|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Aaron Keegan/ Erin Barry: Where and when were you born?
Porter Halyburton: I was born in Miami, Florida, on January 16, 1940.
AK/EB: Where did you grow up?
PH: I grew up in Davidson, North Carolina. A small college town.
AK/EB: Can you briefly describe your family and your neighborhood?
PH: Growing up?
PH: My parents were divorced. My mother and I lived with my grandparents. He was a professor at the college, and the neighborhood we lived in was almost exclusively college professors, people who worked at the college, and so on. It was a very small town, about 2500 people. You knew most of the people there, it was a nice place to live. Everybody knew what everybody else did, and so,
AK/EB: Um, what were your parent's political views? And where did they get them?
PH: Well, my mother and my grandparents were Republicans in a largely Democratic state. And largely it was because they, there was one, our Representative, who was a Republican, was sort of a favorite of everybody's, so, I would say my grandmother probably didn't know or care too much about politics, but my grandfather more. And my mother would tend to vote for individuals rather then parties.
AK/EB: Where did they get their information?
PH: Where did they get their information? Well, my mother was a newspaper woman, she was women's editor at the Charlotte Observer, and I'm sure that a lot of her information came from the newspaper. The rest of it probably came from the radio, other publications. This was a little before TV for some of this time.
AK/EB: What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up and how did that change over time?
PH: Well, I actually wanted to be an architect, however, I did not have a strong aptitude for mathematics, so that was a stumbling block there. Even though I was very good at drawing and things like that, so I wound up majoring in things that interested me, which at the time were English literature, economics, art, things like that. And I didn't know exactly what I would do, and so it looked like I was going to have to go in the service at some point, so I joined the Navy.
AK/EB: Were you aware of any discrimination against people in your family or in your neighborhood?
PH: Against my family?
AK/EB: Or anybody in the neighborhood.
PH: Or anybody in the neighborhood? No. No. There was, there was one black family who lived at the end of the street, he was the barber in town, and to my knowledge, I mean, he lived as part of the community. He and his wife lived as part of the community. There was no problem. That's not to say that there was not discrimination, you know, in town, and that kind of thing.
AK/EB: And where did you go to high school?
PH: I went to Swanee Military Academy, which is in Swanee, Tennessee.
AK/EB: And what kind of classes did you study?
PH: Classes, well, the normal high school kinds of things you study, you know, math, history, English, and so on. I was very fortunate they had two or three very excellent teachers that, one at first who really got me interested in literature and writing, that kind of thing. And.
AK/EB: And where did you go to college?
PH: I went to Davidson College.
AK/EB: Was there specific stuff that you studied there?
PH: Well, it was a liberal arts school, so I mean, you take a wide variety of liberal arts subjects, math and science, language, religion, philosophy, history, all of those things, and then I took economics courses, took English courses, writing courses. Lets see, things like that.
AK/EB: Could you describe your college years?
PH: I could. I was not a wonderful student because I didn't spend very much time at it. I had a pretty good time in college. Wasted a lot of time. But my college experience was a very good one, I mean, I learned a lot, in spite of myself. I was able to remember more about it then I thought when I was alone. And I think the value is not in college or perhaps needing higher education. The endeavor is not what you learn, it is not the facts that you learn, but it's the way that your mind responds to situations, how you learn. So you're really learning to learn. How to approach problems, how to think about things critically, and so on. That's kinda, you know, what I did.
AK/EB: Where there many political activities on the campus?
PH: No. Not at the time.
AK/EB: Was there a general awareness of national world events among the students?
PH: I'd say that was not high on the list of things that students did. They were not at the time politically active . There was some social activism, but very little. It did not have wide support. I don't think that students were really all that concerned about world events, pretty much about going to college.
AK/EB: Was the curriculum kind of relevant to your life? That you learned?
PH: Yeah, I think so. I'm a very strong believer in liberal arts education, you know, I think somebody that goes into the scientific field and then never studies a foreign language or never takes a course in English, or never studies history beyond the high school level, you know, is very short changing themselves in terms of life. Because you don't have a very broad perspective of what is going on.
AK/EB: Was there one instructor or class that really had a profound effect on you?
PH: I think so. I had an English teacher whose name was Charles Lloyd who to me was the kind of teacher that I really, really appreciated and responded to. And he was one of these people who was intellectually curious. He was interested in everything. And he could relate everything together. And so it wasn't that you would be just studying literature, you were learning how that related to things happening in the world at the time, and things happening now. This was not a humanities course as such, but it had that kind of focus to it. And it really made you, made all the students want to learn and, you know, curious about things. So that was, I'd say, one of the more influential teachers that I had.
AK/EB: Did the Cuban Missle Crisis or the Cold War have an effect on your life?
PH: You mean during this time, during college?
PH: The Cuban Missle Crisis was in `62, which was right before I graduated. I graduated in `63. It was an event that did capture everybody's attention, along with events like the Berlin Crisis, like our great involvement in Southeast Asia, trouble in the Dominican Republic and things like that, all sort of influenced my life because it became apparent that I was going to be drafted, and there were some colleges that had mandatary ROTC, which all. Most everybody there did. And a lot of people went on to take the last two years of ROTC so you got a commission in either the Army or the Marine Corps, but since I had gone to miliary academy, I didn't have to do that. So, I did not have the opportunity for a commission out of college, so that's when I said well, I'd rather be in the Navy then I would in the Army.
AK/EB: Was 1960 and the election of JFK an important turning point for you?
PH: Um. I probably would not have voted for JFK. And so I wouldn't say it was a turning point for me. I was impressed by him in many, many ways, but I would say, by that time, I was more conservative then he was at that time.
AK/EB: Did his assassination have any effect on you? When he was killed?
PH: It did. That was, I was actually out of college and I was in preflight in Pensacola when that occurred, out in the middle of preparing to go to flight school. And that occurred and of course it was a big reaction to that, wondering where that would lead to, wether the Russians were involved in any way in his assassination, that kind of thing. And in retrospect, you know, his death at that time had a much more profound effect on world events, which in turn effected my life, years after that.
