Today I visited a prison; a prison that for years held many soldiers; a prison that concealed the terrible treatment of many American pilots; a prison that was a huge part of a very special man’s life. I call this man Bill, and I have had the honor of accompanying him on his return trip to Vietnam. Commander James “Bill” Bailey served in the Navy for 25 years before becoming an educator. After teaching for 17 years he retired and now lives in South Carolina with his wife, Susy. Bill is an incredibly grounded man and I have learned so much from him. This is only a small slice of his story.
In June of 1967, Bill was flying an Alpha strike mission for Operation Rolling Thunder when his aircraft, a F4Phantom, was shot down by what he thinks was an 85MM anti-aircraft gun. He blacked out as the plane went into a spin and his seat ejected. When he regained consciousness, he only had about twenty seconds before hitting the ground. Vietnamese militia were waiting and Bill was taken to a prison camp that Americans came to call the Hanoi Hilton. He was tortured for three days straight. When he realized that he could not endure any more, he knew had to give the enemy some sort of information, but he did not want to betray his country. So with some quick thinking, he came up with a plan to tell his captors the names of men he had served but who had already finished their military career, and only the targets of missions which he had already completed. After this false confession, the torture ended, but he was put into solitary confinement for the next six months. Eventually he was given a roommate, then a couple more, and finally was moved into a group cell which he called, sarcastically, “the lap of luxury.”
Bill was a prisoner of war for five years and eight months. He became accustomed to things like “sewer grass soup,” rats running around, and all sorts of illnesses and diseases which led to a 30 pound weight loss. When I talked to Bill about the emotional and mental effects this type of situation caused, he told me that he went through a time of serious depression while in solitary confinement. Then one day he looked at himself and said, “You’re in a bad place” but “self-pity is the most destructive attitude a person can have.” I was shocked. Out of everyone I know, Bill had the best reason to feel self-pity as a POW, but he does not feel either. Listening to him calmly talk about what he went through continually amazed me. He is one of the most courageous men I’ve ever met–courageous because he made it for almost six years as a POW, but more so because of the courageous way he has accepted his story, learned from it, shared it, and moved on from it.
As we walked through what is left of the Hanoi Hilton today, I watched as Bill quietly observed what we were seeing, and calmly shared with myself, other students, and other veterans about life as a POW. One of the veterans marveled at how well Bill was taking this return and said, “I don’t know how you’re doing it, Bill. I wouldn’t have been able to come back,” to which Bill chuckled a little and said, “I got to leave this place. That’s how I can come back.” Having moments like these has been commonplace on this trip. I have heard stories of courageous men and women doing things I can’t even imagine, risking their lives for others, and fighting for the honor of our country. However, I’ve learned the most from my time with Bill.
I think one of the most impactful things I’ve learned on this trip was when Bill said to me, “I refuse to let my experience as a POW dominate the rest of my life.” I have witnessed many refusals on this trip. A veteran who refuses to let his trying, past- experience in Vietnam keep him from returning and teaching my generation about it. A local Vietnamese man who refuses to let what he has heard about America and it’s people affect how he treats our tour group. An American who lost a family member to the war but refuses to let that grief keep her from coming to this country and learning more about the war and the brave men and women who fought in it. A group of college students who refuse to live in ignorance of what happened in this country years ago. And finally, Bill, who truly has refused to let his experience dictate his life.
I also want to refuse. I refuse to let the stories I have heard on this trip be forgotten. I refuse to ever stop giving veterans the respect they deserve. And I refuse to NOT be changed by this experience. Bill Bailey, I will be forever grateful for the time we have had together, the experiences we have shared, and the friendship you have given to me. You are “Ichi Ban” and you are my hero.
“My internet isn’t working. How will I check facebook?”
“That traffic jam ruined my schedule for the whole day!”
“This dress is from last year. I have nothing to wear.”
“My hamburger is 1/2lb, not 2/3. I’m starving!”
As embarrassing as it is to admit, most Americans make comments like this on a daily basis. We have been conditioned by our culture to believe that these “first-world problems” are a true measure of suffering. However, join me for a moment in imagining a world where day-to-day issues bear a heavier consequence. Imagine a world where your very survival is a constant struggle. In this world, you are sequestered from your society, isolated from your comrades, and aware that your life is in the hands of those consumed by a vile hatred for your country. You only eat an unappetizing, slimy broth with very little nutritious value every day; have no proper protection from the bitter cold or stifling heat; and if you get sick, you will be left to die in the small, dismal room you call home. You have been tortured, interrogated, and fed propaganda to rob you of any hope that you have struggled to maintain. If you can possibly force your mind to imagine this world, then you will have a mere glimpse into the life of an American POW in North Vietnam. I have the honor of knowing one such former POW, a man named John Clark, and he is the bravest person I have ever met.
Colonel John Clark always dreamed of being a pilot. After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in mechanical engineering and the ROTC program, he received his officer’s commission and went to pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. Following subsequent survival training, John was assigned to the East Coast, flying aeromedical evacuation. He eventually became the aircraft commander but was moved to South Carolina for RF-4C training. He spent the next couple years stationed in Alconbury RAFB, England, before receiving the news that he was going to be joining the war effort in Vietnam. He began flying tactical reconnaissance missions into Vietnam from the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. His assignment was for one year or 100 missions. After five months, he had already flown 85-90 missions, primarily counter-missions, and was well on his way to an early completion. However, on March 12, 1967, his future drastically changed when his plane was shot down, leading to his immediate capture by the North Vietnamese. He was 27 years old and would spend the next six years as a prisoner in the famous “Hanoi Hilton” and other camps in the Hanoi area.
Today, 47 years later, John returned to what is left of the former prison for the first time. Prior to our arrival in Hanoi, I had asked John if it felt like that much time had passed. He shook his head no. “It feels like a year ago.” As we entered the museum which now occupies the prison grounds and boasts of the American POW’s “humane” treatment, I looked up at John. I couldn’t help but wonder what his reaction would be. Trepidation, fear, anger–none of these emotions flashed across his face. Instead, I saw a resounding sense of determination. It was that same determination which called him to serve his country where she needed him most, despite the risks. It was determination which kept him from giving into despair when he was captured and held in solitary confinement. It was determination which held him between optimism and pessimism as the months turned into years, and he remained a prisoner. It was determination which pushed him to rejoin society after his release, living a life of faith, love, and thankfulness. That determination is what drove John Clark to gather students and veterans alike around him today, sharing his knowledge with us, his enraptured audience. As we boarded the bus to leave the old “Hanoi Hilton” behind, John turned to me and said, “I wish I could have shared more with you all. I just didn’t recognize that much.” At these words, I felt my eyes grow moist and a knot began to form in the pit of my stomach. I wished I could have found the words to express how I was feeling, but I believe he understood that he had taught me more than I could ever express. What I have learned from John Clark is something that really cannot be taught in books or classes. Walking beside him the last couple weeks, I have learned the meaning of true courage, and it is a lesson that I will never, ever forget.