PRISONER OF WAR
By Dick “Beak” Stratton, Captain, USN (Ret.) Ex-POW
(Capt. Stratton’s account of his POW experience appeared on the Discovery Channel’s show about Vietnam POWs: A Story of Survival: SN Hegdahl is a “one-of-a-kind” hero.)
It was a warmer than usual summer day in Clark, South Dakota when a rather large and ungainly young man, a recent high school graduate, set about finding his way in the world. The salivating Navy recruiter asked the youngster what it would take to have him sign up: “why, I’d like to go to Australia .” It was as good as done. After all, in 1966, if you were lucky enough to ship out on the USS Canberra, more likely than not, during thecourse of your hitch, there will be a port call to the ship’s namesake— Canberra , Australia .
Douglas Hegdahl – This young man came from a solid, patriotic Norwegian Lutheran stock that believed when your country called, you answered. You did not go to the bus station but to the recruiting station. You did not go to Oxford, you went to Vietnam. So Douglas Brent Hegdahl III shipped out to boot camp at San Diego, where he slept through the Code of Conduct lectures since he would not be fighting in the trenches. Lo and behold, he did get orders to the USS Canberra. At that time Canberra with 8-inch guns mounted on the pointy end and missiles on the round end was assigned to steam with the Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam . (And, yes, She did have Canberra, Australia on her Port of Call list.)
Doug’s battle station was the aft ammunition handling room for the 5-inch guns, located aft in the bowels of the ship. One morning he had the 0100 watch while the Canberra was steaming down the coast of North Vietnam firing its 8-inch guns against targets of opportunity (bicycles, water buffalo and occasional trucks) on Highway 1. At about 0330 he rolled out of the rack. Being a prudent farm boy,he locked all his valuables in his locker and then proceeded to go out on deck for a breath of fresh air before manning his battle station. Now there is a non-repetitive exercise in the surface Navy called “going out on deck when big guns are firing.” If the concussion does not blow you over the side, it will at least blow out your eardrums. But Doug must have slept through that safety lecture too. He doesn’t know what happened. Either not being night-adapted, or being without his glasses, or the concussion did it, but he ended up going arse over teakettle into the South China Sea about three miles offshore with no life preserver, no identification, no nothing.
Meanwhile he watched the Love Boat merrily steaming over the horizon, firing at the coastline and never missing him for two days. There is not much to do in the South China Sea at 0345. He took off his boondockers and hung them around his neck in case he needed them when he reached shore. He stripped off his dungarees, zipped up the fly, tie off the cuffs and popped them over his head, as he was taught, to make a life preserver. He reports back to you that it doesn’t work. (He missed the part about old dungarees, with holes, out of the Lucky Bag would have to be kept wet if they were to hold any air at all.) So he put back on his trousers, socks and shoes.
Somewhere along the line he had heard that drowning was a “nice way to die;” so he thought he would try it out. He put his hands over his head and down he went—bloop, bloop, bloop. Now both he and I had heard the myth that when drowning you would get cuddly, warm, all the nice things in your life would flash by in your mind and you would go to your eternal reward to the sound of music (harp?).
Doug resurfaced and reports back to us that it is all malarkey: there are no movies, there is no music and it’s colder than Hell! As dawn came he started swimming away from the sun, hopefully towards shore. He could see the haze of land, but the harder he tried, the further back it receded. So he just rolled on his back, playing like a whale, humming a few tunes and saying a few prayers.
Notice he never gave up. How many people have we been exposed to in the course of our lives, in a situation like that would have just plain given up? About 1800 that same day, a Vietnamese fishing boat came by and hauled him out of the water—some twelve hours later. Even those peasant fishermen could figure out that this moose would never fit in the cockpit of an A-4 Sky hawk.
They turned him upside down and inside out which garnered them absolutely nothing. Remember, he had prudently left everything back on the ship in his locker. Picture yourself being tortured to admit you were a CIA agent who entered the water in Coronado, California to swim ten thousand miles across the Pacific to infiltrate their shores! When the authorities got him ashore, they showed Doug piles of materials allegedly written by Yankee Air Pirates who had been captured before him. (95% of those captured in North Vietnam had been tortured, were not offered the option of death, and were made to give more than Name, Rank, Serial Number and Date of Birth sequence permitted by the Military Code of Conduct and required by International Law.)
