Armed with that ironic epigram and their wits, American POWs in Vietnam endured with grace.
ON MARCH 31, 1968, PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON TOLD THE AMERICAN PEOPLE that he was suspending bombing of North Vietnam above the 21st Parallel. At the end of his speech, he also announced that he would not be running for reelection. Johnson had been defeated by the North Vietnamese; he was quitting and going home. It remained to be seen if the U.S. prisoners of war, mainly airmen who had been shot down, would be so lucky.
The news was broadcast over speakers in every prison camp, And when there was nothing said about their release, many of the POWs drew the darkest conclusion. In a camp called the Plantation, on the outskirts of Hanoi, Lieutenant Commander Richard Stratton, the senior ranking officer, said to the three other men in his cell, “If we weren’t part of some deal—no more bombing in exchange for our release—then we are going to be here for a long time. Probably until they start bombing again.” Stratton’s prediction was accurate. He and the others would spend five more years in North Vietnam.
While Hanoi was no longer being bombed, the air war continued in the Panhandle of North Vietnam, and new shootdowns arrived with the unwelcome news that the war was still going on. There were no negotiations yet and no reason to believe that peace and repatriation were at hand.
A single rail line ran outside the Plantation, just beyond the back wall of the old building that the men called the Warehouse, which had been divided into cells. In his cell, designated Warehouse One, Stratton and his cellmates could lean a pallet bed against the wall, climb the ladderlike studs that held the boards together, and look through the gunports at the passing trains. Even after Johnson’s decision to halt the bombing of Hanoi, the passing cattle cars were full of young men in uniform on their way to the fight. More than any information from recent shootdowns or the small seeds of truth amid the propaganda of the camp news, this was the most vivid proof that the war was not winding down.
Guards still came to take prisoners out for interrogations, but these increasingly became what the POWs called “temperature quizzes.” Instead of being pumped for military information or pressed for propaganda, they were asked how they were getting along and how they felt about their captors and the war. Most of the POWs maneuvered to avoid headbuttings. They answered vaguely and were eventually returned to their cells. They began to suspect that in many cases the quizzes were merely a pretext for interrogators to practice their English. Still, to see the door open and the guard point his finger at you was a frightening experience.
There was no way of knowing, when you left the cell for the walk up to headquarters, if you were in for a temperature quiz or something a lot more serious. Delegations were still coming into Vietnam for tours; prisoners in all the camps were still being pressured to make statements, sometimes with the promise of early release; punishments were still being inflicted on men caught violating camp rules. In short, the weeks and months that followed the Tet Offensive of early 1968 were not better by any objective measure.
The POWs began psychologically digging in, adjusting to the long haul. Most were in their 20s or early 30s. A few were barely old enough to have voted in one election before they were shot down. Some were fathers of children they’d never seen; husbands of women they had lived with for only a few weeks. It seemed increasingly possible—even probable—that they would be middle-aged or old men before they left Vietnam. Their survival now included facing this hard reality. Somehow, they had to find ways to fill those years, to salvage something from their youth.
At all of the POW camps in North Vietnam, communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden. Roommates managed to communicate without being overheard, but a man could not shout through walls or windows, or leave messages, or try in any other way to make contact with the other prisoners in the camp. Men were thrown into solitary, locked in irons, hung by ropes, and beaten when they were caught trying to communicate.
Still, it was worth the risk, since communication was the foundation of any kind of resistance. The senior man had to get his orders out to everyone in the camp, and everyone had to be tied in; four men alone in a room were not part of a unified resistance. With something called the “tap code,” prisoners were able to communicate and establish an organization. Working together helped them overcome feelings of isolation and boredom, and ultimately enabled them to resist.
The principle of the tap code is ancient, at least as old as Greek civilization. In modern dress, it appears in Arthur Koestler’s descriptions of life in the Soviet gulag in his novel Darkness at Noon. POWs believed that it had been invented by an air force captain named Smitty Harris, who came up with it while he was in survival school and remembered it in Hoa Lo after he had been shot down. Although the POWs may have been wrong about the origins of the tap code, no group in history ever employed it more successfully or more enthusiastically. Learning the tap code was like getting a telephone: It opened a world.
