"ARE WE WINNING THE WAR? TELL US THE TRUTH"
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.