Interview with Robinson Risner, 1981
Robinson Risner was an Air Force pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was held for over seven years and was repeatedly tortured. He relates his story of being shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese, and then the ordeal of his imprisonment and torture in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp. General Risner recalls his feelings during the “Christmas Bombing” and upon hearing of the peace negotiations, and toward the anti-war protesters in the United States.
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements--United States, Treaties, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Mass media and the war, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Motion pictures and the war, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Prisoners and prisons, United States--History, Military--20th century, United States--History--1945-, Village communities, Chieftains, Questioning, Torture, Drug abuse, Communism, Propaganda, Communist, Vietnamese reunification question (1954-1976), Cold War, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Aerial operations, American, Radio, Military, Military ethics, Photographs, War and family, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, United States. Air Force
Risner's activities in 1981
Vietnam/T 876 #2800
Shooting Date: 3/31/81, location: Austin, Texas, DARE Office
Shooting Date: 3/31/81, location: Austin, Texas, DARE Office
Could you tell me your name?
My name is Robinson Risner, I’m currently a resident of Austin, Texas and have been here for four years. Before that, home of record...some medicine into the POW's. And he said, oh, we’d be happy to have you, and all of them know Ross Perot. He is the personification of the capitalist, you see.
And I said we'd be happy to have you, but you’d have to get permission from the Russians to overfly. He said alright. So he walked right up the street a block away, or so, didn't stop or anything, just walked up to him. And then the Russian Embassy and said the same thing to them, they said we'd be happy to have you overfly our territory.
All you'd need to do is get permission from the Vietnamese, which he already have. And then started this game of chess. Then they found out, you know, a week went by, or a day or something, and they found out that he'd gotten both permission and then the story of how they put obstacles in his way and how he overcame them, you know, till the last day, and the last hour, he even called Brezhnev at home and got him on person to person.
That really upset the Russian Embassy in Sweden, where he was at last. And he said, Didn't you know, Mr. Pro, that you are never going to get in. He said, Ya, I knew that. But he said, What I didn't know is that I have over a hundred correspondents on board these two airplanes, and we have received more press coverage in the last thirty days than I could have bought with $35 million.
And you know our plight started to change immediately after that. He’s the guy, that Clements, Gov. Clements, asked to head a committee to address the entire drug abuse program. A problem. And he being a friend of mine called me off of retirement and asked me to take the job as executive director of a foundation formed to be the action arm of this committee, and that’s what I am.
So you work out programs dealing with schools and youngsters, or what?
Mainly with parents right now. We're finding this is the most effective means to preclude drug abuse among adolescents is to get the parent to acknowledge the problem, to become educated as to the problem, to recognize symptoms, to understand what their kids are going through, the peer pressure that exists. Once we get this all done, we've got a highly motivated crowd of people, and they're popping up like popcorn all over the state of Texas.
Political and military objectives in Vietnam during the war
Okay, let’s move. We are [inaudible] are we?
Right. Okay, let's try that. Okay.
Rolling. Scene 1, Take 1.
General, I'd like for you to tell me first of all, what year you got involved in the Vietnam war, how you got involved, what you thought about it in the early days.
In 1964 I left the staff of the Commander in Chief Pacific in Hawaii and took an assignment as a squadron commander, which I had held two or three times previously, but it was a grand and glorious job and I loved it, and I love to fly fighters. I went to Okinawa then as a squadron commander and I was stationed there when the Vietnam fracas broke out.
And so, on the first strikes into North Vietnam I was sent temporary duty with my organization to ah participate, and I flew the first time out of Da Nang. And we struck an arsenal or a dump, ammunition dump. And then I was down there on short tours of only a couple of months at a time after that, several times, flying out of Korat, Thailand.
But it was a natural setup. We were over there. We were highly combat ready. We believed that the North Vietnamese, who were Communists led by the old atheist dictator, Ho Chi Minh, wanted to take over the rest of Southeast Asia. In other words, his doctrine was the same as Mao Tse Tung's and all of the rest of the militant Communists.
We didn't want this to happen. Those were our friends, we had some sort of pact with the South Vietnamese rulers. And ah since we were highly qualified combat people, it was only natural that we would want to go, and we were highly motivated, and ah, when we were down there, we did the very best job we could. In fact, ah, it was kind of amusing. Guys were doing everything in order to get on the flight schedule, in order to be on a combat mission.
It wasn't the type of thing that people were pretending to be sick or something. It was just the other way, people would fly while they were sick, or anyway, just to get on the schedule, to go up and participate in something that we believed in very strongly. The freedom of a nation that were our friends, the freedom of a nation that couldn't determine that freedom by themselves. And so, I believed very strongly in what I was doing over there, it was simply to protect an emerging nation from the clutches of militant Communism.