AK/EB: What did you know about the counter-culture?
PH: The counter-culture. During the early Sixties. Well, we knew about it, had some hippies. The counter-culture was not very underway except in terms of hippies, beatniks, beatniks before hippies, that was the term. People, those people are the ones who let their hair grow longer then I have mine, that kind of thing. And dressed in non-traditional ways and were sort of anti-establishment. But I'd been, you know, familiar with them through literature, I mean you study the beat poets, and authors, who write about that and so on, and it wasn't for me, but I didn't have a particular dislike for those who were interested in that kind of thing. But later on, when they became politically involved, you know, over the issues of the war and everything, then my attitude definitely changed.
AK/EB: Could you describe your wardrobe in the Sixties?
PH: My wardrobe. Hum, in the Sixties, well, for the most part I dressed sort of I guess you would say, "Ivy League." And very conservative, you know, college wear. At certain times I know the fad was blue jeans and a white dress shirt. Other times it was Madress, do you know what Madress is? It's kind of an Indian print that the dyes are not fast and they "bleed" and they get softer in color. They're very colorful and they're all different. That was a big fad. Penny loafers and things like that. Although I had a more untraditional approach to clothes at various times. And was considered to be fairly daring, departure from the standard. When we were in high school more than when we were in college.
AK/EB: What did you think the clothes revealed about the person?
PH: I guess at the time I thought it would be a good deal, not everything, but I guess people were judged more, you know, by what they wore, then perhaps now.
AK/EB: What were your favorite musical groups during the Sixties or ?
PH: Um, well, I liked rock and roll, but I, when the Beatles came along, I began to lose interest. I was never caught up in the Beatles stuff, you know there were a few songs that I liked. About my favorite would have been somebody like Ray Charles, Little Richard, tended to be the Aretha Franklin, you know, mostly black, black entertainers.
AK/EB: Did you ever attend any concerts?
PH: Oh yeah. Particularly, well I went to a lot of them. In Charlotte they had a coliseum there where they had rock and roll shows. And I went to lots of them.. Elvis, saw Elvis a bunch of times, Little Richard, all the groups, and all the Fifties style rock and roll, Chuck Berry, that kind.
AK/EB: Was discrimination against women a problem?
PH: A problem? It was for my mother, who was a working women, and she would be paid less then men doing the same job that she did. And that always bothered me, bothered her, and I thought that was in a way the most unfair part of discrimination against women. They weren't paid for doing the same thing that a man does.
AK/EB: Did you follow political and social issues while you were in high school or college?
PH: Well, as I said, people were not politically very active in college. So there wasn't a lot to that. At that time.
AK/EB: Did you follow the civil rights movement?
PH: Yes, this was, you know, during Martin Luther King's sort of prime. We did, we, well of course, it had impact on the local schools and things like that in terms of. First of all, separate but equal facilities. And then they decided that that wasn't what they wanted, and so then you had integration, but all of that was really after I was out of school. They were no blacks in my college until after I left, aside from foreign exchange students.
AK/EB: Were there any rallies or teach-ins at the campus or elsewhere that you attended or knew about?
PH: Rallies. Very few. I had an English teacher who ordered us to rally over some social issue, and he really encouraged the students to go to it, and I didn't, because I just, it wasn't something I believed in. It was not a big deal. So, there weren't those kinds of things. This is before `65, you know, so political activism on campus was not anything like it was in 1968.
AK/EB: Did they have any impression on you?
PH: The rallies and stuff?
AK/EB: Yeah. Did they effect you?
PH: Not profoundly. I mean, I had never been one to get out and wave a sign or protest or anything like that, it was just not something that I was going to be involved in. I would not say that they had any effect on me one way or another.
AK/EB: We're going to move on to focusing on the military service.
AK/EB: So you said you did not do the ROTC?
PH: No, I didn't.
AK/EB: You spoke about miliary school. Was that in high school?
PH: High school.
AK/EB: You went to the military academy?
PH: Right, Uh-huh.
AK/EB: And did you go there because you figured you'd sort of be in the Army anyway, so you went there?
PH: No, I didn't. I really went there for sort of disciplinary reasons. I mean I went on my own accord, but I realized that I needed some more structure in my life and some more discipline and direction. And that certainly provided that.
AK/EB: Was there any history of military service in your family?
PH: Yes, a good deal, actually. My grandfather served in World War I, my father served in World War II, my first cousin was killed in World War II, and awarded the Medal of Honor, I've got lots of relatives who served in, I have a brother who served in Desert Storm. But, in spite of that, I don't ever. Most of that occurred on my father's side, aside from my grandfather.
AK/EB: So when you went into it, were you planning to make a career out of it?
PH: When I went into the military academy?
PH: Absolutely not! As a matter of fact, when I graduated from there, I, the school could make appointments to the service academies and I did well enough there that I had an appointment to the Naval Academy, which I turned down. Because I didn't want to make the military a career, and I didn't, after having, you know spent years in a military academy environment, I didn't want to spend four more.
AK/EB: So what were the circumstances surrounding your assignment to Vietnam?
PH: Well, I finished all of my flight training and so on, and there was a question of where you requested to go, and the Vietnam War, particularly the aerial part, you know, was just starting, and I figured if you're going to be in aviation and fly fighters, you know, that's the place to be. So I volunteered to join the squadron that was leaving fairly quickly for Vietnam.
And it was the, I was on the East Coast, you know, so the East Coast Navy and the West Coast Navy, and most of the carriers that went to Vietnam to combat came from the West Coast, and this ship, it turned out, was the only East Coast carrier to go to Vietnam, so I was one of the few East Coast folks to go. And it was an idea that was kind of the place to go and do your job, and it was something that was worthwhile doing in spite of the fact that at the time I didn't know that much about it, and I don't think anybody else in the squadron did either.
AK/EB: So what did you believe the presence of America in Southeast Asia to be? The domino effect or anything like that?
