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Fri, Oct. 18

Williams: In the hands of the enemy, Part II

This is the second of a two-part column focusing on former Navy Flier Chuck Baldock’s nearly seven years as a North Vietnamese POW from 1966 to 1973.

So, Chuck had just answered my question about how he would summarize his 83 months in captivity. As reported in the previous column, his immediate response was that those seven years got him out of an engagement, the kind that usually leads to marriage. As the interview progressed, I learned that maintaining a sense of humor was a major strategy of his in surviving the slings and arrows of an enemy that had plenty of time and inclination to inflict slings and arrows. And joint dislocations while hanging from meat hooks. And strategic skin removal. And starvation. And endless beatings. And so much more.

There are deeply seated bruises from such treatment that no interview, no therapy and no amount of time can plumb. I don’t expect, and shouldn’t expect answers to all the questions I ask.

Chuck says that in the early days of his imprisonment, he was righteously terror-stricken. His first 45 days were spent in solitary confinement which did nothing but heighten his level of panic. Later, most of his time was spent with a fellow POW in a two-man cell and, toward the end of his incarceration, in larger cells with from eight or nine to 50 or 60 other aviators by the time he was released.

So, how did he survive the physical and mental tortures? He says first, he had an insatiable desire to live. Second, he learned to control his temper. Prisoners found early on that any display of anger was answered with swift and brutal reprisals. Prisoners also learned early how to communicate secretly with occupants of other cells by tapping on hard surfaces, whispering through openings in the cell doors and leaving messages in the latrine.

The combination of an aging prison, brutal North Vietnamese guards and defenseless inmates, many injured, constitutes poor soil for nourishing a sense of humor, but Chuck attributes all shades of humor, even the darkest, as a significant reason how he and many of his colleagues lived despite the atrocities they absorbed.

He says treatment improved somewhat in late 1970. He believes the enemy saw how the war was going and knew that it would have to release its prisoners in the near future. North Vietnam didn’t want the world to see crippled, emaciated prisoners leave its prison as obvious evidence of the torture that was endemic to the place. Chuck says he weighed 170 pounds when he was captured, lost 40 pounds during captivity, and was back up to 150 pounds when he was released in February 1973.

Now more than 45 years later, he still suffers from chronic pain in his neck, back and hands and has lived his post-military life as 100% disabled.

His Silver Star Citation reads, in part: In October 1966, his captors, completely ignoring international agreements, subjected him to extreme mental and physical cruelties in an attempt to obtain military information and false confessions for propaganda purposes. Through his resistance to those brutalities, he contributed significantly toward the eventual abandonment of harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese, which was attracting international attention. By his determination, courage, resourcefulness, and devotion to duty, he reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces.

This is a man who will endure in my thoughts along with other men like him because of the price they paid to defend the values of my country.

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