The basis of the code is a grid that looks like this:
A B C D E
F G H I J
L M N O P
Q R S T U
V W X Y Z
The letter C could be substituted for K, and the code was read like the coordinates on a map down and right. For example, the letter M would be three down and two across. To transmit an M through the wall, a prisoner would tap three times, pause, then tap twice.
Most men learned the code from a roommate, but it was possible to teach it through a wall to a man who was all alone and needed it worse than anyone. A man who knew the code would simply tap on the wall until he got a response. He might tap out the familiar rhythm of “Shave and a Haircut” until the man on the other side came back with “Two Bits.” Once that happened, they were in communication. Then the tedious business of teaching a language began, first using a more primitive system. The first man would tap once, pause, tap twice, pause, tap three times, pause, and so on, until he reached 26. Then he would do it again. Eventually the other man would understand that the 26 taps represented the alphabet. A was one, B was two, and so on.
When this had been established, a few messages could be transmitted. The men would exchange names, perhaps, and shoot down dates. It was exceedingly slow and tedious, but it established the link and the rudiments of the method. The next step was to tap out the message “Make a matrix.” That done, the newcomer was instructed to fill in the alphabet. In this way the first code was used to explain the much shorter, more efficient one.
At the Plantation, as well as the other camps, the walls were alive with the sounds of men urgently tapping out messages.
When it became clear to the men at the Plantation that they were not going home in return for an end to the bombing of Hanoi, they began trying to improve the physical conditions of their captivity. They would never be comfortable—the cells were crowded and unventilated, and the men slept on boards and wore the same clothes day after day—but they could try to keep clean, and they could improvise several other ways to reduce their misery.
In Warehouse Four there was a lieutenant (j.g.) named Tom Hall who gained a reputation among his fellows as an especially gifted improviser. A farmboy from outside of Suffolk, Virginia, who had grown up learning how to doctor animals, fix cars, and make all of the endless repairs necessary to keep a farm running, he knew how to “make do.” After graduating from Virginia Tech, he had gone into the navy and learned to fly fighters. He had been stationed on the Bonhomme Richard, on Yankee Station, when his F-8 was hit by a SAM. He had gone to afterburner and pointed the plane toward the beach. Over the Gulf of Tonkin, safely out of reach of the patrol boats and fishing junks, he ejected. The rescue helicopter picked him up and flew him back to the carrier, whose captain was waiting to greet him. A photographer caught the moment, and the picture made the papers back in the States.
Like any pilot who has ejected, Hall was ordered to stand down for a day. The following morning, the weather was so bad over North Vietnam that no missions were flown from the ship. The next day Hall was flying again and he caught another SAM. This time he bailed out near Hanoi—and the North Vietnamese got him. That was June, 1966.
To the men who shared space with him in North Vietnam, Tom Hall was the perfect roommate. He knew how to be quiet, but when he talked, he always had something interesting to say. He told them stories about life back home on the farm, including one about how his family kept a hummingbird flying free in the house to keep the bugs down. The other pilots loved this story; the idea of a hummingbird in the house was somehow otherworldly.
Hall never got too high or too low. He maintained an even strain, as pilots say, and he looked after his comrades first and himself second. He didn’t bitch and he didn’t quit and he knew, by God, how to cope. It was Hall who figured out how to ease the problem of the drafty cells in the winter of 1968, when the men would wake up in the morning close to hypothermic and spend the first hour or two of the day trying to warm up. HATS, he tapped through the wall. Use extra cloth or, better, a sock to make a hat. Stretch it until it fits over your head like a watch cap. You lose most of your body heat through your head, he explained, and this would help. The men tried it, and it did help. Nevertheless, it was cold, especially during the night.
MOSQUITO NETS, Hall tapped. When it is below 40 outside, he explained, you do not need to guard against mosquitoes, but the net can be turned into a kind of insulation, like the fishnet material that Scandinavians use for underwear. Before you lie down to sleep, wrap your upper body in your mosquito net. Like the hats, the improvised underwear was a help. The men were not exactly warm, but they weren’t chilled to the bone any longer.
