Zone. Despite heroic efforts, search and rescue (SAR) helicopter crews were able to recover less than 13 percent of the airmen shot down during this entire period. Pilots who bailed out over the sea, between Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin and Dixie Station off the northern part of South Vietnam, stood a much better chance of being rescued. So did airmen shot down over land in South Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. But the odds were not very good over North Vietnam. Chances were almost nine to one that pilots who got "smoked" there would dieor end up a prisoner.
Every other day that year of 1967, the most intensive and costly of the air war in the north, another American airman was taken prisoner. By the time President Johnson ordered a total bombing halt over the north on October 31, 1968, 143 more planes had been shot down and 197 more Americans had been thrown into North Vietnamese prisons. Somewhere outside those prisons, and possibly in them, another 917 Americans were missing in action. In all, North Vietnam had bagged 927 planes and 345 prisoners by late 1968 when flights over the north were limited to reconnaissance sorties.
Many of the men shot down over North Vietnam were in grave trouble before they even hit the ground. Under normal circumstances, over 90 percent of crewmen who have to bail out of an airplane land uninjured. Over North Vietnam, it was a different story. Seven of every ten men who lived to tell what happened suffered injuries so severe when they ejected that they were incapable of even trying to escape or evade capture after they hit the ground.
Flying under great stress in skies full of exploding flak, missiles and small arms fire, already drained of reserve energy after a flight to the target that had lasted over an hour, sometimes two hours, these men were pushing their planes, and themselves, to the outer boundary of safe "design limits." Many of the planes were flying at 400 knots or faster when their crews had to eject. In some cases, the planes were in a dangerous nose-down attitude, screaming toward impact with the ground. In other cases, they were also rolling, tumbling out of controlor just plain disintegrating. Sometimes traveling at supersonic speeds, the men had to strain against four to eight times the force of gravity, their bodies pressed against their seats or the sides of the cockpit as they struggled to eject.
Ejection seats ("life support systems," as airplane designers call them) were not designed very well for those extreme conditions. Once a crew member pulled or pushed the eject handle, he was supposed to be shot out of the airplane (usually by a 37mm cannon shell beneath the seat) into a "smooth ballistic trajectory" until his parachute opened automatically and the seat fell comfortably away while he prepared for a parachute landing. It didn't happen that way in North Vietnam. Ten percent of the men reported extreme difficulty in even locating or activating their ejection controls. Others found it impossible to get "squared away" in their seats when the time came to "punch out." Improperly positioned to eject, 40 percent of the men experienced "flailing"spinning through the air out of control, a tumbling mass of arms and legs torn by near-supersonic forces.
Fighter-bomber pilots were supposed to fly with their shoulder straps "locked," to restrain them in their seats even under heavy gravity forces. But most of the aircrews over North Vietnam loosened those shoulder strapsso they could relax a bit on the long flight, bend over their backseat radar scopes, read the bomb sights better as they rolled into the target, or look over their shoulders to check for enemy MIGs. Once their planes were hit, there was too little time to actuate the locking mechanism that tightened their shoulder straps and positioned their bodies to eject. Twenty percent of the men broke their elbows and arms or knees on the sides of their cockpits, or suffered other "major injuries" because American technology had not devised a way for those shoulder straps to be pulled taut automatically a split second or two before the ejection charge went off.
The men who had been injured during ejection had no hope of evading their captors. Even those who ejected and landed safely were usually captured very quickly. They were robust, tall, very white or very black Americans and they were very conspicuous in a land of 21 million short, thin Orientals. It took North Vietnam only three weeks to pick up the longest evadee. A Navy pilot, he decided to head inland instead of toward the coast, hoping to reach a friendly CIA outpost on the Laotian border. But the North Vietnamese found his flight helmet and tracked him down with flogs. It took them only 12 days to nail the second-longest evadee, Colonel George E. Day. He was a forty-year-old "half blind" F-100 pilot who lost his eyeglasses when he ejected on August 26, 1967. But he escaped soon after being captured, even though his right arm was broken in three places, his left knee badly sprained and his body numb with pain from his initial torture. He almost made it across the Demilitarized Zone. How he thrashed about the rice paddies and stumbled through the hills and jungle of North Vietnam that long before being caught again was something even he can't explain, except that he wanted to get home "very badly."
