The American POWs held during the Vietnam War, while small in number compared to those of other major wars, endured long captivity under harsh conditions. While each POW’s story is unique, many common threads connect them all, in particular the struggle for survival. Colonel Thomas Moe was one of these men. He became a POW in January 1968 and was not released until March 1973. A junior officer at the time of his capture, Colonel Moe stayed in the Air Force after his release and served in a variety of assignments, including command of a fighter squadron. He was interviewed for Vietnam Magazine by Ed McCaul.
Vietnam: When did you arrive in Vietnam?
Moe: I arrived in Vietnam in September 1967. I had what was called a ‘pipeline assignment, which meant that you finished your training and went right to war. I flew F-4s and did most of my missions in the southern part of North Vietnam.
VN: Were most of your missions for bombing?
Moe: Yes, they were. When you were doing bombing missions, you had to be careful when you calculated release altitude, as you had to consider your altitude above the ground as well as the ground’s altitude above sea level. We had to know the combined height. Sometimes pilots would forget to do that and would crash.
VN: How many guys crashed because of diving too low?
Moe: It happened some, especially at night. My roommate was killed that way. Losses really were not that high, but flying into the ground was one of the most common. One of the other big killers was fuze malfunctions. A fuze malfunction got me. After we lost a number of aircraft in November 1967 to what we believed were fuze malfunctions, we basically said we were not going to fly anymore until they got rid of the bad fuzes. It was a touchy time.
VN: What was wrong with the fuzes?
Moe: We weren’t sure. All we knew was that guys would go out on missions with these fuzes, an FMU-35/B, and their planes blew up without being hit by enemy fire. Most of the men were killed from the explosions.
VN: Did they ever find the problem with the fuzes?
Moe: In November 1967 the Air Force did concede to stop using the fuzes temporarily and to conduct an investigation after giving us some rough talk about refusing orders. They supposedly did a study and then gave the fuzes a clean slate. It was January 1968, the war was cranking up again after Christmas, and I am sure they did not want to have anything slow down the bombing. The very first mission that we used those fuzes on again was a mission I was on. We called ourselves the Guinea Pig Flight. When the wingman released his bombs, I saw one of them go off prematurely. The plane was so heavily damaged that its tail was blown off. Shrapnel hit our aircraft, but we did not know it at first. I was flying and went into a big turn around where [my wingman] had gone down. I was looking at my navigational instruments, to make some notes on where the crewmen were, in order to help set up a rescue effort. The first clue I had that we had been hit was when I tried to call a Mayday on the radio. When I keyed the mike, I did not hear any feedback and realized we had lost our radio. Then I smelled smoke, and the frontseater said we were on fire. I did not think we were at a very good location to eject, so I leveled off and headed west, as we were only 90 miles from an airbase in Thailand. Scott Stovin, the frontseater, said he would take control of the aircraft so we could get ready to eject. About that time we lost all hydraulics and started to roll over. As we were rolling over, Stovin said, Let’s bail out! By then we were upside down, and I said, Whoa, I’m not leaving!
VN: So did you wait a while before ejecting?
Moe: I did not want to eject upside down. So I took [control of] the airplane back as there were a few tricks I wanted to try to get us right side up. We had independent ejection systems, and he could have ejected anytime, but he stayed with me. I pulled the stick back and gave it full rudder. We rolled right side up, but the bird was shaking like crazy. I was wondering how I was ever going to get out as I had the stick in my lap and one leg completely jammed forward on the rudder pedal under the control panel. The problem was that in the back seat the control panel is closer to you than in the front seat. I told Scott that I did not think I could eject this way. He said he would take over and gave it full rudder and aft stick. I ejected, and about a second later he ejected. Normally, the backseater went first, because you would get burnt from flames resulting from the frontseater ejecting. I never saw Scott on the ground, and he was rescued right after I was captured.
VN: What happened after you ejected?
Moe: I was mad as a hornet when I was coming down, because we had been right about the fuze and our pleas for help had been ignored. I pulled my radio out and started hollering for someone to answer my call. Another pilot came up and I told him what happened and that he needed to get the word to Air Force headquarters in Saigon that the fuze was the problem. I told him we did not have a midair collision, were not hit by anti-aircraft fire, but were knocked down by our own bomb. He said: OK, I understand. We’ll tell Saigon right away. Where are you orbiting? I said: Orbiting, hell! I’m in my parachute! He said, Oh, excuse me! I can still remember how embarrassed he sounded. Years later I met him at a 366th Wing reunion in San Antonio. I asked him what happened after my radio call. He said they called Saigon and told them they had just talked to the pilot whose plane had been knocked down by one of our bombs armed with the FMU-35 and that they needed to get serious about the problem. The Air Force finally did a serious study of the fuze and discovered there was a problem. I am grateful that my call on the radio saved some lives.