Doug recognized that something was amiss, but, as he said later, “Geeze, they’re officers, they must know what they are doing.” So he decided his best ploy was to pretend to be stupid. He got them off target by comparing farms in North Vietnam and South Dakota. He didn’t realize that even then the Communists were categorizing him to gauge his usefulness to their cause. His dad had about ten motel units, numberless vehicles and all kinds of land—but no water buffalo. No water buffalo meant in Vietnamese parlance that he was a “poor peasant.” This is just as well, as Communists had murdered over 20 million “rich peasants” in their various revolutions, because those folks are unreconstructed capitalists. A little miffed at first, Doug caught on right away—he is a quick study—it was to his advantage to play out the poor peasant act to the bitter end. Tired of the verbal jousting the
Communist cadres told him that he would have to write an anti-war statement for them. He joyously agreed.The interrogators were dumbfounded. This was the first Yankee to agree to do anything without being tortured first. They brought out the paper, ink and pens. He admired them all and then stated: “But one small thing. I can’t read or write. I’m a poor peasant.” This was quite credible to the Vietnamese since their poor peasants could neither read nor write. So they assigned a Vietnamese to teach him penmanship, spelling, grammar and sentence structure. Immediately his learning curve went flat.
Eventually, the interrogators gave up in disgust; writing a confession for him and having him sign it in an illegible scrawl. He admitted to the war crime of shelling the presidential birthplace of Ho Chi Minh and signed it as Seaman Apprentice Douglas Brent Hegdahl III, United States Navy Reserve, Commanding Officer, USS Canberra. No one has ever seen this piece of paper. Doug was shuffled around from pillar to post, since his captors didn’t know where he would fit into their propaganda plans. One mistake they made was to put him in for a while with Joe Crecca, an Air Force officer who had developed a method of creating the most organized memory bank we possessed to record the names of pilots shot down and imprisoned in Vietnam.
Joe took this young Seaman and, recognizing the potential, painstakingly taught Doug not only 256 names, but also, the method of memorizing, cross-referencing and retrieving those names. It was no easy task that Joe set for himself for it was not intuitively obvious to Doug the value of such mental gymnastics.
It was a hot summer day when I first met Doug. I was in solitary confinement again. The Communists did not care for me, which was OK because I didn’t like them either. My cell door opened and here was this big moose standing in his skivvie shorts (prison uniform of the day).
“My name is Seaman Douglas Brent Hegdahl, Sir. What’s yours?” It is awful hard to look dignified when you are standing in your underwear, knock-kneed, ding-toed, pot-bellied, unwashed and unshaven for 100 days.
I automatically recited, “Dick Stratton, Lieutenant Commander, USS Ticonderoga.” Immediately I saw that I probably made a mistake as his eyes rolled back in his head and you could see what he was thinking: “Cripes, another officer!” But notice that instinctively he asked the critical and most important question for survival:
“Who is your senior?”
The rule we lived by was: “If I am senior, I will take charge; if junior, I will obey.”
The Communists took a siesta for two hours every afternoon which was a good deal for us as we were free from torture and harassment. I was laying on the floor on my bed board and Doug was skipping, yes, skipping around the room. I asked: “Doug, what are you doing?”
He paused for a moment, looked me in the eye and cryptically said: “Skipping, Sir” and continued to skip. A stupid question, a stupid answer. After a moment, I again queried: “What ya doin’ that for?”
This stopped him for a moment. He paused and cocked his head thoughtfully, smiled and replied: “You got anything better to do, Sir?”
I didn’t. He continued skipping. I guess he did learn one thing from boot camp. You can say anything you want to an officer as long as you smile and say “sir.” One siesta period he said: “Hey, Beak, you went to college and studied government; do you know the Gettysburg Address?”
We got a brick (no paper or pencils for the criminals) and started to write it out on the tile floor until we got it correct. Then he stopped me with the question: “Can you say it backwards?”
Well, who would want to say the Gettysburg Address backwards? Certainly not the Jesuits at Georgetown and especially not me. Doug could say it backwards, verbatim, rapidly. I know because I could track him from the written version we had on the floor.
“So what?” you might say. The so-what is that when they threw him out of Vietnam, and throw him out they did, he came out with 256 names that Joe Crecca had taught him memorized by service, by rank and alphabetically; next to each name he had a dog’s name, kid’s name or social security number to verify the quality of the name which we had picked up by tap code, deaf spelling code or secret notes. He still has those names memorized today and sings them to the tune of “Old MacDonald Has a Farm.” One of our intelligence officers asked him if he could slow the recitation down to make for easier copying. Doug replied “No,” that it was like riding a bike, you had to keep moving or you would fall off.
If it weren’t for Joe Crecca, Doug and our government would not have had those names until the end of war five years later. In trying to get people to accept early propaganda releases, the Communists would have some “good cop” interrogator like the ones we called the “Soft Soap Fairy” talk to the prospect and sound him out for pliability. They got Doug one day and asked what we eventually learned to be the lead question: “What do you want more than anything else in the world?”
The answer of the weak and willing was : “To go home to my family.”
Doug thought for a long time, then cocked his head with a smile and said: “Why, I’d like a pillow, Sir.”