Did you have any thought about the Vietnamese as people, what did you...?
Well, I wasn't intimately familiar with their culture, their habits, when I first went over there. I'm sad to say that we hadn't studied that part of the country extensively. But I learned very quickly. I had friends there in Vietnam, not many, and I also absorbed some of their culture.
I understood about the 1954 division when the French was pushed out of there by the Communists, and I felt the South Vietnamese had a right to their own self-determination. And I was over there to help them to maintain that self-determination.
Risner's capture by the North Vietnamese
General, I wonder if we could move on to your capture when you were down. What happened immediately before, and what happened afterwards?
When I was shot down, well the second time I guess. The first time I was shot down, I recovered at sea about two or three miles off shore. And a lot of the North Vietnamese boats had a great deal of interest in me, and I had about thirteen airplanes from my force overhead, and they were using me as a decoy, you might say, and they were just having a ball just shooting these boats out of the water.
So I got back safely, and was back in combat the next day, flying the next day. But the second time I was shot down I was about ten miles north of the provincial capital of Thanh Hoa. On that particular mission I went to the briefing about 2:30 in the morning, because we had a nine o'clock time over target, and it took a lot of time to get ready, and we had all weather and intelligence, and classified briefings, and so forth. So when I arrived, I wasn't on the schedule.
My operations officer, second in command, had not even put me on and he was flying. So, I was there before he was, and I simply took his name off the list and put myself on. I replaced him. And I was to rue that day for a long time. So that morning our mission was to hunt and destroy five surface to air missile sites, a complex each one of them. And we were to go in I briefed the mission. We were to go in very low and very fast.
I'm talking about ten or fifteen feet, six hundred miles per hour. And that was to stay below the radar screen and also to preclude oral warnings of bells or whatever they used up there. Well, that particular day didn't prove to be too successful. Before I quite arrived at my target I was flying about ten feet above the ground and was doing about ah six hundred, and came to a small rise in the ground, a small hill, and I was going right up Route 1 North from Thanh Hoa.
I had to raise up to go over the hill just a little, and when I did I was receiving automatic weapons fire right down my nose from some fixed positions, and I never quite even reached my target. And they just shot me to pieces. I took some rounds down the intake, my engine blew up, I had fire and smoke in the cockpit, I couldn't see outside, nor could I see my instruments.
And it had all happened very rapidly, but we had been so highly trained that everything goes by reflex action, you might say. So I did all the right things and I did them in quick succession, and as I started a climbing turn towards the water, which was three miles to my right, I was headed north, I could see the sea. And I thought once more, I'm going to make it. I had also told my fellow pilots, the men in my squadron, two things.
One was that I had no intention of being captured, and that I would ride it till it blew up, if necessary. I would rather be blown out of the air than to be captured. And number two, is even if I were down on the ground, had to bail out, that I still wouldn't be captured alive as long as I had a means to resist.
So I had equipped myself with a number of items, such as two weapons on my person and eight hundred rounds of ammunition. And I intended to keep that. Well on that particular day I remember I only gained a little altitude before my engine quit and perhaps a second later my controls burned in two. And when this happened the stick came back in my lap and it was limp, there was nothing to tie to and my airplane, at that time, pitched over.
The only way I could tell it pitched over is that it pinned me against the top, or the canopy, and then I reached around until I could find the proper handle, which I pulled, and it blew my canopy off, and then I ejected myself. And the moment my parachute opened I looked up to see, because I was going quite fast, to see if I'd blown any panels out, if I were going to hit the ground very hard.
And as quick as I looked down to the ground my plane had already hit the ground and was in flames. And so I was quite low. And then I looked around a bit, and the gunfire was just thunderous. It was a frightening sound. I'd never heard so much gunfire. And they were shooting at my wing man, who was circling me, contrary to my orders before takeoff, if anyone of you shot down, the wing men get out over the water because there's no chance of rescue up that far north.
And the only thing you can do is to get out and stand up. But, he was just circling me to see what was happening, and I was afraid they were going to shoot him down and probably blow my parachute up. And so I grabbed my emergency radio out of a pocket in my survival vest and pulled this antenna out and began to shout for him to get out of there and get out over the water.
And I looked at the ground and I was so close to hitting I just jammed the radio back into the pocket, and when I did I tangled the wire over a strap. Well, when I hit the ground, I could see people running from every direction to be on hand to welcome me. And I wasn't looking forward to that. I also saw a little crest of rock that I might be able to make and then hold them off until a helicopter could get to me. It was a kind of a last ditch hope.