Captured quickly, their bodies broken and Needing before they hit the ground, pummeled by irate, overexuberant villagers worked into a frenzy of hate by local political cadres, spat upon and beaten on their way into Hanoi's Heartbreak Hotel, the Americans were ill-prepared for what followed.
Torture of the most inhuman, crudest kind. It wasn't sophisticated. It just hurtbeyond comprehension, beyond the limit of human endurance. The most common form was going "on the ropes." After their initial interrogation periods, when most prisoners were beaten savagely but gave only the "name, rank and serial number" required by the Geneva Convention, these debilitated men found their captors impatientbut effective. Their arms were bound behind them until wrists, then elbows, touched. A rope was looped through the bonds, pulled up behind their necks, strong over a hook or bolt in the ceiling, and pulled taut until their arms were raised behind their backs to the point where their shoulders were often literally pulled out of their sockets.
The men were left to hang there. Until they talked. Some held out for a week or ten days.
Once a prisoner talked, he was finally fed. A typical meal was a bowl of insipid pumpkin or cabbage soup. Often it was infested with vermin. For one four-month period, the prisoners' diet consisted of two bowls daily of unspiced, boiled cabbage soup240 consecutive bowls of it, nothing else. Diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy, beriberi, and hepatitis were forever present in the bare, unventilated cellblocks.
Hoa Lo Prison was the "Devil's Island of Southeast Asia." Built by the French 40 years earlier, it was known intimately by many of North Vietnam's highest officials. Some of them had been imprisoned there as long as 10 to 12 years, by the French and then the Japanese.
The prison stank. Years of urine, blood, vomit, and feces permeated every crevice. Rats and long flying cockroaches were Hoa Lo's real landlords; the North Vietnamese guards were just the caretakers. Mice, spiders and ants were all over, mosquitoes so profuse that one prisoner said of his first night there, "The insects nearly carried me off." American POWs dubbed Hoa Lo the "Hanoi Hilton."
Other parts of Hoa Lo were filled with North Vietnamese civilian convicts. Some were children only fourteen years old. When they were brought into the courtyards for "exercise," the Americans could see through their cell windows that many of the children were chained together.
Rules for the POWs were strict: no whistling, singing, or talking. Just silence. As the prisoners tried to communicate, they learned quickly that their captors spent much of the time looking for excuses to punish them. Catching the men communicating was a favorite excuse.
The 345 Americans held prisoner by 1970 had bailed out in the prime of their lives. The "average" POWif the word "average" can be used for men who were to endure what they didwas only about thirty-two years old, a captain in the Air Force or a Navy lieutenant, married and the father of two young children. About 85 percent of them had flown more than 15 missions over the north when their "number came up."
One of the unluckiest prisoners of all was Captain Richard P. "Pop" Keirn, shot down on July 24, 1965, the seventh Air Force crewman bagged in the Vietnam War. A B-17 copilot in World War II, Keirn had been shot down on his eighteenth mission over Germany and spent nine months as a POW. An F-46 pilot in Vietnam, he was shot down on his eleventh mission in Southeast Asia. Keirn experienced almost ten years as a prisoner of war. After his release in 1973, he would joke that the Air Force had become much smarter; it was impossible, he said, to find a pilot dumb enough to fly with him. Asked to compare captivity in Southeast Asia with his experience in World War II, Keirn said, "Captivity in Germany was rough, but at least I was treated like a human being. Captivity in North Vietnam was unreal, unbelievable, not of this world."
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Risner became a prisoner on September 16, 1965, while flying an F-105 over the north. A Korean war ace with 109 combat missions and eight MIGs, he had been shot down over North Vietnam six months earlier but managed to make it to the coast and bail out over the water. An SA-16 flying boat plucked him out of the water while the other planes in Risner's flight strafed the North Vietnamese boats rushing from shore to capture him. The crew which saved him was on its first combat rescue mission and could barely get its plane airborne.
