Editor’s note: This is an adaptation of a column by former prisoner of war, retired Navy Cmdr. Paul Galanti, first published Thanksgiving Day, 1989.
By Paul Galanti
Although today is the official Thanksgiving, if you have ever been to Berkeley Plantation for the celebration of the Virginia Thanksgiving, you’ll know that the Pilgrims in Massachusetts had a better lobbyist than the landowners of the Virginia Company did. Be that as it may, I am here to tell you that every day in the United States ought to be a day of Thanksgiving.
We have very much to be thankful for — and yet many Americans take our many blessings for granted. I’d like to tell you about one small group of Americans that doesn’t.
In North Vietnam, about 500 Americans learned first-hand about our many blessings. For the most part, we were Air Force and Navy pilots although our group consisted of all branches of the armed forces, many U.S. government agencies and several civilians who were contractors and relief workers for United Nations-sponsored relief agencies. There’s an old joke about hitting a mule on the head with a 2 x 4 to get his attention, and the lessons learned by that mule apply to all of us. This group of military pilots — each convinced he was absolutely the best pilot in the world — learned first-hand about communism. My story is typical. It started in November 1965.
My squadron left for Vietnam that November, and our combat operations started on Dec. 17. For the next seven months, we flew close air-support missions in South Vietnam. We also flew many missions against hard targets in North Vietnam in an attempt to stem the flow of military supplies to the south.
There were many irritations for us combat pilots — not the least of which was that we didn’t feel the targets we were risking our lives for were worth the cost of our squadron mates’ lives. We, of course, knew that it was always the other guy who was going to get shot down.
The pattern was always the same: Washington would release the names of the targets we were going to hit, allowing the North Vietnamese to move all their anti-aircraft forces into place. And then we’d hit the targets — with a report going back to Washington immediately after the mission was completed. Losses obviously were higher than they would have been had not our State Department been so generous, but we weren’t overly concerned about that — it was always the other guy it happened to.
My equivalent of the mule’s 2 x 4 came on June 17, 1966, on my 97th mission — and it got my attention. My aircraft was hit at the bottom of a dive-bombing run and almost immediately went out of control. I ejected, parachuted to the ground — getting shot in the process, and was almost immediately captured by a group of militiamen.
They tied me to a tree and formed a firing squad in what was obviously an execution attempt. A regular army officer forced them to stop, took control of me and got me away. For the next 12 days as we journeyed, blindfolded and on foot, the 100 miles north to Hanoi, North Vietnam’s capital, I was privileged to observe first-hand the dynamism of communism in action. Paraded, although badly wounded, in my underwear in front of village after village, I observed the very tight control that the communists exercised over their population. I saw the political cadres fire up the crowds — similar to cheerleaders at American football games. The most frightening part was how the crowds responded. It was absolutely chilling to see how the cadres could fire up the crowds — turning them into a raving mobs — and then turn them off just as quickly with only a few harshly shouted words.
Arriving in Hanoi, I was held in confinement without food or water for three days and then spent the next four in a blood-spattered torture room. The evening air was filled with screams of Americans being tortured for the sole purpose, as my interrogator stated, of having their “thinking corrected.” This was an expression I would hear many times over the next seven years.
I learned during the next four days that one resists torture by remaining silent only in the movies. At the conclusion of those four days, the 2 x 4 had grown to a 4 x 8 driven by a diesel pile-driver and the North Vietnamese had my undivided attention.
The next three years — about two in solitary — were spent in 7’x7’ cells with stocks at the foot of the concrete bed. The windows were boarded over, and rats, huge spiders and snakes ran freely. We had two meals a day of pumpkin soup and rice and were treated to the Radio Hanoi propaganda broadcast at 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. There were no other diversions except for the interrogations about twice a week.
There was virtually no news of any kind, save for the reports of the glorious victories of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces over the capitalistic, war-mongering U.S. aggressors. For the first time in my life I had time to pause and reflect. I went over my entire life and made resolutions which I have kept until today — the most important of which was that I would never again take for granted the beautiful liberties we have in the United States.
