This Memorial Day, as we honor those who gave all, my thoughts are with the MIA/POWs who gave so much of their lives living — no, not living in the regular sense of the word — just existing under deplorable, torturous conditions.
I just finished reading Admiral Jerimiah Denton’s book “When Hell Was in Session,” which describes in horrid detail the 7 ½ years he lived in “tiger cages” and solitary confinement and endured a regimen of daily torture and starvation. Tiger cages were bamboo cages so small that the prisoner could not lie down or get comfortable in any way. They were used in the smaller camps before the prisoners reached the “Hanoi Hilton,” a dilapidated old French prison in Hanoi. He lost more than 100 pounds in four years. In those first four years of his imprisonment, he saw only one other American.
The American he met was the executive officer of VA-36, an attack squadron I spent almost four years in. Commander Jim Mulligan was a hard-nosed officer, especially to the junior officers, who feared but respected him. He was a devout Catholic, recited the Rosary twice a day and also repeated the names and branch of service of any American POWs he encountered.
Denton always will be remembered for the SOS he blinked that informed the United States authorities that the POWs were being tortured. He blinked “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” repeatedly as a Japanese TV crew filmed a Vietnam propaganda film. The film was shown at the ongoing peace talks in Paris to the great embarrassment of the North Vietnamese and got Red Cross inspection teams into the camps, which reduced the miserable treatment for the last few years of their captivity.
Mulligan spent almost eight years in captivity and memorized more than 300 names in alphabetical order and still can do so, even though he is in his early 80s today. I saw the XO (executive officer) at a squadron reunion a few years back, and he said his deep faith in God brought him through those terrible years. The XO also wrote a great book on his captivity, “The Hanoi Commitment,” which is a testimony to his faith and love of this country. The XO lives in Virginia Beach, Va., where he left his wife and seven children to make his (unknown to him) last cruise to Vietnam and final Navy cruise.
Denton passed away two months ago. After his naval career ended, he was elected to Congress from South Alabama and served two terms.
Two other Navy aviators from VA-36 were shot down and spent their time in hell during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lt. Ray Alcorn, who still is alive, came back from six years of captivity and is one of the rare survivors who was fit enough to fly again. He finished his naval career and retired as a commander. Commander Kenneth Cameron was my division officer when I was a young, wild 19-year-old. He was a rather big man, 6-foot-2, with shocking red hair. He was an outgoing, wonderful officer who had left the Navy after flying in the Korean War and worked several years as an FBI agent.
However, he missed flying so much that he came back on active duty. He was a lieutenant when he “herded” the young line crew I was attached to. Our jobs were the “grunt, dirty” jobs of servicing, preflighting and cleaning the planes.
He left our squadron and was promoted to commander of another squadron when he was shot down on a mission over North Vietnam. He spent four years in Hanoi, always resisting the prison guards and their interrogations. He was so hard for them to handle, they tortured and starved him to death. Fellow prisoners who saw him weeks before his death said he could not have weighed more than 80 pounds.
I still wear his POW bracelet on days like Memorial Day, his birthday, the date of his death, and his “shoot-down day.” He was, in my opinion, the finest naval officer I ever met.
Memorial Day is about those who gave their all. It also should be remembered in honor of these 600 men who somehow survived years of torture and starvation to return home in January 1973. Cameron’s remains were sent back for burial, along with several hundred others over a span of many years. Last year, the Vietnamese released several bodies, and U.S. Army recovery teams are in North Vietnam searching for the 1,200 still listed as missing in action.
In his book, Denton said he had been hung by a bamboo pole under his arms (tied behind his back, hoisted up with his feet off the floor) for five straight days, day and night, until both his shoulders had slipped out of joint. The pain was so intense that he wished he could end it all. At times, the guards would pull on the ropes or tie weights to his legs to intensify the pain. This was one of the most painful and successful forms of torture used by Vietnamese guards.
“By the fifth morning, I was nearing despair. I offered myself to God with an admission that I could take no more on my own. Tears ran down my face as I made my vow of surrender to him. Strangely, as soon as I made the vow, a deep feeling of peace settled into my tortured mind and pain-racked body, and the suffering left me completely. It was the most profound and deeply inspiring moment of my life.”
The two guards who came in to release him saw the blood and puss oozing from his wounds and refused to pull the embedded ropes from his shoulders. They had tears running down their faces. The camp commander dismissed them and called other guards to release him from his bindings.
When he returned to his cell, his roommate, Cmdr. Jim Mulligan, popped his shoulders back in place, a practice that all the prisoners had become proficient at.
Both books mentioned above are available through the local library.
Georgia Southern has a traveling exhibit at their museum from the National POW/MIA Museum in Andersville. The exhibit will be there until June 1. The museum and cemetery in Andersville is a popular, moving experience. It is a short three-hour drive from Pembroke. Tours of the old Civil War camp and cemetery are given by the guides several times daily.
These men endured and served above and beyond the call of duty, and their names need to be added to the Vietnam wall when they are gone, in my humble opinion. Please be in prayer for the servicemen and women and their families who serve us today in harm’s way.
God bless America this Memorial Day.
Clark is a veteran and lives in Pembroke.