|The Barbaric Treatment of Navy Comdr. James Stockdale as a POW in North Vietnam!|
Navy Comdr. James Stockdale reached the Hanoi Hilton on Sunday morning, September 12. He was carried in on a stretcher, taken to the far end of the building on the south side of the courtyard, and ensconced in Room 24, where Alvarez had spent the previous fall, winter, and spring. Eagle, Owl, and Dog came into the room behind him. Dog introduced himself as "commander in charge" of the prison camp system, and asked Stockdale for confirmation that he was Commander of Carrier Air Group 16, operating off the carrier Oriskany. Jim gave his name, rank, and number.
Dog now delivered a short tirade on American perfidy, denounced the Tonkin Gulf raids of August, 1964, condemned violations of the DRY's sovereignty and confided that his wife had a formal education and was a medical doctor serving in the field, in South Vietnam. The session ended after about fifteen minutes, and Jim was left alone with his thoughts.
Stockdale was indeed CAG 16. He had been shot down three days earlier, on September 9, between Vinh and Thanh Hoa. On ejecting, he had suffered a broken bone in his back, and upon capture had been beaten savagely by a gang of raging civilians. During the melee, his lower left leg had been bent sideways from the knee at a nearly 90degree angle and was badly broken. He had been rescued by North Vietnamese Army personnel, who took him to a hut and held him under guard.
The next day a doctor had examined Jim's leg, then produced a surgical saw and surgical knife. Jim had implored the man not to amputate. The Vietnamese did not understand English, but seemed to comprehend Jim's pleas and was sympathetic. He brought out a large hypodermic and injected Jim with a colorless fluid. Almost instantly, the patient lost consciousness. He awoke late that day to find his broken leg in a cast; a second cast had been placed on his broken left shoulder.
In this crippled condition he had reached Hanoi. He was depressed, worried, frightened. Foremost in his mind were studies he had made years earlier, while working toward his master's degree in international relations at Stanford University, of how American POWs during the Korean War had been brainwashed, had been made submissive enough to make treasonous statements against their government. How smart, how tough would one have to be to withstand brainwashing?
Also, he was upset that he had been recognized as one in authority. There was no question in his mind that the military professionals among his captors were well aware of the kinds of military secrets an Air Wing Commander had to know-information their Chinese and Russian allies would like to have. To what lengths would they go to extract it? Torture? Drugs?
And what of vengeance? A year earlier, as a squadron commander, Stockdale has received attention from the American press for having led the three principal actions on the Tonkin Gulf raids. The North Vietnamese were hardly likely to feel kindly toward him.
Stockdale prayed, and thought hard. He was convinced that this was going to be a long war. Somehow, he had to buy himself some time and plot a proper course. There could be no leaks, no surrender of precious information.
The enemy had resorted to barbarism to extract information, violating not only the Geneva Convention, but every rule of civilized behavior.
Rod was proud of his performance, but at length he turned for an opinion to SRO Stockdale, who had listened carefully to the exchanges. "I think you did a fine job, Rod," Stockdale said. ''I think you took the right approach. Give them nothing; make them take it from you, and make sure they take nothing of value. You did just fine. Hang in there."
Until he heard these encouraging words, Rod had not realized how much he needed them.
Jim Stockdale had a feeling there was a lot more "hanging in there" that would have to be done. He had reached Heartbreak Hotel on October 25 after having spent a month in a hospital. The hospital had been full of medical amateurs who did not seem to know how to give injections without inflicting pain on the patient. The place had also been filthy. Once Jim felt constrained to ask the doctors if the rats that freely roamed the premises might be rabid. He was assured matter-offactly that rabies occurred only in European rats.
The doctors proved incompetent to build him the new left knee he required. His unrepaired leg was encasted, he was issued a pair of illfitting crutches, and was returned to the prison system.
The depression induced by the sight of the Heartbreak dungeon dissipated immediately at the sound of the first American voice Jim had heard since his capture. "Goddamn this hard bed!" called out Porter Halyburton. Stockdale could have kissed him. Gloomy as the setting was, it was good to be back among Americans. Communications were easy, and Jim found that most of the POWs had been interrogated a number of times. These quizzes by their captors had been concerned mainly with biographical trivia; at the time, no one in Heartbreak had been seriously mistreated.
