"It'll never happen to me!" were the thoughts of a cocky young Navy jet pilot as his A-4 Skyhawk was blasted from the hostile skies of North Vietnam 32 years ago. Paul Galanti's next 2,432 days were spent in various POW camps in North Vietnam collectively called the "Hanoi Hilton" by its residents. It wasn't supposed to happen--but it did.
Such was the story of a small number of American servicemen who were forced to endure significant adversity, but who emerged personally victorious from the experience 25 years ago. Galanti reflects that with a quarter century of hindsight, some truths are evident. And those truths are frequently the unintended consequences often referred to as a result of actions taken in haste.
I really didn't expect to be held long. My estimate of release to the "Old Guys" upon arrival in Hanoi was six months to a year at most. The reason? I'd seen the plans for the total destruction of North Vietnam in 1965, but waited in vain for them to happen. Instead there were "cease fires" of various durations and, in March '68, the beginning of peace talks that were to drag on for nearly five years while the communists built up their strength. Their allies in the U.S., unwittingly and otherwise, helped their cause by weakening U.S. resolve.
I experienced over a year of solitary confinement with the hours broken only by infrequent communications (tapping or signing) with other Americans and a quarterly, miserable re-introduction to the "Camp Regulations for Captured American Criminals." A twice-daily English language broadcast provided a dose of the war as seen by the communists (and their too-many American supporters), and provided deep insight into a government of lies, deceit and perfidy. Theirs, not ours, or at least that's what we thought at the time.
I lived in about 10 camps scattered all over North Vietnam--several in Hanoi, the capital; a couple in the countryside, including the Son Tay camp raided by U.S. Special Forces in November 1970; and one near Lang Son, a few kilometers from the Chinese border.
The camps were similar--each consisting of small cells which held from one to four POWs each. Any attempt to communicate with other Americans or other rooms was punished by a month in leg irons with one's hands handcuffed behind his back. And a torture session to force the POW to apologize for "breaking the camp regulations" and "committing crimes against the Vietnamese people."
Despite all efforts to break the POWs, we remained as unified as it was possible to be under the circumstances. Our excellent leadership under COL Robbie Risner, USAF, and CDR Jim Stockdale held us together under these difficult circumstances, and we came out, most of us, better men than when we went in. Jim Stockdale received the Medal of Honor for his efforts to unify us and was tortured many times for his actions. Seven Vietnam POWs received the Medal of Honor--three for heroism prior to their being captured--an incredible percentage for a group that totaled 801, including civilians.
After the Son Tay raid in 1970, the North Vietnamese hastily moved all American POWs to camps in the Hanoi area. Since there were too few of the small rooms, they were forced to move up to 50 POWs into each of several 60-ft. by 20-ft. cells. During solitary confinement, many of us had relived our lives--going back in time to each of the classrooms where we had learned things while growing up and in college.
Now that we were together at last--for the longest held, Everett Alvarez, it had been more than six years€we formally organized a structured learning environment. While each room was slightly different, mine held classes on every conceivable topic including French (I taught the class, drawing from courses I attended at the Naval Academy), Spanish, German and Russian. Other courses were math (through differential equations), architecture, engineering drawing and even music. Each was taught without benefit of books, audio-visual equipment or teaching certificates, but the instruction was so effective that three of our enlisted men, who had no college training prior to their capture, passed more than 100 semester hours of college-level validation exams on their return.
We were proud to be serving our country, and openly scoffed at our North Vietnamese captors who proclaimed that they were going to drag the war out so their allies in the United States would force the American government to withdraw. We discounted trips to Hanoi by various American personalities such as Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark and a few anti-war no-names who were referred to as "comrade" by the Vietnamese.
When President Nixon mined the harbors of Vietnam and ordered the B-52 bombings in 1972, we POWs knew that the war would be over soon. We had known what it would take to finally get the North Vietnamese to seriously negotiate seven years before.
And, indeed it was so. The North Vietnamese agreed to release all prisoners of war. The U.S. agreed to go home and the North Vietnamese agreed to stay out of South Vietnam. We were going to resupply the South Vietnamese and give that country support in the event of further northern aggression. The POWs were released, and many happy scenes occurred throughout the nation as families were reunited after many years of separation.
What has happened in the 25 years since then? First, amid the hullabaloo that surrounded Watergate, an indifferent Congress pulled the plug on the Republic of Vietnam, and we observed the Soviet and Chinese-supplied North Vietnamese invade while an unequipped South Vietnamese army was powerless to repel the invasion.
And now, 25 years later, these questions remain: Had the press not reported the total defeat at the hands of the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong following the devastating (to them) Tet offensive in 1968, would the war have ended in 1968 rather than 40,000 lives later? Do those who "manned the barricades" to protest the war realize the part they played in contributing to those lost lives? Had Watergate not distracted President Nixon, would we have intervened in 1974 to save the Republic of Vietnam?
From these questions come others, extrapolated to present day: Does the disgraceful conduct of our present commander-in-chief amidst his incredible popularity similarly render impotent any foreign policy initiative to contain Saddam Hussein? Or will it result in a Robert Strange McNamara-type sacrifice of American lives as a distraction from that conduct? Does the president's apparent personal absolution in the polls render it OK for mere military personnel to engage in similar debauchery? Is there any cause the American public thinks worthwhile enough to judge on its merits? Is there anything sacred?
These are tough questions. From those heady days of finally being free again in 1973 to having to ask these questions is a stretch I never thought I'd have to make. I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know they will not be answered by the current Washington elite. I'm not sure whether I want to be angry about it or cry. I know this anniversary is not as happy as it should be.
But I also know that when my fellow ex-prisoners of war reunite in Dallas later this year, we will rejoice in the personal friendships and experiences formed under fire. We'll pray for the country as it appears to be navigating rocky shoals without a moral compass or a leader they can respect. And we will hope that somehow our children are spared from the amoral actions taken by our political leaders in the '60s and those in power presently.
Paul Galanti, a 1962 graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, was assigned to VA-216 on board USS Hancock (CVA-19). In June 1966 he was shot down and captured on his 97th mission. He was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for nearly seven years. Released in February 1973, he continued his Navy career as commanding officer of the Navy Recruiting District, Richmond, Va., and later on the staff of the commandant at the Naval Academy. He retired from the Navy in June 1982.
Galanti has worked with the Virginia Pharmaceutical Association and the Medical Society of Virginia, and presently is a business consultant and motivational speaker. He and his wife Phyllis live in Richmond.
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