So when I hit the ground, I hit on the side of a dike quite high, and took a very bad tumble, and I released my parachute just as I was supposed to. And then I jumped up to run, I was in deep rice, and in a rice paddy that had about a foot of water and mud in it. And when I jumped up to run, I was jerked flat on my back.
I was tangled in my survival kit, and it weighed about 90 pounds, I suppose. It was part of my seat originally. And, I quickly grabbed at my knife, I had a hunting knife sewed to the back of my G-suit. I was going to cut myself loose. Well when I tried to get the knife loose, a piece of parachute cord, 2,000 pounds tensile strength, tied in a knot.
Sorry, just run that, very good.
Begin camera roll 801
Could you carry on the story. You've just seen the ground. What happened?
When I looked down after my chute had opened, the plane had hit the ground and was in flames, and I was very low. And I grabbed my emergency radio out to talk to my wing man and tell him to get out of the area because the gunfire was just thunderous, it was rather frightening. And I looked at the ground, I could see people running from everywhere to be on hand to greet me, and they were not people that I would normally like to meet on the ground. There were militia, gun crews and villagers.
And then I saw I was very close to the ground I quickly jammed my radio back into the pocket, and when I did I had wrapped the electrical cord around a part of my parachute harness, so that when I hit the ground I took a very bad tumble down the side of a rice paddy dike, and I pulled the ligaments in my right knee very badly. And then I jumped up to run for a rock outcropping that I thought I might make in order to hold them off until a chopper could come in a pick me up, a helicopter.
But when I jumped up, I was jerked rudely back to my back and found I was tangled to the survival kit which weighed about 90 pounds. I grabbed for my knife, which I had carried on the back of my leg, and it was tethered to my leg with an additional cord, high tensile strength, and when I jerked the cord it came into a hard knot. And so I grabbed one of my pistols, cocked it, and it was a pistol that I had worked on personally, it was a new weapon and I had bore-sided it, I had fired it, I knew it, I was very familiar with it.
But I had also operated on the sear pan to make the trigger pull very light, so that it required hardly any pressure at all. I cocked it and stood up ready to make a fight, and when I did, when my head emerged above the rice in the rice paddy, I looked right down a gun bore. And I didn't have my gun aimed at this guy, so I had to make a decision.
Am I going to make a fight because this guy already had a gun right in my head, and I changed my mind. I remember telling the guys I would never be captured, but I changed my mind and I dropped the gun without uncocking it. I ground it in the mud with my feet hoping they wouldn't find it. But an old one eyed villager had seen it, seen me with it, saw me drop it.
He came up, and while they were forcing me to kneel and tie my arms very painfully behind me, he searched around until he found it. And then he picked it up and I remember still the water and the mud dripping from it. And he put the barrel between my eyes and I watched his finger, as almost as if I were fascinated or hypnotized, and I watched his finger curl around trigger guard knowing full well he didn't know how finely tuned that trigger was.
And that was the only time out of my entire prison career that I ever wondered for even a millisecond if I were coming back alive or not. But an old chieftain, I found out that night, reached over this man's shoulder and grasped his hand and the hammer and took the gun away from him, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. And that was my capture.
What happened to your village, base, goodness knows what? What happened, I wonder if you could just change the size for me. What actually happened then? The gun's been taken away from you. You're still with us.
What were the next few hours like?
Well, they tied me very tightly. I made some signs, I groaned very loudly, and they loosened the bindings a little bit. And then they took me to a nearby hut. And then the potential rescue planes began to come onto the scene and circle overhead, and this frightened the villagers. They quickly took me outside, took me into a cane field and tied me to a tree.
And there I spent two or three hours very uncomfortable, and the gnats and insects eating on me and my hands were tied, I couldn't fend them off. But they were afraid the airplanes would see them. They were very uneducated, unsophisticated when it comes to knowing about modern equipment. Could I break here for a moment?
My nose itches so terribly.
You say the planes were overhead and the villagers were plainly worried.
Yes. They seemed to act like, that even from 30,000 feet, those pilots could actually see them down there in the undergrowth. And of course, that's impossible. You couldn't see a tiny figure of a man. But, they were very apprehensive. Any time an American plane would come over they would run for cover.
So I remained tied up until about dark, and I kept wishing those airplanes would bug off and leave me in my misery, because it would have been nicer, you know. Of course, they were attempting to locate me. I had managed to cut or get one of the villagers to cut the cord to my radio before they had tied me up, and thus destroyed their capability of decoying the airplanes down.