Jim studied the preposterous Vietnamese regulations that had been affixed to the inside of his cell door and pondered the options short of treason available to a POW. There really were none, he concluded. Stockdale believed in the Code of Conduct; he believed it unreasonable for a military officer to avoid his responsibilities to others, and the worst imaginable reason for doing so would be to minimize the risk of harm to oneself. Leadership and communications were the blood and sinew of survival and resistance. Now, having heard Knutson's frightening story, he knew that the Americans in captivity and the Code of Conduct were in for a long time of testing.
With the pause in the bombing for Christmas and the Vietnamese Tet Lunar New Year, the influx of POWs slowed. The Communists worked with the material on hand. By January 8, the crippled Jim Stockdale had been broken in the ropes.
CAG had known it was coming. Since his release from the hospital, in late October, he had been interrogated several times and had heard other Heartbreak residents describe their sessions. What impressed him most of all about the questioning was the enemy's lack of interest in meaningful military information. The questioning continued to focus on trivia.
This had caused a deepening unease in Stockdale. He could understand a straightforward attempt to extort military information from a POW. But no case could be made for what the Vietnamese were doing with their American prisoners-terrorizing them, breaking them to Hanoi's will, tenderizing them, like so many pieces of meat, for inclusion in a propaganda stew.
On December 30, Major Bai, the prison system commander whom the POWs called Cat, got the excuse he needed to move against Stockdale. That day, Stockdale, a cigarette smoker, used up his ration early. He tapped his plight to Robbie Risner, a nonsmoker, who accepted his cigarette rations and saved them for other Americans in just such situations. Using thread from his clothing, he tied a small bundle of smokes together and tried to pass it to Stockdale, but the cigarettes spilled into the corridor, and a guard caught Stockdale trying to retrieve them. Late that night Stockdale found himself in a cell in New Guy Village, where he was told that he had violated camp regulations by communicating with others; it would now be necessary to punish him.
He spent nine days locked in stocks in the windy, bitter cold cell. On the tenth day he was taken to Room 1B, where Rabbit, Cat's sullen interrogator, ordered him to "write a letter to the U.S. Foreign Secretary of State and explain the true story of the war and the determination of the Vietnamese people to fight on." Jim refused to do so. Rabbit barked an order, and Pigeye threw the prisoner down onto the floor and hustled him into the ropes.
Long after the incredible pain had receded to the dim reaches of memory, Stockdale would remember clearly the utter dispassion with which Pigeye approached his work. His eyes were entirely empty of expression. The man was medieval; a professional torturer, one who actually made a life's work of inflicting intolerable pain on other people. There was no humanity to see anywhere in his face, nor in the efficient way he went about his grisly work.
Stockdale swam in the pain Pigeye gave him. He was sure he would drown in it, pass out or die, but Pigeye would not let him do either of these things. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he heard himself say the words that the hovering Rabbit demanded he say: "I submit."
Instead of writing to the ''Foreign Secretary of State," Jim persuaded Rabbit to let him write to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, where good friends would see the letter for what it was, a product of duress. The Vietnamese did not like the letter, and it was never sent. In the days that followed they extracted what they deemed far more valuable material from Stockdale. He filled out a questionnaire concerning activities and lectures given by chaplains aboard U.S. Navy vessels-for the Vietnamese knew the chaplains to be "political officers"; he also wrote a long, worthless tract on the subject of ''Command and Control."
Like others, he had given the enemy little or nothing; and like others, he was near despair for having broken at all. He resolved to pull himself together, to hang tough. He prayed for recovery from his leg and arm injuries, for the physical strength that would enable him to conduct himself as he had always hoped and even assumed he would in such a situation.
At Hoa Lo, Jim Stockdale was taken to interrogation on a cold February night. As a torture guard stood by brandishing ropes, Rabbit and Mickey Mouse complained to the CAG that they were having trouble getting the American "criminals" to talk to them. It would be necessary, they said, for Stockdale, a wellknown senior officer, to taperecord a broadcast to his reluctant countrymen, urging them to provide answers to the questions their captors were asking.
