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Vietnam POWs recall their time in captivity

American Flag (Anthony Delanoix/Unsplash)

The bombing started on Dec. 18, 1972 and lasted 11 days. Waves of B-52s dropped 20,000 tons of ordnance on and near the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong.

For the nearly 600 American POWs held by the North Vietnamese, the destruction wreaked by Operation Linebacker II was a signal of their deliverance.

A few weeks after the bombing, on Feb. 12, 1973, the North Vietnamese released the first group of American POWs. The releases continued through March 29.

Among the passengers on a March 4 flight out of Hanoi — 45 years ago today — were three Air Force officers who would eventually settle in Northwest Florida.

All three men share a memory of their first moments of freedom after years as POWs. It was the first thing Ed Hubbard noticed as he walked across the tarmac at Gia Lam Airport into the transport plane — a smell that he couldn’t quite identify at first, but slowly dawned on him.

“It was the perfume on the flight nurses on the airplane,” said Hubbard, now a retired Air Force colonel. “It was the first pleasant thing I’d smelled in nearly seven years.”

“There was a flight nurse, who was the ‘kissing’ flight nurse,” David Gray, now a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, remembered. She was wearing a musk-type perfume, he recalled.

“None of us had ever smelled musk before,” he said.

Ron Webb, now a retired colonel, smiled at his fellow POWs’ recollections. But what he remembers most about the flight out of Hanoi was the silence before takeoff.

“We were all quiet and subdued,” he said. “We wanted to be sure the airplane got off the ground.”

In interviews last week, the three men shared recollections and thoughts on their time as POWs. Hubbard was imprisoned for nearly seven years, Gray was held for more than six years, and Webb was a POW for nearly six years.

Ed Hubbard

July 20, 1966 — March 4, 1973

‘Never, ever have a bad day’

Perhaps improbably, Ed Hubbard’s time as a POW in Vietnam laid the foundation for a successful career in the Air Force, and for his post-military work as an inspirational speaker with his own company, Positive Vectors Inc., which continues today.

“It is the greatest education I’ll ever have in my life,” Missouri native Hubbard said in an interview at the Air Force Armament Museum.

Hubbard is president of the museum’s board, and one of the exhibits there depicts the first POW cell he occupied. A mannequin in the cell is dressed in the scarlet-striped prison uniform worn by Hubbard, and the mannequin’s face is molded to look like the young Hubbard.

On July 20, 1966, Hubbard was the navigator aboard an aircraft on an electronic warfare mission. The plane was hit by two surface-to-air missiles, and Hubbard was subsequently captured by the Vietnamese. Over the next six-and-a-half years, he would be moved among prison camps in the Hanoi area nearly 60 times.

“My first five months in prison, I nearly died because I gave up,” he said.

Things changed for him during a weeks-long stay in solitary confinement, when he began to recognize what he now calls “the wisdom of jail.”

That wisdom is rooted in the idea that people control their reactions to their circumstances. People can decide, Hubbard said, to “never, ever have a bad day as long as you live.”

It was a hard-won lesson for Hubbard, who would have any number of bad days during his time as a POW. In particular, he recalled a December 1967 interrogation conducted by Cubans wanting to try some torture techniques in Vietnam.

“Their program was called ‘total surrender,'” Hubbard recalled. “They absolutely beat the (expletive) out of me for about three hours.”

Hubbard also suffered a broken jaw “when I smarted off to a guard.” And the lack of adequate nutrition saw his weight plummet from 175 pounds to 98 pounds during his time in captivity.

But even in their dire circumstances, Hubbard and his fellow POWs found ways to contribute to the war effort. Occasionally, they were allowed to write letters to their families, and in a program only recently declassified, those letters included coded messages to military officials. The letters were routed to the military before being forwarded on to the intended recipients, Hubbard explained.

Despite his lengthy time as a POW, Hubbard said he didn’t find the transition back to normal life particularly difficult.

“It’s like hitting yourself in the thumb with a hammer,” he said. “It feels good when you stop.”

If there was a difficulty with transitioning back into the real world, it was reckoning with the fact that he, like other POWs, had effectively lost years of their lives.

“Everything kind of stood still for us,” he said. The effect was so pronounced that when Hubbard arrived at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois for a reunion with his family, he didn’t recognize his parents.

“They looked like little old people to me,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, on the 30th anniversary of his release from Vietnamese captivity, Hubbard went back to Vietnam to visit the prison where he was first held. He took the trip with his wife and some friends. On the day they were to visit the prison, he got up early and walked alone into the cell he had occupied three decades before.

“I wanted to see if it was going to be emotional,” he said. “It wasn’t.”

Ron Webb

June 11, 1967 — March 4, 1973

‘You took the keys away from your wife’

New Jersey native Ron Webb was uneasy about the mission that ended with his capture as a POW. The plan called for the F-4 fighter-bomber in which he was the back-seat pilot to fly at the same level as another F-4, and to turn in the direction of that F-4 as the other F-4 was doing the same. As Webb had feared, the two aircraft struck each other in mid-air.

Webb ejected and landed in a wooded area northeast of Hanoi, injuring his back and leg. He was captured the next morning and forced to walk, with a rope around his neck, for a day. From there, he was transported to Camp 4 in Hanoi, known as “The Plantation.” Three years later, he was transferred to Hoa Lo Prison — the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

Like other POWs, Webb, who was married and had a 2-year-old daughter, Stephanie, opted not to think much about his family.

“I pretty much emptied my mind of that,” Webb said. He and other POWs reasoned that at least that the Air Force would look after its POW families.

“We thought particularly of our own survival day-to-day,” he said.

For POWs like Webb, part of survival was making it through interrogations, which were thinly disguised torture sessions.