So they then took me to a hut nearby and they began to go through all of my belongings. And they stripped me down to nothing and then gave me some peasants. Well, stripped me down to my underwear. And gave me peasant's pajamas to put on, which were threadbare and cut off at the knees. They took everything. And then they allowed me to lie on a bunk, a wooden platform, and even put a mosquito net down around me.
And, ah, they were going through my things and they were inventorying my gun, my ammunition, my barter material, everything I had. And I was watching them. They found my hideout gun. It was a little .25 Beretta. And they were very intrigued they were very intrigued by the fact that I had all this ammunition and the two guns. While they were inventorying I went to sleep, and I slept for a while.
And since that time I noticed that, perhaps it is not unique, but I do have the capability, under high stress conditions, I can go to sleep. This is a defense mechanism, I feel. And so I went to sleep and slept for a couple of hours. When I woke up it was totally dark and they had a candle going, and I, I walked that night even though I was practically incapacitated.
I dragged one leg and walked, oh, long hours that night until a truck met us. And then I spent two or three more nights. Only at night was I moved by truck until I arrived at Hanoi several days later in the morning. And I, they took me out of the back of the truck finally and put me up in the cab so that a guard wouldn't have to ride in the back.
And it was much more convenient for them, and of course, was much more comfortable for me, because I didn't bounce around like a BB. And the roads were cratered and it was very rough. And we arrived, I could see the roadside through my blindfold. They had me blindfolded and tied. But I could see through it, and they didn't know that. I could see Highway 1 the whole way.
I knew where I was, you know, basically. And then we arrived in Hanoi. And these two guys that took me there must have gotten out of the truck to go ask directions and left me sitting in that truck all by myself. And very curious people came up and stared in the windows, surrounded the truck.
One young guy that looked like a college student said, Yankee, go home. (Laughing) I thought, if I only could. So that was how I was captured and finally taken to the Hanoi Hilton in Hanoi.
End sound roll 1.
End sound roll 1.
Imprisonment and torture at the Hanoi Hilton
Side 2/Sound Roll 280.1 Take 5
Side 2/Sound Roll 280.1 Take 5
You're at the Hanoi Hilton. What happened?
When I arrived at the Hanoi Hilton I remember the truck stopped and there was a big clanging of gates. And we droved in, we drove in a driveway up an incline. I remember those gates closing. It was very ominous. Then they unloaded me and took me to a place that we later called the "acoustic room.” It was an interrogation cell. And they left me there for several hours.
No one came to check on me or anything, just left me in there. I heard a ping pong game going, and I thought well, this is not going to be so bad. I guess they are recognizing the Geneva Conventions, and we're allowed to be out in a courtyard, and it was a very pretty courtyard. We're going to be able to play games, and at that time I thought the war would be over by June of 1966.
This was '65. Because I had been in a briefing in Hawaii with the Commander in Chief Pacific when Mr. McNamara had been there, and I could almost quote what he said.
He told Admiral Felt, the Commander of the Chief Pacifiche said, Don't make any provisions, don't build any buildings, make no plans for this war to go on after June of 1966 because it will be over. I took that word with me into the prison. Of course, my credibility continued to drop after we were there several years.
But, I was to learn, to my astonishment, they did not recognize the Geneva Conventions when it came to us. They were a signatore, as was the United States.
But Ho Chi Minh went on public radio, I suppose you call it public radio, and made statements to the effect the Americans would be treated as pirates, and they would not receive the treatment prescribed by the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war. So, to my astonishment, we lived, or I lived, and many of the senior officers shared my plight, for the most time...
[Inaudible]…just ran out of film there...
...there was no one in my cell. I was alone. And I prayed silently. But I put it up to God in such a way there could be no mistake, couldn't have been a coincidence, not even one in a billion. You see: I did this on more than one occasion.
I had to have absolute proof that there was somebody hearing me, that I wasn't praying to a, a figment of my imagination, you see. I had to have that in order to stay alive, because I was going to die, I was going to kill myself. So I, that happened to me. And if we knew each other for a period of time, I could tell you the...
All I can see is that you are obviously a man with courage, you see, and I wonder how much is just that is your courage which you aren't...
Begin camera roll 803
Could you tell me about your interrogation?
I was, after being put into a interrogation cell...
After being put into an interrogation cell I was left entirely alone for several hours. And during that period of time I wondered if there was anyone close by. And so I began to sing, what was it, McNamara. My name is McNamara, I'm the leader of the band. I used this song.
And I said, and I was singing loud enough that my voice would carry out of the cell, you know, hoping someone would hear me, and I said, my name is Robbie Risner, I'm the leader of the group. Listen to my story and I'll give you all the poop. And so I shut up for a moment, and suddenly an American voice came back and said, This is..., and he told me his name. And so I had my first contact before interrogation started.