It had been only a few weeks since Stockdale had had his first taste of the ropes, and he was still down. His broken left shoulder and crippled left leg still hurt badly. A numbness persisted in his left hand, as a result of the rope torture, and he felt weak and suffered dizzy spells. The sight of the thug caressing the ropes induced a sinking sensation. He agreed to speak: "The Democratic Republic of Vietnam," he told the tape, "does not honor the Geneva Convention of 1949. The Vietnamese are not treating us as prisoners of war. The man who is addressing you is not operating under the rules which we have been taught pertain...." Then, stuffing the most flagrant grammatical errors he could imagine into a flat monotone, he said the things the interrogators demanded of him. He was sick at heart for saying these things in any fashion, but was confident that Americans who heard the message would understand how it had been obtained and would ignore it.
A guard escorting him back to Heartbreak Hotel failed to guide him past an uncovered sewer drain, and Jim's injured left leg went into the thing up to the hip. Within a few days the leg had swelled hugely and a high fever raged in him. He lay sick, aware that Robbie Risner? in the next cell, kept encouraging him and praying for him; when he felt strong enough he prayed along with Risner. A doctor came, checked his heart, and gave him a supply of pills. After about a week the infection and sickness began to subside. Almost immediately, he found himself back in interrogation, facing Major Bai, Cat.
Cat was contemptuous of Jim's taped references to the Geneva Convention, and angry about the "tricks" he had employed with the rest of the message. "You are unsatisfactory," Jim was told. "The tape is not good enough." The verbal chastisement completed, he was returned to his cell.
For the next few weeks Stockdale and Risner remained in Heartbreak Hotel, while new shootdowns staged through. They told new arrivals what to expect and how to conduct themselves. They taught them the tap code and the vital importance of communications, of prayer, of thinking positively and keeping one's spirits up. "Don't sweat it if they torture something out of you," they told the new POWs. "We have all been through it. The important thing is to get back up as quickly as you can and get set for the next round. You're going to get depressed. If it is at all possible to do so, contact someone else. Talk about it. Don't keep it to yourself. Just talking about it helps. "
Then, in late February, Stockdale was moved to New Guy Village. One day he was taken into Room 18 to meet Rabbit, who wanted him to "correct" the tape he had made and the letter he had written. When he refused, he was locked in stocks for ten days, then brought back to Room 18. "You must confess your crimes and repent them, and beg the Vietnamese people for mercy," the young interrogator screamed. Jim declined, and Rabbit had him tortured in ropes until he submitted. Then, with Rabbit dictating, he wrote a "confession," repenting his crimes and throwing himself on the mercy of the people. Also, he read a short script onto a tape, urging other Americans to cooperate with their captors-again the wording was such that he knew other American POWs would not accept it as a senior officer's directive. But for having submitted, Stockdale wanted to climb out of the broken body that had betrayed him.
Two days later Stockdale was taken to a film or TV studio and ordered to make the ''confession" before cameras. Rabbit handed him the script, and Jim read it. So preoccupied did the Vietnamese remain with his words that they paid no heed to his actions. Holding the script in one hand and reading from it, he kept waving his other hand back and forth. He kept this hand clenched, with the forefinger and little finger extended, a signal the world would recognize as indicating that the words being spoken were untrue.
He was returned to his cell in New Guy Village.
The chief of the resistance, the prison authorities knew, was Stockdale. He was the most senior, the leader, the chief troublemaker. Stockdale had to be brought down.
Like Denton, he was locked in rear cuffs and leg irons and cooked in the Bathhouse. In the oppressive heat he found himself weakening rapidly. When he called "Bao Cao," a guard entered and slapped him hard several times on both sides of the face. An Englishspeaking officer arrived and Stockdale upbraided him for the behavior of his subordinate.
"The guard can do anything he wants," the officer assured him. Apparently, submission by the SRO was not acceptable; he was to be baked until the toughness was all gone.