PH: Well, what I understood and believed I think at the time was that the communists in North Vietnam with of support of China and the Soviet Union, were attempting to overthrow the government in South Vietnam, and that would be a preview to overtaking the other countries in the area, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, perhaps further then that. And we were sort of drawing the line in the sand, saying, this is where you stop, you know, and that that was worthwhile doing. And that the South Vietnamese people desired democracy and did not want to be communists and that that was worth, you know, trying to make sure that they weren't enslaved by communism.
AK/EB: Did you know any pilots who didn't agree with that?
PH: Not in my squadron, no. Everybody pretty much understood. We had no, there was one thing with the Vietnamese later, that I think came to understand. We did not go through the same sort of indoctrination that the Vietnamese went through, with the communists. You know, about the political issues of the war and things like that. There were sort of country briefings about, you know, the country, how many people were there and that kind of thing, but there was no attempt to sell us a party line on what the war was about.
AK/EB: So, where did you serve in Vietnam?
PH: Well, on the Yankee Station and Dixie Station, and those are two sort of places in the South China Sea that the carriers operate from. And you fly the missions from the carriers. So if you're on Dixie Station, you were flying against targets all over South Vietnam, wherever thy might be. If you were on Yankee Station, you were flying against targets anywhere in North Vietnam.
AK/EB: You did both?
AK/EB: So how many missions do you think you went on?
AK/EB: Seventy-five. So how many years were you in Vietnam before you were captured?
PH: About six months.
AK/EB: Six months. And do you feel that you had been adequately prepared to go over there by the Air Force?
PH: Um. Well, I, you know, I did at the time, I went to survival schools, we went to another survival school, we went to the Philippines over there, that kind of thing. Well, looking back on it, you know, I can see that the preparation could have been a lot better. At the time it seemed alright, in retrospect, it could have been a lot better.
AK/EB: Were you do you think mentally prepared for being in the middle of the war?
PH: Yeah, I did not have much problem with that part of it.
AK/EB: So could you describe the events leading up to your capture?
PH: Well, I was on a mission, part of a large strike. The large planned strikes were called Alpha Strikes. And they were planned sort of in Washington, and they were fairly important targets, and our mission was the largest Alpha strike up until that point of the war. And it was to hit a target, targets north of Hanoi, which largely we had not flown very much up there at all. And it was to cut a railroad bridge from China, so the beginning of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail, if you will. And to knock out certain SAM sites and things like that. There were about 35 aircraft from our carrier. There was another carrier that was delayed about a half an hour, it had maybe 30 airplanes in the strike, and the Air Force was flying missions against a bridge and SAM sights in the same general area from Thailand. All that was coordinated in the one big strike, and at the briefing for that mission, we had [unintelligable] Pack, who was commander in chief of Pacific forces, who really militarily ran the war, particularly the Navy part of it, so it was a very important mission, and because there were so many aircraft on the mission, we all wound up flying towards the end of this formation, and our mission was basically to fight it out with their aircraft, you know, to protect the bombers that were bombing the bridge, and that kind of thing.
Because there were so many of us, and we were flying very low level to avoid the SAM missiles, and we were fairly slow because we got all the airplanes with us that had a lot of bombs and stuff, we became very vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. And we took a hit from anti-aircraft fire at a fairly low level, and so it became apparent that the aircraft wasn't going to make it. I ejected at a fairly low level, I could quite soon after that hear gunfire from the ground, they were shooting at me coming down, and I could see a village about a mile away, and so when I landed, I got out of my parachute and all that, and I started going the opposite direction from this village, from where they were shooting, and so on. And it was, there was really no place to go. It 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 that side of the hill rather then this one. But I never made it over there, I just ran out of steam and you know, they were too close, and that kind of thing, and so, they surrounded me in about 20 minutes, I'd say. And these were mostly just villagers with antiquated weapons and so on, and so I was taken off to the village, and put in this kind of mud hut while they looked at all my equipment and stuff, and were curious. They had never seen an American before, and after a while, the local militia or army guys came in a Jeep and we began the trip to Hanoi.
AK/EB: Did you recollect any others from planes that were flying with you?
PH: Yeah. I knew that at least one other airplane had been shot down on the trip. I was shot down before we ever got to the target, and I knew that at least one other airplane was shot down as they came back out, and I knew that there was another Jeep who had picked this guy up, and that there were two Jeeps that were going together. So I knew at least one other airplane had been shot down, and as soon as I got to Hanoi, and had an opportunity, you know, I found out that in fact there had been three airplanes shot down.
AK/EB: The rest of that mission, was that successful? The ones who didn't get shot down?
PH: Yeah, Yes it was. Although my squadron lost three airplanes that day. One made it back to the ship, but it was shot up so bad that it never flew again.
AK/EB: So what were your first two weeks of capture like? Or the first two, couple days or stuff like that?
PH: Well, I was in a, taken to what we know now as the Hanoi Hilton, which is Hue Lo prison, which is in sort of downtown Hanoi, and I was put in one of the interrogation rooms there, and I still had my flight suit on, but no boots or anything, and was interrogated for maybe six or eight hours a day, for three or four days, and then, following that, I was put into another prison cell which was part of a block of cells that we call Heartbreak Hotel, which turned out was sort of where you were in-processed. And there they took away my flight suit and I got a sort of cotton pajama after that, that we wore. And, you know, a tin cup and a few other little things, and I stayed there for about 2 weeks, and had at least one or two interrogations every day, and lots of threats, but not a whole lot of violence.
And so 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 you know, have a great life. But if I didn't, I would be moved to a worse place, a different place, and not be a lot of fun, and so I got moved to the worse place. In fact there was not a better place there. So I moved to another camp that had just been sort of converted for Americans. It had been a French film studio. Quite unusual. But they had converted all these buildings, you know, into cell blocks, and so on. And that's where I went.
AK/EB: What did they want to know in the interrogations?
