What brings veterans together years after the war is over?
|On the day I was shot down, my stress level mirrored the weather report -- calm seas with clouds over Vietnam. Four days before Christmas in the middle of a long war, my one-hundred-thirty-fifth mission seemed inconsequential. I sat through the routine flight briefing with all the enthusiasm of a frequent flyer listening to seat belt instructions. I’m not superstitious, but I would later note that it was the thirteenth mission of my second combat cruise.
While most of our squadron mates made their way to breakfast on the aircraft carrier, our flight of four A-4 Skyhawks roared with determination across the North Vietnam coast. At our alternate target on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the jungle would absorb our rockets like a lake taking on a hailstorm. That all changed when flight lead decided the cloud cover over Ha Tinh Province was breaking up and we should go down to take a look.
Two ker-plunk’s preceded one tremendous KA-BOOM and an unnerving jolt to my aircraft. I keyed the mike button and tried to report in my most professional naval aviator voice, “Unh, this is Warpaint two. I’ve been hit.” I got an inkling the situation was headed south when I heard Warpaint three transmit in a frantic voice, “Warpaint two is hit! He’s on fire and out of control!” Oh shit! That got my attention. It was worse than I thought. My day and the A-4 went rapidly downhill after that.
The next five seconds played in slow motion. Flames burst forward from the engine intakes, engine rpm plummeted to zero, controls froze and Ha Tinh Province flew up to meet me. Reports of pilots who died because they stayed too long with a non-flyable aircraft passed through a part of my mind, while another part of my mind told my hand, just pull the ejection handle. Ejecting from an airplane turned fireball imparts a mixture of thrill and terror, but parachuting into a country that’s at war with you is a life changing experience.
The ground war was something I read about in Stars and Stripes and Newsweek, in the comfort of the squadron ready room on the carrier. I had zero interest in becoming a part of it. The most meaningful thing for me about the ground war was my cousin Gary. I had met Gary when he was 2, shortly after his mother -- my aunt – was killed in a car wreck on the way to visit us in Oklahoma from California. His bereaved dad let him spend the summer with the aunts, uncles and cousins who fell under his special charm. When he mischievously pushed his milk off the table, he would give them a smile that could calm a cobra. After his mother died, life didn’t come easy for Gary, so I wasn’t surprised when I heard he had left home at 17 to join the U.S. Marine Corps. I wrote to him on my way to Vietnam. He wrote back that he also was headed to Vietnam and would be looking for me from the ground. We were as far apart as Oklahoma and California, but now there was a battlefield connection. Every time I flew a mission in support of ground troops, I thought about Gary and what he might be thinking on the ground below. In years to come I often wondered about the ground war he experienced. But now I was in for a ground war of my own.
Traveling at night by jeep, van, truck, ferry and rail, and on display by day to mobs stirred to anger by propaganda cadre, or interrogated by overzealous army officials, I found myself exhausted at the end of six days, dazed and isolated in Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison, the legendary “Hanoi Hilton.” There, Vietnamese interrogators began to try to strip away the pride and sense of belonging I felt as a member of the Navy’s finest attack squadron.
Left alone in the knobby room named for the sound-deadening globs of cement on the walls -- I explored the dingy space for a clue to the fate of Americans who were there ahead of me. On the top of a wooden table in the corner someone had scrawled “May God and my country forgive me for what I have done!” The words screamed a warning of what I would face in the days to come.
I had to find a way beyond that hopelessness, a way to resist, even if the odds were stacked against us. I looked under the table and discovered another note: “Learn this tap code!” A five-by-five grid of the alphabet minus “K” was scratched into the wood. “First tap for row, then column,” the instruction read. I couldn’t imagine much information could be passed by such a crude system of communication. A month later, though, in the blackness of a small cell with no windows, I began to experiment with the code.
Tap, pause, tap: “A.” Tap, pause, tap tap: “B.” Nope, this is not going to replace the telephone. But doggedly, I continued, “A” through “Z” and back again, over and over. Two weeks later I was still practicing, tap tap, tap tap tap, when I heard a guard giving orders to a couple of prisoners in the hall. I got on my hands and knees and pressed my face to the floor. Through the two-inch gap under the door I had a limited view down the hall.
Around the corner and into view came a bamboo broom and a pair of American feet. I hardly noticed the dust in my face as the broom swept past.
“Hi, I’m Ron Storz.” The sound of the American voice startled me. Still sweeping, he spoke in a whisper. “What’s your name, Air Force or Navy, when were you bagged, oh, and do you know the tap code?”
I quickly whispered the info adding, “I know the code but I’m a bit slow.”
“You’ll catch on,” he said, “We sweep the tap code for everyone who can hear us. Keep practicing. God bless, see you later.” As he continued back down the hall I began to try to make out his message: sweep, pause, sweep, sweep, sweep, sweep ...pause ... sweep, pause, sweep ... until he had spelled out "Dan Glenn in room seven."
