Monday, December 17, 2012

Dennis Chambers Remembers Vietnam

Dennis Chambers


In August of 1967 I was shot down on my 101st mission near Dong Hoi, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. I was the co-pilot on an F4C. Both the pilot and I survived the crash and spent the next five and one-half years in a Communist prison in Hanoi -- the Hanoi Hilton. Before I was shot down I had become disillusioned with the way we were fighting the war. The intent of what we were trying to do was absolutely correct. But we were going about accomplishing our goals in the wrong way.
I was stationed in Cam Ranh Bay. I arrived there in March, 1967, and after flying my first missions I wrote to my congressman and asked him, "What are we doing here?" We were making a big mistake. Anybody could see that. After I arrived in Cam Ranh I was told that none of us were supposed to go into the town. We couldn't cross the bridge into town because the people there weren't friendly. Not friendly? Cam Ranh Bay? My God. Those people were supposed to be our friends -- our allies. And if they weren't friendly, then what was going on?
Then we were bombing things. Wildly bombing everything. We never wasted our bombs by dropping them in the sea. On the way back from a mission, if we had bombs, we'd find something to drop them on. Guys would find something, anything, and bomb it. And I hear stories about army troops who would shoot people because they didn't like the way they looked. There seemed to be no control. And that was in 1967. It got worse later. There was not enough control of the men by the officers. We had so many people there and it was not even a declared war. We would go out and drop our bombs on things and I would ask, "Where do we go and what do we do?" And the answer always came back, "We don't know."
Then they tied our hands and told us that there were certain stupid things that we couldn't do. If we spotted a MIG we had to identify it as a MIG positively before we shot it down. Do you know what that does to your risk of coming out alive? A MIG can do a lot of things in certain ways that an F4C or an F105 or the F111 cannot do. So your risk of losing your life while trying to identify the make of an enemy aircraft is fairly high. Then we were not allowed to shoot any boat larger than 50 feet or any boat smaller than 20 feet. So, of course, the Viet Cong put everything in little boats and went up and down the rivers safely. So I was bitter about all of that.
And we lied like mad over there. Our airplane count was half of what we said it was. We were losing planes steadily. I was there five months and I was the 13th plane to disappear out of Cam Ranh. And the only time that our losses showed up on the stats is when someone saw the plane go down. If they didn't see you go down, then you didn't go down. It was crazy.
In the camps in Hanoi the American prisoners survived for different reasons. Love and Christianity kept some of the men going. Hatred kept me alive. Hatred for Lyndon Johnson. Hatred for Richard Nixon. Hatred for the war. Hatred for the North Vietnamese. I built up enough hatred to keep me alive.
With my hatred came deep cynicism. When we got out, in 1973, they put us on a C141 to fly out of Hanoi to the Philippines. By that time I had no faith in anything. Especially not in the word of the Communists. I believed that they would never let us out alive. So when we left Hanoi I believed that they would shoot us down. I kept waiting for it to happen. I thought maybe there was a bomb on board or a MIG or a SAM would come at us. I thought to myself, "This is not going to happen. This is too good to be true."
On the plane coming out of Hanoi there was a group of doctors and nurses and some escorts to care for us. And we all asked them the same question: "Are we winning the war? Tell us the truth." And an American officer on board told us, "Absolutely. We basically won the war. They were defeated. The B52s took care of them and we won." And when we heard that we were all just ecstatic. All of our time in prison had been worth it. There were no sweeter words than, "We finished it." That is what we were told.
Then we got home and found out that we hadn't finished it and we hadn't won and we hadn't been told the truth.
When Saigon fell I was living in a home in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. I didn't watch television, but I read the paper every day and I listened to the news on the radio. As I heard and read about what was happening over there I had this tragic I-told-you-so attitude. What was happening was just the last of so many tragic mistakes over the years.
At the end of April when I started hearing about the refugees and all of those poor people trying to get out, I just felt sick. All of the people who did work for us over there got screwed. We left so many of them behind. American promises meant nothing anymore. Now our word isn't worth shit in Asia. What we should have done, without doubt, is to guarantee the safety of our friends. But the public was so anti-Vietnam. And the politicians were so anti-Vietnam. And that was ironic. If they had been anti-Vietnam earlier, all of that wouldn't have happened. I blame our entire country for leaving those people behind in Vietnam. No one stood up and was counted, no one protested when we abandoned our friends. There were people there who busted their asses for us. And we left them there.
What we should have done was simple. We should have set up a no-man's zone and told the Communists, "If you cross this line, we'll kill you." They understand that. Then we should have taken all of our friends out. We should have said, "Stay away Russia, stay away China, we'll be out in six months. If the North Vietnamese interfere with us, we'll wipe Hanoi off the god-damned map."
We should have gone to full red alert. We should have defined what we were going to do and then brought in Russian and Chinese observers just to prove that we were not going back in. We were getting out and we were taking our friends with us. We should have opened up refugee camps here in the United States as a temporary relocation facility for our friends. They did it fast enough during World War II when they turned on the Japanese Americans. We could certainly have done it as fast in 1975 for our friends.
But we didn't do that. We didn't because we no longer had any balls to do it. We blew it. There was nobody with guts anymore making decisions. Nobody wanted to take chances.
We waited too long. We should not have ended up on the roof of the god-damned American Embassy. Just a strong word from us could have ended the panic. But nobody spoke up. And the god-damned Communists were laughing at us. We got our ankles kicked by a bunch of midgets. Hopefully, we learned something from it.
In Vietnam I lost my ability to love. I can't love any more. And I can't kill anything. I don't hunt and I don't fish and I don't love. When I got home people called me a hero. But I wasn't a hero. I didn't volunteer to sit in a prison camp for five and a half years. I volunteered to fight for my country. I volunteered to fight for freedom. I volunteered to fly an airplane.
I felt, when it all came apart in 1975, that my time in Vietnam had been wasted. I don't have nightmares or bad dreams about it today. I just don't think about Vietnam. I just don't think about it at all.