“They would use whatever injury you had against you,” he said.

One interrogation room was filled with hooks and ropes the North Vietnamese would use to exacerbate pain in injured area, Webb said. The room also was outfitted with blobs of concrete, their irregular shapes designed to deaden the sounds of torture, Webb said.

Initially, their North Vietnamese captors were interested in extracting tactical information — data on troops, equipment and the like. Eventually, interrogation sessions were aimed more at political conversion.

“Over the years, they were interested in breaking you down,” Webb said.

Webb faced another challenge, too. During his time as a POW, he spent a total of 18 months in solitary confinement — including one year-long stretch.

“I had less difficulty in my solitary confinement than others did,” he said, speculating that his years as an only child helped him deal with spending time alone.

In order to communicate surreptitiously with each other, POWs in Vietnam resurrected the “tap code,” a series of taps corresponding with letters of the alphabet. At home last week, Webb pulled out a printed card detailing the code. Within seconds, he tapped out a reporter’s name on a glass-topped table, as he had done years ago on prison walls.

Inside the Hanoi Hilton, POWs at one point started using coughs and throat-clearing noises as their tap code, an alternative to tapping on the walls. When he first arrived at the Hanoi Hilton and heard the noises, “I thought I was in a TB (tuberculosis) ward,” Webb laughed.

By September 1972, Webb said, he and his fellow POWs were “beginning to get a pretty good idea things were winding down.”

In the weeks before the Linebacker II bombing raids, he said, senior Vietnamese officers “would preach to us about how we could all be friends.”

While it wasn’t nearly as difficult as years of imprisonment, transitioning to a normal life in the Air Force had its challenges, Webb said. In effect, he and his fellow POWs had stood still while the rest of the world moved forward.

“We missed out on miniskirts,” Webb smiled.

More seriously, he said, the transition “really wasn’t all that easy. You felt like Rip Van Winkle.”

For many POWs, himself included, one of the most jarring things about the return to the real world was the sound of jangling keys, which in a POW camp preceded being taken to an interrogation session.

“That was a horrible sound,” he said. “You took the keys away from your wife, because you didn’t want to hear the noise.”

Dave Gray

Jan. 23, 1967 — March 4, 1973

‘And to America I return’

Just three weeks after the Air Force started an elaborate ruse to trick North Vietnam’s Russian-built MiG-21 fighter jets into engaging American F-4 fighter jet, Dave Gray’s part in the plan went awry.

On Jan. 23, 1967, Gray was part of a formation of four F-4s on a “MiG sweep,” flying in close proximity to mimic the radar signature of a bomb-laden F-105 Thunderchief. The idea was to convince Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots they were homing in on a single Thunderchief, only to find themselves facing multiple F-4s. Gray’s plane was disabled by a surface-to-air missile, forcing him to eject. He was quickly captured, and would spend more than six years in a succession of North Vietnamese prison camps.

Gray suffered a back injury when he ejected, but was still able to work, which entitled him to some time out in the sun, and some extra rations. Even so, most of what POWs ate wasn’t particularly special, just bowls of soup containing a few vegetables and some pig fat, and bread with more pig fat. But on Sundays, Gray said, there was “a sweet rice porridge that we all looked forward to.”

And, of course, Gray and the hundreds of other American POWs also looked forward to the day they would be released. There was no shortage of guessing when that might be, he said.

“There were different schools of thought,” according to Gray. In particular, he remembered the group he called “gastro-politicians,” POWs who were convinced that occasional improvements in rations meant they were being made more healthy in advance of imminent release.

The POWs would grasp at anything they could convince themselves was an indication of an upcoming release.

“We could find reasons to presume we would not be there for more than six to 12 months at any time during the six years” he was imprisoned, Gray said.

Gray, whose time in captivity included rope torture and sleep deprivation, said POWs saw the possibility that they might be tortured at any given time in a couple of different ways.

“It was something that you feared,” he said, “but Americans have a great ability to rationalize ‘not me.'”

There were, though, some lighter moments for Gray and his fellow POWs. Occasionally, they would receive packages from home, often containing some nonperishable food. A package from one POW’s wife included a box of crackers. Th box advertised the crackers had “less than 8 calories.”

“What wife would send diet food to a prison camp?” Gray asked with a smile.

Now 45 years past his release in Vietnam, Gray says the years he spent there don’t much occupy his thoughts.

“I had to dig around in the bottom of my bedroom closet to find all this stuff,” he said, gesturing toward a table filled with photos and memorabilia assembled before last week’s interview.

Among Gray’s “stuff” are a number of POW/MIA bracelets. The bracelets, slim bands of metal engraved with his name and the date of his capture, are among the estimated 5 million bracelets distributed in the 1970s to keep Americans’ attention focused on the U.S. military personnel imprisoned or missing in action in Vietnam. Gray still occasionally receives one of his bracelets in the mail from someone who wore it during the war. He estimates that he now has 300 bracelets, and he’s sent “thank you” notes to each person.

Gray also has another permanent reminder of his days as a POW. He is quoted in “The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,” penned by the president who ordered the bombing raids that helped win freedom for American POWs.

“Nixon was pretty much a hero to all of us,” Gray said.

Nixon’s memoirs include words uttered by Gray upon his return to the United States. They include mentions of his first wife, Lynda, from whom he would eventually be divorced — a not uncommon occurrence among returning POWs.

“A loving God made me an American, and to America I return,” Gray said, as quoted in Nixon’s memoir. “A loving President preserved my honor, and with honor I return. A loving wife waited with strong heart, and to her I return. Thank you, Heavenly Father. Thank you, President Nixon. Thank you, Lynda. Thank you, America.”


© 2018 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.