Now at that time that I was captured there was no torture going on. I was captured the 16th of September, 1965. And then, through some unique circumstances, I, maybe I helped perpetuate, or ah precipitate the torture, I don't know. I was then moved after a couple of weeks. Now, I had many interrogations in the two weeks I was there at the Hanoi Hilton.
But I was giving only name, rank, serial number and date of birth. I was, they tried to intimidate me. They brought in, I counted fourteen different interrogators. And one of them was a woman, and they would threaten me and tell me all kinds of things. But, of course, I kind of vacillated. I didn't believe them basically. But I knew they were capable of maybe executing us.
You know. And, ah, I didn't hold too much grief for me. I had made my peace before I, you know, before I even flew my missions. But, after a couple of weeks they moved me to a new camp. And there they began to interrogate me during the night, and the day, and tried to wear me down. But at that time there was no torture. Then one day I had a visitor. And they made me stand s—very tightly against the wall. The man came in.
And I'm not positive, but I think it was Vo Nguyen Giap, what do they call him, Minister of Defense, I suppose—the Commanding General. And he had a very thick neck. He was dressed in only a pair of slacks and a white shirt rolled up. And through the camp commander who spoke, we called him the Dog, we named each one of them, you know, spoke rather good English.
And he said you see, they had a dossier on me when I hit there, they had the Time Magazine that they presented to me and showed that they knew who I was. And in the interrogation they made a comment that I was to muse about after that for some time, he said, We know who you are, Robinson Risner. He said, Everyone in Vietnam knows.
You see, my picture on the Time Magazine said, with a banner across my chest, "Who's Fighting In Vietnam," and then a feature story. And I had come back to the United States and made a quick tour and had some press releases, and so forth, and basically told them what we were doing over there and I thought we were making a big impact on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the bringing in of the equipment to South Vietnam. So he said, We know who you are, Robinson Risner.
And I knew it when he said what he followed with, that he was only making a point. But he said, There's only three other people we had rather of captured than you, and that's Johnson, McNamara, and Rusk. And I thought, boy I'm pick'n in tall cotton, you know.
And I was to regret the fact that I was Robinson Risner during the period of time that I was in prison because they had pinned so much undue importance on the fact that I had received some publicity; that I was featured on Time Magazine cover, and that most every pilot who was shot down were fighter pilots and they all knew of me. And so when they were asked, "Do you know Robinson Risner?", they would all say, "Yes.” Well that just made me seem more important than I was, and so they constantly leaned on me.
So after the interrogations were over at that particular camp they moved me then to a place we named the Zoo. And there interrogations continued, but they got no place because there was no reason for me to give them more than name, rank, serial number and date of birth until finally they caught a piece of paper that had been written by one of the POW's that I was using kind of as an adjutant. He was next to me in another cell.
And I could tap through the wall to him and send messages out to the rest of the people in the camp. And he was, this was taken from him with bayonets. And it gave my name, it shouldn't of, should have used my code name, but someone had slipped up and it said Robbie on it, so my fortunes went down hill from there and they took me back to the Hanoi Hilton, put my legs in stocks, and I spent thirty-two days there in pretty primitive conditions.
They allowed me to live on my own body waste some of the time. For four or five days at a time I got no food or water. They were trying to weaken me, to make me give more than name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. Well, at the end of about thirty-two days they had brought me a bowl of green substance like alfalfa. And it was supposed to restore my body functions. I had lost control of my bowels and the urinary tract.
So by just being locked in those stocks all that time and not having very much to eat or drink, so I foun— I tried to write a message on the bottom of my pan, the little dish they'd brought the soup in. And the guard caught it. That night they came for me, they tortured me all night. They took me to, I won't go into the details, but during the night I would, I tried to endure the pain knowing that an American military man should be able to endure torture until he died, but never to give nothing to the enemy, never to give anything to the enemy.
And I tried my best. And my best wasn't good enough. And during the night I heard someone screaming in a distance. And I thought, man, they are torturing another prisoner. I felt so sorry for him, you know. And then I would come back more closely to consciousness and found that it was me I was hearing in the distance. I was the one that was doing the screaming. And they tortured me all night.
And by daylight they had reduced me to such a place that I would give them more than name, rank, serial number and date of birth. And they hurt me pretty bad. They pulled my shoulders out of joint, and did some things to my legs. But I found out that I was not as strong as I thought. I couldn't be tortured to death, that my will would give before my heart stopped beating. It was very disconcerting.