Peter Green said...

Captain Chambers

I completely understand your frustration with the leadership of the day. But please know there are many of us that appreciate your service and sacrifice. I personally wear a POW bracelet bearing your name and date of capture, and was honored to carry it across the US this past 2 week on the Run For The Wall (

Thank you for your service and WELCOME HOME

Bradley Collins said...

Captain Chambers,

I have a POW bracelet with your name, rank and the date 8-7-67. If you are interested in this please contact me thru Email and contact info is on the site.

Annette Rivlin-Gutman said...

Hello Captain Chambers. I have a POW bracelet with your name on it from 1967. It cracked in half but I would like for you to have it. If you are able, please email me at:

Annette Rivlin

David Hankins said...

Hello Captain Chambers I have one of your POW bracket with your name on it from 1967. I was over their with you. I was aboard the USS Constellation CVA 64. I did two tours In Viet Nam. I was looking through my old medals and came across your bracelet which I wore on the the ship. I was a Yeoman with the Admiral of the 7th Fleet I was transferred to the Pentagon, Working for the Joint Chief of Staff. Glad you are well and home safe.

Christy said...

Captain Chambers, I have had a bracelet with your name on it for 40-some years. I am happy to hear you were released and are home. I believe what you said is true and that the soldiers and our allies were wronged in that war. God Bless you.

Anita Thomas said...

Dear Captain, I too am one that wore and still have your POW bracelet. I keep it displayed, not that I need a reminder, I will never forget. Too many friends & family members carry the scars inside and out, a constant reminder.

Thank you for all you have given.

Anita Jones-Thomas
Dallas GA.

Candace from Coronado said...