Tom Hall improvised sewing needles from fish bones, or from pieces of wire picked up in the yard. The POWs could now mend their clothes, and they even amused themselves by learning to do a kind of needlepoint. The favorite pattern was, far and away, the American flag.
Hall was also given credit for discovering that a man could use his sandals, which were cut from old rubber tires, as a toilet seat by laying them across the cold, sharp, dirt-encrusted edges of the bucket before he squatted. This, in the minds of many POWs, was the most inspired bit of improvisation in the entire war.
Another persistent, seemingly unsolvable problem at the Plantation was the rats. They were abundant and they were bold. You could chase them out of your cell during the day, but they returned at night. Men were frequently awakened by the pressure of small feet moving across their chests.
Using items that he scrounged—pieces of metal, string, and an empty tin can—Hall built a working mousetrap that kept his cell rat-free. He could not use the tap code to teach the other men how to build such a trap from odds and ends, but he could tell them how to improvise a substitute for plaster out of brick dust and water and use that to seal the ratholes. The other prisoners went to work plastering the holes, and for a while this worked as well as all of Hall’s other ideas. But the rats were not pushovers. They began to gnaw their way through the weak plaster barricades, and soon the men had to struggle to replaster the holes faster than the rats could gnaw them open again.
Once more, Hall came through. The Vietnamese grew a kind of bell-shaped pepper, which they ate with their rations. The pepper was fiercely hot, hotter than any jalapeño the Americans had ever eaten. It was possible to sneak one or two of these peppers out of the mess hall when you were on food detail, and Hall advised the other prisoners to plug the ratholes with them. Checking the holes a day or two later, the men noticed that the rats had tried gnawing through the new plugs but had given up before breaking through. The peppers were too hot even for them.
The rats remained a problem—there were no complete, unequivocal victories for the POWs—but Tom Hall had made it into a fight, and the POWs got their innings.
HOUSEKEEPING WAS HUMDRUM STUFF FOR MEN WHO FLEW SUPERSONIC FIGHTERS and were accustomed to turning their dirty uniforms over to a laundry run by enlisted men. But it became vastly important at the Plantation and the other camps. The camp was dirty, and sanitation was nonexistent. Spiders, roaches, and flies were everywhere. One man tapped out a message designating the housefly as the national bird of North Vietnam. Keeping clean was important not only for its own sake but because it represented a challenge, however small. It wasn’t the stuff of a fighter pilot’s dreams, like shooting down a MiG, but under the circumstances it would do.
In their weakened condition, the POWs were prey to all sorts of infections and parasites. They worked hard at keeping their cells, their clothes, and themselves clean. Each man was issued a small bar of lye soap every week, and since it seemed to be almost as abundant as pumpkins, they washed their uniforms vigorously with it when they were taken out to bathe. But they still got sick. Medical lore was dredged up from memory and passed through the wall. When you had diarrhea, you should drink only the broth from your soup and leave any greens or meat it might contain. If you were constipated, you should eat whatever solids were in the soup and leave the liquid. It was not much, but it was a regimen and they followed it.
Boils were a constant, painful problem, as were abscessed teeth. One man remembered a doctor telling him an old piece of medical shorthand— “piss and pus must come out”—so he sneaked razor blades from the shower and used them to lance the boils and open the abscesses. It was painful and messy, but it seemed to work.
Many of the prisoners had been seriously injured when they ejected, and there was a lot of discussion through the wall about how to treat those injuries. What could you do about a broken bone that had not been set properly and was healing crooked?
Al Stafford—one of Stratton’s roommates—had suffered a broken upper arm when he was blown out of his plane. The arm seemed to be mending, after a fashion, but he could not raise it to the level of his chest or move it laterally beyond an arc of about 300. He improvised slings and used his good arm for support, but this only increased the stiffness. He imagined himself returning home—whenever that day came—as a cripple.
Down the line of cells somewhere, another POW learned about Stafford’s problem and tapped back that he should begin exercising the arm as much as possible to prevent muscle atrophy and to break up the deposits of calcium that were forming around the break. It was something he’d learned after a football injury.