The nights were too short and the long, shimmering hot days blended together. He was moved to various stalls in the Bathhouse. He was kept on short rations of food and water, just enough to keep him conscious of his parched misery. Occasionally he would escape into sleep. Once a guard who decided not to let him sleep accused him of dozing and slugged him savagely on both jaws. When the guard left, Jim heard a towel snapping somewhere nearby; someone was shaking the water from it to dry it and sending a tapcoded message: G B U J S. "God Bless You, Jim Stockdale."
The next day a guard locked cuffs onto the meatiest parts of his forearms, cutting off circulation. Stockdale was soon shouting for relief. The guard returned, stuffed a dirty rag into his dry mouth, and squeezed the cuffs a notch tighter. That evening he was let out of the cuffs and isolated in a small cell in Riviera. There he remained for several weeks. Then he was taken before Cat.
Cat was expansive. He graciously presented the prisoner with his enamel drinking cup, which had been denied him during his punishment. He observed that now that Stockdale had learned his lesson, he certainly would be wise enough not to "take advantage" of the situation. That night, said Cat, Stockdale would be taken to meet some visitors.
"I will not answer any questions," said Stockdale. "I will say nothing. "
Cat bristled. "We will see! I warn you to use good judgment!"
He was blindfolded and driven into the city. Arriving at his destination, where his blindfold was removed, he was ordered to leave the vehicle unaccompanied and to go up to the porch of what appeared to be a large restaurant or hotel, to turn left and enter a lighted room, bowing as he did so. He decided instantly not to bow. He stayed upright as he entered and kept glowering fiercely. The room was bathed in blinding bright lights, and in the shadows behind them Jim could make out cameramen working furiously. He limped to the center of the room and stood scowling for several seconds. Then he heard Cat say angrily, "Leave! Get him out!"
Stockdale was seen entering and leaving the room by the junior Navy POW, Seaman Apprentice Doug Hegdahl. Earlier, an interrogator had told Doug, "I want you to go and see a delegation that is visiting and tell them how you were left to drown."
"What?" Hegdahl asked incredulously.
"You know, how your shipmates were green with fear and they left you to drown in the water."
"Hey, wait a minute, that's not what happened."
Hegdahl had kept objecting. To no avail.
When Stockdale left the room, Hegdahl was ushered in. The lights were so bright he threw his hands up to shield his eyes. He groped his way toward a table where the visitors were sitting, saw them, men and women, looking at him as though he were a circus animal and making notes. Then he was led from the room. It was over. He had been asked no questions and had said nothing. Later he would see a report the delegation produced concerning its visit, noting that, "We met James Bond Stockdale, who passes himself off as James Bond," and also "Douglas Hegdahl, a crewman on a helicopter that was shot down. Hegdahl was green with fear, and tried to swim out to his aircraft carrier...."
Hegdahl was returned to his cell in the Zoo. Stockdale, to his amazement, was returned to his old cell in Thunderbird West. The SRO lost no time getting back into communication. But Cat had hardly begun.
One morning in early September, Vegas SRO Jim Stockdale, still in a punishment cell in the Mint, was caught redhanded communicating with Sam Johnson in the next cell. He was marched off to an interrogation room, where ropes and irons were produced and it was demanded that he reveal the substance of the communication with Johnson. Stockdale told the truth, insisting there had been no exchange. He and Sam had just put their drinking cups against the wall separating their cells preparatory to beginning a "telephone" conversation when a guard in the alley had looked through his cell window and spotted him. When it was clear Jim meant to stick to this story, he was blindfolded, his hands were tied behind him, a rope leash was looped around his neck, and the guard who had caught him was awarded a period of complete freedom with the prisoner.
The guard took him outside and ran him about the yard for several minutes. Unable to see or to move well on his game leg, Jim kept stumbling and falling, and the guard would pull him to his feet with the leash, nearly choking him. After several minutes of this, the guard stood him against the wall of the Desert Inn and piled several hard blows into him, bruising him and knocking the wind out of him.