PH: Well, they mostly wanted to know who I was and where I came from, and about my family, and you know, that kind of thing, but they were mostly interested in what kind of airplane I was flying, what ship I was off of. Before I got to Hanoi, we had stopped in a village and I had sort of an interrogation by a guy who did not speak English. But he had a little phrase book in which he could write down the questions and then he would try to get me to write the answers, and they wanted to know what was the next target, stuff like that, that I didn't know anyway, even if I had been inclined to talk to them, I didn't know that kind of thing, anyway, because I was very junior, you know, in the squadron, I just.
AK/EB: When you first crashed, were you just happy that you survived, or?
PH: Well, in a way I was and in a way I was not sure. I remember when the aircraft was headed towards the ground, it crossed my mind, you know, for a brief moment, whether I wanted to get out or just stay with it. Because 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 that decision.
AK/EB: So could you describe a typical day as a prisoner of war? If there was one.
PH: Well, there was not a typical day, because it lasted, I mean I was there for 7 1/2 years. And at different periods, well, you could say a typical day. If you lived alone, there was a typical day. If you had one cell mate, there might be another typical day. If you lived with say, in a group of eight or nine, or something like that, there might be a typical day. Or if later on you lived in a group of 40 or 50, there would be a typical day. So those things changed over time.
But I will describe basically a sort of a daily routine that might be. Well, first of all, we lived under what they called camp regulations. And these regulations said that you were not permitted to communicate in any way with other prisoners. You were not permitted to make any noise in your cell, you could not even speak out loud. Everything was a whisper. You weren't allowed to bring anything into your cell that wasn't given to you by the Vietnamese. And they didn't give anything, aside from cotton pajamas.
After a while, we got some like shower shoes, sandals, rubber, We had a tin cup, we had a straw mat and one little thin cotton blanket. Not much else. And they rang this gong quite early in the morning, just about dawn, and you were expected to get up and fold up your stuff and make it neat on your floor mat. I had a mosquito net, very, very important. That was one of the few humane things that they did was give us a mosquito net. And then you may go to interrogation in the morning. 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 and a little stuff in it, a bowl of rice, and then perhaps something else. A little fat or something.
And then we did. They did give us 3 cigarettes a day. One in the morning, one after that meal and then one in the evening. You had no matches, I mean, they brought them around and you got a light from them. And then, there would be an afternoon meal and if you were lucky, you might get out to do something, like wash the dishes, or something like that. On rare occasions, you might get to take a bath.
You might have two interrogations during that day. And then you might listen to propaganda broadcasts. From our point of view, we spent a lot of time communicating with others. We were not permitted to do that, but we did it. So we spent a lot of time doing that, I spent a lot of time trying to stay in shape, you know, doing exercises, calisthenics, whatever I could do. You spent a lot of time in mental activities, trying to stay busy, you know, and then they rang the gong again, and time to go to bed. You got to put mosquito net down and get in there and go to bed. And that's about the extent of the activities for the majority of the time.
AK/EB: So how exactly did you maintain physical strength, did you do push-ups and sit-ups?
PH: Push-ups and sit-ups, and sometimes you would use light irons or something. You couldn't do very much of anything like that, and so, I don't know if you're familiar with the term isometrics? Which was sort of a new thing in the late Fifties early Sixties. And it was exercises that you could do without a lot of equipment, and you used one set of muscles against another. So you could essentially do arm exercises by doing that, and reversing the position like that, you could press your legs against your arms like that, like that, and you could actually exercise almost every muscle in your body that way. And so we did a lot of that, and I did a lot of walking if we could in a very confined space, but do a lot of walking. Then we kind of did whatever time and diet allowed.
AK/EB: So you said you look forward to washing dishes and is that?
PH: We'd use anything to get to do something, and to get outside the cell. You didn't want interrogation, but you know, any kind of work outside, carrying things, occasionally they had these long kind of bamboo brooms, just bundles of bamboo sticks, and kind of sliced up thin, bound together, and they used those to sweep with, and so sometimes we would go out and sweep the walkways and around, clean up stuff. Which was great, go outside, cause you got to see something different and do something, and so on.
AK/EB: So how exactly did you communicate with other prisoners?
PH: Mostly by what we call a tap code. And at first it was just, you know, just tapping through the walls, tapping the numbers with through the walls, and then later we found that anyway you could communicate numbers 1-5, you could use to communicate, and so we had all kinds of ways. Like if you went out to sweep the walks, you could sweep these numbers. You could sweep the coordinates, and do you know what the tap code was like?
PH: Do you work with computers? A spreadsheet. Think of a spreadsheet that has five rows, five columns. Okay, the coordinates are just numbers 1-5 for the rows, and 1-5 for the column. So those two numbers were our coordinates with the letters of the alphabet in there to identify a cell, so you can identify a letter. And so that kind of was it, you know, a tap like this, XX XXX would be second row, third column, which would be the letter H. That was sort of it.
AK/EB: So did you ever get caught doing that?
PH: I never did it.
AK/EB: Did you know anybody who did?
PH: Oh yeah, a lot of people did. And the punishment for getting caught communicating was, could be quite severe. And about the least you could expect would be to be beaten some and then to spend two weeks in leg irons and handcuffs.
AK/EB: Did you have any friends that were prisoners and that you recognized when you got into camp and were any of them other aircraft pilots?
PH: Yeah, there were two other people from my squadron who were there, and then one person who was from another squadron off of our ship that I knew but not real well, and then there were, there was a guy who was already there who was off of my ship. He had been shot down before I was. I did not know him, but I knew who he was, and eventually I was able to talk to him.
AK/EB: Was there any guard in particular that everybody feared or?
PH: Yeah, they had some, most of the guards and interrogators and so on were selected because of their political loyalty. They didn't want anybody that was going to be corrupted by Americans, you know, and so they were a real grab-bag of folks, some of them quite sadistic. And so there was one particular guard who seemed to be the local expert on torture methods. So you can imagine, he was real popular. There was an interrogator who was very quick to torture you or punish you if things didn't go exactly right, so the interrogator's name "Bug". He had real funny, buggy eyes, and he was psychotic, I think. There were a number of people that we did not like.
