By Lee Ellis
Where were you fifty years ago when American astronauts landed on the moon? Do you remember what you were doing that day? Most Gen X, no Millennials, nor more recent generations can answer that question, as you weren’t born. But there are still many around who do remember what happened on July 20, 1969. Much of the world watched Neil Armstrong take that “one small step for (a) man, one giant Leap for mankind”.
Unfortunately, I missed it. As one of some 400 POWs (at that time) who were incarcerated in small cells in North Vietnam, we had no idea this was happening. We were being crushed by the weight of an ideology that was not kind to mankind.
POW Realities in Retrospect
The summer of 1969 was a battle in all the camps. Of course, there was no air conditioning, but to make matters worse, our windows were bricked up and only a few air vents here and there allowed any fresh air in those medieval style dungeons. After several previous summers there, we could handle the inconvenience of heat rash and boils. Our challenge was an intense surge in torture; a purge was blistering across the camps in Hanoi and surrounding areas.
There were two very different but critical scenarios playing out simultaneously across the camps.
Fear and Hope
First, there was an escape at the Zoo camp, and that triggered fear in the prison hierarchy. The impact on us was brutal retaliation, not only in the Zoo Annex where it happened but all the other camps, including Son Tay, the camp where I lived from 1968-1970. The two men who escaped were captured within 36 hours and brutally tortured—one of them to death.
But secondly at the same time back in the states, a remarkable and historic movement was taking place in the spring and summer of 1969. The National League of POW/MIA Families gathered momentum and gained massive popular support for our cause. They first abandoned the Defense Department’s “Keep Quiet” policy for POW/MIA families and went public about our situation.[i] The League leaders met with President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger and insisted that our government speak up and put pressure on the Communist about our treatment. It worked.
President Nixon and his administration did not want to be on the wrong side of this issue. By the spring of that year, SECDEF Melvin Laird was in front of the cameras demanding that the communists keep their signed commitment to the Geneva Accords, specifying rules for treatment of POWs.
Then with the help of our dear friend, the great Ross Perot Sr. (1930-2019) and many other great Americans, the League expanded their PR campaign worldwide to pressure the communists for better treatment and a full accounting of all POWs and those Missing in Action.
The communists thrived on anti-US propaganda, but when the tables turned on them it got their attention. In the summer of 1969, they needed something to counteract the bad PR. And of course, in good communist style they needed propaganda. Bending the truth and using facts out of context in their normal fashion was not sufficient. They needed “fake news” to make their case and prove it to the world. This precipitated the other purge of the summer of 1969.
What kind of fake news did they want, you might ask? The answer is beyond the logic of a normal person and likely exceeds your worst imagination. They began to torture men to sign a statement saying they had received “lenient and humane treatment.” Soak on that for a moment. Yes, that’s what happened. It was the most blatant example of “the ends justify the means” one could ever imagine.
Our team battled tooth and nail. Ultimately though, our captors could make you do something, and they wouldn’t let you die. Eventually more than a third of our camp had experienced these “means” in an attempt to get the desired ends of a “good treatment” statement. When we challenged them because it was not true, they assured us that “truth is that which most benefits the party.”
Celebration Amidst the Battle
So, while most of the world was celebrating the lunar landing, in the reality of the POWs camps we were suffering in the worst way. But our day of celebration was much closer than we realized. On Sept 2, 1969 Ho Chi Minh died and six weeks later the proletariat had chosen new leaders. Within a week, as with a flip of a switch. all torture stopped. They quit calling us “creeminals”; they quit threatening us with war crimes trials; they tore out the bricks in the windows and opened the shutters for hours each day, and the food got better. There were still battles regularly, but compared to the previous years, life became more of a live and let live existence. Our hearts were lifted, and our hopes strengthened.
To us, the victory of the wives and families was monumental and perhaps more life-changing than the moon landing. These volunteers, mostly women, changed the policy of two governments and enabled us to live a much better life (that’s an entire lesson on great leadership). These new conditions allowed us to process our anger, shame, and bitterness, and ultimately return with honor—ready to take on the life of freedom with our families and fellow countrymen.
Hearing the Moon Landing News
One morning seven months after the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the speaker in our cell at Son Tay blared with the usual propaganda from Hanoi Hannah. Though we usually ignored most of it, our filters picked up the clues of events happening outside. Suddenly our ears perked with the mention of Astronaut Neal Armstrong. She said that if he were to go to the DMZ, the craters there would look very familiar to what he had seen last summer. She did not use the word moon, but the context could only mean that he had been to the moon.
Immediately we went to the wall to reach out to our neighbors in Cat House room 4. “Get Brudno on”, we said. Capt. Al Brudno was a brilliant teammate with a degree in Astrophysics from MIT and plans to become an astronaut, and we wanted his confirmation. He came back with “Yes, and they are ahead of schedule.”
Though it was February 1970 before we learned about the lunar landing, we were thrilled and very proud of our country. Jim Warner, our resident Marine and brilliant philosopher, scientist, poet, and true renaissance man (not an oxymoron—Marines can be tough and brilliant) made some interesting comments and then remarked, “That means our flag is now on the moon. We should come to attention and salute it the next time we see it from the prison yard.”
Later that day when we went outside to pick up our meal, we looked up and there was a crescent of the moon. We stopped, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, and at the command of our senior officer, Capt. Ken Fisher, proudly saluted our flag. We pictured it in our mind and from then on whenever we saw the moon, our spirits were lifted to know that Old Glory was not far away
And now you know the rest of the story of the moon and 1969. Not only about the dark side of the earth, but how a sequence of events highlighted by the courage and commitment of our families, friends and citizens shined light and hope into the world of the POWs. The course of our lives was changed forever, and we are eternally grateful for all you did for us.
The Crucible of POW Existence
In this powerful and practical award-winning book, Lee Ellis, a former Air Force pilot, candidly talks about his five and a half years of captivity and the 14 key leadership principles behind this amazing story.
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[i] Then is well documented in Heath Lee’s inspiring new book League of Wives, 2019, St Martin’s Press