|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Nobody Successfully Escaped
Porter Halyburton was born on January 16, 1940. He grew up in a small southern town. Growing up, his only concerns were about his family and life in his community. Porter Halyburton shows how when life presents one with a situation that is out of one's control, one can still control his reaction to that situation.
I grew up in Davidson, North Carolina. It's a small college town with only about twenty-five hundred people. My parents were divorced. My mother and I lived with my grandparents. My mother was a newspaper women. She worked at the Charlotte Tribune.She was paid less than men doing the same job. That always bothered me and bothered her. I thought that was, in a way, the most unfair part of discrimination against women.
I went to Sewanee Military Academy, which was in Sewanee, Tennessee. I really went there for disciplinary reasons. I realized that I needed some more structure in my life and some more discipline and direction. It certainly provided that. As a matter of fact, when I graduated from there, I had an appointment to the Naval Academy, which I turned down. I didn't want to make the military a career. After spending four years in a military academy environment, I didn't want to do four more. I went to Davidson College, a liberal arts school. I had a pretty good time in college. I wasted a lot of time, but my college experience was a good one. I learned a lot in spite of myself.
I didn't know exactly what I would do. It looked like I was going to have to go in the service at some point, so I joined the Navy. I finished all of my flight training and so on, and there was a question of where we requested to go. The Vietnam War, particularly the aerial part, was just starting. I volunteered to join this squadron that was leaving rather quickly for Vietnam. I didn't know much about it, and I don't think anybody else in the squadron did either. I understood, I think, at the time, the communists in North Vietnam were attempting to overtake the other countries in the area. We thought we were drawing a line in the sand and saying, this is were you stop, and that this was worthwhile doing. Also, the South Vietnamese people deserved democracy and we were trying to make sure they weren't enslaved by communism.
Yankee Station and Dixie Station are two places in the South China Sea from which the carriers operated. Between the two, I flew seventy-five missions in six months. I was on a mission, part of a large strike. The large planned strikes were called Office Strikes. They were planned in Washington.They were fairly important targets, and our mission was the largest Office Strike up until that point of the war. The mission was to hit a target north of Hanoi where we had not flown much at all. The purpose was to cut a railroad bridge from China.
There were thirty five aircrafts from our carrier. We had St. Pat who was commander in chief of Pacific forces, who really militarily ran the war, particularly the Navy part. So, it was a very important mission to protect the bombers that were bombing the bridge. Because there were so many of us, and we were flying at a very low level to avoid the SAM missiles (surface-air missiles), we became very vulnerable to antiaircraft fire. We took a hit at a fairly low level, and it became apparent that the aircraft wasn't going to make it. When the aircraft was headed towards the ground, it crossed my mind, for a brief, moment whether I wanted to get out or just stay with it. I just couldn't imagine being captured. I thought if I got out, there was a chance I could be rescued, and if I wasn't, then I could always kill myself later. So, I made the decision. I ejected at a fairly low level. I could quite soon after that hear gunfire from the ground, and shooting at me as I was coming down. I could see a village about a mile away, and so when I landed, I got out of my parachute and started going the opposite direction from this village, from where they were shooting at me. There was really no place to go. There was a small hill I could try to get over, because I thought if a rescue helicopter did come in, then I'd want to be on the other side. I never made it over there. I just ran out of steam; they were too close. They surrounded me in twenty minutes. They were mostly villagers with hand weapons and so, I was taken off to the village, and put in this kind of mud hut while they looked at all my equipment. They had never seen an American before.
After a while, the local militia or army guys came in a Jeep and we began the trip to Hanoi. Before I got to Hanoi, we stopped in a village and I had an interrogation by a guy who did not speak English. He had a little phrase book, and he tried to get me to write down what the next target was. I wouldn't have known that anyway, even if I had been inclined to talk to them. Then, I was taken to what we know now as the Hanoi Hilton. I was put in one of the interrogation rooms there. I still had my flight suit on, but no boots. I was interrogated for maybe six or eight hours a day for three or four days. They wanted to know who I was, and where I came from. But they were mostly interested in what kind of airplane I was flying, and what ship I was off.
Following that, I was put into another prison cell which was part of a block of cells that we call Heartbreak Hotel. They took away my flight suit, and I got cotton pajamas that we wore. We also received a tin cup and a few other little things. I stayed there for about two weeks, and had at least one or two interrogations everyday along with lots of threats, but not a whole lot of violence. They said I had a choice to make. If I cooperated with them, I would be moved to a much better place to be with my friends and play games and have a great life. If I didn't, I would be moved to a worse place. So, I got moved to the worse place. I moved to a camp that had just been converted for Americans.
We lived under camp regulations that said we were not permitted to communicate in anyway with other prisoners. We weren't allowed to make any noise in our cells; we couldn't even speak out loud. Everything was a whisper. We communicated by what we call the tap code. At first it was just tapping numbers through the wall. Then, we started sweeping numbers with a broom and all kinds of different ways of tapping numbers. The punishment for getting caught communicating could be quite severe. The least punishment that could have been expected was a beating and then being put into leg irons and handcuffs for two weeks.
Each morning they would ring this gong, quite early.Then we were expected to get up and fold our mats and make them neat.Then in the morning there might be an interrogation. At midmorning, they would come around with some food which was typically a bowl of what they called soup, which was usually just hot water with some grains, a bowl of rice, and then perhaps a little fat. If we were lucky, we might get out and be able to do the dishes. On rare occasions, they let us take baths. I spent a lot of time trying to stay in shape doing exercises, calisthenics, whatever I could do. I did a lot of walking. At one point, I was in a cell where I could take three steps across it and the turn around and take three steps back. So, I would walk miles at a time right in my cell.