AK/EB: Do you think that the Vietnamese obtained valuable information from interrogations, or was it always?
PH: I don't think that they did. Certainly not in any significant way. Almost everybody was going to either refuse to talk to them, or if they were forced to them, were going to lie to them or deceive them or something. And so I don't think they got very much information that was useful. They got a lot of stuff, you know, but we tried very hard to make sure that what they did get, you know, was not useful to them, which in a way, was not all that difficult, because they didn't have anybody there who had been educated in the United States. They had no one who had learned English in the United States. So their knowledge of the language, idioms and humor and even accents, you know, were fairly foreign to them. And so you could use of their ignorance against them. So you could play games with them, you know, deceive them. You could make them believe some real ridiculous stuff.
For example, there was a guy who was forced to draw a schematic diagram of the aircraft carrier. And so when he did, I mean, it was really based upon a lot of things that he learned to be pre-conceptions by the Vietnamese. One is that all Americans were wealthy and decadent and used to, you know, nightlife and all this kind of stuff, and so they naturally assumed that there would be all those things aboard a carrier, nightclubs and bars, and you know, stuff like this. They also did not image living without pigpens and chicken coops and rice storage, and you know, stuff like that. And so this guy drew them a picture of an aircraft carrier that had all those things, you know, and swimming pools, and casinos, and pigpens, everything. And they, you know, at the time, this is fairly early, at the time, you know, they didn't really question it. Later on they had much better sources of information from outside, that they did know the truth.
AK/EB: So this was mainly the first few years that you were in prison, so this would be what years?
PH: Well, I was shot down in 65, so well, this kind of thing, I was really interrogated up through 1969, but there was significant changes that occurred. First of all, in 1966, in the summer, prior to that time, the Vietnamese, as I said, really weren't torturing people. They didn't. They would be beaten and live in horrible conditions and so on, but they really weren't torturing people. And they really didn't understand exactly what they wanted. They just wanted you to talk to them, they wanted to learn stuff, you know, some obvious stuff about the number of missions, targets and stuff that you had before. But they didn't really want to know how they were going to use us, so in the summer of `66, we bombed close to Hanoi, in Hanoi. These petroleum, oil, lubricant storage areas, and that really got their attention, you know, they were quite upset about that, that we had bombed Hanoi. That had been off limits up till then. Hanoi and Haiphong were off limits.
And so they organized a, sort of a demonstration. They marched us down the streets of Hanoi, handcuffed, in pairs, and we sort of ran the gauntlet there to the extent that I thought 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 essentially level Hanoi, bomb it back to the Stone Age. So they didn't do that, but then, what they did, the treatment changed rather dramatically. I mean, they were much harsher, they began to torture people. They knew the kind of things that they wanted to get from us, and we knew we had a choice to make as to giving it to them or you take your licks. Most people chose to take the licks. And so that dramatically changed the way we lived. I had finally gotten a cell mate when that occurred and after that, we were back in solitary confinement for another year.
So that was pretty rough, from the summer of `66 to the end of `69, and `69 is when Ho Chi Min died and they realized by now that we hated them and that we were never going to cooperate with them voluntarily and 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, and I think, you see, they relied very heavily on the antiwar movement as the thing that would eventually allow them to win the war. That if American support for the war went away, because such that politicians couldn't continue, and you know, we would leave and then they could invade South Vietnam. And when, and that's exactly what happened. You know, they told me, they kept telling me when I was first shot down that the war could last 5, 10, 15, 20 years, which to me was absolutely incomprehensible, and had I believed it at the time, I probably would have cut my throat at the first opportunity, but . Could you wait just a little while?
So after I had been there for five years, you know, I could see what their plan was now, because most of what they wanted to do was to generate propaganda that would try and convince people that the war was hopeless, wrong, or something like that. But I think that they saw so many people getting upset about and concerned about the way we were treated, and people who were against the war, would not go so far as to support them if they felt Americans were being treated that way, so. In late `69, early `70, they really changed the way they treated us, and for example, most of us had never written home or gotten any mail or anything like that, and they began to let us do that. On a very limited basis, but still, it was something. And we got better food, we got more exercise outside, we began to get some small packages from home, and get things like vitamin pills and so on. After 1970, conditions were not great, but they got a lot better than they had been before.
AK/EB: So how long did you go without hearing another American voice?
PH: Not very long. Because we always, we set up communications pretty quickly, and there were opportunities to speak, you know, if the guards were not around and that kind of thing. And you took a chance, but as I say, when I first got to the Heartbreak Hotel, we could, there were times during the day when we could all talk. The guards, and there was only one entrance to this. They could watch this and you could talk and get away with it. But I was only there for like two weeks, and once I moved away, I didn't actually talk to anybody for quite a few months after that. It was all just, you know, tapping on the walls and stuff like that.
AK/EB: Did you ever get any information about America while you were there? Any updates on the war or?
PH: Only from other Americans who were shot down and captured, in terms of accurate information. We got a lot of communist reporting about the war, propaganda and so on, and you could. You learned to sort of read between the lines and to understand how much they exaggerated things. If they said they shot down 10 airplanes, you figure they probably did get one. If they said they shot down 3, you knew they didn't get any. That kind of thing.
AK/EB: So were there any prisoners coming in, telling you that the people back home were not supporting the war or anything like that?
PH: Well, there were people who were reporting that there was more student unrest and there were more peace demonstrations, and things like that, but they also said, you know, that it certainly was not to the extent that the Vietnamese would have us believe. But, in 1968, though, President Johnson stopped the air war in the north, and so we stopped getting sources of information. So from that time until 1972, we really didn't have that source.
AK/EB: So did that anger you at all, hearing about student protests?
PH: It did. Because from our point of view, that simply prolonged the war. It made the government less able to prosecute the war the way that we felt, you know, was needed in order to win, and we were increasingly frustrated by the military strategy that was being used. It was not effective, and yet there were all these political constraints. Things like that, and the Vietnamese were so involved in trying to cultivate this antiwar movement that we eventually sort of threw them all in the same basket. You know, the antiwar movement was our enemy. And so we sort of had that attitude through most of the time.