Dear Captain Chambers, I, too, proudly wore your POW bracelet as a stewardess to support and initiate conversations to get our boys home. Believe it or not, only yesterday did I realize I had not googled you! With tears and a grateful heart, I read your anguishing story and learned that you had returned home! What amazing grace and good news indeed! Now with so many years behind us, I can only trust God has revealed He can make the most horrific event become a blessing beyond our understanding as He did with His Son, Jesus Christ, on the Cross. This is His promise and my testimony. I am very grateful for your service and for your sacrifice. Man's continued inhumanity to man will always bring tears but not hopelessness. I know God, our Avenger, can and will one day make all things right. Tomorrow, Memorial Day, I will again proudly wear your POW bracelet as a banner for strength in military presence and Hope in our Promise Keeper. God Bless You, Candace from Coronado

L'Imagerie Gallery said...

Dear Captain Chambers,
I went to Paul Revere Junior High and your mom spoke about you daily during class. I wore your bracelet as well. I recall that she read your letters to our class. I remember how heartbroken she was telling us about your dad and that you didn't know that he had passed away. She was a fine person.
Take care, Debi from Tarzana

Mark Szczepanski said...

Dear Captain Chambers, I also wore your bracelet also. I am so sorry for what you had to go through. I prayed for you and thought of you often thru the years, God Bless and Keep you.

Dorothy Tepera Palmer said...

I too proudly wore your bracelet. God bless you.

Unknown said...

I too have a Braclet Honoring you
Thank You for your service!!

Julie Vidani said...

I wore Dennis Chambers POW bracelet also. I communicated with his mother throughout his captivity. I just recently found some of the letters I received from her and would be happy to share if you'd like. I no longer have my bracelet; I remember sending it to someplace in DC to be melted into a memorial, which I don't believe ever happened.

Unknown said...

I proudly wore your bracelet, too. I still have it and my husband wore Capt. Michael Kerr's. My husband was a Huey pilot and returned safely. You were and are in our prayers. Thank you for your service.

Unknown said...
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Adrienne Chase said...

Dennis Chambers, a name I have never forgotten for 51 years. I was 8 years old when I wore your POW bracelet and never knew until this very moment the outcome of your time in Vietnam. Thank you so much for your service and your sacrifice.

As a side: At 8 years old living in Upstate NY, I didn't know the significance of the 101st Airborne until moving to Nashville, TN. You're a hero and have so much to be proud of. Again, thank you for what you've sacrificed. Your life has been a blessing to many.

Adrienne Chase - Nashville, TN

Susan Morss Hardin said...

Today I was looking for a piece of Xmas jewelry and I opened a box to find my Dennis Chambers bracelet. Mine was marked 8/7/67. I realized for the first time that I might find you via google, and I did, and read your wonderful blog.

I was born at Fort Sill in May of 1942. My Dad was eventually promoted and finally in the Reserve became a 2 star
before his untimely death in 1975. My Mom was a Quaker and surprisingly, I never heard them argue. Both came to terms with each others way of giving back to society, as a thank you for the gifts this country bestowed on their families, and my sib's and I were fortunate to have such powerful and generous role models as we grew. But in the 60's I was a bit of a hippie, and had evolved from my hero worship of a powerful Dad to a search of a spiritual nature more like my Mom. However, they both were quick to remark about the bracelet I wore each day when I would visit. I married a singer/songwriter of the era, so to speak, and some of my friends who protested the war could not understand just why I thought about you every day as I put on that bracelet. Isn't it wonderful to learn that so many others were thinking about you too! Perhaps it was not just your anger which got you through the difficult trials you faced. It is my hope that all of that energy had to land somewhere, and maybe you did not even know that it, in some way, found you. Who knows?

Later,I had my own trials, not nearly as grave as yours, which resulted in PTSD. So, I know a bit about the journey through it. I was honored, to be asked, to represent survivors at our state Fatality Review Commission. It has been about 15 years now, and each day I feel gratitude for my survival. I also know about the loss of the ability to love and just how hard a trek that one is. Well, I hope you find this and know that your story as given me strength. I am so glad you survived, but was struck in the heart to know, now, today, that you were taken prisoner. At that time I had no way to find out anything about you. Wearing your bracelet again will be very different now, but I will still try to channel all the good energy I can for your inner peace and outer joy at times, and maybe even daily smiles. Susan