I lived in abject misery for the rest of the time I was a prisoner, knowing that I had not upheld the standards that I expected of everyone else. Certainly it did one thing. It made me a lot more compassionate to other PW's who might be called upon or forced to give more than name, rank, serial number and date of birth.
I appreciate your not wanting to go into great detail. But I wonder if you could just flush out a little bit of what torture. Was it just brutality, or was it systematic, or were implements used to get you, or was it shear physical torture?
The torture that was favored with the Vietnamese was what we called the rope trick, or getting bent. It was simply, now when they tortured me the first time they were less than scientific. I'm sure they did not intend to yank my shoulders out of joint, I don't know. Nor, and they damaged the nerves in my arms and hands for a considerable period of time.
They learned how to hurt you without damaging you sometime later. But on that particular, at that particular time they were just, they were trying to hurt me. That's all. They wanted to break my will. Certainly they bent me all out of shape, but they started with my wrists. And with me still in stocks they tied my wrists as tight as two men can tie it. Of course it bit right into the bone, the ropes they were using.
And then, when they got me to the torture chamber they had walked me around barefooted, and let me fall down stairs, and so forth, for a while and I was in sort of a battered condition. Then they started with my wrists with my arms behind my back and wrapped my arms together under the armpits. Well, the two arms were together. And they just pulled my shoulders out of joint, you know. There was that, and then they did some similar things to my legs.
I was in intense pain. Well, their favorite trick, now they became, as I said, more scientific after that- was to use the ropes in similar manner, but not pull the shoulders out of joint. They would simply tie your arms at the elbows where you have nerves exposed, slightly above the elbows. That was pain inducing by itself. They would tie your arms behind your back very tightly, sit you on the floor, cross your feet in front of you, run a rope from your bound arms across one shoulder and around your crossed feet and back across an opposite shoulder and through your bound arms.
Then with one guard bouncing on your shoulder blades with their knees, the other one would take up slack each time he bounced. Until your feet was firmly in your mouth or under your throat, and they would tie you and leave you. Well, the body was not meant to be a pretzel, and it protested.
Sorry. Awfully sorry.
Begin camera roll #804
I wonder, General, could you tell me the circumstances of the visits by the East German film trip, and what happened before, after and during.
There was a period of time when I was ill. I be— I was ill enough to become incoherent. I had been given a roommate at that time. This was to soften me up prepare me for a propaganda stunt they had planned, which I had no knowledge. So I had a roommate for four months and eleven days. A very young lieutenant who had been in the service only a short time, but anyone, now he was a wonderful companion ah I was so lonely.
I would have taken a snake or a rat, or anything to be mine, to have something. That's how lonely a person can get. I'd have taken a North Vietnamese gladly. But I had a roommate. And then I came down with a kidney stone, and they did nothing for me and there was a period of about ten days when I took no nourishment, food or water, and finally I became incoherent.
Then they took me someplace and they put a needle through my back into my kidney and gave me an injection. And ah evidently, it was effective and I recovered. And it was shortly after that that they took me into the interrogation room and then I met the Cat. The Cat was the top man who dealt with American prisoners, top Vietnamese. He was a vain person, but in kind of a subdued way, but he was intelligent.
He was always trying to make me feel that there was a certain relationship between us because we were commanders, and we were fighting men, even though we were on opposite sides there, and I quote him, could be "mutual respect." The only thing is that he was always after something, you see. And anytime he showed up I quaked, knowing that... So, when he showed up this time and he said...
End sound roll #2801
…disadvantage, nobody ever remembers when I do a program.
VIETNAM/T 876 (SYNC) Side 1 #2802, number three for this location.
You were telling me general that you always were fearful when you were called to an audience with the person you call the Cat because you knew he wanted something?
Yes. When the Cat appeared on the scene it was not for a good reason. Or, it was for a good reason as far as he was concerned but I anticipated grave results when he showed up because he wanted something and on this particular occasion he said he was going to let me and I quote him "talk to some of my fellows.” Well, my fellows normally meant prisoners of war, fellow prisoners.
When I asked him he said no, these are not prisoners, these are countrymen. I said from the United States and he said, well, not necessarily. So, now I'm getting down to the crunch of it. He's talking about other Caucasians. But, they could have been anyone. Normally, they were Communists. You know. Certainly, they were not friends to us or they never would have been there. And, so, yes, I quaked a bit thinking about the grimy details that were going to occur before the final decision was made, because I resisted and he had everything on his side.
So, I said, I don't want to see them. And he finally got down to the point where he said, you have no choice. And, he said, you are going to meet with them and ah talk with them. And, I said, I cannot. I had learned before through punishment not to say I won't. You see, that was rebellion to them. So, I said, I cannot. He said, How many times have you opposed me, and I didn't answer. There was no reason to.
