When people might ask about heroes, a few names always come to mind. They are names from the era of naval aviation just preceding my time. A couple of those names somewhat go together; James Bond Stockdale and Douglas Hegdahl.
Both of these gentlemen had a great influence on me as a young Navy attack pilot. Stockdale through one of the books he had written, and Hegdahl, more directly – he was one of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) instructors who tutored my class of aviators at Navy North Island in 1983.
Stockdale and his wife, Sybil, wrote a book they titled In Love and War. The book is an outstanding piece of work that should be required reading for every Hornet pilot in the fleet.
They organized their work in periods; he wrote about what was happening with his training and preparations to deploy to Vietnam and she would write about what she was doing at home during the same time. The book progressed from his training, to the deployment, to the start of the war, to his shootdown and capture.
The book continues in this fashion – his chapter, her chapter – through the first months of his captivity, and then the years. While he tells stories of torture, she describes her enforced silence by the government. The silence and frustration soon turn into political action on her part, along with many other Navy and Air Force wives of pilots held prisoner.
More than anything, they highlight how their commitment to God, for one another, and their family kept them going through his captivity, which began on September 9, 1965. Stockdale and other prisoners acquired their freedom again after North Vietnam released them on February 12, 1973. For Stockdale, this was a total of 2716 days spent in confinement.
Between his actions as a prisoner of war, and his wife’s political actions, the Stockdales proved to be a thorn in the side of the North Vietnamese in many ways. Between them and the personal testimony of first-hand torture given at the Paris peace talks by Douglas Hegdahl, the North Vietnamese came off looking very bad.
Douglas Hegdahl’s story is a very different story. In 1967, Hegdahl was a Seaman Apprentice serving on board the USS Canberra. Sometime during the night of April 6, the firing of a five-inch gun blew Hegdahl off the back of the ship. He treaded water for a day before friendly North Vietnamese fishermen picked him up and took him ashore.
The fishermen turned Hegdahl over to the North Vietnamese military and he ended up in the Hanoi Hilton with many Navy and Air Force pilots. The Vietnamese accused Hegdahl of being a spy or some other operative. Hegdahl quickly determined because of his background, he could play up the part of being an ignorant, uneducated, subservient. The Vietnamese bought his story and he actually had a great run of the camp that other prisoners did not have.
During his trips around the camp, Hegdahl was able to take the names of 256 prisoners the Vietnamese captured, but failed to report as prisoners.
In August of 1969, the North Vietnamese agreed to release three prisoners of war as a propaganda event. Hegdahl, because of his convincing act of mental deficiency, was one of the prisoners chosen. He did not want his release associated with the other two prisoners; the other POWs considered them as collaborators with the enemy.
It took the direct order of his commanding Senior Ranking Officer (SRO), LCDR Richard A. Stratton, to get Hegdahl to participate in the release. Stratton wanted Hegdahl to take out the names of those 256 prisoners our military still listed as missing in action. He also wanted Hegdahl to testify as to the treatment the prisoners were currently undergoing.
When released, Hegdahl was afraid the excitement of being free would cause him to forget the names of the 256 missing airmen. On the day he related this story to our class at SERE school 14 years later, he said, “I don’t know why I worried. I still remember the names of each of those airmen today.” He then went on to recite their names and information, to the original tune of “Old MacDonald’s Farm.”
After debriefing and getting the names to our intelligence people, it was time to complete the rest of his mission, per the orders of LCDR Stratton. Hegdahl informed the world of the torture and mistreatment of American POWs at the hands of the North Vietnamese.
He did so, face-to-face with the North Vietnamese, at the 1970 Paris peace talks.
©2010 J. Clark