(Editor’s note: This story continues the recollections of Colonel Mike Lane to an assembled group at Jesse Soby American Legion Post #148 regarding his time in captivity during the Vietnam War.)
While confined, Major General John Borling would quietly share stories from published books in tap code to his fellow captors. Incredibly selfless, Borling recited “Black Beauty,” by Anna Sewell, in great detail.
Colonel Lane remembers how Borling would share the text so succinctly that the men would close their eyes to envision each page, as if the imagined illustrations would come to life in the rough-hewn floors of the cells. Most of the U.S. POWs were from various military branches: Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps airmen.
A small number of enlisted personnel were also captured, such as Navy seaman Petty Officer Doug Hegdahl, when a big gun compression ejected him overboard. He treaded water for 24 hours before being pulled from the ocean by the Vietnamese.
Upon his release several years later, Petty Officer Hegdahl memorized and relinquished 256 names of U.S. prisoners to U.S. intelligence, men who now were last seen in a prison camp, with the hopes of possible rescue.
Most U.S. prisoners were captured and held in North Vietnam by The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN); a smaller number of Americans were captured in the south and held by the Viet Cong (VC). A handful of civilians were held captive during the war.
Hundreds of thousands of American civilians wore POW bracelets with the name and capture date of these service members. There evolved several encampments throughout the Vietnam War, five located in Hanoi.
The first serviceman imprisoned was captured on March 26th, 1964 near Quang Tri in South Vietnam, when the plane was shot down by small arms fire. Captain Richard L. Whitesides perished, Captain Floyd James Thompson was taken as a prisoner.
He ultimately spent the next nine years as a POW, making him the longest-held POW in American history.
American planes continued to be shot down starting in 1965 as part of Operation Rolling Thunder, sustained allied bombing in North Vietnam. Despite several unsuccessful escape attempts, on November 21st, 1970, U.S. Special Forces launched Operation Ivory Coast in an attempt to rescue 61 POWS believed to be held at Son Tay prison camp 23 miles west of Hanoi.
Fifty-six commandos descended from helicopters at the prison, but unbeknownst to the division, the American prisoners had been transported months earlier; none were rescued. Though the initial outcome proved unsuccessful, word got out to the POWs in other camps, and it boosted morale that the U.S. was actively attempting to extricate them.
Soon after that many American prisoners in North Vietnam were moved to Hoa Lo Prison, which resulted in fewer camps for the North Vietnamese to protect and prevent rescue by the U.S.A.
The consolidation created “Camp Unity,” communal living that resulted in more outdoor activities, encouragement of more food and interaction for the POWs. In fact, Colonel Lane mentioned that the North Vietnamese started supplementing the prisoners with more food and sunshine, as the guards and officers ate less.
Col. Lane suggested that it became a propaganda tool toward the end of the war for the captives to look more fit.
American POWs in North Vietnam were released in early 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming, following exhaustive diplomatic negotiations; the first of 591 U.S. prisoners of war began to be repatriated, and returned on flights from February 12th, 1973 until late March of that year.
After Operation Homecoming the U.S. government sought the return of another 1,350 Americans still imprisoned or missing in action (MIA), as well as demanding the return of the bodies of roughly 1,200 Americans killed in action, who were never recovered. This became known as the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue.
Irony took centerstage when on December 1972, American bombers aggressively targeted the Hanoi Hilton area. The “Christmas Bombing” campaign frightened the prisoners, but many cheered as the B-52 Stratofortress raids blazed over Hanoi.
Following the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the United States nor its allies ever formally charged North Vietnam with war crimes. North Vietnamese officials were never charged with violations, because the country administration never signed the Geneva Convention.
Their claim was that any statements of torture were fabricated. The Hanoi Hilton was demolished in the 1990s.
For the men held captive there, including POWs such as Colonel Michael Lane, fact speaks louder than fiction. The survivors recently observed the anniversary of the end of their confinement at their 50th Reunion.
Those brave men who endured the unimaginable will never tap silent. Following his imprisonment Col. Lane met his future wife, Ruth, on a flight back home. She was a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines.
She approached him on the aisle, asking him if he recognized the name on her POW bracelet. “Everyone back then had memorized these names,” she said. “We were anxious to find out who was released and coming home,” she added. After a conversation where they exchanged phone numbers, Ruth beamed, “The rest of our love story is history.”
Their wedding ceremony took place at a Naval base in Orlando. They then began their lives together and Mike returned to college.
His collection of prestigious awards was literally earned through blood, sweat and tears: a Purple Heart, Silver Star, two Legion of Merit awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with a “V” device and an Air Force Meritorious Service medal.
PHOTO CAP: Colonel Mike Lane (right) with his wife, Ruth, at American Legion Jesse Soby Post #148 in Langhorne.