AK/EB: Did you get used to? I mean, you must have been really scared at first, when you got in there. Did you just, you know, accept it?
PH: Well, I mean, like anything else, you can get used to conditions over time, you know, if you have to, and it was physically difficult to get used to the food and diet. There wasn't much food, and it wasn't very good, and so your body takes a long time to adjust to that. But it did after a while, you know, I stopped losing weight and you weren't squeamish about eating anything, you know. And eventually, I mean, you learned to cope with situations, like you would in any situation. You just, it was maybe a longer period of adjustment then ordinarily. So, that, I mean you never fully get completely adjusted to conditions that are sort of difficult. You can't.
AK/EB: I was wondering one thing. How big was your cell block?
PH: Well, I mean, that again, varied. The first one that I was in Hanoi Hilton I could take three steps, one way, one direction, and it had built, I would say it was like 7 ft by 6 ft.
AK/EB: I just wanted to know what your area was.
PH: Later on, when there were a lot of people together, I mean, you know, the cells were a lot bigger. Like I lived with 8 other people in a cell that was maybe roughly this size, if you can imagine. Eight of us.
AK/EB: Was it so much like a jail, like cement and everything, or was it a grass hut, or what was it built of?
PH: They were mostly brick buildings. They had tile roofs for the most part. It all depended, you know, they were made out of, some of them were warehouses, some were old schools, or whatever. I lived in about 8 different kinds of prisons. And two of them had been build by the French during the French colonial period, and there were real jails and you know, I didn't think I could probably escape from either of those, but the others were makeshift enough that I thought I could get out if I really had to.
AK/EB: Did you every know of anybody who escaped, or did you attempt to?
PH: I didn't attempt it. There were some who did. Mostly those were sort of escapes of opportunity, you know, but we found out that the real prison was the country, not the prison itself. We looked different than the people and didn't speak the language, didn't have any clothes, whatever. We weren't carrying water. Anything. And you had a long, long way to go through the highly populated country. And nobody successfully escaped from North Vietnam.
AK/EB: Did you know if your wife was aware that you were alive?
PH: Not for the first year and half. I had been declared killed, and the Vietnamese didn't let anybody know I was there. So it was about a year and half before she found out I was alive.
AK/EB: Besides family, what did you miss most while you were a prisoner?
PH: Freedom. I guess your life was pretty much controlled by being in this cell for 24 hours per day.
AK/EB: So was 1968 a significant year as a prisoner?
PH: Actually, it was. A bunch of different things happened. The fact that Johnson essentially stopped the air war in the north in 1968, was a very significant event. The fact that in retrospect, I didn't know it at the time, but my mother died in 1968, my grandfather died in 1968. It was right in the middle of the time when they were torturing people to get information, make them do things and so on. It was really a. And the fact that Johnson had decided not to run, rerun for reelection, and had stopped the bombing had caused a lot of optimism at the time. Because we could not imagine that he would have not made some agreement on our release. If he was ending the war in the north, then surely there would have been an agreement on the prisoner exchange, and there wasn't.
Also, let's see, in 1968, the Paris peace talks began. And again, we thought, well if they're starting that, you know, it can't last too much longer, they stopped the bombing, they started peace talks, and all that. And so even though things were really tough, you know, there were some things there that looked pretty good for us in getting out within the year, and, you know, by the end of 1968 it was apparent that that wasn't going to happen.
AK/EB: Did you get most of that information about Lyndon Johnson and all that through other pilots coming in?
PH: Well, no, because after he stopped the bombing in the north, we didn't get anymore. And most of that came from the Vietnamese, who, you know, were quite anxious to tell us that Johnson had decided not to run and all that. They were very hopeful, of course, that Hubert Humphry was going to win. He was the Vice President with Johnson. Of course he didn't, Richard Nixon did, which really. They didn't like that at all. They were afraid of Nixon.
AK/EB: So you final years as a POW, the conditions got a little less harsh?
AK/EB: And did you know that you were going to be released beforehand? I mean, months before?
PH: Well, we had some indication. We knew that we had recommenced the bombing in the North, and that we had mined Haiphong Harbor and that the negotiations had produced, that they were seriously negotiating and so on. When the bombing started in Hanoi, they moved about half of us up to China. Near China, not in China. Close to the border. And we pretty much figured that Nixon was not going to stop bombing until they had agreed to end the war. So when we finally moved back to Hanoi, and the bombing had stopped, and 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, you know, that we would be going home. And that was all part of the agreement that was signed January 27, 1973. And so they kept their word on that, they were required to let us have copies of the agreements and all that, so we knew that in there there was the schedule for prisoner exchange, and then, you know, two weeks later, we were issued new clothes, toothpaste, soap, all this kind of stuff, and take a bath, and we figured the next day was it. And it was.
AK/EB: After release, did anybody make an attempt to get back at any of the guards, or did you just want to get out?
PH: I think most people, first of all, we didn't want to do anything at all until everybody got out. We were thinking that they might retaliate against people who were there, to whoever was left. There really wasn't anyway anybody could retaliate even if they had wanted to. I mean, for myself, I just was so happy to be out of there, I said these people controlled my life for 8 years now essentially, and like they're not controlling anymore. I was going to leave all my hatred and everything at the gate. So I never had any idea of trying to get back at any of them.
There were, however, two Cubans that were the only.. They were the only foreigners who ever had any access to us, that we knew about. I think in retrospect, we knew that the Russians did interrogate three guys, but these guys were there for a year or longer, and they had their own special program. They selected certain people to be in that, and they were very, very brutal. And you could not fool them the way you could the Vietnamese. So since they did not stay in Vietnam, I know that there were various people anxious to track these folks down and to bring them justice. They haven't done that yet.
AK/EB: Do you know what types of things Cuba wanted to know, or Russia?
