July 5, 1967: Near the North Vietnamese/Chinese border.
Awaiting his turn to roll-in from 14,000 feet, Air Force Captain Wayne Waddell kept calculating his odds of penetrating all four layers of anti-aircraft fire. His aircraft, the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, nicknamed the “Thud,” was the workhorse of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam early in the war. The largest single-seat single-engine combat aircraft in history, the ‘Thud’ weighed 50,000 pounds and carried a 14,000 lb. bomb load, twice that of the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers of World War II.
The thick flak below Waddell obscured his target: railroad sidings about 40 miles northeast of Hanoi, capitol of North Vietnam. Eighth to roll-in, Waddell penetrated three layers of flak then released his bombs at the designated release altitude, the same altitude as the fourth level of flak. His F-105 unexpectedly goes out of control. The “Thud” had taken a hit.
In less than five seconds, Captain Waddell managed to pull back up using full afterburner, took it off afterburner and leveled off to breathe a sigh of relief, then put her back in afterburner to head for home. Waddell recalled, “That’s when things really went bad. I couldn’t recover, so I’d probably been hit in the aft section. When I went back to afterburner it probably blew off the rear section. I tumbled maybe three or four times. I had no idea of my altitude.”
Waddell punched out, his first time to eject from an aircraft. “I thought that I had waited too long, that I was dead.” Waddell had ‘grayed-out’, he couldn’t feel or see anything. Then he felt pressure around him. He recalled, “That’s when I looked up and saw the parachute blossoming open. The automatic system worked perfectly, or I wouldn’t be talking with you today.” From punch out to hitting the ground took less than three seconds; Waddell’s aircraft was that close to mother earth.
The railroad sidings were protected by what many considered to be the best anti-aircraft gun site in North Vietnam. Waddell said, “Those guns blew three of our ‘Thuds’ out of the skies on that mission and I landed less than 100 yards from the people that shot me down.” The A/A guns were operated by Chinese soldiers. Captain Wayne Waddell would be confined as a POW for the next 5 years and 8 months.
This is his story.
Dewey Wayne Waddell was welcomed into this world in Bremen, Ga. on Sept. 12, 1935. After graduating high school, he enrolled in Georgia Tech and earned a degree in electrical engineering by June of 1956. Waddell also was awarded a commission in the U.S. Air Force through Georgia Tech’s AFROTC program.
While awaiting pilot training, Waddell worked a year for Lockheed in Marietta. (The circle of life would bring a Lockheed aircraft to North Vietnam and return POW Waddell to America.) Waddell entered pilot training in June of 1957, mastered the prop-driven T-34 Mentor, the jet trainer T-37 Tweet, the T-33 Shooting Star, and during a stint at Moody AFB in Valdosta flew one of his favorite fighters, the F-86L all-weather interceptor. A professional in the air and on the ground, he instructed students and cadets on several levels for several years.
The fall of 1966, Nellis AFB, Nevada: Wayne Waddell volunteered for combat duty in Southeast Asia and requested any aircraft other than the F-105. “I hadn’t heard anything good about the ‘Thud’ up to that point,” he said. “So, I wanted anything but the F-105.” As with much military logic, Waddell found himself saddled to an F-105 Thunderchief. He checked out in the ‘Thud’ at Nellis AFB and left the states on March 30, 1967.
After attending survival school at Clark AFB in the Philippines, Waddell arrived at Tahkli RTAFB, Thailand in April of 1967.
“Once I mastered the landings, I fell in love with the F-105,” he recalled. “I didn’t see much of Thailand for three months because of the work load. It was tough, 4 to 5 hours sleep a night, 19 missions the first month, 20 the second month and working on 22 the third month. I remember the words of my flight commander during our first meeting, ‘Welcome aboard, to the highest loss rate squadron in Southeast Asia.’ That was bad enough, but when I met the Wing Commander he said, ‘If you make 100 missions in 1 year your chances of being shot down are 50/50. If you are shot down, your chances of surviving that are 50/50.’ Well, I’d just completed a statistics course so I figured that out right quick!”