He said, “Have you ever beat me”. I didn't answer that either because I hadn't. Just partially. In other words, he never got all he was after, but he always got something if he was willing to hurt me bad enough. So, he said, You will do as I say. And, there was a question. And, I said, you know I cannot. I'm an American fighting man. So, he said, do you want the ropes. And, I said, no, you know I don't want them, but if that's all the choice I have then I have no other choice. So, he hollered at a guard. Big Ugh who was one of the chief torturers. There were two of them.
Big Ugh was vindictive. He loved to hurt you. So, he, they all left. He and an interpreter- The Cat and the interpreter left big Ugh with me, the guard, and he began to bend me all out of shape, and then after a while I began to make the noises that an animal makes when he's in pain and they evidently didn't, there must have been another American prisoner, our prisoners, in the vicinity because he didn't want me screaming so he attempted to stuff a bloody bandage into my mouth and I bit his fingers, and then he took my, I had a Ho Chi Minh sandals which is part of a used rubber tire.
He took that and stuffed the bandage into my mouth. He stuffed it so far down my throat until I was on the point of suffocating. And, that scared me. I don't know why. I wasn't scared of dying but that's, not being able to get my breath was scary. Well, after they had exposed me to pain long enough, they came back and took off the pressure, and this time I decided to play it smart.
I wasn't going to let them put me to the point, or take me to the point where I had no resistance left. I thought I’ll, I will still, this time I'll just be smart and I will choose devious ways to beat them, if I can, because I had never won anytime before except just by being devious and cheat or lie, anything that I could. So, as a net result of this, and through threats he brought me to a point where he gave me a list of questions I was going to be asked, whoever the guests, the visiting dignitaries were, and then the q—the answers he provided also.
He even forced me to say the answers on tape so he could take it back to the higher headquarters and prove to them that he had subdued me to the point that I was going to play ball. And, at this time I had a roommate and this was all an attempt to soften me up. This was the carrot and stick. My roommate was the carrot. The threat of torture and the torture was the stick. And, then, the morning that I was supposed to be taken to see whoever it was that was going to interview me, they gave me two pictures of my family.
It's hard to describe my feelings, but, since I had been gone, I didn't know if any of the children had been killed, I didn't know if they had died of disease. I didn't know anything about them because at that time I had received no letters. So, they gave me the two pictures, they had the dates on them. They were recent pictures, and nothing that I ever possessed in my life meant so much to me as those two pictures. It showed me that my family, my five boys and my wife were all right.
They were healthy and well and then because they knew of my great faith in God, they had hung a large picture of Christ on the wall over their heads. This was included in the two pictures and I had, in those two pictures, the most valuable possessions that a man could possess. And, so, they took me down.
General, you just received the pictures of your family.
Those pictures of my family were my most prized possession ever in my life, because they were so meaningful. They were a link of my past, present and future, and then they took me to the place I was to meet with the foreign dignitaries the next morning and I told my roommate before I left I was distraught. I didn't know what to do.
So, I told him to get ready to leave. I said they will never leave you with me because I an going to fail them but I cannot force myself to betray my country by making false statements and you know they're not going to leave you with me. So, this is basically, what happened. Through several sequences of filming, they asked me questions which I did not answer as they had briefed me to do.
At the end of the filming, after many threats, and attempted intimidations, the East German filming crew asked me for the two pictures. They said we understand you received two pictures of your family. We would like to use them and we'll return them to you. And, my heart just sank to think about Communist hands on the picture of my family that I loved so dearly.
But, they made a mistake. They put me back in my cell for a few moments before they came for the pictures. And, amidst many tears I tore those pictures in the tiniest, possible pieces, rolled them with a rock into a piece of paper and sunk them in the refuse bucket which was part full. When they came for the pictures I simply said I destroyed them. And, they hollered for the guards and started ten days of torture.
They used the ropes on me twice and I went as long as I could go. Each time they only wanted to know where the pictures were. Each time I said, I've destroyed them. After the second application I didn't have any will power left. In fact, I was paralyzed at that time.
They had treated me rather badly. And, so, when I said I've destroyed them the second time, they said, do you want more. And, I said, I can't take anymore, and I couldn't. So, I said, I'll show you. They drug me to my cell and I dug the remnants of those pictures out of the refuse bucket. Are you finished? Okay.
End roll of location. 2802.
Personal impact of the protests and negotiations
Begin roll 4 of location. 2803.
General could you please tell me what effect the protests and negotiations of the period '69 to '72 had on you?
