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Former Vietnam POWs recall torture, tragedy of war

(Last updated Friday, Apr 28, 2000)

By Sig Christenson

Express-News Staff Writer

Retired Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner hasn't forgotten the "meat room," the metal cylinder covered with a bloody rag dubbed the "bridle bit," the thin soup containing sewer-grown greens or the weevil-infested bread.

As a prisoner of war in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," Risner knew survival called for swallowing your pride.

Retired Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner, for five years the highest-ranking American prisoner of war at the "Hanoi Hilton," stands in his San Antonio home and recalls the suffering he and his fellow POWs endured at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Risner thanks God for helping him survive the ordeal.

A quarter-century after the fall of Saigon, Risner and other ex-POWs are proud of their days as prisoners dressed in black pajama uniforms.

Yet a deep anger burns.

Their sacrifice, the men assert, wouldn't have been wasted if the generals not Lyndon B. Johnson's White House had fought the war.

"We didn't lose that war, we were forced to give it up by the people who were running the war back in the White House," Risner said.

"They had the political will to start a war, but they didn't have the political will to see it to victory," said five-year POW Mike McGrath of Monument, Colo.

"I thought it was tragic, but I didn't go out and cry and have a beer," retired Vice Adm. James Stockdale (Ross Perot's former vice presidential running mate and one of just two Vietnam POWs to receive the Medal of Honor) said of Saigon's fall April 30, 1975.

"I mean, it was inevitable the way the government had responded to the war, and that dated back to Johnson and (Defense Secretary Robert) McNamara, because they didn't know how to fight a war. We inherited the whirlwind for reasons of ignorance," he said.

The senior-ranking American POW for five of the seven years he was held at Hoa Lo Prison, Risner, 75, wonders what might have been if U.S. forces had fought to win. It's a common refrain for these POWs, who fought under several restrictions among them a prohibition against attacking ships in Haiphong Harbor during most of the conflict.

"Air Force pilots and Navy pilots knew we were fighting with our hands tied behind our backs," said McGrath, a retired Navy captain and president of NAM-POWs, the nation's only group for former Vietnam prisoners of war.

McNamara declined comment, but former Johnson press secretary George Christian, an Austin consultant, said the war had been limited from the start in hopes of avoiding a wider conflict. Still, Christian said he understands the POWs' feelings, saying, "It's hard to blame them for being unhappy about it."

Concerned that China might join the Vietnam War if the United States drove into the North, as it did in Korea in 1950, Johnson confined U.S. troops to the South. At times during the conflict U.S. pilots weren't allowed to attack trains, troop convoys or ships in North Vietnam. The pilots faced court-martial if they violated those rules of engagement.

"The Vietnamese people were fighting their way, and had we been allowed to fight ours, I think we would have won," said retired Air Force Col. John Stavist, who talked with Risner through a window at one point in his 51/2 years as a POW.

Others say the United States should have pulled out of the war years earlier. The United States, which sent millions of troops into the war, was unable to defeat North Vietnam despite a bombing campaign that was about four times larger than the combined U.S.-British bombing of Germany in World War II. The United States also failed in its "secret war" in Cambodia that attempted to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by the North to supply troops and funnel supplies to Viet Cong guerrillas.

At least 84 of the POWs captured by the North Vietnamese died in captivity. The true number likely was in the hundreds, with most dying at the hands of communist troops in the South, said McGrath, whose group represents an estimated 590 surviving former prisoners of war it says served honorably. Another 20 ex-POWs accepted early release or were believed to have collaborated with the enemy or deserted, he said.

No POW was court-martialed.

Stockdale, 76, of Coronado, Calif., said as many as 15 fellow POWs died while being tortured, but the issue is a matter of conjecture. Risner said he knew of only two, while McGrath said up to a half-dozen may have died under torture.

Medical care for injured prisoners in the North's dozen-plus prison camps was virtually nonexistent, and offers of treatment were dangled in a bid to draw confessions.