My adrenalin meter shot from zero to a thousand degrees. My first contact with another serviceman at Hoa Lo prison gave me the opportunity to again serve in an active American fighting unit. We wouldn’t win every battle, but I felt new strength from being in contact with the rest of the team.
Loyalty to each other was our greatest weapon against the Vietnamese Army prison system. They tried to separate us as much as possible but didn’t have the resources to keep each of us in a secluded black hole. They used the isolation to create an environment from which to extort propaganda. But to overcome our resistance they needed a powerful tool. What they chose was a torture system using ropes. The guard would bind arms and legs together behind the back cutting off circulation. He would then cinch the ropes contorting body parts, pulling, tearing muscles and tendons, twisting, rotating and finally popping joints from their sockets causing excruciating pain. He could back off to intensify the pain as feeling rushed back into the deadened limbs and repeat the process as long as necessary to destroy any ability to resist. The problem with torture as an instrument of coercion is that it works in a limited way only as long as it is applied. One word of encouragement from another American and they had to start the process all over again.
They knew all about the tap code but they couldn’t stop it. They built more walls. They bricked up windows. They put more guards outside our doors and punished us with ropes, cuffs and leg-irons, even when they couldn’t catch us. When all else failed, they moved us around from room to room or from camp to camp. That failed, too. It just gave us a chance to contact new prisoners, pass more info, set up wider communications networks and even pass around some new jokes.
A guard could throw open the cell door any time, day or night, stride into the cell and snarl, “ro-dup.” That meant we were going somewhere. It was a bit scary, but it was not a logistics problem. We learned early on that we didn’t own anything. The Rabbit, my first Hanoi interrogator, had carefully pointed out that the two pair of striped pajamas, two blankets, mosquito net, straw mat, tin cup and water pitcher were all on loan from the “Vietmese" people and could be taken away at any time for any reason.
The only possessions that had not been stripped away were the appendages firmly attached to my body, and I wasn’t always sure I was going to be able hang on to those. So when the cap on my front tooth came out one day while I was trying to gnaw on a stale piece of Vietnamese bread, I panicked. I had broken that tooth in high school and I thought I could never smile again. I was even afraid to talk to my teen-age beauty queen friends; they might laugh at the gap between my teeth. I just knew it was going to ruin my life.
My dentist had solved the problem, but now he was ten thousand miles away and no telling when I could get an appointment. I did the next best thing: I learned to hold that sucker in. I would bite and chew with the side of my mouth, which was no problem, since we didn’t get much to chew. Each time I swallowed or took a drink, I trained my tongue to react like an NBA player blocking a shot. It would jump right up there and grab that tooth.
I was proud of that skill, and for several years that took care of the problem. But then there was the headache ... a sinus headache. An infection that began as a simple cold snuck into my sinus and grew into a demon the size of King Kong. All I could do that day was crawl into my blanket cocoon and moan.
For the first time we were crowded into large rooms in Hanoi. A few months before, U.S. Special Forces, flying in at treetop level deep into North Vietnam, crashed into the Son Tay POW camp in the middle of the night and proceeded to kick down every door in the place. The Son Tay Raiders had known when they volunteered there was a fifty per cent chance of being killed on that mission, but on their way back all they could think about was that they had failed to get any of us out.
For us, the raid was an unqualified success. After the raid, the Vietnamese moved everyone from outlying camps into Hoa Lo because they thought the raiders might come back. After years of living alone in one, two and four-man cells, we were together in numbers that allowed us to share our knowledge and support each other as we never could before.
So when I got my world-class headache, there were several cellmates who offered home-remedy advice and came around to check on my condition. One who showed a little extra concern was Dick Brenneman, nicknamed “the Dog.” The Dog had selected his own nickname and was quick to point out that it was significant that dog was God spelled backwards. As you can imagine the Dog was not shy. After deciding my symptoms exceeded his medical expertise, he went to try to get the guards’ attention. The guards ignored him, since for them sickness was serious only if they saw blood or vomit.
My condition continued to worsen until after midnight when my stomach decided it needed some attention as well. I made my way to the end of the room where there was a small alcove that contained a one-holer, open-sewer, squat type latrine. For the next forty minutes my sinus headache took a back seat to a stomach that was trying to turn itself inside out. After I had thrown up everything I had eaten in recent history and more, I struggled back to the concrete slab that served as our communal bunk and crawled under my blanket.
Early the next morning the Dog lifted the edge of my blanket. “Hey Chief, you must have gotten someone’s attention. Mark’s here and wants to know who was making all the noise in the head last night.” Mark, the English-speaking turnkey, and another guard came in with the first medic we had seen in over two years. The medic looked carefully, and nodded wisely, as Mark translated my headache description. When the medic placed a long bony finger in the cavity just under my eye I knew his diagnosis was correct. I rose three feet off the floor.
He managed to come up with a sinus pill that started to do its work in about an hour. I caught up on some sleep but was still feeling very weak at siesta time.
In the old days siesta was when we did our serious tapping. Communicating took less time now so it became a quiet time when some became lost in their thoughts while others exercised by walking laps around the raised center of the room.
