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Mon, Oct. 14

Williams: In the hands of the enemy, Part I

This is the first of a two-column report on how a Navy airman survived almost seven years as a POW in North Vietnam from 1966 to 1973.

The weather over the South China Sea off the coast of North Vietnam on March 17, 1966, was generally overcast with occasional cloud breaks.

That morning, on the flight line before catapulting off the USS Enterprise in his A-4C Skyhawk for a bombing run over North Vietnam, LTJG Chuck Baldock noticed that his Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) system wasn’t working. The ECM is a sophisticated system designed to jam the radar and effectiveness of enemy surface-to-air missiles. On this particular morning, he chose to ignore the problem rather than scrub the mission since there were no reported SAM sites in the target area.

Shortly after reaching altitude, he became separated from the flight leader. Glancing to his left, he noticed what appeared to be a “white telephone pole” launching from the ground and heading in his direction. He implemented an evasive barrel roll, which avoided a direct hit, but the surface-to-air missile clipped his tail, which made his aircraft uncontrollable. He ejected and splashed down in the South China Sea, 2 to 3 miles off the coast north of the demilitarized zone.

Before Navy SAR (search and rescue) aircraft could locate him, he was surrounded by small boats of North Vietnamese fishermen, several of whom dove into the water to swim toward his location. Chuck spent the next 2,525 days as a prisoner of war, including lengthy stints in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

When Chuck Baldock was a youngster, he thought maybe he thought he wanted to be a fireman or a policeman. By the time he graduated from high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he still didn’t have a firm plan for his future. In 1960, he did a survey of military recruiting offices to find out where he might go to boot camp if he joined. Since he lived east of the Mississippi, most recruiters told him he’d spend a couple of months in places where he didn’t want to go. Only the Navy promised the geography of his choice and a chance for aviator training. So, he joined the Navy, received boot camp training in San Diego and, within months, was serving as a sonar man on the destroyer USS Bausell. Two years later, he completed the Naval Aviation Training Program and was commissioned an ensign.

From August 1964 to May 1965 he flew 20 combat missions off the decks of the USS Ranger. In October 1965, he was assigned to the USS Enterprise from which he completed 60 more combat missions before he was shot down and captured in March 1966.

My first request of Chuck was to summarize his nearly seven years of captivity in a sentence. Summarizing most any harrowing experience briefly can be a challenge, but shoe-horning his traumatic POW years into a few words was asking a lot. It’s clear, though, that he’d asked himself the same question because he quickly answered, “My time in the hands of the North Vietnamese may have been the best thing that ever happened to me!” This was not the response I expected.

He paused, then explained that incarceration ended his engagement to a stateside lady about whom he’d had doubts. By the time he returned to the US, she’d married someone else. I felt there was much more to his story. And there was.

Watch for the next column to learn how Chuck dealt with his experiences in the hands of the enemy all those years ago.

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