Yes. Let me complete what I was saying a moment ago that the Vietnamese because I did not come through for them then tortured me for about ten days and nights. It was the worst they hurt me and they did that because they had lost face. During the whole period of time we were in prison we heard of protests. Of course, the Vietnamese exposed us to four hours minimum of propaganda a day because we had slave speakers in every cell. There was no way to get away from that.
So, they dreamed up all kinds of wild tales. If 200 people marched on Washington, they made it 200,000. We learned how to deal with the numbers. Of course, every protest, every anti war speech made by a person such as McGovern, Jane Fonda, Galbraith, all of those only encouraged the Vietnamese, prolonged the war, worsened our condition and cost the lives of more Americans on the battlefield. And, what was the other that you wanted me to mention.
When did you hear about the negotiations and what did you...
It was the 26th of October, 1972 when on the slave speaker we received a program you might say, and it turned out to be almost verbatim the agreement that would be finally signed between the United States, the South Vietnamese, and the North Vietnamese. And, although it was different, and it was very interesting at the finish of it, it sounded so typical because the Vietnamese said, but, the representative of the United States did not show up in Hanoi today, therefore, there will be no agreement and you will not be going home by Christmas, maybe never.
And, so, it sounded, you know... Then, they took me out of the cell and took me to the Commander's office where he said, what did you think of the radio program tonight? And, I said, what radio program. I didn't want them to know we had had any special interest and he said, I know, you are very sad. He said, I know you are very sad and he said, you and your fellows are very sad. I said, why are we sad.
He said, because now you know you will not be going home for Christmas. I said we never expected to go home for Christmas. I said, we know we are political prisoners. And, don't you think we have been lied enough that we are not going to believe anything that you all tell us.
You see, I was much braver because the torture had not happened to us for quite some time. Previously, I would never have attempted to say that because they would have simply tortured me. Well, he said, through his interpreter, you are a very good actor and from that day forward, from the 26th of October forward, signs increased until the day we were released on the 12th of February, 1973, which was to bring us back by C-141 air transport aircraft made into ambulance type planes that brought us back to freedom landing at Clark Air Force Base, the Philippines. And, that is, in short, my life under the control of the Communist Vietnamese.
The Hanoi Hilton during the Christmas Bombings
Just like to take one thing. You skipped one thing. You were in the Hanoi Hilton, it’s December, 1972 when bombing attack starts. What were your thoughts?
Yes. The bombing attack in 1972. There were nineteen senior officers in my room at that time. This one place that we were held. And, it was at, I don't know, nine o'clock at night perhaps when we heard the rumble of jet engines and it sounded like squadrons of fighters. You see no bombers had ever come that far north. They had not been permitted to bomb north. Well, we heard the bombs start hitting and we thought this is the first time they bombed north in a long time.
The fighters hadn't even been up for some reason. Well, then when we heard the bombs start landing a half of mile short of the prison and walk right by us in a a string, we knew it had to be bombers because fighters don't carry that many bombs. And, the jubilation was unbelievable. Guys jumping up and down and clapping each other on the back. People hollering and shouting and the Vietnamese guard excited and poking his gun in the door and telling us to get under our bunks.
You see, they normally made us get under our bunks which were normally cement. They said for protection simply so we could not see our own airplanes and have our spirits raised, you see. Well, in this particular room, our beds, our bunks was a solid slab of cement on which we placed all of our grass mats side by side. There was no place to go underneath and so it was ridiculous. Everyone was laughing about it but the guard cocked his gun and prepared to cough a round, and I told everyone to lie down on their bunks.
I was afraid somebody in the excitement was going to get hurt. And, then, they came for me. And, one of them looked in the door and said, you know, they are trying to kill you. I said, they're not trying to kill me, they're trying to kill you. Well, he left on a run and pretty soon they came back and got me and took me to the camp commander's office and he had changed everything around by the time, you know, it was typical.
The guard told the commander that I said, I was glad they were killing women and children. I hadn't even mentioned women and children. Well, that was the first night of the bombing and, of course, our hopes were high as could be because we knew they could not stand the pressure of our military might, even with conventional warfare very long, and we were right.
And, we were out of there, or the agreement was signed not long after that because as Mr. Ross Perot who had a man in Vientiane talking on a daily basis to the ambassador from North Vietnam, as he asked that man during the Christmas halt, after about five days of bombing, what do you think your government will do. This Vietnamese, a younger man, not so hardened down by traditions said we, I see we have only two choices. Either negotiate peace or commit national suicide. And, that's what happened. They negotiated.
General you've talked.
I'm going to really have to run. I wish I had time to talk to you. If you have any questions I can answer...
End of Side 1, #2802, 2803.
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