VN: What happened to the guys in the other plane?
Moe: They were rescued the same afternoon we went down. They were lucky and landed in a remote area. Unluckily, by flying west we got into an area where there were enemy troops.
VN: What sort of equipment did you have with you?
Moe: A lot was ripped off by the windblast even though it was taped to my G-suit. The most important thing I lost was drinking water. We had quite a bit of stuff in the seat pack, including water and food, but when I landed in a tree, all of that was snagged in the branches. Since I was being shot at, I had to leave it behind. When I got to the ground, all I had was the radio, a pistol, batteries and plastic maps that could double as a rain cover, but no food or water.
VN: How far were you off the ground when you landed?
Moe: About 50 to 100 feet.
VN: How did you get down from the tree?
Moe: We had a little lowering device that was in our harness. You fastened it to the parachute riser cross strap and then unfastened yourself from the parachute. You ended up hanging from this thin nylon cord that you used to let yourself down. I had to move fast, since the bad guys were blasting away at me. I was trying to stay calm and not go down too fast. They had told us in training that if you went down too fast the cord could bind up and you would be stuck.
VN: How far away from the enemy were you?
Moe: I am not sure. I broke through the clouds about 100 or so feet above the trees. When that happened I had just enough time to realize I was going to hit the trees and was able to go into the tree-entering position before I crashed through the branches. The enemy was shouting and running all this time as they blazed away at me. I don’t think they could see where I was. They were just putting a lot of lead in the air. I could hear them coming at me, so I just ran in the opposite direction. I was hightailing it through the jungle, and I was almost laughing because I was wondering if I was going to have to run all the way to Laos. I saw this huge tree in front of me. I remembered that as a kid I would go in the park and see how squirrels reacted when I would try to follow them. They would run up a tree and circle the trunk to keep it between them and me. I thought I would do the same trick, so I ran around the tree and hoped the enemy would pass on the other side. They did, and I just kept circling the tree while they went by me. My heart was really pounding!
VN: What did you do after you got away from them?
Moe: I went to a dense area, buried myself under a log, covered myself with brush, and smeared mud all over my face and hands. I stayed there while I was establishing communication with my rescuers. They told me to stay put. Movement in the dense jungle was difficult and I would have had to move at night. There were steep limestone cliffs in the area. One wrong step near them and you were gone. Besides that, at night it was pitch black because of the triple canopy and the constant overcast. Obviously, I could not move during the day. They often would go right by my hiding place. They knew I was in the area, but they did not know exactly where. My only chance was to move very early in the day when you could barely see. But by doing that I could not go very far, because they were out looking for me as soon as it got light.
VN: With so many of the enemy around, it must have been tough for them to try to rescue you.
Moe: They tried. I was told that the effort was one of the largest of the war. One guy — I believe his name was Major Wilke [Lt. Col. Robert F. Wilke] — was killed trying to rescue me. I told him the clouds were down to the ground and I was on top of the mountain. I insisted that he not try. But he said he knew the area and was going to try. We kept arguing about it, but he persisted. When he crashed into the mountain, I felt him hit. I radioed his wingman and told him what happened. His wingman actually apologized for not being able to find me! Such dedication is almost beyond belief.
VN: But they kept trying to rescue you, didn’t they?
Moe: On the third day the weather cleared, and the Air Force brought in quite a force to pull Scott and me out. They decided, since I was under constant threat, they would come after me first. They tried to sterilize the area by dropping bombs and firing rockets. They could see my parachute, but I did not know exactly where it was since I had run for quite a while. I told them if they started bombing the parachute and went the opposite direction of where I was, they would hit the enemy’s camp. They did not want to start dropping bombs indiscriminately, as they were afraid they would hit me. I told them that they were going to have to take a chance and do something to get the enemy’s heads down. Finally, the enemy got so close that I had to turn the radio off. I pulled myself back under the log and was pretty well hidden, but there was a small opening that I had been using for the antenna that I was not able to close. One group came closer than ever before to where I was hiding. They had to go around the log I was under, because it was so big. I was at one end of the log, and one soldier came right around my end and stopped by my head. I was all covered up and she did not see me. They were moving by, and I saw two guys down at my feet not more than 5 to 10 feet away. They were walking and looking around when one of the rescue planes flew over low, and they stopped to watch it. As they followed the flight of the aircraft, their eyes fell on the tiny opening in the brush. They gestured for me to come out, so I stood with my hands up.