It was absolutely inconceivable to my interrogators that, when they confronted us POWs with anti-U.S. statements made by American politicians, movie actresses, or baby doctors (Dr. Spock’s books never graced our home after our boys were born and they still turned out OK), we would say: “If they feel like that, it is their right to say it — as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others by destroying property or breaking the law. That’s the American way. I don’t agree with them, but I’m here fighting for their right to say it.”
The interrogators would simply shake their heads, knowing they had captured what was certainly the dumbest U.S. aggressor of them all.
After Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, our treatment improved substantially. Very few were kept in solitary confinement, but communication between cells was still prohibited under pain of torture and 30 days in irons and stocks.
We were constantly shifted from camp to camp, which enabled us to keep track of other prisoners. Following the special forces raid on the Son Tay POW camp 20 miles west of Hanoi in November, 1970, we were moved to Hanoi and kept in the massive Hoa Lo prison in large rooms with 48 to 57 men in each room. Interrogations were non-existent and the North Vietnamese begrudgingly permitted us to teach each other courses in which we were “experts.” Classes were taught in Spanish, French, German and Russian. Courses were taught in math, physics, and chemistry. There were classes in history, philosophy and religion. We were very apt students. Three Mormons and two Baptists in the room had reconstructed the Bible from memory with considerable editing of their version of the Old Testament by our resident Jewish POW. Their efforts were rewarded by our organized ecumenical religious services — the source of our last harassment by the Vietnamese. They thought our “preachers” were a Pentagon version of political cadres!
But our attempts to teach, learn and worship enabled us to retain our sanity and civilization in spite of the best efforts of the enemy to reduce us to an animal state. We were probably the best-educated group of prisoners of war in history. In my 48-man room, we had three master’s degrees, one lawyer and 41 of us had undergraduate degrees in every field known to man. Only three had never been to college — enlisted aircrewmen of rescue helicopters. From what they learned in our Hanoi classroom, they each validated 120 semester hours of college credit upon their return to the U.S.
We were released in early 1973, after having been out of touch with the world since 1968 when the peace talks started. And what did we return to? After the initial euphoria, it became apparent to most of us that we were decidedly the happiest people here. We, who would never again complain about anything in the U.S., discovered that many Americans think we live in total tyranny. From indignant letters to editors about perceived injustices, to editorials themselves, to hearing the squeals of those who claim to have been left out of the Great American Dream, to self-serving politicians offering to fund the most crackpot endeavors to stay in office, our 500 anachronistic “Rip Van Winkles” were enraged by what we perceived as ingratitude to this country for whose principles we had spent so many years in Communist prison camps. We, who demanded and received the highest standards of behavior for ourselves and our cellmates, were treated on our return to a valueless society where standards had either vanished or had been reduced to the lowest common denominator.
We observed religious leaders sanctimoniously trying through political pressure to dictate U.S. foreign policy which would help the vicious Communists and their stooge allies under the misconceived notion of helping the cause of peace. That is tantamount to helping fight crime by politically supporting criminals while disarming the police.
We observed an incredible feeling of mea culpa on the part of many Americans at the same time they were applauding a Soviet leader personally responsible for the deaths of millions of people and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. It’s all our fault, these people say, and, after all, look how open the Soviets are becoming. Gorbachev smiles a lot and his wife even dresses well.
So what is my cause for Thanksgiving? Simply that we live in a country where even the misguided can have their say. Where, despite the biases of our commercial media, Americans, for the most part, join me in being thankful for the privilege of being Americans. Where refugees from communist countries can stand up, unashamedly, at naturalization ceremonies and state their belief that they are extremely fortunate to be living in America where the secret police won’t take them to jail for dissent.
And, finally, to be able to live in a country where men and women of all political persuasions and religious beliefs can worship and give thanks together for their many real and tangible blessings.
That is the great cause for Thanksgiving. The fact that we can do all those things is the reason I spent so many years in North Vietnam and have no regrets. The freedoms we have in America make it all worthwhile.