Vietnam POW Recalls Horrors, Some Smiles From Captivity
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2004 Nov. 11, 1966, was to have been a red-letter day for Marine Capt. Orson Swindle -- he was flying his 205th, and last, combat mission over North Vietnam. But the mission ended vastly different from the way he'd envisioned.
The F-8 Crusader he was flying was shot down at about 2 p.m., Swindle recalled during a recent interview in his office in Washington, D.C. He is close to finishing a seven-year term as a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission.
That day in 1966, Swindle ejected and was captured immediately. North Vietnamese soldiers were shooting at him from all directions as he drifted toward the ground in his parachute. He said he recalls asking God to care for his wife and 4-year-old son, Kevin.
"(North Vietnamese soldiers) were waiting for me with arms outstretched," he said, noting that he was quickly disarmed of his pistol and stripped of his gear to his flight suit and boots.
The next time he was to see his wife and son, more than six years had gone by, all of them spent in North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps.
He spent the first few days in shock and disbelief, thinking surely he must be in a bad dream. The North Vietnamese soldiers displayed him in a local village, allowing the townsfolk to beat him with sticks and rocks as they passed. Swindle said he remembers thinking about a steak he had promised to buy a fellow officer at the officers club that evening when he returned from his mission.
"So I was thinking about that steak as I was laying in that pit and people were beating on me, and (I was) saying, 'This cannot be true, cannot be true,'" he said. "And then, the realization obviously sinks in and you're in shock."
Torture began in earnest the following day, when he was brought before three interrogators and about a dozen soldiers. He initially tried to stick to the textbook answers: name, rank, serial number, date of birth. But then the real pain was applied.
In a steady voice, Swindle described his torturers applying tourniquets to his arms with parachute cord. "They took the cord and cinched it so tightly above my elbows that it literally caused my hands to contract because of the pressure on the ligaments," he said.
And that was only the beginning. Next they tied his arms behind his back with three men applying pressure on each side. "(They) pulled against each other until my arms, they folded them up my back and my hands went back to my neck," he said.
Next the torturers wrapped cord around his body so it looked like he had no arms. They tied parachute cord around his thumbs, which were at the back of his head, and hoisted his body off the ground by throwing the cord over the rafters. Swindle said the technique pulled his shoulders out of socket.
"And it's about that point where you think you're insane, 'cause this is hurting quite badly, and there's not a soul in the world that can help me," he said.
That's when he learned to lie, figuring he could give them just enough truth to make his lies believable. When the interrogators wanted Swindle to name the men in his squadron, he told them he couldn't think in such pain. They'd have to loosen the ropes to get anything out of him. When they started to loosen his bindings, he gave them the names of his high-school football coach and assistant coach, saying that was is squadron commander and executive officer.
When they loosened the ropes some more, he gave them the names of his entire high-school football team as his squadron's pilots. Swindle chuckled as he recalled a welcome-home gala several years later in his small south-Georgia hometown. "All those guys were in the audience," he said. "And I said, 'You better not ever go to North Vietnam, because they're looking for you.'"
Swindle said the experience with the ropes from his second day in captivity was repeated four or five times before he was moved to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp in late December of that year. The lies were all about coping. Prisoners learned many different ways to cope in their tortured captivity. "You give in," he said. "So don't think you don't give in. But it's how you do it and what you give them.
"You're trying to minimize what they gain from you, because we have a very strong sense of how they use propaganda," Swindle explained.
The torture wasn't all that took its toll. Minimal food wore on all the men. Swindle is 6 feet, 2 inches tall. He said he weighed about 195 pounds when he was shot down, but estimated he was at about 120 after three years in the Hanoi Hilton.
Swindle smiled, though, when he spoke of the friendships he made in the POW camps. He said it wasn't like Hogan's Heroes, the 1960s television comedy about life in a German World War II POW camp. The prisoners in that fictional camp lived together in large groups and had considerable freedom. Prisoners of the North Vietnamese were kept in small cells with no windows, often alone for long periods.
At one point Swindle was put in a cell for a day and a half with Navy Ensign George Coker, who today he calls a life-long friend. Coker changed Swindle's life in the camp -- he taught his short-time roommate the tap code used by prisoners there to communicate. "That tap code would become our lifeblood, literally, for the years to come," Swindle said.
He described "enormous friendships" built up with people he never even saw by communicating with the tap code through the walls. Those friendships "are long and fast," he said.
The tap code allowed the men to help each other keep their spirits up. They'd share information about the torture techniques, what questions the interrogators were asking and how they answered, tips on how to cope with the pain from different methods of torture, anything they could think of. It allowed them to resist, as a group, the insanity that was all around them, Swindle said.
"As I said, they break everybody," he said. "But we helped each other, and that was the sustaining morale factor that got me through."
The period in captivity wasn't without humor, and the men celebrated their small victories where they could find them. Swindle takes particular pleasure in telling the story of how he convinced the North Vietnamese captors Nov. 10 is National Doughnut Day in the United States.
He said one interrogator liked to practice his English by bragging about his country's 4,000-year history. Once during an October spent there, this individual was bragging about an upcoming Vietnamese holiday and taunted Swindle by telling him the United States is such a young country it couldn't have any meaningful holidays.
Swindle convinced him a major American holiday was right around the corner, National Doughnut Day, on Nov. 10. He described doughnuts as similar to something the men got served on rare occasions in the prison camp. Periodically the Vietnamese would take old, dirty bread and fry it and sprinkle it with a little sugar. The men took to calling the concoctions "sticky buns."
As soon as that interrogation session was over, Swindle "got on the wall" and tapped out what he had done so the others would respond in kind. Sure enough, on Nov. 10 that year, the North Vietnamese brought around these sticky buns in celebration of National Doughnut Day. Swindle had gotten their North Vietnamese jailers to unwittingly celebrate the Marine Corps birthday.
Good humor got the prisoners far and allowed them to handle much more than they would have been able to otherwise. "We were keenly aware of the damage that can be done from negative thinking," Swindle said. Today, he said, he believes the former POWs he spent time with are "without a doubt some of the most optimistic people you've ever seen."
Indeed, in person, Swindle is a man of incredibly good humor. He approaches life with a self-deprecating sense of humor that just infects those around him. When telling the story of how he started a lifelong friendship with George Coker, Swindle joked that Coker is getting old now. "He's not like me," he joked. "I stayed young and beautiful."
Later, when he was describing a particularly brutal beating, he revealed how he believed the North Vietnamese broke his nose. "(They) did something to it," he said, pointing to his nose with a humorous twinkle in his eye. "It's not normally this size."
Perhaps surprisingly, Swindle said he suffers no trauma from his time as a POW. As a rule though, he said, he doesn't watch war movies and doesn't particularly like violence in any movies.
"If anything," he said, "it probably made me stronger. I'm not easily rattled by things. I'm a great listener. I'm patient more so than I was when I got shot down and just pretty much at peace with myself.
"The best group of people I ever served with in my life were the people I went in prison with," he added.
In speaking of today's servicemembers, Swindle was equally laudatory. "I'm proud of them," he said. "God, just tremendously proud of them. They are so much smarter than we were.
"They're not as good-looking," he said, again with the gleam in the eye. "But they're smarter. They're tough."
Swindle said he never lets servicemembers pass him in an airport without thanking them for their service. "I say, 'I'm an old Marine colonel, and I want you to know I appreciate you,'" he said. "They need to be told that a lot. They really do. They're great."