Time magazine wrote up the mission; Risner's picture was on the cover. When he was shot down again, he came "to regret that Time had ever heard of me." The more senior a prisoner was, the more "famous" or the more important, the more impatient the North Vietnamese were to break him, to have him confess his "crimes against the North Vietnamese people" in front of visiting peace groups or foreign newsmen, to hammer him into submission as an example to other prisoners that there was no use resisting because their senior officers had already talked.
Risner was to spend seven and a half years in captivity. The "distinctive character of imprisonment in North Vietnam," he would report, "was the suffocating monotony.... Bodies built for movement were confined to closetlike boxes. Active minds were forced to be idle with the numbing nothingness of four walls in a dingy little cell. Men trained to fly sophisticated machines at incredible speeds and breathtaking heights were caged like animals.... But worse than that, no people to be close to."
Navy Lieutenant John M. McGrath had a rough bailout when his A4-C was shot down on his 179th mission in Southeast Asia. By the time he hit the ground, his left arm was broken and badly dislocated; he also had two fractured vertebrae and a broken left knee. In their haste to rip off his boots, the North Vietnamese militiamen who captured him hyperextended his broken knee six times; en route to Hanoi, frenzied villagers twisted his injured leg and dislocated the same knee. McGrath was "sure" he would not reach Hanoi alive. He didbut soon wished he had died. During his initial interrogation, the North Vietnamese dislocated both his right shoulder and right elbow. They denied him medical treatment, but when he begged them to shoot him, he was told, "No, you are a criminal! You haven't suffered enough."
The men suffered.
Their families suffered almost as much. It's hard for a woman not to know whether she's a wife or a widow, for a son or daughter not to know if their father is dead or alive. It happened not to just a few hundred, but to thousands of families. For every 12 men who were killed in Southeast Asia, there was another man listed as a POW or MIA. At one time or another, 3,307 American families had a husband, father, or son who was either "missing in action" or held as a "prisoner of war." Three years after the Paris peace agreements that terminated American involvement in Vietnam, fewer than one in four of these men had been accounted for.
Carroll Flora's wife was typical of those kept in limbo so long, not knowing if a husband was alive or dead. Sergeant First Class Carroll Flora became missing in action on July 21, 1967, during an Army Special Forces night action. For six years, his wife didn't know if he had been killed, captured, or was still trying to evade capture in the jungles and hills of Laos. She never received one letter from him, or he from her. On Saturday, January 29, 1973, 2,017 days after he was listed as MIA, the North Vietnamese released his name in Paris as one of the prisoners who would be returned home. Flora was only one of 53 men released about whom North Vietnam had given out no information whatsoever during the entire time they were held prisoner.
Some families knew that a husband or father had been captured or seen in prison, but never got a letter from him or knew if he was getting theirs. Even though North Vietnam eased many restrictions on POW mail from 1970 to 1973, 95 of the 566 prisoners released in 1973 had never received a letter from home; 80 families had never received a letter from the prisoner.
For still other POW/MIA families, there was the agony of knowing that a husband or son had been taken captive but was seriously wounded, and that North Vietnamese medical treatment was primitive and torture frequent. Of every 100 men taken prisoner, 11 were to die in captivity. The Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., lived with this kind of agony for five and a half years. His son, John S. McCain III, a Navy attack pilot, was shot down over Hanoi on October 26, 1967, just three months before his father was named to command all of the Army, Navy, Marine, and Air forces prosecuting the Vietnam War. Young McCain was known to have been seriously wounded when his plane was hit. His wingman saw the North Vietnamese fish him out of a lake in downtown Hanoi, apparently unconscious. In August of 1969, two prisoners who were released early by North Vietnam reported that McCain was near death, tortured beyond the believable limit of human endurance. He had been given only enough medical care to stay alive, sometimes in a semicomatose state, and had been held in solitary for the past 15 months.
Excerpted from THE RAID by Benjamin F. Schemmer. Copyright © 2002 by Benjamin F. Schemmer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.