He was then taken to New Guy Village, to the large room where Bob Shumaker had spent so much time in early 1965, which had for a time been known to the POWs as Shu's Corner. Since then, the walls had been covered with fistsized knobs of plaster and it had become known as the Knobby Room. Along with Room 18, nearby, it was now one of the most infamous of torture chambers-the knobs of plaster had the acoustical effect of absorbing the screams of prisoners in torture. Here Stockdale was locked in leg irons and tortured in ropes until he confessed to having communicated with Sam Johnson. He admitted they had speculated as to how long they would remain prisoners, and had traded information about their families- trivialities he knew were of no interest to his captors. It was announced that Stockdale would be brought to trial the next day.
Jim was scared. His moment of truth was at hand. His confession had given the Vietnamese the excuse, the moral justification they seemed to need, to wring more important stuff out of him. Primarily, they would want the names of the key men in the communications network. They would isolate these men, torture them for more information, perhaps kill them. To fail now, Stockdale believed, would mean the end of everything; his reputation and selfrespect would be gone.
The "trial" took place in the Knobby Room. Presiding was a husky, impressivelooking officer whom the prisoners called Mao. Jim had caught glimpses of this man around the camp and believed him to be a frontoffice man, probably a troubleshooter. Mao was flanked by a number of other officers. Pigeye was there and so was Big Ugh. Jim stood facing this group with his hands tied; seven guards stood in a semicircle behind him, holding rifles with fixed bayonets.
"I have not been the commander of this camp long," Mao said, opening the proceedings, "but I have heard a lot about you. All of it has been bad. Now we have come to the place where we must investigate you and your urging others to resist the camp authority. What do you have to say?"
Stockdale did not deign to answer. He knew it was essential that he show no fear, for surely the enemy would know how to exploit fear. He had spent the night psyching himself up for this confrontation, and had come to it on a surge of adrenaline. He was still frightened, but ready for whatever came.
The "trial" proceeded. The presiding official instructed Pigeye, who stepped forward and delivered two solid blows to the prisoner's face, then threw him to the floor and tied him into torture ropes. The torturer was efficient, and soon had the SRO tightened into a ball of pain. He was kept in this torture until he agreed to taperecord another confession. Then he was released from the ropes, but Pigeye kept him on his good right knee and kept twisting his arm behind him as he spoke: "I am a war criminal who has wreaked destruction on your country, and now I have violated the good treatment you have given me by urging others to oppose the camp authority. I confess my guilt and I beg the authority for mercy."
That done, guards were paraded into the room to gaze upon Stockdale, the criminal who had been ''apprehended and punished." The showing of Stockdale completed, Mao, obviously pleased with the day's accomplishments, ceremoniously adjourned court and took his leave, accompanied and escorted by the other officers, the torturers, and the guards. Stockdale was left alone for two days. Then daily interrogations began. They were conducted by Greasy, who had supervised the terror in the Desert Inn on the night of August 21. " Your instructions have even been understood at camps many kilometers from here," he shouted angrily. "You set our treatment regime back two years!" He rose from the table and circled around Stockdale, who had been required to sit on the floor before the two interrogators. "You are stupid, crippled, and old," he assured the prisoner, "and you are a troublemaker!" Having worked himself into a rage, he kicked Stockdale in his ruined and stilltender left knee.
The interrogators demanded that Stockdale provide the names of all the members of his "central committee," the policymaking body that directed prisoner resistance. Stockdale kept insisting, futilely, that he was the entire policymaking body. His interrogators would not believe this. To the trained Communist, it appeared to be an article of faith that important policy always had to be made by a group, a "central committee."
"I issued the orders," Stockdale said. "They were carried out. The men to whom I addressed the orders had no choice but to obey them; that is military law."
The interrogation lasted for hours and went on in the same vein, day after day. Finally, one morning, Pigeye arrived and stood by waiting, until Stockdale again insisted there was no central committee. Then the torturer stepped in and tied Jim into ropes, while the interrogators paced about the room screaming, "Tell us who! Tell us who! "
With the prisoner's upper arms tourniqueted and roped together behind him, Pigeye then ran a rope over the shoulder and down the front of him, underneath his legs, yanked it tight, and fed him his toes. Jim heard the cartilage pop loudly in his injured left leg; he knew it had broken. There was no focal point of pain, however; it was everywhere all through him, and now the interrogators were chanting, "Who? Who? Who?" He took as much as he could stand, then agreed to name names. "I will write it out," he said. "Give me some time." He was left alone with pen and paper.