VN: What happened after you were captured?
Moe: They wanted to get out of that area. The last thing I told the rescuers was to bomb my position, as I figured the soldiers were going to kill me and I wanted to take some of them with me. But the rescuers left to rescue Scott and did not bomb the area. We ran through the jungle and, even though I was weak from lack of food and water, I was able to keep up because my adrenaline was pumping.
VN: How quickly did they transport you farther north?
Moe: Very quickly. At first I was kept in villagers’ huts that they commandeered. The two times I escaped very briefly — and I use the term escape very lightly, as one time was probably a total of one minute and the other five — we were staying in a hut in some village. I would feign all sorts of injuries such as back pains so they would not take me seriously. Then, when their guard was down, I would try to slip away at night.
VN: How did they catch you?
Moe: The second time I literally ran over someone while I was running down a path. The first time I startled someone and he shouted. I ran back the way I had come just as one of the guards was coming out of the hut where they had been keeping me. When I ran to the hut, I had to think quickly and devise a reasonable excuse if I was going to preserve my options for another attempt. I quickly assumed the position of relieving myself and the guard just shrugged and stood there until I wandered back into the hut. That is what I had done for a number of nights. I went to relieve myself and they would follow me, but after a while they got tired of doing that. I found that for a couple of nights in a row they did not follow me. Unluckily, the person I disturbed must have made a report, because someone came and talked to me the next day and told me I must not escape. I said, I wouldn’t imagine that! He went on to say everyone would get in big trouble if I did.
VN: They did not keep you tied up?
Moe: They did at first but did not treat me brutally. They were pretty amateurish. I kept untying myself, handing them the rope all the time and telling them what a nuisance it was — basically, just trying to humanize myself with them. They took my boots early. So I managed, by limping and walking slowly, to slow the pace and to have them give me some tennis shoes. However, the tennis shoes must have been a child’s, as my feet were bent in half when I put them on. I was able to scavenge some food, steal a little knife and hide both in my flight suit. So, in a few days I was ready to attempt an escape. But when we got close to the coast, they took away my flight suit and tennis shoes and put me in the standard black pajamas. The troops there were more serious, but they still only loosely tied my wrists. When I got to the coast, we traveled up Route 1. We stopped at the town of Vinh, where they had a tiny bamboo prison. While I was held there I was kept in leg irons and handcuffs. By then escape was virtually impossible.
VN: Did the guards beat or torture you during the trip?
Moe: No, that did not start until I got to the main camp in Hanoi. All things considered, I was treated fairly well on my trip to Hanoi. The only time things would get tense was around the villages. There, the people had suffered from our bombing, and the soldiers ended up protecting me from the villagers.
VN: How long did it take you to get to Hanoi?
Moe: I don’t remember exactly. It was several months.
VN: Did you walk the entire way?
Moe: I walked or was transported by dugout canoe until I got to Route 1; then I was taken by a truck with no springs.
VN: Were you the only prisoner?
Moe: Yes, everyone else was North Vietnamese military. Many spoke French, so I was able to speak with them. Most of them were curious and fairly friendly.
VN: Did you worry about air attacks along Route 1?
Moe: Some, as that was where we were bombing. When we got away from the southern part of North Vietnam and farther north, the bombing was less intense. I used to joke with my Navy buddies, who were responsible for bombing this part of the country, that they didn’t do anything because I was driving up Route 1 to Hanoi. In reality, we were always lurching from one bomb crater to the next. We only traveled at night. During the day we would pull into villages. They had buildings that looked like huts but were really garages. They would open the side and we would drive in.
VN: How long before you saw another American?
Moe: It was a long time before I saw another American face to face, because they kept me in solitary for nine months. But I could look out under the cell door or through a crack and see glimpses of other prisoners.
VN: What happened during those nine months?
Moe: There were a lot of interrogations, but they never asked me anything of real substance. I was able to play the young ignorant lieutenant who didn’t know anything. That was the best thing to do — answer questions with, I don’t know anything, because my superiors never tell me anything, I’m just a lieutenant. I would tell them that my superiors would give me the easy jobs, because I was not very good and was not capable of anything complicated. I was almost embarrassed, because I did not feel that way about myself, but there was a war going on and I did not want to give them any information. Luckily, they saw us through the eyes of their own doctrine, and all of us young pilots could convince them that we were ignorant and incapable. There were other things you could do to get them off your back, but sometimes nothing worked and they beat you. I noticed that they were very careful when they worked me over. The beatings were not excessive; they did not seem to want to break anything or disfigure my face. It is tough when you are handcuffed and in leg irons, because you feel so vulnerable.