This led to a debate within Stafford’s cell about exercise in general. Should prisoners exert themselves? Dick Stratton, never a man for fitness regimes even before he was shot down, was against strenuous exercise programs. In Stafford’s case, he thought it would merely aggravate the injury. As for the other men, he said exercise would burn calories, and they could not afford to waste a single BTU. They were on starvation rations; sit-ups and push-ups would only exhaust whatever small reserves they had. But Stratton was careful not to overexert his authority in this matter. He did not order the men not to exercise strenuously; he merely recommended against it. (Later, he began exercising himself.)
Stafford tried some simple flexing movements. How much worse, he asked himself, could it make his arm? So he would raise it, tentatively, until he reached the point where pain told him to stop. Then he would raise the arm another inch or two, stopping when he could hear something inside begin to tear. It sounded almost like a piece of paper gently ripping. Tears would fill his eyes and he would feel himself growing faint. He would lower his arm until the pain had passed and he had his breath. Then he would slowly raise the arm again, until he reached the same point, and then he would bite down on his back teeth and go another inch, and one more. . .
After a couple of weeks, he noticed that the arc of mobility had grown by a couple of degrees. So he massaged the arm and kept on. He set goals: get the arm loose enough that he could use it to drink a cup of water; then enough that he could touch the top of his head. Every day he worked the arm until he could hear that sound of tearing paper and he was on the edge of passing out. The other men in the cell would look away while he was exercising. Now and then one would say, “Hows the arm Al?”
“Better. Lots better. I can touch my nose. ”
“That’s great, man. Really great. Hang in there.”
Other prisoners, desperate for some kind of physical activity, began doing calisthenics. This was tricky, since the sounds of a man running in place or counting off push-ups would alert guards. They would open the cell’s little Judas window, wave a finger at the man, and tell him to stop. If he was caught repeatedly, he might be taken up to the headquarters building, which the POWs called the Big House, for interrogation and punishment. Prisoners were to sit quietly in their cells, eat their two bowls of soup a day, come out for a bath and a shave once a week, and otherwise do nothing.
So prisoners who wanted to do calisthenics had to depend on the “clearing system.” Along the line of cells, men would watch—and if a guard approached, they would bang on the walls hard enough to alert everyone along the line. When a heavy thud sounded along the wall, men would scramble up from the floor to sit on their bunks with their hands folded in their laps, like subdued children waiting silently in church for services to begin. Between the warning thuds, they did their push-ups and their sit-ups and kept meticulous records of their repetitions. Scores were tapped through the wall, and competitions inevitably followed.
The sit-up count reached into the thousands. A man would fold his blanket into the shape of an exercise mat, get down on his back on the floor, and begin knocking them out with the easy rhythm of a metronome—up and back, up and back, up and back . . .breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. . . Soon the steady, repetitious flexing of his own body would shut out everything else and he would be alert to nothing except movement and the possible thump from a man in another cell, clearing. Up and down . . . 600, 601 . . . two. . . . Time seemed to slide by when a man was doing his sit-ups. And when he finished, or had to quit, he would feel an overall exhaustion that seemed so much better than the angry tension that grew tighter and tighter inside, like a rope being slowly twisted, when he simply sat on his bunk, hands folded in his lap, waiting for time to pass, feeling his life go by, leaving behind it a trail of. . .nothing.
For some men, calisthenics were insufficient. After thousands of pushups, tens of thousands of sit-ups, miles of running in place, they wanted something more challenging. For some reason, it seemed essential to start lifting weights.
There were, of course, no weights available, and nothing in the cells even came close. The sawhorses and pallet beds were too big and cumbersome. The only other things in the cells were the buckets. So the physical-fitness fanatics began curling buckets full of human waste to develop their arms. Some days the buckets were heavy and some days they were light. They always stank, but that seemed less and less important to men who had learned to share space with rats and sit on those buckets with absolutely no privacy. They did their curls, concentrating to make the lifting motion smooth and fluid so the contents of the buckets would not slop around too much inside or spill over the edges.