He put his own name down first. Then, in order of seniority, he listed the names of every American he had ever heard of as being in Hanoi, men whom he knew to be imprisoned as well as the names of men who might or might not have been captured.* He omitted Risner's name because he had caught a glimpse of him through a hole in his cell door and did not want the Vietnamese to know that he knew Robbie to be alive. His list contained 212 names.
The Vietnamese found the list unsatisfactory. According to Stockdale, they pointed out, all but a handful of the Americans in Hanoi were members of the central committee.
"This is the organization," Stockdale insisted. "It is an unbroken line. It is like a living organism. There is no way you can destroy it. Take me away, and Denton will take command. Take me and take Denton, and Jenkins will take charge. Franke, Mulligan, and Rutledge are all ready to assume command. Take a man out of the middle, and the next senior man will fill in. Nothing will change no matter who you take. This is the American military organization. There is no central committee. Take it or leave it."
*Members of twoman aircrews would supply the names of crewmates who often did not make it into the prison system, having been killed during ejection or after capture, or having died of injuries.
Denton, and Jenkins will take charge. Franke, Mulligan, and Rutledge are all ready to assume command. Take a man out of the middle, and the next senior man will fill in. Nothing will change no matter who you take. This is the American military organization. There is no central committee. Take it or leave it."
The interrogators departed with the list, for "study." Stockdale tried to anticipate the enemy's next move. They were after the names of key men, and he had provided them, but had buried them in an unwieldy crowd. The Vietnamese had time and were determined. Would they go after everyone on the list? Or pick a few at random? Had he been smart, after all? All he knew was that he had taken as much torture as he could and was fighting the battle as well as he could.
Greasy returned, angry that he had not named "the ringleaders." Stockdale was full of relief, for this seemed to mean they were not going to torture their way through the entire list. At the same time, there was no question that more torture was in the offing for him unless he named some "ringleaders." He decided that it would be better to appear to give them something than to go into torture again and risk losing everything to them. He now wrote statements on the dozen most senior officers, men already known to the enemy as tough resisters. These statements read as though the officers involved were being recommended for medals. For example, "Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr., Comdr., USN, served under my command . . . has carried out all of my orders in a forthright manner, and thereby opposed the camp authority. He organized communications in his cellblock so as to execute my orders-"
He wrote virtually verbatim reports on Jenkins, Franke, Mulligan, Rutledge, Johnson, and others.
As he proceeded through these repetitions, the interrogators became increasingly irritated.
"You are obscure," Stockdale was told. "You have not given details on what these people did, and when they did them."
"I would not know such details," Stockdale replied. "I issued general orders. The details are up to my subordinates. That is our military custom."
"You have left out a very important element from these statements," the interrogator said. "You have not said which of these men has the capability of doing damage to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam."
Stockdale now understood that the prison authority wanted him to finger the natural leaders among the POWs, the strong personalities, the idea men, the planners. These qualities, of course, were not to be found in uniform measure in all the seniors, and some of the most outstanding resisters were junior of ricers, men like George Coker and Ed Davis. Stockdale had no intention of naming them. He merely added to each of the statements he had already written on the most senior officers, "He also has the capability to do damage to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam."
At last he was told, "Now you must beg the mercy of the Vietnamese people. " He was shown a draft of a plea for mercy which had already been composed for his signature. It was crude, the work of authors unfamiliar with American English. He was allowed to add a few ridiculous lines: "I want to thank you for saving my life from death." Also, "I ask that I be afforded clothes, shelter and particularly food so as to sustain my health." Then he signed it.
He was left alone in the Knobby Room. Now he spent most of the time sitting still, for his knee continued to hurt badly. Once he discovered a spot on his leg he thought to have been a bruise to be moving-it was a colony of black ants, which had affixed itself to him. He brushed them off disinterestedly.