PH: It wasn't so much that. Well, Russian, I think they were. We had a Russian KGB agent who defected, who actually spoke here and I asked him that question, and he said that the KGB had interrogated three American pilots. What they were interested in was trying to recruit them as spies rather then trying to get the information out of them. That was not successful. The Cubans were there, I think more to help the Vietnamese learn how to control larger groups of prisoners, and we had been kept, you know, in solitary or very small groups up until about that time, in all isolated, you couldn't talk to one another. And they saw that the numbers of people that were, I mean, our numbers were growing enough that they were going to have to put people in larger groups, and yet they were not sure how to deal with us in larger groups, and so the Cubans were there to try and help them figure out how to do that. That's what they primarily did.
AK/EB: Was anybody in your camp picked by the Cubans to be interrogated?
PH: Yeah. Well you were not just interrogated, you were put into their program, you moved into their sort of cell block and everything, and you came under their complete control. I was very glad not to have been selected for that.
AK/EB: What did they do with somebody if they say starved to death or died?
PH: I don't know. I assume that they would bury it somewhere, and that we did have some people who died of various things while we were there. Most of them, you know, the remains of them, were returned and identified. But whether they were buried or somehow preserved otherwise, I don't know.
AK/EB: Was there any kind of, Did they try to publically torture someone to set an example or anything like that?
PH: No, not very often. Although you could certainly hear, you know, screams and so on, but no they didn't usually do that. You were alone and you were in a torture cell, and it wasn't done publically.
AK/EB: So could you describe your homecoming?
PH: Probably not. There were few words. I mean it was obviously a very, very emotional and happy time, and we were not, I think, prepared for the welcome that we got. Everybody just was going crazy with. With, We went to the hospital at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and it happened to be Valentines, right in February [14th] that we got out. And all the kids in the, I mean the American and Filippino in the schools there, had just absolutely plastered the walls of the hospital with Valentines for us. And, you know, we were just riding in the bus, you know, and just everybody was out there. And I was pretty much overwhelmed by the welcome home that we got. But the sad part about it was that we had found out later how poorly the returning GI'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 then war heros. And that really upset me.
AK/EB: Do you remember the first time you got to see yourself in the mirror? After returning were you a lot skinnier?
PH: Well, even in Vietnam, we managed to, we became like pack rats and thieves, and so at some point, I remember finding a piece of mirror about that big that we could use while we were there. A piece of comb about that big, about that long. But the first real good look that I got was in the Philippines in the hospital at Clark Air Force Base. And it was a little kind of shocking.
AK/EB: Yeah, it must have been. So did you have a lot of, you must have had a lot of anger towards the people who had treated the GI's badly. Did you have anger?
PH: Well, I did. I mean, but in a way, I was sort of sympathetic with a lot of the troubles, you know, during the Sixties because it was such a disruptive time. And the Vietnam War was such a difficult thing to deal with. Plus you had the racial development at that time, all kinds of things like that. Women's lib, racial issues. Some of them, I think it was one of the most disruptive periods in our history in terms of social fabric and so on.
AK/EB: At what point did you get to meet your family?
PH: Well, we stayed in the Philippines for four days, and the debriefs and medical exams, and stuff like that, then we flew from there to California, and then I flew from there to Jacksonville, where I met my wife, and then we came from Jacksonville to Atlanta, where she was living, and I met my daughter for the first time.
AK/EB: Wow, that's really. So looking back, how did your experience effect you from the time you left to the time you came back. Were you really a changed person?
PH: Well, I think I obviously matured a lot. As you would normally during that period of time, but I think I got, 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, you know, then you ever think it is. That you can get a lot more out of your mind and your body then you think you can if you are called on to do that. So, it just gave me a very, very different outlook on life, on what was important.
AK/EB: Were you grateful for a lot more things once you got back?
PH: Yeah, absolutely.
AK/EB: Have you kept in touch with any prisoners since?
PH: Yeah, I keep in touch with a lot of them. We have a newsletter that comes around.
In fact, one just came. I think, now where did I put it? We have a list server on the Internet, we have a reunion about every two years, and as a matter of fact, we are going for our 25th anniversary in Dallas, and I have a few prisoners that I keep in fairly close contact with.
AK/EB: Did your feelings about the war change after you returned?
PH: Well, I mean, I was curious to really know what really happened, and what really the issues were, because we didn't really allow ourselves to think about some of those things. We did not want to ever start any kind of political debate with the enemy. Nor did we want to do that among ourselves, and you know, have some people feel this way and some that way, and you know, you have division. We were trying to achieve unity, not the other way around. So there were a lot of things that I just had never allowed myself t think about very much, and so I thought about them a lot when I got home. And you know, I guess I have been a student of the war since then, its part of what I do, and I have a very, very different perspective then when we were there.
AK/EB: So you said, the military tactics could have been better?
PH: Much better, because, well, it all stems from policy, and that's one of the things that the war college is all about. It's to study the relationship between policies made by civilians and the military strategy in order to make that policy work. And so, even then, you know, we understood that the policy did not appear to be terribly clear. Nobody could actually articulate exactly why we were there, and if we were there for the reasons that were stated, maybe we weren't going about achieving those objectives in the right way militarily.
For example, I mean, you 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. You know, we didn't bomb Haiphong Harbor. 90% of the stuff that they relied on came from that harbor. And we just let them do it, because we were afraid of the subjects. We were afraid the risk of a conflict with the Soviets turning into nuclear.
AK/EB: Overall, how would you say the Sixties affected you and the United States in general?
PH: I would say it was one of the most traumatic periods that we have ever gone through aside from the Civil War. I think the social changes, the very, very disruptive things that happened in society, to split the American society apart, was the most dramatic since the Civil War. And, I'm not sure that I personally would not lay the blame for a lot of problems that we have today with drugs and things like that at the door of the Sixties, because prior to that time, drugs were just not an issue.
