The only thing they could be sure of was that nothing was certain. Nothing except the interrogations, torture, bad food and disease. Nothing except the relocations from one prison camp to another. Nothing except a pervasive spirit of fellowship, the reassuring knowledge that these trials were not one man's burden.
The men were kept in 13 prison camps in and around Hanoi over the course of the Vietnam War. Most were pilots who had been shot down.
They had bailed from the cockpits of their fixed-wing supersonic F-4 Phantom II, F-100 Super Sabre or F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bombers. The planes would spin down, a column of black smoke trailing behind, as the pilots ripped through a stand of trees or slammed to Earth. If they weren't injured by the ejection, they often were hurt when they met the ground.
Wallace Grant Newcomb broke his left leg. Big Bill Baugh broke his cheekbones and jaw, lost sight in his right eye and compressed his spine. Laurie Lengyel squeezed a vertebra. John McCain fractured his arms and a leg and almost drowned in Truc Bach Lake.
Then came the capture and questioning, then came the pain, years of incarceration, years of improvisation and uncertainty. If there was a single common preoccupation, says Wallie Newcomb, it was this: No one could imagine how, or when, it would end. The prisoners had only one another and a shared motto: Return with honor.
Preparing for prison
This is the story of Wallie Newcomb and a couple of his pals, of what it was like for them to survive as prisoners of war in North Vietnam, an experience that dragged on longer than anyone could have imagined. Newcomb, now 68 and living in Charleston, got on with his life after the war, becoming a corporate pilot and shift manager at Corning Inc., the glass and ceramics manufacturer in New York state, returning to school to earn a Master of Business Administration, marrying and raising a family.
Born in Easton, Pa., and raised in Painted Post, N.Y., he attended the University of Michigan, where he joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. He was commissioned in August 1963, the same day he graduated, and soon left for pilot training school in Selma, Ala.
After flight school came three weeks of survival school at Stead Air Force Base near Reno, Nev. The simulated POW camp was based on the Korean War model of internment. Trainees had to squeeze into the "black box" while role-playing guards screamed at them and played recordings of crying children. Newcomb didn't really mind it. His small stature made it easy to slip into the tiny space.
Then he was off to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas for gunnery school. There, Newcomb learned to fly missions in the F105 Thunderchief. From Nevada, he was stationed at Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany, where he spent most of 1966 on alert as one of several pilots ready to take off at a moment's notice in a plane loaded with nuclear weapons.
In 1964, the war was cranking up. On Aug. 2, the Navy destroyer Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Two days later, reports of another attack hit the news, though a second engagement may not have happened. The episode prompted Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, granting President Johnson authority to defend against communist aggression.
In 1965, the ground war began. By the end of the year, the U.S. had sent 200,000 Marines to Vietnam. March 2 marked the beginning of a massive, systematic bombing campaign that would last three years.
By January 1967, Newcomb was on his way to Korat, Thailand, stopping on the way for a week of jungle survival training in the Philippines.
He was a lieutenant in the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing and spent about six months bombing targets in North Vietnam. He was shot down at 7 a.m. Aug. 3, bailed out and landed with a thump in a hilly area populated by an ethnic minority group.
He might have escaped but for a broken leg.
He might have fashioned a crutch with bamboo and made his way to the forest a couple of hundred yards away, he says. There he could have climbed a tree and perched for a while. He knew a U.S. helicopter was tracking him; he had an emergency locator in his backpack.
Instead, excited villagers, some armed with rusty weapons and half-trained in capture procedures, converged on Newcomb and started beating him. When they realized he couldn't walk, they made a stretcher and carried him all day to a little building along a dirt road where, a full 12 hours after he fell from the sky, North Vietnamese soldiers in uniform arrived to take command.
"They pulled things from my survival kit and gave them to the people as payment," Newcomb says. The Army knife was especially desirable.
Blindfolded and thrown in the back of a Jeep, Newcomb then continued the journey, keeping track of his location, more or less, through the careful use of his senses. He knew when they were near the northeast railroad, and when they reached the Red River. As they approached Hanoi, he heard the sounds of the city — street cars, open markets.
The Jeep stopped. Soldiers talked among themselves. Newcomb was led into the "knobby-walled room," part of "New Guy Village." Globs of mortar adhered to the walls. He sat on a stool at first. There was a little table with flowers before him.
An officer who spoke English entered the room. Two armed soldiers loomed threateningly behind Newcomb.
