Captain Wayne Waddell deemed his chances of survival slim to none as his F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber plummeted out of the skies near the Chinese border with North Vietnam. Perilously close to the ground, he ejected, the chute deployed, and Waddell hit the ground in less than three seconds. Evasion attempts failed. Captured and incarcerated, the Air Force pilot would remain a POW in North Vietnam for the next five years and eight months.
Taken to the Hoa Lo Prison (called the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs) Waddell was interrogated then photographed for propaganda purposes by an East German photographer. He recalled, “After about 10 days I was moved into a cell with a navy commander. He was in horribly bad shape, but in a way it turned out to be a good thing for me because I’d been there just long enough to start feeling sorry for myself. I helped him and he helped me; that gave me a different perspective. After they moved me out the navy commander went into solitary for two years. God bless the guy….he made it home with the rest of us.”
Waddell was moved to a camp called The Zoo. “I was with three other F-105 pilots for about six months. That’s where I found out the other two F-105 pilots shot down the same day as me didn’t make it. Actually, I had been considered dead, too. While I was imprisoned at The Zoo in 1968, the ‘Cuban Program’ was underway. I didn’t fall victim to it, but we could hear the beatings in the neighboring building.”
NOTE: The ‘Cuban Program’ was concealed for decades by official US secrecy. Not until 1996 was a stack of documents declassified by the Defense Department’s Prisoner of War, Missing Personnel Office as a result of Congressional hearings. A two inch thick stack of documents finally revealed the gruesome details of the ‘Cuban Program’.
From August of ’67 to August of ’68, three Cuban interrogators bullied and brutalized American POWs in North Vietnam. Two interrogators, nicknamed Chico and a fat poorly dressed Cuban called Poncho, played the ‘good cops’, hoping to deceptively befriend POWs. A third Cuban, nicknamed Fidel, ruthlessly tortured 18 specifically selected Americans held in captivity. Beaten into bleeding, broken, and bruised masses of flesh, 17 POWs were lucky to have survived. One POW, Navy pilot Earl Cobiel, who suffered a head injury when shot down and couldn’t even respond to the mistreatment, was beaten almost daily for a month until he was catatonic. Bleeding everywhere and horribly swollen, his body turned a yellowish black and purple from head to toe. Transferred out of The Zoo, pilot Earl Cobiel is officially listed as ‘died in captivity’.
American flyboys were sometimes flogged on their buttocks, legs, and lower backs, until the flesh hung in shreds. Fidel’s favorite torture tool was rubber strips the POWs called ‘fan belts’ for direct hits to the face. By July of 1968, Fidel started flying into rages and beat the Americans for no apparent reason. He was often drunk. The prison camp’s North Vietnamese commandant rode a bicycle to work; Fidel arrived at work in a car chauffeured by an army officer.
Waddell described other punishments: “If caught communicating with fellow POWs or guilty of a ‘violation’ of any regulations, you were told, ‘the camp authorities will now allow you to live alone,’ which of course meant solitary confinement.”
One ‘violation’ was ignored and practiced. “I was fortunate,” Waddell said. “At my location I learned the ‘tap code’, but after a failed escape attempt that really shook up the North Vietnamese they finally figured out how extensively we communicated. Our ‘tap code’ was originated by one of the very first Air Force pilots shot down in April of 1965. He learned the tap code in survival school. It was a matrix, 5x5 letters, drop out the letter K, so you have A, B, C, D, E on the top row, and F, G, H, I, J going down. The first series of taps is for the top row then a second series of taps for the column, so an ‘A’ would be one, one, and a ‘F’ would be one, two. Seems confusing, but once you catch on it goes fairly rapidly. Once we mastered the ‘tap code’ we even learned to abbreviate.”
The POWs used their bare knuckles for tapping until the prison guards started looking for knuckle calluses. The POWs improvised. Waddell said, “We learned to use our porcelain drinking cups to talk. You put the bottom of a cup against the wall, seal off your mouth around the rim, and toss your voice into the back of the cup. The person on the other side of the wall would put the open end of his cup against the wall…sort of like an antenna...then put his ear on the bottom of the cup to listen. We could talk clearly through 12-14 inches of concrete or rock.”
The Americans developed numerous ways to communicate, even with other buildings. Waddell explained, “We had the tap code, you could slide a straw through a crack, or flash a plate through an open window to another prisoner. We also used hand codes, one or two hands, to other buildings.”
November 21, 1970 at 2:18 a.m.: The first helicopter carrying American Special Forces personnel sets down at the Son Tay prison camp, about 23 miles west of Hanoi. Highly professional and extensively motivated to rescue American POWs, the troopers kill about 150 of the enemy but discover the camp empty of prisoners. The raiders suffer one casualty: a chopper crewman who broke an ankle. The perfectly executed rescue mission failed to find incarcerated Americans, but it proved a Godsend for all the POWs in North Vietnam.