Years later, when he was home, one of the men went to a movie about weight lifting and bodybuilding. The movie was Pumping Iron, and it occurred to him that hour after hour, day after day, for almost six years of life, what he had been doing was pumping shit. It seemed the perfect description.
IT WAS NOT ENOUGH TO WORK ON HOUSEKEEPING, HEALTH, AND FITNESS. Even after you had done all you could to keep the cell and yourself clean, exercised until you were exhausted, and taken your turn tapping or clearing, there were still long, empty stretches of time that had to be filled. Somehow, you had to keep your mind occupied; otherwise you would dwell on your situation and sink into a swamp of self-pity. The POWs found they had more resources than they could have imagined for keeping themselves diverted. It came down to discovering what they already knew.
Stafford was on the wall one day when someone from the next cell tapped out a riddle. You are on a path, the message read, and you come to a place where the path goes off in two directions. There is a guard at the head of each new path. If you take one path, you will meet certain death. If you take the other path, you will live. One guard always lies and the other always tells the truth. You do not know which is which, and you may ask only one question of one of them. What is the question that will allow you to proceed safely?
It took a long time for the man in the next cell to tap out that message. It took much longer—months, in fact—for Stafford, who had never been good at math and logic and the other empirical disciplines, to mull over the answer. But this was the point. When one of his roommates, who knew the answer, tried to coach him, Stafford said, “No, goddammit. Don’t ruin it. I’ll get it.”
Like virtually all of the prisoners, Stafford finally gave up and asked someone to tell him the answer—which was simplicity itself. You ask either guard, “If I ask the other guard which is the road to safety, what will he tell me? And then you take the opposite path.” This was the best of many brainteasers that went through the wall.
Killing time was not an altogether new experience for the aviators. They had always had time on their hands while waiting to fly—especially in the days before the war. One way of killing time had been with card games that could be put down before takeoff and resumed when the planes were back down. Ready-room and alert-room bridge games could last for weeks. It took some resourcefulness, however, to get a rubber going in prison when all four players were in different, and not always adjacent, cells.
First, you needed cards. The Vietnamese were not handing any out. Although they were included in Red Cross and other packages sent to the POWs, these were not distributed until very late in the war. So the POWs had to make the cards. Toilet paper was available. A quill could be made from broom straw, ink from ashes and water. The cards were made small so they could be easily concealed.
Next came the fundamental problem of how to play the game. The men who decided to make up a bridge foursome would each arrange their cards the same way. Then the instructions for how to shuffle would be tapped through each wall. Sometimes these instructions would be relayed by a man who did not play bridge but was willing to help keep the game going and do a little tapping to pass the time.
CUT . . . DECK . . . TEN . . . CARDS . . . DEEP
CUT . . . LARGE . . . PILE . . . FIFTEEN . . . CARDS . . . DEEP
PLACE . . . THIRD . . . ON . . . FIRST . . . PILE . . . and so on until the deck was shuffled.
Then every man would deal four hands, pick up the one that was his, and begin the bidding. Once the bidding was complete, the dummy hand would be turned over. The other hands would remain facedown, and as a card was played, the man making the play would identify the card and its place in the original pile by tapping, so the other players could find it without looking at the rest of the cards in the hand. It would have been easy to cheat, but also, under the circumstances, utterly pointless.
A hand of bridge that might have taken ten minutes to play under normal conditions could last for two or three weeks when every play had to be tapped through several walls. Now and then a new man would decline an invitation to play, saying that it couldn’t be done, that tapping all the bidding and the rounds and the scorekeeping through several walls would just take too much time. The other men had an answer, which went back to a time when Dick Stratton had been thrown into a totally darkened cell for punishment.
