From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
It’s National POW/MIA Recognition Day today, observed on the third Friday in September. There will probably be no cars, furniture or carpet on sale this weekend, but please take a moment to remember those who served as prisoners of war and the thousands who remain missing in action since World War II.
The POW/MIA flag, made official by Congress in 1990, may be flown six days a year, smaller and always below the United States flag: Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May); Memorial Day (last Monday in May); Flag Day (June 14); Independence Day (July 4); National POW/MIA Recognition Day (third Friday in September), and Veterans’ Day (Nov. 11).
The day of recognition was created in the 1998 Defense Authorization Act, stating the annual event “honors prisoners of war and our missing and their families, and highlights the government’s commitment to account for them.”
And yet thousands remain unaccounted: World War II has at least 73,000 missing plus those lost at sea; 7,500 from the Korean War, 1,600 from Vietnam, 126 during the clandestine operations of the Cold War years, and two from Desert Storm. Both of those missing are Navy pilots whose planes went down in the Persian Gulf: Lt. Cmdr. Barry T. Cooke, flying an A-6 aircraft on Feb. 2, 1991, followed by Lt. Robert J. Dwyer, in his FA-18 aircraft on Feb. 5, 1991.
A Naval History and Heritage Command publication, The Battle Behind Bars: Navy and Marine POWs in the Vietnam War, offers a glimpse of how the POWs coped with torture, disease and untreated wounds in the unforgiving environment of Southeast Asia, whether their time in captivity was spent in the jungles or jails. The book was released in 2010 by the late Stuart I. Rochester, the chief historian in the office of the Secretary of Defense.
No servicemen had suffered through a longer, rougher captivity, or played a more prominent role in the leadership and life of the American-occupied prison camps in Southeast Asia, than the veteran Navy and Marine POWs among the Operation Homecoming returnees, Rochester states in the book’s prologue.
They comprised a high percentage of the early captures, dominated the ranks of the early seniors, and contributed vitally by deed and by example to the high standard of conduct and resistance that so distinguished the POWs of the Vietnam War.
All told, the nearly 600 U.S. prisoners, including 25 civilians, repatriated between February and April 1973 during Operation Homecoming included 138 Navy and 26 Marine Corps personnel.
Additionally, another seven Navy POWs had either escaped (two) or been released (five) earlier, and nine died in captivity. Captured Marines besides the Homecoming contingent included nine who died while incarcerated, 10 who escaped, two who were released prior to 1973, and one who was returned in 1979.
Vietnam POWs, Rochester explains, had an influence and significance disproportionate to their small numbers, owing to their being at the center of a war (waged in large part by propaganda and political persuasion) in which prisoners were key pawns and bargaining chips.
It was fitting the senior officer aboard the first plane to land at Clark Air Base in the Philippines following the release of the American prisoners of war from Hanoi in 1973 was a naval officer. When a thin, wan Capt. Jeremiah Denton descended the ramp to a bank of microphones and uttered the poignant words, “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances,” he spoke for the entire body of comrades who over the past decade had endured the longest wartime captivity of any group of U.S. prisoners in the nation’s history.
In the book are vignettes of those POWs and what they did to survive the conditions, although some did not. Capt. Donald Cook was the first Marine captured when the Army of Vietnam battalion he was accompanying was overrun by Viet Cong in 1964. He refused to cooperate with his captors, or even respond to their commands, which resulted in less food for him. He contracted malaria, was forced to trek 200 miles between camps while ill.
In 1967, now also suffering with anemia and dysentery, he died during another move between camps. Promoted to colonel while in captivity, Col. Cook was the first and only Marine in history to receive a Medal of Honor for exemplary conduct while in captivity. USS Donald Cook was named to honor Col. Cook.
There are stories about other senior and well-known POWs, such as Lt. Cmdr. John McCain and future Adm. James Stockdale. But one of the more remarkable stories is about the youngest Navy POW to be jailed in North Vietnam, Seaman Apprentice Douglas B. Hegdahl. The 19-year-old South Dakotan had joined the Navy only six months before, lured by a chance to visit Australia. He was assigned to serve as an ammunition handler on the guided-missile cruiser USS Canberra (CAG 2) in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Eager to witness a night bombardment, he went topside without authorization and was knocked overboard by the concussion of the ship’s giant guns on April 6, 1967. He stayed afloat for several hours before being picked up by North Vietnamese fishermen and turned over to militiamen and then trucked to Hoa Lo.
Hegdahl’s story that he had fallen off a ship was so preposterous to his captors they thought he was a spy. After being slapped around for a few days, he finally convinced officials he was just a raw recruit and then cunningly played up his country bumpkin demeanor. More than 6-feet tall and near-sighted without the glasses he lost overboard, Hegdahl played the fool to gain extra communication opportunities and time outdoors. In the process, he became a valuable reconnaissance operative and “mailman” in the POW network.
Using the tune of “Old McDonald Had A Farm” as a mnemonic device, Hegdahl memorized 256 captive’s names, their shoot-down dates and a personal reference to prove his information was correct, all gained through an elaborate tap code created by the prisoners.
A peace delegation visit in 1969 offered the opportunity for the North Vietnamese to free a few pre-chosen POWs while hiding the true numbers of POWs held captive and the atrocities they endured. Although the POWs had pledged that no one would accept an early release unless all were released, Lt. Cmdr. Richard “Dick” Stratton, the senior officer at the Plantation, ordered Hegdahl to accept it. And so unbeknownst to the enemy, Hegdahl “sang” a detailed accounting of captives and conditions to Naval Intelligence of Hanoi’s neglect and mistreatment of American prisoners that discredited the Communists’ “humane and lenient” claim.
Stratton, who would survive as a POW and retire as a captain in the Navy, credited Hegdahl with saving his life by providing that information. And with his permission, he offers an uncensored, poignant and often hilarious recounting of his time with Hegdahl on his blog, Tales of SE Asia. One includes Hegdahl surreptitiously dumping a little dirt each day into the fuel tanks of the Plantation’s trucks. Over the course of his captivity, Hegdahl disabled five trucks. The country bumpkin who played his captors for a fool would eventually become a civilian instructor in the Navy’s SERE school in California.
Stratton said the emotion he feels on POW/MIA Recognition Day is “relief that I made it and sorrow that others didn’t,” he said Friday morning from his home in Florida. “I am very proud of the efforts being made to account for people who remain missing, from the incredible work being done to identify remains at the laboratory in Hawaii to the folks in Washington who are doing a superb job considering the issues of working with other countries.”
For those returning during Operation Homecoming in 1973, the journey that ended with Denton’s words on the tarmac at Clark brought some of the prisoners home to hard-won honor and tributes and others to new trials. For all of them, their tenure as POWs would be a defining chapter in their lives, just as their homecoming would be a singular moment in the life of the nation that celebrated their return.
When Marine aviator Capt. Harlan Chapman arrived stateside, Gen. Louis Wilson shook his hand and said: “Welcome back to the Marine Corps.” Chapman replied: “Thank you, General, but I never left.”
Please join NHHC today in this video as we remember those who endured so much as prisoners of war and never forget those who remaining missing.