VN: When did they allow you to see other Americans?
Moe: I discovered after a month or two that they were looking for people to send home early. After I found that out, things started to make sense as to why they were being relatively easy on me. When they asked me if I wanted to go home early, I told them only if everyone else went home. I discovered later that they had made this same offer to other prisoners. I kept trying to think of a way to get them off my back about going home early and decided I would stop eating. I did not eat for a couple of weeks, total starvation. I thought that one night I would go to sleep and not wake up. They finally asked me what was wrong, and I told them that they were not going to use me for propaganda by sending me home early before everyone was released. I told them that if I starved to death it was their problem, not mine.
VN: That must have taken a lot of self-control.
Moe: It was hard. I would shake and almost be in convulsions after I had not eaten in a few days.
VN: What sort of food did they normally give you?
Moe: Bread, so-called soup and a jug of water. The soup was a watery vegetable soup. We called it sewer greens.
VN: Did you drink the water?
Moe: I did drink the water. I did not want to kill myself, although I figured that I would die from not eating.
VN: What happened after they determined that you were not going to be released early?
Moe: I was put in with another prisoner, Myron Donald, whom I knew from pilot training. They also made up for lost time, and I experienced the severe beatings and torture that most of my mates had suffered. I ended up with three broken ribs, bruised kidneys, internal bleeding and a lot of other injuries. Myron nursed me and saved my life. Luckily, even though he was also being tortured, he was not as badly injured as I because he did not get kicked. But he was sick with an intestinal disease, so his actions were heroic.
VN: Without medical supplies, how did he help you?
Moe: He wrapped my ribs, gave me most of his food and encouraged me. I was in pretty bad shape because I had not been eating. He was pretty emaciated too. He risked his life when he gave me most of his food.
VN: How long did the beatings last?
Moe: Normally only a few days or a week. They knew how far they could go without killing you, but they did deliberately beat some guys to death. We had some propaganda value to them, and it would not have looked good if they killed all their prisoners. I will always be thankful to President Nixon for really turning the heat up [concerning the] MIA issue. Later, after the bombing started back up again in the North and especially after the Son Tay raid, they started being much nicer to us.
VN: How many different camps were you in?
Moe: I started out at the [Hanoi] Hilton and then moved to a camp called the Plantation. I was in solitary my entire time at the Hilton and started out in solitary at the Plantation. I was at the Plantation for about a year. Both Myron and I moved to Son Tay from the Plantation.
VN: I am surprised they kept the two of you together.
Moe: It was not all that unusual to keep roommates together. Some guys had the same roommates for years. There was a space problem, so they finally had to pair us up. They tried to drive a wedge between us, but it didn’t work. We were well educated and well trained. The vast majority of the guys did not buckle under. After a while they gave up trying to indoctrinate us, especially after the Son Tay raid. After that raid, they put us in rooms with about 50, 60 or 70 people per room. That was mostly done for security, because they had to close the outlying camps. The bigger rooms helped morale, as we could tell each other stories and teach each other. When we were moved from Son Tay, we moved to a camp under construction. It looked like they were going to turn it into a place where we could have recreation. The buildings even had windows. Before that, all we had were rat holes that were just big enough to let the moisture out.
VN: I know that in Nick Rowe’s book Five Years to Freedom, he talks about a sergeant who was captured and brought to their camp. But in a short period of time the man gave up and died. Did you ever reach a point where you said the heck with it, let’s just end it?
Moe: No, I never did. Some guys did though. One friend who was as tough and strong as anyone just checked out one day and died. On the surface he was the type of person that everyone figured would be one of the last to fall. He was physically fit and kept strong by lifting water buckets. His arms were probably as big as my legs. He was deeply religious, fairly quiet and cheerful. But for some reason, he gave up and died. I cannot tell you why he gave up, except that he did. For me, I kept thinking about my little girl who was only two months old when I left for Vietnam, and my wife. I also kept thinking about my parents and the rest of my family. In many ways, it was just plain hardheadedness. I was not going to give up and let the Communists beat me. I tried to take things one minute at a time, but at times that was very hard. At times you were right down to counting to 60 and saying that you were going to get through this next minute.
VN: You never really knew when it was going to end. How did you deal with that?
