Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Grim Tale of Life In Infamous Hanoi Hilton Tour Yields Leadership Lessons

• Lee Ellis, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, FreedomStar Media, 2012, 233 pages, $18.95.

RALEIGH — Navy Lt. Porter Halyburton was a white pilot who hailed from segregated North Carolina. His Communist captors put him in a cell with Maj. Fred Cherry, a black American pilot from segregated Virginia, hoping to exploit racial strife back in the USA. Instead, for six months Halyburton “completely attended to Cherry’s every need.” Lee Ellis tells that story and many others in Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, a place he knew well.

In November 1967, Ellis was shot down on a mission to destroy the guns that protected the Quang Khe ferry that supplied the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Ellis was taken to the Hoa Lao prison, which American prisoners of war dubbed the Hanoi Hilton. The author provides detailed drawings and descriptions of the place, and offers a stunning and illuminating study for the many Americans who know little or nothing about North Vietnam and its systematic torture of American POWs.

The North Vietnamese tortured more than 95 percent of American POWs, including eight who were tortured to death. A full 40 percent of POWs remained in solitary confinement for more than six months, 20 percent for more than a year, 10 percent for more than two years, and several for more than four years. Pilot Ernie Brace spent five years in a cage in Laos and North Vietnam, where one of the regime’s favorite tortures was the “Pretzel.”

“After the prisoner’s legs were tied together,” Ellis writes, “his arms were laced tightly behind his back until the elbows touched and the shoulders were virtually pulled out of joint. Then the torturer would push the bound arms up and over the head, while applying pressure with a knee to the victim’s back. During the torture, the circulation is cut off and the limbs to go sleep but the joint pain continues to increase as the ligaments and muscles tear. When the ropes are finally removed, circulation surges back into the ‘dead’ limbs, causing excruciating pain.” Leading With Honor includes a sketch of the practice by POW Mike McGrath.

The Vietnamese Communists also strapped Ken Fisher to a stool in leg irons and kept him awake for 21 days. Others were kept awake more than two weeks then beaten. The North Vietnamese also used handcuffs that could be ratcheted down tighter and tighter until they cut off circulation, even cut into the muscle and on some men, “deep enough to expose bone.”

But all the torture wasn’t physical. The captors piped in propaganda, and, Ellis explains, “the afternoon broadcasts were especially disheartening because they featured Americans spouting words that could have been written for them in Moscow and Hanoi.” American Tom Hayden “was a regular speaker,” later joined by his wife “film star Jane Fonda.” For this pair, the American POWs were war criminals and their reports of torture were lies.

Ellis explains how POWs communicated with a tap code used by prisoners in the Soviet gulag and mentioned in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. They memorized literature, music, and languages. Navy Lt. Denver Key taught a class in differential calculus, writing problems on the floor with a piece of brick. Ellis spent ten hours a day imagining the operation of a 40-acre farm. Lt. Dan Glenn designed a home and made a scale model of the place. Charley Plum was well on his way to making a radio when his captors intervened.

The POWs joked and laughed even though beatings and torture could easily follow. Ellis draws leadership lessons from the ordeal and challenges the notion that most Vietnam veterans are “societal failures.” On the contrary, Ellis’ fellow captives learned their lessons well.

“In the POW camps they chose courage over compromise, commitment over comfort, and pain over shame,” Ellis writes. “Their character, refined in the fires of captivity, propelled them to success in a wide range of endeavors.” From Ellis’ POW group came 16 generals, six admirals, two U.S. ambassadors, two college presidents, two U.S. senators, one U.S. representative, several state legislators and assorted doctors, attorneys, corporate CEOs and diplomatic officials.

Some readers may wonder what happened to those who subjected American POWs to beatings, death by torture, and years of solitary confinement. Ellis leaves that theme unexplored, but by all indications the torturers have never been called to account. Neither have Hayden and Fonda, who were not “anti-war activists,” but propagandists for the North Vietnamese regime.

Fonda even partied it up with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft squad. But unlike “Axis Sally,” Mildred Gillars, who served jail time for broadcasting Nazi propaganda, “Hanoi Jane” suffered not at all. Fonda’s money and prestige helped Hayden, whose propaganda broadcasts so disheartened American POWs, gain public office in California.

The war in Vietnam continued after the United States pulled out in 1973 and in 1975 South Vietnam fell to the Communists. Hayden and Fonda celebrated the victory and remained uncritical of a Stalinist regime more repressive than its Soviet sponsors.

Leading With Honor deserves a wide readership, particularly in Washington, D.C., where “leading from behind” is in vogue, and where the Vietnam Memorial bears the names of more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives there.

Beyond the leadership and history lessons from that conflict, Lee Ellis guides readers to many valuable resources. They include James Hirsch’s Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship that Saved Two Lives in Vietnam, the story of Fred Cherry from Virginia and Porter Halyburton from North Carolina.

Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.