Former 'Hanoi Hilton' Resident Keynotes DoD POW/MIA Prayer Breakfast
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 6, 2003 Orson G. Swindle III, who spent six years and four months as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, told the audience at DoD's 9th annual POW/MIA Prayer Breakfast about the horrors of prison camp and that the nation "must get it right" during such troubled times.
This year's prayer breakfast here was the largest ever. More than 230 people attended, including 13 former POWs and three Medal of Honor recipients.
"This morning we speak about the power of prayer in our lives," said Swindle, a Federal Trade Commission commissioner and retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. He holds 20 decorations, including two Silver Stars and two Bronze Star Medals for valor in combat and two Purple Hearts.
He said he was sharing some of his personal experiences "reluctantly because it's difficult." Held in North Vietnam's "Hanoi Hilton," Swindle said prisoners in the north were treated harshly, but those held prisoner in South Vietnam suffered "even more gross depravation, harshness and suffering."
"We don't consider ourselves heroes," he noted. "We're survivors and we survived through mutual support, wit, cunning, prayer and just a helluva lot of luck. Many didn't survive. I had a couple of cellmates who didn't make it home. It's to their memory that each of us, when asked to tell our stories, ask that we not forget.
"I was shot down on my very last mission -- that's pretty bad," Swindle said. "I was immediately captured, taken down into a hole and beaten all night. The next morning, on Nov. 12, it was raining. I was in a terrible state of shock. I was taken out to a hut for interrogation."
Swindle told the audience about the North Vietnamese cutting off the circulation in his arms by cinching them behind his back in a painful position. They pulled his arms so his forearms went up his spine and his elbows touched in back, he said.
"Then they started beating me," he said. "The pain creates almost an insanity. You strain to get loose, but you're not going to get loose. But the strains block out the pain and you're just hanging there. You come to the realization that you're not in control of your destiny."
Being a POW was a life of not knowing how your family was, Swindle said. "I didn't get a letter for about four years," he said. "Some were fortunate enough to get a letter once in a while. Some never received letters. Some families never (realized) their husbands or sons were alive."
"We came home to a country torn by the war to a degree difficult to fathom and to a cynicism and distrust of political leadership that is still with us," Swindle said. "I can't describe to you the difficulty of coping with what we were hearing while we were POWs, but we coped."
"I don't believe our country can go through this again," he said.
Swindle said he agrees with those who declare Saddam Hussein a tyrant and a threat to peace in his region, but, he asked, removing him from power would come "at what price?"
"Will it ignite a generations-long war with religious and ethnic underpinnings?" Swindle asked. He said the nation needs to "be right" for all the right reasons, and revenge is not necessarily one of them.
"Level with the American people and those young men and women sent into harm's way about the sacrifices to come and the risks we're to experience. Don't betray our support, our sacrifice and our trust as was done in Vietnam," Swindle said.
"Lead with conviction, be bold and be tough as hell," he urged. "Without fail, have a strategy to win not only the short war, but the end-game, too!"
Swindle said the nation should pray for the men and women in harm's way, the American people and for political leaders.