Long periods of light deprivation is known to cause disorientation and severe emotional distress. Stratton had been kept in that cell for nearly six weeks. His only lifeline was the wall and the man on the other side, Jack Van Loan. At first, simply to give Stratton some kind of reference point, Van Loan would estimate the passage of time and give Stratton a hack every fifteen minutes. It was something. Then, as time went on, Van Loan began asking Stratton to explain things to him: books that Stratton had read, courses he had taken in college, anything that he could remember and describe in detail. Eventually they came to the subject of philosophy, and Stratton was trying to tell Van Loan, through the wall, about a course he had taken in existentialism. That word alone was tough, and Van Loan missed it several times. Each time, Stratton would patiently tap it out again. When they had finally gotten that single word straight, Stratton began tapping out the name Kierkegaard. It seemed to take hours. At one point, Stratton tapped out an apology: SORRY THIS IS TACNG SO LONG
Van Loan tapped back: DONT WORRY ABT IT XX I THINC IS ON OUR SIDE XX CEEP TALCING
From then on, whenever a man protested that a bridge game would take too long to tap through several walls of the Warehouse, the man on the other side would tap back: THATS OCAY XX TME IS ON OUR SIDE
Card games and chess were good for filling time, but they were not enough to frilly engage the minds of college-educated men accustomed to learning as a routine discipline. So they began memorizing lines from poems or plays that they might have been taught to recite as children and had never forgotten, even if they had to work hard at the job of recall. When a man had the lines, he would tap them out to a prisoner in the next cell, who recited them over and over until he had memorized them himself. The music of the lines, the hard cadences—especially of Kipling—provided a of solace.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll—
Men who had never cared much for poetry began to crave the verses, waiting eagerly for them to come through the wall. The POWs in one cell were in the midst of learning The Highwayman, line by painstaking line, when they were ordered to move. The order came just as they were reaching the climax of the poem and Bess was prepared to “shatter her breast in the moonlight” to warn the highwayman. It was like losing a mystery novel when you are three or four chapters from the end. From their new cell, which had no common wall and could not receive messages by tap code, the men smuggled a message asking what had happened. A message was smuggled back to them—at some risk—and it read: HIGHWAYMAN AND BESS—KIA
AS IN SOME OLD, PRELITERATE SOCIETY, STORYTELLING BECAME AN IMPORTANT ART. The stories and myths of their generation were often films, so after the evening meal and the order to put up nets and lie down on the hard wooden pallets, it would be time for movies. A cellmate who could remember a film would lie on his bunk and begin patiently narrating the action, scene by scene, going into character for dialogue and adding as much detail to the physical descriptions as he could remember or invent. Many of the men had favorite movies they had seen more than once, so they were able to relate a passable summary. Some had a real talent for the work and, with the help of other men who had seen the movie, could assemble a fairly complete account. Certain movies became very popular. Dr. Zhivago was easily the best-loved movie at the Plantation.
Still, there were long stretches of dead, empty time when nothing happened and a man was reduced to simple, mute awareness of his situation. He was hungry. In the summer he was hot and eaten up with skin infections; in the winter, cold and shivering. He was desperately uncertain, about the future. He did not know if he would be hauled out for a quiz ten minutes, still be a captive in 10 years.
Almost all of the POWs learned to fantasize. There was a distinction, however, between idle daydreaming and disciplined fantasizing. No one needed to be told that simply crawling under a blanket and dreaming childhood dreams of mother and dog and painless innocence was unhealthy. That kind of random, formless escape would lead a man farther and farther into passivity, self-pity, arid isolation. Instead, when you fantasized, you tried to create real situations and solve real problems. Properly done, a good session of fantasizing would tire you out, leave you with a sense of having accomplished something.
Al Stafford had always loved to sail, so he would sit up straight with his eyes closed and imagine himself out in Chesapeake Bay. He would decide on the season and then try to remember just what the prevailing weather would be. In the summer, when the cell was stifling and full of bugs, he would picture himself out for a winter sail on the bay, with the water the color of lead, the wind blowing whitecaps off the tops of the swells. He saw himself wearing oilskins, and except for a lone freighter moving up the channel, he had the bay to himself. In the winter, while he huddled under his blanket, he would imagine himself stripped down to a bathing suit, skimming past crab boats and other craft scattered across the mild green expanse of the bay.
At the end of an hour or two of sailing, Stafford could taste the salt on his lips and feel the sun on his skin. He sailed for hours and hours. He used real checkpoints and kept a real logbook. “Five knots equals a mile every twelve minutes. . . .I’ll be at the Oxford lighthouse by 1610. . .”
