The United States is now engaged in more wars than ever before in its history, explaining perhaps the lack of concentration on the most significant enemy ISIS. Hard to keep them all straight. Then there’s the mostly unreported war south of the US border between the drug cartels and the Mexican people. So it’s no surprise that a past war – Vietnam – is largely forgotten, especially since it didn’t turn out so well.
But should those who fought it also be forgotten? The Vietnam war was no less challenging than others, demanding the same skill and courage. Tom Storey, who piloted photo reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, says it was the most heavily defended of any war. “It was like flying into a gun barrel.” Up above, missiles were a constant danger. Going down “into the weeds” attracted fire from below. An estimated 1737 American planes were shot down in the course of the war, and it was Storey’s turn on January 16, 1967.
Hit close to the Chinese border, he bailed out and landed on the side of a mountain with a broken back and smashed right knee. For five days he stayed there immobile with dwindling water until Vietnamese militia picked him up and took him, battered and in pain with no medical help, to prison in Hanoi, dubbed by Americans the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Then came the torture which compares with any the ingenuity the mind of man has devised. Beatings with a rubber hose and tearing out finger nails were routine, but ropes were the mainstay. Arms tied behind the back, head and shoulders were forced down until the mouth almost touched the feet. Or a prisoner could be suspended from the ceiling with a rope around his wrist. Excruciating pain was the result. POWs referred to this treatment as the “purge.” Storey was subjected to it several times. He noticed that Cubans were sometimes around to help out.
How to survive? At first, says Storey, you’re confined to a cage, “alone, unarmed and scared shitless.” Then you react and build. You tell yourself you’re gong to go home. There’s a whole psychic change. You’ve been trained to give false information to interrogator to keep your captors confused and maybe hands off. “It’s like putting on a coat of armor.”
Then there’s the companionship of other prisoners. Overcoming their separation, they work out a tapping system to communicate. Sometimes it’s poetry, in particular a stanza from Kipling’s “If: ”
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!
Storey composed his own poem in prison, “From Ashes to Dust” with the concluding stanzas:
“Walk life’s pathway hand in hand, time is short, but not too late;
To pass on to those who follow you to love and not to hate.
Hold close the truth and keep your faith in God’s fraternity;
For mortal life on earth is but a wisp of dust on the threshold of eternity.”
Storey came closest to death when the North Vietnamese learned the US was going to bomb the Hanoi power plant. He and other prisoners were moved there to teach the Americans not to bomb. In the following blast, doors and ceilings exploded around him, but he survived. Afterwards, alone in a room, he noticed words scratched on a table: “God forgive me for what I’ve done this Christmas night.” Others followed: “He will.” and finally: “He has.” It was a profound moment.
When North Vietnamese leader Ho Ch Minh died in September 1969, conditions improved somewhat. Torture was sporadic. There was a kind of live and let live, and to be sure, the North Vietnamese were winning the war and would soon communize all of Indochina. Storey was released in March 1973 after more than six years in prison, close to the amount of time Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent in a Siberian labor camp immortalized in his “Gulag Archipelago.” These communist prisons were a large part of the history of our times.
Storey and other POWs had their regrets and complaints. The war, they felt, was directed too much from Washington with spur-of-the-moment “hot dog” assignments that didn’t give pilots time to prepare or know their targets. Storey was shot down on such a mission. There was anger at the POWs who had given in to their captors and thus earned early release. But Storey figured the war was over and so were recriminations.
He spent seven years in a top position at the US Air Force Academy and then moved to Japan to start a home building company. Inevitably, he returned to North Vietnam and his prison in Hanoi. It hadn’t changed, although now it harbored Vietnamese. At a lunch, the vice premier dropped by to give Storey not an apology but at least some recognition: “I know you were a guest at the Hanoi Hilton,” he said, adding that the prison would soon be demolished and a genuine Hilton hotel would be built to welcome former prisoners, among others. Storey hasn’t yet checked in. There are limits.
While at 85 he now enjoys a sunny life in Tucson Arizona with his wife Sylvia and friends who have aged well along with him, his war is considered a failure – a bridge too far in the Cold War. Yet unlike current wars, it had a clear purpose: stopping the spread of Soviet communism. In time, it was stopped, and who can say Vietnam didn’t play a part in the evolving strategy that ultimately led to victory. And part of that, too, was the heroism of Tom Storey.