Moe: That was one of the hard parts, and you tried not to think about it. You tried to think about the present, but at the same time you would do mental exercises — sort of an escape from reality. I designed and built several houses while I was in prison. I would build the houses step by step, to include putting each shingle on the roof and driving every nail. Sometimes I would even recut a board. All of this was done in real time. There was no benefit to hurrying.
VN: What sorts of things did the other prisoners do?
Moe: Lists were really big. You would make the list, for example candy bars, and then share it with the other guys. Before we were put in large groups, we would share the lists by tapping on the wall. We would tell stories and educate each other. We would joke about what we called Hanoi facts — information we recalled to the best of our memory and then filled in as needed. Many times we would not know what was accurate and what was not. But it did not really matter to us.
VN: How did you find out about your upcoming release in March 1973?
Moe: Some of us, including me, were eternal optimists. Being an optimist helped me get through it all. We were always looking for a good sign, and if you saw one but it did not work out, you would say, I must have read the sign wrong. Near the end, they moved us back to the Plantation, and we could go outside in groups and wash, which was a first. In addition, we were getting regular mail and our first Red Cross packages. So we figured we were going to be released soon. One day we saw a C-141 fly overhead, and that was a big clue. You have to remember we lived with these people for a number of years, and it had gotten so we could tell what was going on even by their denials. It was amazing the things they would deny. A lot of things we would have never learned about until a new prisoner came in, except when they would deny it. Some of the things they denied ever happening were the coup in Czechoslovakia and the moon landing. We knew that what they told us not to believe was true.
VN: What did you expect them to do next?
Moe: We figured they would release us by groups. The sick would be released first and then the rest of us by shoot-down date. We figured the U.S. would demand that, and we were right. Some of us were transferred to a different camp, and when we got there and joined the other prisoners it took us about five minutes to figure out that all of us were shot down about the same time. We realized then that we had been organized into a release group. The day they told us we were to be released they gathered all of us outside, and they had never done that before. We saw that there was a movie camera, and we thought, Here goes another propaganda movie. They announced that we would be going home the next day, but we stood there with no reaction.
VN: Why no reaction?
Moe: First of all, we were not going to be jubilant in front of their cameras. Plus, after all of the years of dashed expectations, we had gotten numb — that was just how all of us reacted to the news. It was amazing how we all thought alike when something like that would happen. One funny thing did happen, though. Over the years, anytime we would ask a guard for something, the answer was always the same, In some minutes. Now, that could mean literally some minutes or it could mean three days. After the camp commander had read the announcement to us about the end of the war and how we were to be sent home, he put on his big smiley face and said, Now, all of you go back to your rooms and you take some buckets and clean them out and make everything nice before you go home tomorrow. We just stood there with blank looks on our faces. Bud Day, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, wandered out of the crowd and walked up to the camp commander. Bud looked over to his room, started to walk away, looked back and said, In some minutes. We did not clean our rooms.
VN: Did all of the prisoners laugh when that happened?
Moe: No, not outwardly, but inside we did. After the camp commander gave his speech, we went to our rooms.
VN: Did you believe what you had been told?
Moe: We were numb, but we believed it. We just could not get excited. I slept as sound as a rock that night. We had learned to control our emotions. You learned if you did not control your emotions you would not survive. The next day we woke up and washed just as usual. They came into our cell and told us to put everything at the end of our beds, which were nothing more than wooden planks. They then said they were going to tell us what we could take home and what we could not. They went through everything, told us we could not take any of it, and left. We then went through our stuff, took what we wanted, and walked out with it.
VN: If you were running an escape and evasion school, what advice would you give as the key to long-term survival?
Moe: The number one thing is to never panic. You must remain calm, for if you panic you are dead. You must be able to think. The second key is to develop values. You have to understand what is important in life. For me the important things are my family, my church, my honor and my integrity. You need a sense of community, which is more than a team spirit. You have to believe in the basics of our country, but it has to be a very mature understanding of what we believe in, including understanding the imperfections of our system. Many of our politicians lie, but you have to look beyond them and understand what our country provides in spite of them. We have the right thing going here. War is nasty and brings out the worst and the best in people. Up in Hanoi, people made sacrifices for each other that no one will ever know about except the few people who saw it. Those sacrifices could have been made while they were under torture, or only in the company of their cellmates. I believe that the true measure of a man’s character is what he does anonymously. It is not easy — a strong moral character requires daily maintenance. You also have to believe that what is right wins and that evil ultimately loses in spite of a lot of daily evidence to the contrary. In many ways, we will not know the righteousness of our values until we die.
This article was written by Ed McCaul and originally published in the June 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine. Thomas Moe retired from the Air Force as a full colonel and lives in central Ohio. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!