When I sensed two of the walkers had stopped at the foot of my bunk I opened one eye. They looked like the quintessential comedy team: the Dog, short, stocky with thick black hair and Charlie Greene, a tall, lanky, thinning blond.
“So, how’s it going?” Charlie asked.
“Much better,” I said.
The Dog studied me for a minute. “You don’t seem too cheery, Chief, what’s the matter?”
“My headache’s better, but I think I’ve lost the cap off my tooth,” I said. “I’ve gone through everything and it just isn’t here.”
“When did you see it last?”
“I’m sure I had it yesterday. So I either swallowed it or lost it in the head last night.”
“We didn’t see it when we were cleaning this morning," Charlie said.
“Don’t worry, Chief. We’ll check again. We might have missed it.”
As they left, although my sinus felt much better, I was feeling seriously depressed. Cleaning the head meant sweeping with a bamboo broom and flushing it down with several buckets of water. My tooth was probably traveling the streets of Hanoi by now in the open sewer. I rolled over and pulled the blanket over my head.
About two hours later someone was tapping on my foot. I sat up and peeked over my blanket. Charlie and Dog were standing there, both grinning from ear to ear. “I think you might want to clean this up some more before you stick it back in your mouth,” Dog said. “I don’t think you want to taste where it’s been.”
“The sewer?” They both answered with a slow nod. “You mean you stuck your hand in there?”
“Not me,“ Dog said. “There are fifty-pound rats living in that hole. Besides Charlie’s the only one with arms that long. He practically had his head in there trying to reach it.”
“You should see what else we got out of there,” Charlie joined in, “about a half a bucket of assorted goop. Some of that stuff has been in there since the French were here.”
I leaned back against my bedroll and let out a deep sigh, “Thanks, guys!”
If the tooth be known, to borrow a phrase from the Bible, greater love has no man.
* * *
I see most of the ex-POWs occasionally at our reunions. I’m still waiting for Charlie to show up at one so I can show him the new tooth I got when I came home. I never got to meet Ron Storz face-to-face, although I did manage to tap to him a few times during the low times. He won’t make it to a reunion. He died in a Hanoi prison.
At a special ceremony at our reunions, we honor all servicemen who were lost on the battlefield. A round table with a red rose in the center is set with four empty places. A salute and a toast are offered for the four combat services as our thoughts focus on each of our friends who died.
I didn’t have any contact with my cousin Gary for some time after I returned. He finished his tour, came back, got out of the Marine Corps and bummed around a bit. After messing around with drugs awhile, he managed to get his life back on track and settled in Oregon. He collected a couple of college degrees and began to teach and do research.
At a family reunion a few years ago I asked his sister how Gary was doing. She said he had married, was raising two fine boys and was a highly respected member of his community. He was an authority on mushrooms and traveled around the world giving lectures and tours and writing books.
“He should come to our family reunions,” I said.
“He says he always means to,” she answered, “but has never been able to work it out.”
The next year Gary learned he had lung cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Even though it had advanced rapidly, the doctors talked optimistically about getting it under control. Gary decided it was time to attend the family reunion. He wanted to see the aunts, uncles and cousins that had filled his time in Oklahoma with love, and visit the place that had been a bright spot in a troubled childhood.
I recognized the smile as soon as I saw him across the airport lobby. He was thin. The blond hair had turned silver. The mischief was still in his eye.
Like all reunions, the weekend was filled with lots of laughter, too much noise and too much food; kids going in all directions and everyone talking at once. Late the last night of the reunion Gary and I managed to escape for a while to the pier overlooking the lake in the quietness of the moonlight. We talked about being in Vietnam together and even traded a few stories. Part of the time, we were silent but the understanding was there.
Gary told me that he had resolved his Vietnam experience for the most part. It had been difficult, but he had grown through it, or in spite of it. There was one thing that still bothered him, he said. He told me that he felt guilty that he had come home while I was still there. It troubled me that he felt that way. We talked about it, but I still felt uneasy. I told him that there was no reason to feel guilty.But I couldn’t explain why.
Gary died three months later, and now an empty plate marks his place at our special table during the fallen comrades ceremony.
Over the years I’ve talked to veterans who carry guilt for someone they lost on the battlefield. I’ve thought a lot about that feeling: about why tears came to the eyes of a crusty old Son Tay Raider when he told about going on the most dangerous mission of his life and all that mattered to him was that he couldn’t bring any of us back ... about why I keep a mental list of the guys I left behind and take it out and polish it every now and then ... and, about why we feel a gnawing pain as we all shed a tear for our comrades at our table of honor.
I have to believe that guilt is the wrong way to look at it. Instead, it’s something that started with a commitment made way back there in the beginning when we signed on in the shadow of the “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster. It was sharpened in training and hardened by trials. It was tested when we deployed and matured on the battlefield. It’s what Jesus told his disciples: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
It also applies to one who is willing to put his arm in a latrine up to his shoulder to retrieve a tooth for a friend.