There was not a typical day. I was there for seven and a half years, and at different periods, there were typical days, but combined, there was no typical day. If I lived alone, there was a typical day. If I had one cell mate, there might be another typical day. If a person lived with, a group of eight or nine people, there might be a typical day. Later, if I lived with a group of forty or fifty, there would be a different typical day. So, typical days changed over time. I lived in eight different kinds of prisons. Two of them were real jails, and I didn't think I could escape from either of those, but others were makeshift enough that I thought I could get out if I really had to. I didn't attempt it. There were some who did. They found out that the country was the real prison. We looked different than the people and didn't speak the language, and didn't have any clothes. It was a long, long way to go through the highly populated country. Nobody successfully escaped from North Vietnam.
In the summer of 'sixty-six, the US bombed close to Hanoi. These were petroleum oil, lubricant storage areas, and that really got their attention. They were quite upset that we had bombed Hanoi. That had been off limits up 'til then. So they organized a demonstration. They marched us down the streets of Hanoi, handcuffed in pairs, and we ran the gauntlet there to the extent that I thougt we were going to be killed in the streets.
Their intention was to put us on trial for war crimes, and President Johnson, at the time, said that if you do that, we're going to level Hanoi, bomb it back to the Stone Age. The Americans didn't do that, but the treatment changed rather dramatically. I mean, they were much harsher; they began to torture people. They didn't publicly torture someone. They would take the person to a torture room. The screams could definably be heard from the cell. There was one particular guard who seemed to be the local expert on torture methods. He wasn't real popular among the men. Also, there was an interrogator who was very quick to torture or punish anyone if things didn't go exactly right. We called him "Bug" because he had real funny, buggy eyes, and he was psychotic, I think.
During an interrogation, almost everybody either refused to talk to the Vietnamese, or if they were forced to, they lied to them or deceived them, which was not that difficult because they didn't have anybody there who had been educated in the United States. So,they had preconceptions,like that all Americans were wealthy and decadent and used to night life. So, during the interrogations, some of prisoners played games with them. During an interrogation, one guy drew them a picture of an American aircraft carrier with bars, swimming pools and casinos. At the time, the Vietnamese didn't really question it.I don't think they got very much information that was useful to them. Later on, they had much better sources of information from outside.
Nineteen sixty-eight was a significant year as a prisoner. Johnson had stopped the bombing in the north. If he was ending the bombing in the north, then we thought surely there would have been an agreement on the prisoner exchange, and there wasn't. After he stopped the bombing, we didn't get any newly captured pilots. So, all our updates on the war and the election came from the Vietnamese. They were quite anxious to tell us that Johnson had decided not to run. They were very hopeful that Hubert Humphrey was going to win and pull America out of the war. Of course, he didn't win; Richard Nixon did which they didn't like at all. They were afraid of Nixon.
So after I had been there for five years, I could see what their plan was. Most of what they wanted to do was to generate propaganda that would try and convince people that the war was hopeless and wrong. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969. They realized then that we hated them, and that we were never going to cooperate with them voluntarily. I think then they realized that a lot of the stuff that they had forced us to do had backfired on them. They had been embarrassed by some fairly dramatic things that we had done, and there was a growing movement in the United States about how POWs were being treated. They relied very heavily on the Antiwar Movement as the thing that would eventually allow them to win the war, and that if American support for the War went away, so that politicians couldn't continue, we would leave and then they could invade South Vietnam. That's exactly what happened. The Antiwar Movement was our enemy. From our point of view, it simply prolonged the war. The Antiwar Movement made the government less able to fight the war the way that we felt was needed in order to win.
We pretty much figured that Nixon was not going to stop bombing until they had agreed to end the War. So when the bombing stopped, we figured there had to have been some kind of an agreement, which was true, and about two weeks before we were released, they called us out. They read the agreements to us and said, that we would be going home. Two weeks later, we were issued new clothes, toothpaste, soap, all this kind of stuff. We were allowed to take a bath, and we figured the next day was it. It was 1973. I had been there since 1965. Myself, I just was so happy to be out of there, I said, these people controlled my life for eight years; they're not controlling it anymore. I was going to leave all my hatred and everything at the gate.
I never had any idea of trying to get back at any of them. First, we went to the hospital at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and it happened to be Valentine's Day that we got out. All the kids in the American and Filipino schools there had just absolutely plastered the walls of the hospital with Valentines for us. I was pretty much overwhelmed by the welcome home that we got. The sad part about it was that we had found out later how poorly the returning G.I.'s were treated when they came home from their year or two in Vietnam. They were not welcomed home at all, but were basically treated more as criminals than war heroes. That really upset me.
After I returned, I was curious to really know what really happened, and what the real issues were. There were a lot of things that I just had never allowed myself to think about very much, and so I thought about them a lot when I got home. I guess I have been a student of the war since then; it's part of what I do. I have a very, very different perspective than when we were there. For example, one can't fight that kind of war and grant sanctuary to the enemy, and yet we did. We granted them sanctuary in Laos, in Cambodia, sanctuary in North Vietnam in terms of invasion, things like that. We failed to attack the targets that perhaps would have had a real effect on their ability to continue the war. We failed to isolate them from the support that they relied on. We didn't bomb Haiphong Harbor, ninety percent of the support that they relied on came from that harbor. We just let them do it, because we were afraid of the subjects. We were afraid of the risk of a nuclear conflict with the Soviets.
Over this period in my life, I think I obviously matured a lot, as anyone would normally during that period of time. I rearranged my priorities about things that were important. I had a much greater sense of what was really important, as opposed to what seemed to be important. I think I learned that the human body, mind, and spirit is a lot tougher and more adaptable and creative than it seems. You can get a lot more out of your mind and your body than you think,if you are called on to do so. So, it just gave me a very, very different outlook on life.