"It's quite nicely orchestrated to be intimidating," he says. "It all works well from the standpoint of the Vietnamese. You'll start talking based on the implied threat."
The initial interrogation began.
Bombs and bullies
The ordeal lasted 10 days.
They wanted names. They wanted target locations. To get the information, they slapped, beat and kicked him. They aimed for his fractured leg.
He had been trained to give up no more than his name, rank and serial number.
Return with honor.
They wrapped a choker round his neck until he fell unconscious. He remembers dreaming of being in a pleasant place, then awakening from a deep sleep. Consciousness returned with a jolt: Suddenly, he was in the knobby-walled room again. "There's a certain startle effect," he says.
Everyone has a different breaking point, Newcomb says. "They ramp up to techniques that always work." For those who endure this much, the breaking point usually comes with the tie-up.
His feet were shackled in a leg iron and his hands were tied together behind his back. He was removed from the stool and positioned on the floor. At first, he issued voluntary screams, with the hope that they would bring a quick end to the torture, but his interrogators knew what they were doing.
Voluntary screams became involuntary. He began to perspire profusely. His arms, tied at the wrist, were pulled over his head and down to his feet. Tendons and ligaments stretched. Intense pain rippled through his upper body.
"So you talk," he says. He gave them a list of names — of people who had finished their tours of duty.
It was a dangerous ploy. The Vietnamese had access to the Air Force Times, which published flight assignments. And there were a few anti-war people in the U.S. who unwittingly abetted the North Vietnamese by sending news clippings and other information about the "tyrannical" and interventionist Americans.
When a San Diego paper printed a story about how Clark Kent and Peter Parker refused to fly missions, the pilot who "confessed" to his captors was badly beaten when they discovered the ruse, Newcomb says.
At the end of his 10-day interrogation, the Vietnamese forced Newcomb to promise that Hanoi would not be bombed. At the time, he says, a military policy forbade bombing within a 10-mile radius of the city.
"I promised the United States would not bomb inside the ring. I promised with my life, in writing."
A few minutes later, air raid sirens sounded, and Newcomb heard the roar of planes approach. He heard a popping sound. He thought, "Was this an exercise of some kind?"
"Then all hell broke loose; 3,000-pound bombs started falling." A nearby bridge was targeted.
The knobby-walled room began to pulsate visibly. The bricks and concrete wobbled. The hardwood doors flapped like butterfly wings. The noise was deafening.
"I started to think, What could I possibly say to stave off another torture session?"
A half-hour after the raid, a couple of officers walked into the room.
"There was an air raid inside the 10-mile ring. All the information you gave us is bad."
But instead of torture, they made him write a letter to the camp commander requesting a roommate. A few minutes later, F-8 Crusader pilot Charlie Zuhoski of Riverhead, N.Y., appeared with blankets and a tin cup, and the two men were ushered around the corner to Heartbreak Hotel.
"Heartbreak Hotel is where you start the long haul," Newcomb says.
In it together
He was held captive for 5 1/2 years.
All told, there were more than 600 prisoners of war incarcerated by the North Vietnamese during the course of the conflict, each subjected to similar treatment, each learning to cope by hook or by crook.
Bill Baugh, now 74 and living in Colorado Springs, was captured Jan. 21, 1967, and held six years and two months. He met Newcomb in prison.
He remembers how the Vietnamese served decent meals only on Christmas and the lunar New Year holiday called Tet.
He remembers how challenging it was to remain charitable and tolerant, how living for years in cramped quarters with other men sometimes can grate on the nerves.
"After a while, you don't like how someone brushes his teeth," Baugh says.
He remembers Don Heiliger, an accountant from Madison, Wis., who hoarded the candy distributed during the holidays.
"He'd barter all year long in anticipation of Christmas and Tet," Baugh says. Then Heiliger would carefully store his huge bag, methodically eating the candy, piece by piece. Probably, it was a way to cope, to turn his mind to a procedure that provided a modicum of pleasure and a slight distraction from the mundane uncertainty.
But it started to bug Baugh, he says. So he secretly began to steal a piece of candy each day until Heiliger implored him to help find the thief.
After all the candy was depleted, Baugh began to restore the cache, one piece a day. Heiliger was ecstatic. When it came time to return the last piece, Baugh took a bite out of it, then attached a note — written on brown toilet paper with ink made from brick powder: "Sorry about taking a bite. I had to. Signed, Phantom."
Heiliger never figured it out, Baugh says. It wasn't until the two men were stateside in the hospital that Baugh offered his confession.
Return with honor.