In another cell, farther down the Warehouse, another man played golf. He would spend two hours a day playing a course he remembered hole by hole. He concentrated so hard on his shots that he could feel the tick of the ball when he made contact with the sweet spot. When his mind wandered for a few moments, he would feel the ugly, metallic sensation all the way up his arms and into his shoulders. A goddamned duck hook, he would tell himself, and trudge off into the rough, hoping that he would be able to find his ball and learn not to use too much right hand.
During his golf games, his cellmates left him alone. It was easy to tell when he was playing, because he would be sitting on his pallet in something like a lotus position, with his eyes closed and his lips moving just slightly as he talked himself through the round. Then, after a couple of hours, he would open his eyes and begin to stretch, as though to relieve the tension. One of the other men in the room would say, “Howd you hit ’em today, Jerry?”
“Not bad. I was two under when I made the turn, but I pushed my drive on fifteen, a long par five. Had to play safe out of the rough and double-bogeyed the hole. Then I three-putted seventeen from twelve feet out. Really blew it. So I was one over for the round.”
“That’s not bad.”
‘”No, it was a good round. Great weather, too.”
“So what about the handicap?”
“I’m still sitting on a two.”
“Little more time on the driving range and you’ll be a scratch golfer.”
“Putting green is more like it. That three-putt killed me.”
There was only one limit to this of fantasizing: You had to know enough about the situation or the task to make it realistic. You could not simply decide you were going to be a professional golfer and imagine yourself in a playoff against Jack Nicklaus if you had never played a round in your life. But if you put yourself into a world that you did know and understand, and you took your time and forced your mind to follow the consequences of every single choice, you could create a world of almost tangible reality.
It was an escape, but it was also a discipline. If you were a golfer and you played every day, you might feel yourself actually getting better. Though he had not seen blue water for two years, since the morning he last crossed the coast of Vietnam at 20,000 feet. Al Stafford felt sure he was a better sailor than he had been when he was shot down. He knew so much more now. He had been through certain situations so many times in his mind that he now did the right thing automatically. It was like the time you spent in a flight simulator on the ground, which prepared you for situations you later encountered in the air.
But even if it was a productive way to use long, empty stretches of time, it was still no substitute for the real thing. When it was too hot and he was too dispirited even to fantasize, Stafford wondered when he would see blue water and feel the wind again—or, in his worst moments, if he ever would.
Along the row of cells in the Warehouse, men strained to keep busy, finding the solution in everything from a serious form of make-believe to the most elaborate improvisation. A man named Charles Plumb “played” music on the keyboard of a piano diagramed in brick dust on the floor. He would patiently play the pieces he could remember, practicing until he got them right. Like Tom Hall, Plumb was an innovator. He had grown up in rural Kansas, where he had been an active Boy Scout and 4-H member. Like many boys his age, he had also fooled around with ham radios and had once sent away for a kit to build his own receiver. He remembered enough about it to try building one at the Plantation so he could listen to news from some source other than Radio Hanoi.
The yard at the Plantation was littered with scrap and debris. On his way to a rare and welcome work detail, Plumb would walk in the typical prisoner fashion, head lowered and shuffling his feet dejectedly. Actually, he was looking for wire. He easily found enough for an aerial and a ground.
During interrogations, prisoners used pencils to write out confessions or letters of apology to the camp commander. They routinely pressed too hard and broke the lead. While a guard was sharpening the pencil, the prisoner would sneak the small piece of broken lead into his clothing to smuggle back into his cell. An eighth of an inch of pencil lead set into a sliver of bamboo made a wonderful, highly prized writing instrument. The POWs would carefully hide their pencils against the possibility of a search. Being caught with a pencil brought punishment for breaking the rule against contraband. Worse, the pencil would be confiscated.
For his radio, Plumb used one of these small pencil points as a detector, balancing it on the edges of two razor blades. For the antenna coil, he wrapped wire around a spool that he made from scrap wood, which he shaped by rubbing it against the rough wall of the cell. He built a capacitor from alternating sheets of waxed paper and aluminum foil smuggled from the kitchen or saved from cigarette packages.