Jazz musicians took drugs, and there were heroin addicts and stuff like that. There were a few here and there. The beatniks and the hippies perhaps were used to it, but it was not, it was not a societal problem. And I think as a result, you know, our society has dramatically changed in terms of moral values, in terms of what people believe in, what people work for, the way they raise their children, the way our schools are run, I mean, some of it has been good. A lot of it has been good. I mean, we obviously needed some rather dramatic things to happen in race relations in order to force a change in some of those areas. Obviously, the issue of women's rights was an important one that needed to be addressed. You know, we still are struggling with both of those things. You know, and I'm not sure that the attitudes and approaches that were done in the Sixties were the best way to go. It appeared to be at the time, but I'm not sure now.
AK/EB: Which changes did you think had the most positive or negative effects on the country?
PH: Hum. Most positive. Well, I just mentioned the ones that I think were the most negative, and I think the increased use of drugs, the fact that young people drank and smoked and took drugs at a younger and younger age, teen pregnancy, all sort of exploded. That there was a much more permissive environment that kids grew up in about those kinds of things. Kids were subjected to things at a younger and younger age, you know, pressures that they were not prepared to deal with, decisions about pregnancy and about sex and about drugs and about honesty. All kinds of things like that. And I think that was the worst part of it, was the permissiveness and the change in values in society.
What the most positive was, I think, I thought for a while that, you know, the improved race relations was the most positive thing. You know, that they would have violence in Watts and you know, things like that, and going through the Black Panthers, and sort of gotten over that, and now could make progress towards real improvement in race relations. And now I see, things kinda of turned around again. I think there's a real kind of a backlash in, I think race relations are deteriorating again.
And I think it is because, you got me on a soapbox now, but I think its because we have ceased to be a melting pot society that this political correctness and diversity and everything seems to permeate so many decisions in what we do. If you think about it, our society was really built on integration, you know, immigrants come here and they are assimilated into society in order to speak English. They get jobs, it's the land of opportunity, and they came here for the opportunity and they become Americans. You know, within one generation the kids are fully American.
And now, with diversity and all of this, and the fact that in order to correct past discrimination if you will, that now you are permitted to have things like Black History Week, and black fraternities, and black political action things, and black this and black that. But if you ever tried to have a white, an exclusively white movement or day or anything, you know, white power day or something like that, it would be viewed very differently. And I think that this is beginning to have a divisive effect on society rather then helping to bring people together, that the ones who are not the beneficiaries of affirmative action and all of that, you know, are beginning to get tired of it, but particularly since it does not seem to have achieved very much of what it initially was supposed to be. So.
AK/EB: How would you compare the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon?
PH: Well, Kennedy was in office too short a time for there to be a real assessment I think, but a lot of people have thought about it, and I have thought about it, and basically Kennedy had lots of good ideas. I think he certainly in terms of military relations, I mean he saw that the kinds of threats that we faced in addition to nuclear were quite different and he prepared for that. He started the Peace Corps on one hand, and he started special forces on the other, so he had lots of energy, lots of ideas. He was very bright. He was a well respected world leader after the Cuban Missile Crisis, you know, he was even respected by the Soviets, by Kruschev. I think had he lived, he would have been a great president.
Johnson, although I have some sympathy for his position, and he was mostly interested in his Great Society programs, and he was attempting to deal with the Vietnam War at the same time that he was trying to preserve his great society programs, welfare programs. And he, you know, you couldn't do both, so he didn't do either very well. He made terrible mistakes, you know, in judgement during the war, which were of great consequence to everybody, and I have very little respect for him as president.
Nixon, I have a great deal of respect for. Primary, not for his domestic policies, but for his foreign policies, and you know, there is a personal connection. He is the president that did what was necessary to bring us back, to end the war finally, you know, and so I mean I think it is tragic that he became sort of paranoid about things, and felt that he had to do the things that he did that were obviously wrong and really destroyed his presidency, and in many ways, had a tremendously detrimental effect on the Office of the President, and on government in general. I mean, I think there was a lot less respect for elective officials, there is a lot less trust of what the president might say, no matter who he is, simply because Nixon demonstrated that he would and could lie to the American people. Not that, I mean, Johnson had, too, but he didn't get caught in the dramatic way that Nixon did. And, I think the aftermath of Nixon's presidency is quite unfortunate in terms of his brilliance as a foresight policy author. I think history will show that he was really the best that we have had for a long time.
AK/EB: Looking back at the Vietnam conflict from the perspective of the Ninties, has your opinion of the war changed?
PH: Quite a lot, I would say, although I'm not sure it has to do with the perspective of the Ninties, its just that we know more and more about what actually happened, because more and more records are available and that kind of thing. And we spent more time thinking about that.
AK/EB: Have you visited the Vietnam War Memorial or seen a replica of it?
PH: Yes, I visited it several times.
AK/EB: What was your response to it?
PH: It's a very, very powerful experience emotionally. And one that I didn't think would be. I thought I was prepared for it, even though people said that it was. I didn't see how it was possible, but it really was. Emotionally overwhelming to see it. And you know, when you see some friends name on it, it's, you know.
AK/EB: How do you feel about young people like us still striving to answer questions about American involvement in the Vietnam War and the whole decade of the 1960's.
PH: I think that's a wonderful thing. I think that the need to understand both the Sixties and the issues around the Vietnam War are something essential if you're going to be an American and understand our society and how to vote and how to think about things, and how to enter the political debate, that without an understanding of the war, without an understanding of the social movements of the Sixties that you're not really ever going to approach that from a very knowledgable base. So I think this kind of thing is great because you have no conscious memory of any of these things, I mean you have to do it this way.
AK/EB What advice would you give us?
PH: Well I guess to keep an open mind and ask critical questions, don't believe a whole lot of what you see on TV, to believe maybe a little more what you read in the newspapers, but not a whole lot. I think it's important for young people to stay in the debate, y'know, to try and understand what went on so that you can make judgements about what's goin' on now.
AK/EB Are than any more stories that you want to tell us that you want to touch base on?
PH: I guess there are a lot of `em but I've probably talked long enough..