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POW-erful message

Most of the enlisted personnel attending Wednesday’s panel presentation at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station by Vietnam War POWs were not yet born in 1973, when the prisoners were finally released, but they listened with rapt attention. With the base heavily deployed, they had a personal interest.

“Attitude is everything,” Dick “The Beak” Stratton said, grey crewcut still bristling at attention. “I won — I live in the best country in the world and they (his captors) are still there.”

Feb. 12 marked the 30th anniversary of Operation Homecoming, when the first wave of U.S. POWs were released from North Vietnamese camps and boarded the “Freedom Flight” to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

Three hundred U.S. pilots, including the panel guests, were held in the “Hanoi Hilton,” a sprawling French colonial-era fortress.

The panel included Roger Lerseth of Oak Harbor, USN, A-6 bombardier/navigator; Dick Stratton, USN, A-4 pilot; Lawrence Writer, USAF F-4 pilot; Douglas Hegdahl, USN sailor; Gordon Nakagawa, USN, A-6 pilot; Joe Crecca, USAF pilot; and Bill Wilson, USAF F-111 pilot.

USN Lt. Cmdr. Dick “The Beak” Stratton was also the guest speaker at a luncheon at the Officers Club. The events were sponsored by the Association of Naval Aviation, the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots’ Association (River Rats) and the Vietnem POW Association, and hosted by Lerseth and his wife Christine Picchi.

Stratton recalled how his AFE Skyhawk was shot down Jan. 4, 1967, while on an armed reconnaissance mission over Thanh Hoa Province.

In addressing the audience at Skywarrior Theater on base, Stratton, now 71, didn’t talk about the torture and humiliations he endured during six and a half years as a POW at the Hanoi Hilton — 2,251 days, 10 hours and 51 minutes, he said, “but who’s counting.”

Instead, he showed the grit and determination that got him through the ordeal.

Stratton told the young men and women in flight suits that in order to survive, prisoners of war have to think outside the box. He said he learned to lie, cheat and steal, and never gave a straight answer.

One of the most famous photos from the Vietnam War features Stratton in prisoner stripes, bowing to the Vietnamese in a “confession” which the Vietnamese hoped to use as anti-U.S. propaganda. The ploy backfired when Stratton’s purposely robotic performance was portrayed in the western media as proof of Stratton having been tortured and brain-washed.

Humor ran through all the former POWs’ stories, another tool in their survival kit.

Larry Writer told of being shot down over Da Nang and ejecting from his 4F-D, only to met by the “local chamber of commerce.”

He was held captive for 61 months, including 666 days in solitary confinement.

“No matter how bad it gets, you’ve got to find a way to laugh,” he said.

The prisoners used humor as a way to fight back, and much of that humor came from playing tricks on their guards. Writer and his cellmates taught one guard, whom they had nicknamed “Zero,” how to say “I am queer, okay?” The guard then repeated it down the cell block, eager to be practicing his new English.

“Whatever we could do to help each other through hard times, we did it,” he said.

Communication between the prisoners was essential in keeping up their spirits, and they developed an elaborate system of relaying codes between cell blocks, including tapping, coughing and singing.

One of the most famous of the Hanoi Hilton POWs is U.S. Senator John McCain, who found the Vietnamese had their own sense of humor when he revisited the prison in 2000. Much of it has been torn down to make way for a luxury hotel and office complex called Hanoi Towers, but one corner has been preserved as a musuem.

The prison camp museum features photos of McCain and other prisoners, and a plaque declaring: “Though having committed untold crimes on our people, the American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead they were treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter.” McCain’s reaction was, “That’s entertainment.”

Bill Wilson, whose Air Force F-111 was shot down during a Red River bombing run on Hanoi, shared what he had learned: Prepare your family, tell them not to talk to the press if you are captured or shot down; be prepared, with food, water, and survival techniques; know the codes for communicating with follow prisoners; have patience; and don’t think it will happen to you.

Wilson also told the airmen, “Believe in the real American people — not those who are out there waving protest banners. They believe in you and are praying for your safety.”

VAQ-130 squadron PXO Cmdr. Tom Slais asked the panel if they had any advice on what to say to his command on the eve of hostilities with Iraq.

“Bad things happen to good people,” Stratton said. He added that it was OK to be afraid, and in fact “if you’re not afraid, you’re stupid.”

“Have faith,” he said. “Have faith in your skipper, in your crew, and in the Commander in Chief. It’s a good thing you are doing. You gotta believe in that.”

While 802 POWs were returned in exchange for U.S. troop withdrawal from South Vietnam, 1,800 are still missing.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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