Commenting on his first mission: “The first mission was an orientation flight to the lower part of North Vietnam, looking for targets like truck parks, any target of opportunity, getting acquainted with things. Luckily on my second mission I swerved out of the way just in time as Z-23 anti-aircraft guns spit fireballs across my cockpit. That was a real attention getter.”
On his eighth mission over lower North Vietnam, Waddell was diverted to Hanoi. “I was on the same basic mission when we were released to Alpha-frag, meaning for the first time I was heading ‘downtown’, which meant Hanoi. Believe me, I was all eyeballs. Enemy Mig fighters, heavy flak, SAMs (surface to air missiles) flying around us...I was wondering if I would get out of this place. You had to focus on your surroundings, you didn’t have a choice, it was life or death, amidst flak, other pilots calling in a SAM launch, Migs making their passes. You never get used to it but you can in due course get a little more comfortable with the action, but I’m not sure ‘comfortable’ is the right word.”
Wayne Waddell flew 46 combat missions over North Vietnam, including 31 missions to the ‘downtown’ Hanoi area, until his fateful 47th mission, or as Waddell claims, “My 46½ mission.” That infamous day, in his own words:
“Our targets were two railroad sidings about 10 miles apart. We used a tactic that sent us between them, as if we were going to keep on going, then we did a butterfly to hit the targets as we were going back out. It didn’t fool anybody. They got three of us… bang, bang, bang. Once hit, my beeper was going off, and I couldn’t distinguish my beeper from the other beepers, even though I didn’t know other ‘Thuds’ had been shot down.”
Forced to eject, Waddell landed less than 100 yards from the guns that blew him out of the sky. He stated, “I knew the anti-aircraft guns were close but couldn’t see them due to the profuse foliage. The vegetation reminded me of North Georgia. So, I tried to evade. It is late afternoon and I worked my way out of the immediate area. I finally stopped in a field of low grass. Quite frankly I was sort of trapped due to a big drop-off nearby, so I just laid down in the grass and tried to stay concealed.”
A local Vietnamese militia unit found Waddell’s parachute and began searching for him. He said, “It didn’t take them long to find me. They took me to a small village then the Chinese came in and picked me up to stay with them. The Chinese offered me two options, stay in North Vietnam or go to Beijing. I declined their offer. Later I learned that I had made the right decision. (Waddell met another POW after the war that was taken to Beijing – the Beijing POW spent 7½ years in solitary confinement).
As with most of their American captives, the Communists paraded the flyer for public ridicule. “The Chinese showed me off to their gun crews like I was a war trophy,” he said. “Then a propaganda commissar took center stage and lectured the people on politics, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, stuff like that. I was turned over to the North Vietnamese come nightfall. They put me on a jet-helicopter to an airfield near our target area then trucked me to the Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton) in Hanoi.”
For the next 5 years and 8 months, then-Captain Wayne Waddell would be imprisoned in detention centers the POWs nicknamed, the Zoo, New Guy Village, Lil’ Vegas (Nugget and Thunderbird), Camp Faith, Unity and Heartbreak, Dogpatch, and the Plantation.
On coming to grips with the horrible reality of being a POW: “The first thing I learned was that I wasn’t as big and mean and tough as I thought I was, or that I thought a fighter pilot should be. The North Vietnamese effectively used ropes and other nasty devices to coerce you say things you didn’t want to say and normally wouldn’t say, but I managed to get through all that. After about a week or ten days I was taken to a photo session controlled by an East German. These photos were displayed in East Germany about a year later….at least those photos proved to the world and my family that I was still alive.”
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.”
Sidenote: 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, one 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 four 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: 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 percent 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!”
Waddell said when the POWs got to 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 1w234dthad 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 email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.