"My focus began to change from how I was going to escape, to how I was going to make it through the day." (USAF Staff Photo/Sgt. Tim Chacon)
"My focus began to change from how I was going to escape, to how I was going to make it through the day." (USAF Staff Photo/Sgt. Tim Chacon)

Jay Hess
  Lieutenant Colonel, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing
  May 1967-March 1973

Three weeks after arriving in Cam Rahn Bay in 1967 to fly F-4s, I received new orders diverting me to Takhli Air Base in Thailand. It was an emergency manning request that I found a little disturbing: “Due to combat losses, the following individuals are diverted to Takhli Air Base in Thailand.” Takhli was heavily engaged in flights over North Vietnam and at that time was one of the most highly defended air spaces in the world or in history. Once there, I got checked out in the F-105, which I had flown in Germany. On the 24th of August, 24 F-105s left on a mission northeast of Hanoi, very close to the China border, assigned a railroad repair facility at Lang Son. We were Shark flight and I was Shark 4.

I had six 750-pound bombs on, lined up my target, released my bombs and immediately was hit. My reaction was, “Well, I’ve been hit and I ought to get away from here as fast as I can.” So I lit the afterburner, which I shouldn’t have done. Suddenly the cockpit filled with fire and the aircraft started down, doing an outside loop. I pulled up the ejection handles and about that time heard over my radio, “Shark 4 is torching.” I later learned the air rescue personnel searched for me for three hours and finally concluded that I was dead.

I woke up on the ground, probably several hours later. All I could hear was my emergency locator beacon in the parachute and thought, “I’ve got to shut that off.” Very soon a crowd gathered around and captured me. They hacked at my G-suit to get my clothes off, to keep me under control. We hiked over a couple of mountains to an impressive cave structure in the middle of the woods. A surprisingly well-dressed man, Chinese maybe, came in, looking like he worked for IBM or something, and asked a few questions in perfect English. Later, I saw a picture of Mao Tse-tung on the wall and thought, “Am I in China?” which was a little disconcerting.

The next morning, after a night of pep rally appearances, I was tied up with wire and driven away in the back of a pickup truck. People started stomping on my feet and I resigned myself to the worst; it had to be a change from Chinese to Vietnamese control.

I was flown by helicopter to Hanoi and then driven by Jeep to the gates of the “Hanoi Hilton.” Then, blindfolded and tied up, I was taken into a small room and questioned: “What’s your name, rank, serial number, date of birth, and where were you stationed?” I wouldn’t answer and soon they knocked me to the floor, tied my hands behind my back, rotated them up over my head and tied them to my feet in front. I was sweating something awful, and the pain reached a point where it just didn’t hurt any worse. Hours later, I was untied, but my hands were paralyzed. Not wanting to go through that again, I was ready to start answering questions. I said, “OK, I can tell you what kind of plane it was.”

On the third day of torture, they brought in a bowl of soup and it was like water with a leaf in it, but I felt grateful for the liquid because I was dehydrated and hallucinating. That torture lasted a couple of weeks and then I was put in solitary confinement for two months. My focus began to change from how I was going to escape, to how I was going to make it through the day, to how I was going to make it through the next minute. We normally got a bowl of rice twice a day, but it took a while to be able to eat all of it. The pain eased and finally I could begin to move my fingers. It’s almost a spiritual experience, because you never felt so helpless and dependent. There’s a lot of praying, a lot of reflecting back and thinking about your life, and a lot of regrets. I dreaded the thought of the Air Force car pulling up to my house and telling my wife and five children that I was missing or, worse, dead.

Eventually, you realize you’re going to be there for a long time. I started doing isometrics exercises, push-ups, sit ups, whatever, to build up my strength. I got cellmates and we were moved to the annex on the outskirts of Hanoi, where we spent the next two years together. We set up “lessons” to keep our minds sharp: One guy was German, so we all learned German words and a song, which I can still remember. We had no outside contact for a year, but later we managed to communicate with other POWs through the walls using the tap code, or something called flash in which we’d pass a hand across a crack or move a foot at the bottom of a door. The tap code was a very important part of the development in our POW situation. Before they moved us to the annex, they gave us a straw mat, a cup, a blanket, a mosquito net, a pair of pajamas, a couple pairs of pants and a toothbrush. That was a big thing after going months without tooth brushing.

After Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969, they moved us around to different camps and our conditions improved. We were allowed to write and receive letters; in my first letter home to my wife and five children after 2 ½ years, I told them I was alive. One day, the interrogator had a stack of letters. He said, “Would you like a letter?” I could see that he had one with my name on it, but I didn’t recognize the handwriting. I opened it up and it said, “Dear Dad.” It was from my oldest son. “We all miss you,” he said, and “I got my Eagle last Sunday.” Wow. I started to smile. We couldn’t keep these letters, they just let you read them quickly and then they took them back because they suspected code messages and other stuff in there. You knew you had to read it quickly and that was it. I went back to the room. I said, “Hey, guys! I got this letter! My son has his Eagle!” Everybody’s cheering, “That’s great!” And I’m still smiling. And after a while, it hurts because I haven’t smiled and those smile muscles were gone. I think I got letters two other times.

At a compound we called Camp Faith, we slept up off the floor for the first time, on platforms. The windows were not shuttered and you could see out through the bars. Then things really started to change because they had tried this rescue at Son Tay [Nov. 21, 1970], which was another POW compound nearby. It was close enough that we could see the rockets’ red glare and feel the ground shake from the antiaircraft fire from the bombs or whatever. After that, they moved all the POWs back to Hanoi to the Hilton. This time, they gave us the big rooms; there were 50 in a room, and more than 400 POWs. We called it Camp Unity. We had all these academy graduates and they were teaching us Russian, Spanish, history, math, etc. We decided to have movies in the evening. One of the guys, Gerry Venanzi, had been an usher in a theater all the way through school, and he remembered every movie and described them to us in great detail. If he didn’t have a movie, he could make one up.

Things changed again in May 1972. Not since 1968 had we heard any U.S. bombing in North Vietnam, but now the detonations started again. They moved about 100 of us to a camp we called Dogpatch near the China border. We could almost sense what was going on by the mood of the guards. Around Christmas, the guards seemed unusually anxious. In late January, all the POWs were relocated to Hanoi. Those shot down around the same time as me were put in a compound we called “the Plantation” and enjoyed new privileges. Our rooms were left unlocked, and they let us outside. We played volleyball, tanned up and began to feel like normal people again. Toward the end of January 1973, we had our first hopes that the POWs might be released. In February the first group left, and on March 14, I was released.

The night before my release, the camp commander got a group of POWs together and said, “You go home tomorrow.” We were skeptical, but the next morning, the gates opened up and these buses came in to take us to the airport. We changed clothes and boarded the buses, and the farther we traveled the more it felt like maybe we’re getting out of there. Along the road, and kind of through and above the treetops, we could see the tail of this airplane, a C-41, and it had an American flag painted on the tail. And everybody’s poking everybody else, “Hey, look at that flag!” One: you’ve been in the dark and everything has been dirty and brown. And then seeing that red, white and blue, I mean, it is outstanding because of its color, but also because of what’s changed in you, about your feelings about your country.

We were processed and escorted onto the plane. We flew to Clark Air Base in the Philippines and there was a big crowd. I don’t know how everyone else felt, but I had stage fright from being in this solitary world for so long. They introduced each of us as we got off the plane and my heart’s beating fast and the crowd would roar, “Welcome Home!” We got some medical treatment and a uniform. I had the first chance to talk on the telephone to my family. It just took my breath away. We flew on to Hawaii and then finally I had a flight to California, where my wife and five children were waiting to greet me.

Hess, greeted by daughter Heidi in California, after nearly six years as a POW. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Dept. of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives)
Hess, greeted by daughter Heidi in California, after nearly six years as a POW. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Dept. of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives)
In the excitement and anticipation of landing, you look the crowd over, and finally you see them. There is a sense of affection that really deepens with separation. I had missed six Christmases with them, 2,029 days. You just want to explode and run and grab and hug. And that’s when Ben Olender of the Los Angeles Times snapped the photo of my daughter Heidi running up to me. She was 3 when I left for Vietnam. It’s the warmest, overwhelming feeling to touch, to talk, just to be with them. But I still wasn’t “home.” Two weeks later, we flew to Salt Lake City, and after parades and appearances, we drove to Bountiful. Then, with yellow ribbons on the trees and the door, I put my foot in the door and was finally home.

Adapted from the documentary Utah Vietnam War Stories, by KUED, Utah’s public broadcasting station, www.kued.org/productions/vietnam-war-stories.