This left the earpiece, which required an electromagnet, diaphragm, and housing. A nail served for the electromagnet. The housing was an unused insulator stuck in the wall, probably dating back to the time the French built the camp. He had worked the insulator loose from the wall and was preparing to wrap the nail with fine wire when the guards conducted a search and confiscated all the parts to his radio. He was taken to the Big House, put in the ropes, and forced to write a letter of apology to the camp commander. He never heard the “Voice of America” on his little radio.
While Plumb was busy with one of his projects, his roommate, Danny Glenn, concentrated on designing and building his dream house. Glenn had studied architecture at Oklahoma State before going into the navy and was shot down four days before Christmas 1966. At the Plantation he filled the hours working on the plans and blueprints for the house he promised himself he would build—exactly to his specifications, with exactly the materials he wanted—when he finally got out of North Vietnam and went home. In his cell, he would rough out the plans on the floor, carefully working out the dimensions and noting the placement of headers, joists, and studs. Then he would draw up his materials list, room by room. His lists were exhaustive and specific, down to the precise gauge of the electric wire. The blueprint of a room would stay on the floor for days, then weeks, while he made his corrections and pondered his decisions.
Lying under his mosquito net at night, Plumb frequently was awakened by his cellmate’s voice.
“Listen, if I’m bothering you. . .”
“That’s okay. What is it?”
“Well, you know that upstairs bathroom, the little one at the head of the stairs?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve decided to go with Mexican tile. What do you think?”
“I think it would look real good.”
“It’s not too fancy?”
“No. I’d say Mexican tile would be just right.”
“Well, what about the color?”
“Hell, I don’t know.”
“I was thinking green. That dark green like you see on sports cars. British racing green, they call it.”
“I think that would look real good.”
“Okay, Charlie. Thanks a lot.”
In the morning, Glenn would go to his blueprints and materials list and write in green Mexican tile for the upstairs bathroom. Then he would check the dimensions and do the arithmetic to calculate just how many three inch squares he would need and where he would need to cut to fit. He would memorize as much as he could and make notes in tiny script on a piece of paper from a cigarette package, using one of the contraband pencil points or an improvised pen. Then he would fold the sheet into the smallest possible square and hide it in a crack in the wall, erase the schematic of the room he’d been working on, and start another.
That night, after the mosquito nets were down, he would say, softly, “Charlie, I’m thinking about paneling that family room downstairs. What do you think. . .?”
Nearly ten years later, after he had come home and started a new life, Plumb got a call at his home in Kansas.
“Charlie, this is Danny Glenn.”
“Yeah, Danny, how you doing?”
“Good. How about you?”
“Real good. What’s up?”
“Charlie, I want you to come see me. There’s something I want to show you.”
“Well . . . all right. Where are you?”
“Oklahoma. Let me tell you how to get here.”
Plumb wrote down the directions and said he would drive down that weekend.
“Great, Charlie. Can’t wait to see you.”
Plumb followed the directions and when he made the last of several turns, the one that would take him up to the driveway where he was to turn in, he saw the house. It was the very same house that he had heard described a thousand times and had helped design while his roommate scratched out the plans and prints on the floor of their cell. He stopped the car and studied the house for a long time. It was unbelievable, like something from a dream.
“Hey, Charlie, come on in. Let me show you around.”
Everything was there in exact detail. Plumb could walk around the house as if he had lived there all his life. When he came to the end of a hall and opened a door, he knew exactly what would be on the other side, knew where every bathroom was and what kind of tile would be on the floor. Nothing was out of place and nothing had been changed from the way this house was planned, all those years ago.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “I can’t believe you got everything just right.”
“Oh, it was a bitch, let me tell you. They’d stopped making a lot of the materials I had in mind when I designed this baby. I had to go to salvage yards and warehouses all across the Southwest to find some of this stuff. But, by God, I wasn’t going to compromise. I had too much invested—you know what I mean.”
Plumb understood. MHQ
GEOFFREY NORMAN is the author of five books, including Bouncing Back: How a Heroic Band of POWs Survival Vietnam (Houghton Mifflin), from which this article was adapted.