Breakfast and dinner generally consisted of rice, cabbage, pumpkin and turnips. When those staples weren't available, the Americans ate green weeds dubbed "sewer grass" because they had been harvested from sewage ponds on the Hilton's grounds. Weevils and mold often contaminated the bread.

There were other privations.

Prisoners were given a 11/2-gallon metal pail as a toilet, using sandals made of tire rubber as a makeshift seat. Baths were taken from a bucket dropped into a water well.

Risner, Stockdale and retired Air Force Col. Tom Madison, 71, of Austin, sat alone in isolation for years, communicating via "tap code," rapping their hands on prison walls.

Madison, whose F-105 was downed by a surface-to-air missile, was caged in a 4-by-8-foot room for 22 months and got no mail for 31/2 years. With no TV, radio or writing material, he took up the study of ants and spiders.

"I spent many days doing research on ants," Madison said.

Physical torture, if less subtle, was a common tool, used either to punish those breaking the rules or to obtain statements for the North's never-ending propaganda war. Survival at times required the appearance of cooperation, such as writing "confessions" that seemed sincere but were clearly phony to those back home.

Stockdale, the senior Navy officer, said he "became an expert at disfiguration." Once he bloodied his head while using a razor to trim his hair into a "reverse Cherokee" to prevent his captors from taking him to downtown Hanoi, where he was to make a confession. When his horrified captors rushed to find a hat, Stockdale said he used a heavy mahogany stool to beat up his face.

A Korean War ace shot down over Thanh Hoa on Sept. 16, 1965, Risner became familiar with the "bridle bit," a bloody rag wrapped around a 1-inch diameter metal tube that was stuffed into the mouth. Cloth on both sides of the bit would be wrapped around the prisoner's head. Then the bit tightened.

Prisoners were forced to stand with their hands above their head, sometimes up to 20 hours. A rifle butt to the kidneys was the punishment when a POW's arms fell.

Stavist, 73, of Austin said his captors fractured his skull, right arm, right shoulder and left leg during his first days in prison. He lost the use of his right ear from judo chops to the head. It was zero-tolerance, Hanoi-style. "I had a very bad attitude," Stavist said.

Now 60, McGrath was an A-4C Skyhawk pilot on the carrier USS Constellation when he was shot down June 30, 1967, just south of Hanoi on his 179th mission. Captured within minutes, he had a broken back, broken left leg, broken left arm and dislocated shoulder.

Not only was McGrath deprived of medical aid, his captors deliberately hurt limbs that had escaped damage in the crash.

Like many Americans, he was brought to the "meat room," as Risner called it, the place where most of the POWs were introduced to the "Vietnamese rope trick."

A meat hook hung in the room, which had sound mufflers on the walls and a variety of torture devices. Prisoners would have their wrists and elbows bound closely behind their back, then raised over their head, the rope running through the hook.

It sometimes took days for a POW's arms to pop out of their sockets in McGrath's case, more than two weeks. The torture ended when he lied to his captors. "That's how they broke most POWs into talking past name, rank and serial number," he said. In time, Risner said, he ordered the prisoners to take a beating if they had to, but not stretch it to the point that they would torture themselves.

Amid the myriad horrors of POW life, there was humor and humanity.

Ken Wallingford, a 52-year-old ex-Army sergeant from Austin, said his guards granted Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, complete with extra rations of food, even though he was chained inside a small tiger cage in Cambodia.

In Hanoi, Risner once told the younger POWs not to anger their guards, saying they'd "catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Then his guards found a note conveying the order, prompting one interrogator to say, "We know what you think: We're a bunch of flies."

Risner laughed.

"Prison is another place you continue to fight," Stockdale said. "If you go into a prison, you've just got a new battlefield and they've got a new battlefield. They've got to try to break us so we'll do things that will help their side, and we've got to do the opposite so we can hold up our heads when we come home."

That, Risner said, they did.

"We maintained that we were never broken," he said, "that we were bent badly but never broken."

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