Waddell explains: “We were about 7 or 8 miles from Son Tay. The loud noise and activity awoke all of us, but we didn’t know for certain what was going on. I can say this, the raid definitely got the attention of the North Vietnamese. They had no idea that the U.S. would attempt such a bold raid. All the POWs were pulled back into the Hanoi Hilton. We really got organized then, called ourselves the 4th Allied POW Group.”
Instead of ‘punishment’ or ‘payback’, the North Vietnamese gradually improved the treatment of American POWs. Waddell said, “It became a live and let live environment, like ‘we won’t irritate you if you don’t irritate us’. The torture ceased, no more bowing to guards, perhaps a little bread in the morning, and packages from home. We had a huge tub of tea or water in the mess hall and we got outside more. Health improved.”
The food was upgraded, somewhat. “We got two meals a day, usually at 10 a.m. and around 4 p.m.,” Waddell recalled. “A soup we named Green Weeds resembled a cross between a peanut vine and a Morning Glory. Actually, it didn’t taste too bad. Other soups we called Mustard Green because that’s what it looked like, a seaweed soup, and one we called Sewer Grapes because that’s what it smelled like. They served a lot of pumpkin soup, too. And rice, of course. Occasionally we’d get a tin of fish from China for two or three days, then not see another tin for three or so months.”
Christmas, 1972: With the peace talks stalled in Paris, President Nixon sends the massive B-52 bombers into North Vietnam along with fighter-bombers. Between December 18 and December 29 the aerial offensive continues to hit the major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. America loses 15 B-52s and 11 other aircraft but the North Vietnamese leadership had had enough. They agree to resume the Paris peace talks.
Waddell: “The air war intensified in May of ’72 because of the ups and downs of the peace talks. That’s when we were moved, about 200 of us, near the Chinese border. The place was so far out in the sticks we called it Dogpatch. Summer was okay, but in winter the temperature could easily drop to zero. Luckily, they move us back to Hanoi before the first snow hit. And we sensed something different was going on.”
The prisoners were separated into 4 different groups on the move back to Hanoi. Two of the groups returned to Hanoi; the other two to other camps. They even stopped for a ‘picnic’ of juice and bread. The POW releases started in February of ’73. Waddell was in the 2nd group that came out on March 4.
His mindset on March 4: “It’s hard to describe,” Waddell said. “We had been hoping and praying but still couldn’t believe it. We were boarded on buses and went to Gia Lam Airport. When we got off the bus we all thought, ‘this feels like the real thing’, and then we walked out onto the ramp and saw the C-141 with the United States of America painted on the side and the American flag on the tail. The American flag was never more beautiful than on that C-141. My gut tightened up, cheers came from the group, emotions poured out. We saluted, were turned over to the US, and we reported back for duty.”
Personal note: WE REPORTED BACK FOR DUTY. After years in captivity, the American flyboys REPORTED BACK FOR DUTY. I was thunderstruck by that simple statement, as if the POWs were reporting back for duty after a prolonged vacation. After all the abuse and torture, these guys were still 100% American military.
Aboard the C-141, Waddell and other POWs remained on guard, even skeptical, but when they heard the announcement, ‘People, we are out of Vietnamese airspace,’ Waddell said, “That’s when the cheers really went up. We were milling around, laughing, we knew we had made it out.”
Having worked for Lockheed before leaving for flight training, Waddell had seen a C-141. He said, “I’ve told a lot of people when I got on that airplane in Hanoi and smelled the red North Georgia clay, I knew I was heading home.”
The flyboys aboard the C-141 were asked if they would ‘like some juice’ but they requested beer. Waddell said, “They had to be kidding us. We were served beer and cookies by the North Vietnamese while we were waiting for the plane. What the hell is this….the North Vietnamese had just given us beer, yet no beer on our Freedom Bird? I guess they had expected us to be walking basket cases….well, we weren’t!”
Clark AFB, Philippines: “After a couple of hours we were told ‘the dining room is open.’ What a feast….steak, Italian food, Mexican food, cakes, pies, ice cream….we went wild. A few guys threw it right back up, then when back and did it again.”
Captain Wayne Waddell made Major when shot down then received a promotion to Lt. Colonel while in the Hanoi Hilton. He lost about forty pounds in captivity. At Clark AFB, Lt Col Waddell learned his wife had gotten a divorce the previous year, plus had received all the back pay. But life, indeed, goes on.
Waddell remained in the Air Force. He served on the faculty at the War College, 4 years at the Pentagon, and spent his last 8½ years at Dobbins as the Director of Emergency Management for 14th Air Force. For three years he served as President of Nam-Pows. Remarried in 1983, he and his lovely wife, Barbara, a former flight attendant for Eastern Air Lines, have visited South America, Thailand, Vietnam, Soviet Georgia, Europe and China. He’s served as a consultant for Argonne National Laboratory and worked part time for H&R Block.
And now? “Well, I enjoy being lazy, mostly. Play a little golf, pound on the computer….life is good.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.