Veteran Laurie Lengyel, who now lives in Texas, flew an F-4 reconnaissance plane and was captured Aug. 9, 1967, a few days after Newcomb. They met after being moved from Hoa Lo prison, the Hanoi Hilton, to the "Zoo Annex," where they became roommates.
It took Lengyel a month to get to the camps. He drank tainted water and came down with a bad case of dysentery.
"We can't torture you," his captors told him, "or you'll die."
So they had to wait until he was well enough to endure the ropes, beatings and deprivation.
When Newcomb got sick with typhoid fever in early 1972, he had to be moved to another camp. The Vietnamese wanted a prisoner to accompany Newcomb. "I'll go," Lengyel told them.
The doctors gave Newcomb injections of long-expired medicines that did little. Newcomb was in bad shape, his friend says. One hot summer day, a little man who knew no English came into the room and indicated he would help.
He boiled leaves in a pot and placed the steaming brew under two blankets that covered Newcomb so the sick man could breathe the vapor. It worked. Newcomb was on the road to recovery.
Passing the time
There were other episodes, so many they all cannot be recalled in a sitting. Lengyel remembers how he was nicknamed "The Maserati" because of his snoring problem, and how a few of the men once picked up the bunk on which he slept and dropped it on the floor.
"Wallie was one of the rascals," he says.
Later, there were "classes" taught by prisoners: chemistry, language, geography, economics. For a while, they would organize meetings at which a movie would be described.
The war dragged on.
Each spring, the North Vietnamese conducted a series of "quizzes," or interrogations. For the captors, the objective was to explain their version of the war, Newcomb says. For the captives, the objective was to keep the quiz from becoming a torture session.
The trick was to find language that would appease the enemy without betraying country and honor, Newcomb says. His answer was pragmatic: "Yes," he would say, "I understand what you are saying."
Newcomb began his imprisonment with one roommate, Charlie Zuhoski, then moved to a four-man group, then to a nine-man group.
Prisoner communications were constantly interrupted by the Vietnamese. Windows would be bricked up, holes covered. A prisoners' code of resistance was quickly formulated, Newcomb says. The men would endure the agony of torture only until they reached a certain threshold. They did not want to lose control or compromise their ability to endure the pain the next time, he says.
"This ability to endure would cause the Vietnamese to run out of enthusiasm and things would just fizzle."
It was difficult to imagine how it all would end, Newcomb says.
"We never could envision the U.S. capitulating, nor could we see the U.S. making significant progress." The uncertainty remained ever-present.
Each St. Patrick's Day, Lengyel would get optimistic. He'd dream of release, sure that it was imminent. "St. Paddy's Day and Frisco Bay!" he'd chant, to the dismay of many.
In early 1973, POWs were moved to "The Plantation," a big camp at which, for the first time, 50 or more men could mingle. There, Newcomb and Lengyel met McCain.
Newcomb chatted with McCain in a courtyard and remembers sharing French lessons with him in one of the classes prisoners arranged.
Finally, a negotiated settlement was reached. After the Tet Offensive of 1968, after the My Lai Massacre, after the Pentagon Papers controversy, after the Kent State shootings and the ramp-up of the anti-war movement in the States, after the Easter Offensive of 1972 and the re-election of President Nixon.
The Paris Peace Accords took effect Jan. 27, 1973, and the Vietnamese organized a sensational fireworks display along the banks of the Red River, Newcomb says.
Soon after, the POWs were released in order of shoot-down date. Baugh got out on March 4. Newcomb and Lengyel emerged from their internment March 14.
The fighting continued for two more years until April 30, 1975, when the communists took control of Saigon and toppled the U.S.-backed regime.
Back in the air
After his release, Newcomb underwent a physical examination and debriefing. He was assigned to an administrative post at a hospital but negotiated a deal: three months with no duties.
He visited family. He bought a Ferrari for $14,900 with his back pay, took delivery of it in Europe, then drove around on an extended vacation.
Soon he was back on active duty with the Air Force, shuttling government officials around the country on the T-39 Saberliner.
His Vietnam experience has changed him, he says. "I'm more accepting of other people's ways of doing things."
Otherwise, he has gone about his business living a full life.
"It takes a very short time to fall back in your old ways," he says.
"The Moving Wall" is a half-size reproduction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and has been touring the country for more than 20 years.Currently, it is at the North Charleston Coliseum in Parking Lot B, where it will remain through Monday. Veterans, their family members and the general public can visit the Wall 24 hours a day.