Fifty years after Brad Smith and 590 other Americans were released from North Vietnam prisoner of war camps, the retired Navy commander and fighter pilot shared how he survived the horror of seven years of captivity.
Smith, 83, was the keynote speaker Wednesday at a Manatee County commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which ended America’s combat role in the Vietnam War.
Smith began flying combat missions in the A-4 Skyhawk in November 1965 and was shot down on his 77th combat mission while on a bombing run against a bridge near Vinh, North Vietnam.
“This wasn’t a highly defended target — at least I didn’t think so,” Smith told a crowd that gathered at Veterans Park, adjacent to Manatee Memorial Hospital.
“I rolled in from 10,000 feet and the tail on my aircraft was shot off,” he said.
As the plane plunged spinning and on fire toward the ground at 600 mph, Smith tried to release his 500-pound bombs, and remembers reaching for the the ejection handle.
“I don’t remember pulling the handle or anything else about the ejection,” he said.
When he regained consciousness, he was about 10 feet under water. As he rose to the surface, he saw that he was in the middle of a river. People in what looked like black pajamas, armed with AK 47 rifles, were approaching in boats from both sides of the river.
With his arms wired behind his back, his captors marched him to a prison camp over several nights, while villagers pelted him with rocks, and he endured frequent beatings.
“They were not a happy bunch,” he said.
By the time he arrived at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, later dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs, he had been in captivity for four days.
That’s when he began setting goals for himself: the first was to survive another four days.
His second day at Hoa Lo, Smith heard an American voice calling him from another cell, and telling him to look at an engraving scratched into the wall. The engraving was the code the POWs used to tap messages to each other through the stone walls. The prisoners would use the tap-tap code when no other communication was possible.
Over the next seven years, Smith would be held at several other North Vietnamese prisons with names like “the zoo” and “the briar patch.”
Smith endured daily beatings and survived on whatever he could find to eat, including chicken heads, rats and bugs.
When captured, Smith weighed 170 pounds. At the end of the first year, he estimates he had lost 60 pounds.
“How do you survive? All you have is the rags on your back and your brain. You are going to eat anything in front of you, no matter how disgusting. You exercise, even if you can only lift an arm or a leg, and you walk,” he said.
“You set goals. You get tougher than rawhide,” Smith said.
You draw on every ounce of courage to say no to interrogators who want you to give up military information or denounce your country.
And something else: compassion for your fellow POWs, some of them in worse shape than you, to help them survive the ordeal, Smith said.
Toward the end of his seven years of imprisonment, conditions began to get better for the POWs as the North Vietnamese realized the political value of their captives.
“You can live on hate, but I was able to leave it there. It’s chapter of my life, but it’s not my life,” he said.
Smith was one of the rare POWs who was able to return to active duty, flying missions off the coast of Lebanon and in the Indian Ocean.
Later he served as an aircraft maintenance officer and as a weapons system test pilot until his retirement in 1985. After that, he worked as a defense contractor before starting a stained glass business in Bradenton.
There may not have been a more fitting speaker anywhere in the United States than Brad Smith for the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, master of ceremonies Kevin Van Ostenbridge said.
Bradenton Mayor Gene Brown took note of Smith’s service and that of other Vietnam War veterans.
“There are Americans who walk among us who sacrificed so much for freedom,” Brown said.
March 29 is also National Vietnam War Veterans Day. More than 58,000 American service members died during the war.
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