View Full Version : POW exhibit looks at their experiences 30 years after release

03-03-03, 01:30 PM
POW exhibit looks at their experiences 30 years after release
Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2003
2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/03/01/BA162307.DTL

Ten of the toughest men in the country stood in a line in front of a fireplace at the Marines Memorial Association in San Francisco Thursday night, hearing themselves called heroes and letting applause wash over them.

They all had spent time as prisoners of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, and most of them had endured torture. They were released 30 years ago this month and are now old men, with gray hair. One carries a cane, another was on crutches.

"If you are deprived of your freedom," said Mel Moore, a retired Navy captain, "you truly understand what freedom is."

Moore spent 2,183 days in captivity, 22 months in solitary confinement in the prison the Vietnamese called Hoa Lo and the Americans called "The Hanoi Hilton."

The men came together Thursday to open a free exhibition of their experience and their lives since the war. "Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later" runs through March 28 at the Marines Memorial.

Some Vietnam War POWs returned home and became members of Congress. One, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, ran for president. But most of the 658 prisoners who made it home were like the men at the Marines Memorial --

retired and living with experiences they cannot forget.

Moore, 73, who attended Burlingame High School, the University of San Francisco and UC Berkeley Extension, was taken prisoner March 11, 1967, when his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down between Hanoi and Haiphong.

"I was captured by a 17-year-old girl named Diem," he said, "Her name means 'Moonlight.' She had a gun and around her were many men with rifles."

He was tortured almost immediately, arms pulled behind his back, "They take and pull your arms back," he said. "The pain is unbelievable."

He remembers the most terrifying thing his torturer told him. "He spoke English with a French accent, and he said very clearly, he said, 'We are not going to let you die.' "

"What was his name? The Bug," he said. He spat the name out. "The Bug."

The torture went on; the North Vietnamese wanted Moore to confess to war crimes, but he would not. He was kept in solitary at one point for 16 months straight, with shorter stretches at other times.

Like a lot of prisoners, he found strength inside. "I have a good memory, thank God," he said. "So I went over, reconstructed, tried to remember everything I ever learned in all my college classes. I went over them all, my entire education."

He said it saved him; that and an absolute belief in the United States. Not everyone had an education, he said, and it hurt them; they didn't have the tools to cope.

Moore now lives on Bethel Island, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. He is divorced, which he regrets. He lives alone, which he does not regret. "I am a loner," he said.

Candido Badua, a civilian who worked for the Voice of America in Hue, was captured in the Tet offensive in 1968. He was not tortured. He and some others were taken back up the Ho Chi Minh trail, all the way up the spine of Vietnam to a prison near Hanoi, a trip that took nearly six months. He walked most of the way.

Badua, 79, said he survived on faith and hope. "I had faith that even if only 30 percent of the prisoners were released, I would be one of them," he said. "I had hope that I would see my family again."

His family was with him Thursday -- a wife, a son, a daughter. He was born in the Philippines and now lives in San Francisco.

The prisoners survived by an iron discipline, by communicating with each other in a special code, and by defiance.

"I remember what Orson Swindle did," said Robert Stirm, who was a Marine Corps colonel. It was one of those periods when the Vietnamese had eased up a bit on the POWs.

They came to Swindle, who was a ranking officer, and asked him if a big American holiday was coming up. "God, you know what he said?" Stirm recalled. "He said National Doughnut Day, a big holiday in the United States, is coming."

The Vietnamese had never heard of doughnuts, much less National Doughnut Day, but Swindle convinced them that sugary dough dipped in coffee was the next best thing. "We called them sticky buns," Stirm said.

"Sure enough, on National Doughnut day, here come the guards, with sticky buns to make us feel good," Stirm laughed. "National Doughnut Day was Nov. 10."

As every leatherneck knows, Nov. 10 is the birthday of the United States Marine Corps.

Retired Navy captain Irv Williams was asked how he had endured. "You had to, " he said. Did he ever think of giving up? "No," he said. "Naw."

"Anybody who has been in boot camp for one day knows the feeling," he said. "I put up with this s--- for one day and I'm not gonna quit now."

The men are conservative, as men are who have a rock solid belief in the United States. They support whatever action President Bush may take in Iraq. "He has the best advice. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has those weapons. Why let him survive?" The protesters against the war? "They have not thought it through," he said. "They are misguided."

POW exhibit
"Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later" is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Marines Memorial Association, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco. Admission is free.

E-mail Carl Nolte at cnolte@sfchronicle.com.

2003 San Francisco Chronicle