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"Better Place, Worse Place"
"BETTER PLACE, WORSE PLACE."
Eagle slammed the notebook closed and gave the young American prisoner of war an ultimatum: talk to him and be taken to a camp where he could be with his buddies or refuse to cooperate and be taken to a place where he would suffer. Captured only a few days earlier, U.S. Navy Lieutenant (junior grade) Porter Halyburton didn't know the consequences if he continued to withhold military information. He was already locked inside North Vietnam's notorious Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed "the Hanoi Hilton" by the Americans, a forbidding trapezoidal structure with thick outer walls topped by barbed wire and jagged glass. Years of urine, blood, and vomit permeated the rotting crevices. The food included chicken feet and bread so moldy that it had begun to ferment. Even the prison's name suggested its hellishness — Hoa Lo (pronounced "wa-low") means "fiery furnace" in Vietnamese.
Whatever was "worse" would certainly be terrible, Halyburton thought, but still not as abhorrent as assisting the enemy.
At twenty-four, Halyburton was one of the younger American POWs in Vietnam. His six-foot frame, short brown hair, and wholesome good looks fit the prototype of the dashing "fighter jock," whose love of danger and combat had been immortalized in film and literature. But Halyburton was also introspective and artistic, the product of a small college town that had nurtured his intellectual and creative pursuits. He wrote poems, carved wooden statues, and read widely on history and culture. He was also a family man, having married his college sweetheart. The couple's baby daughter was born four weeks before he left for Vietnam.
He was lucky to be alive. On October 17, 1965, his F-4 Phantom jet was shot down forty miles northeast of Hanoi, killing the pilot in a fiery explosion. Halyburton, the "backseat" navigator, ejected without injury Among many combat aviators, it was an article of faith that they would rather die instantly in a crash than be caught by the enemy. Halyburton believed otherwise, but he soon realized that the price of survival would be high.
Immediately after his capture he was sent to Hoa Lo, where his cell, seven feet by six, had a boarded window, a single dim light bulb, and a concrete bed with leg irons. Cockroaches darted through the cells, and rats, some over a foot long, prowled the premises, lending evidence to a postwar POW study that noted, "After sundown, rats and mice literally took over North Vietnam." Scribbled across the faded whitewashed walls were Vietnamese letters, but so too was something more comforting — the name of an American, Ron Storz. Halyburton wasn't isolated or completely deprived; he could whisper to Americans in adjoining cells and was allowed to shower. Interrogations became a part of daily life: he was questioned by Colonel Nam, a gray-haired Vietnamese commander called Eagle for his authoritarian manner. Using passable English, he offered Halyburton the carrot or the stick. It was his choice.
"Better place, worse place," Eagle intoned repeatedly.
Halyburton only disclosed the information prescribed by the Code of Conduct for captured American servicemen: "Porter Halyburton," he said. "Lieutenant j.g., 617514, 16 January 1941."
Further "quizzes," as they were called, produced the same response, so after two weeks a guard went to Halyburton's cell one night, blindfolded and handcuffed him, and walked him to a truck, which rumbled a couple of miles to the outskirts of Hanoi. He was left at the Cu Loc Prison, believed to be a former French film studio where the grounds were still littered with old film cans, ducks and chickens roamed, and mosquitoes buzzed. A large putrid swimming pool lay thick with water, dirt, garbage, and fish that the Vietnamese guards raised for food. When Halyburton was pushed into his pitch-black cell, he pressed his hands against the walls to discover its dimensions. The room, though relatively large — each wall was fifteen feet long — was indeed worse than his previous cell. There was no bed, no light, its window was bricked up, and it smelled of wet concrete. But at least Halyburton could still use a tap code to communicate with the POWs in adjacent cells. He was not alone.
The harassment, however, continued. In the quiz room, Halyburton sat on a stool that forced him to look up at his new interrogator, a surly, jug-eared official nicknamed Rabbit, who called the American an "air pirate" and a "war criminal." He made the same threat — "better place, worse place" — if Halyburton did not reveal the names of his ship, squadron, and plane, but the prisoner didn't give in. The threat was fulfilled: days later, he was moved across the compound to a remote storage room in the back of an auditorium. Once again feeling his way in the darkness, he discovered that this space was only five feet by eight. What's more, it was isolated, preventing any communication with other Americans. That scared him. Except for interrogations, the only time he left the cell was to empty his waste bucket, and there was no more bathing. The questioning had become more abusive; Halyburton was repeatedly harangued ("Bad attitude! Bad attitude!") and slapped across the head.
He sought comfort through prayer. He did not ask for freedom, for food, or for any material comforts. He asked for strength to survive, for companionship, and for the safety of his family. He found inspiration, literally, from above.
One morning he noticed a beam of sunlight filtering through the shutters in his cell and arcing across his cement wall. The next morning he saw the light strike the same place. So he tore a piece of coarse brown toilet paper into the shape of a cross and used rice to stick it on the cement. The following morning the light slowly passed over the cross — a radiant signal from God, Halyburton thought. He gratefully whispered the Lord's Prayer.
But the solace didn't last. Halyburton continued to refuse to provide military information and was again taken to a "worse place," this time to a nearby shed. It had two rooms, but he was confined to one that was again five feet by eight. The place had once stored coal and was later designated by the Americans as the "outhouse" or "shithouse." A few holes in the ceiling and space beneath the door supplied scant ventilation, and coal dust covered the floor. Through cracks in the wall, Halyburton could see other Americans walking together in the compound, and he didn't understand why he had been singled out for isolation and mistreatment. Had the other POWs cooperated with the enemy to receive better treatment? In captivity for a month, he had lost twenty-five pounds and had developed dysentery. It was now late November and cold, and his mosquito net provided flimsy refuge from the insects' nightly assaults. The interrogations also continued: Halyburton was questioned about his life as well as the war.
"Where do you live?"
"What are your parents' names?"
"Do you have a family?"
By now, the Vietnamese had discovered on Halyburton's flight vest the names of his squadron and ship, and they knew that he was married and from North Carolina, which he assumed they had learned from U.S. newspapers. That information, in enemy hands, felt like one more violation, and Halyburton feared he was breaking down mentally as well as physically.
But he hadn't broken, and he still refused to answer questions beyond his name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. Rabbit presented the familiar choice: "Better place, worse place."
Halyburton didn't respond and was taken back to his filthy cell.
He slumped down in despair. He doubted the Vietnamese would purposely kill him. Dead, he was useless to them; alive, he could still, in theory, provide military information or propaganda statements. But Halyburton knew he could perish from abuse or neglect, and it occurred to him that his isolation could doom him to an ignominious end. He could die in his cell, quietly, with the geckos, rats, and mosquitoes whose musty space he had shared. His death would be one more inconvenience for his Vietnamese guard, who twice a day received rations for the prisoner but waited at least an hour before sliding the food in, allowing ants to infest the rice and cool air to congeal the pig fat in the watery soup. His death would be his final deliverance, but beyond the enemy, who would even know?
The lock turned and the wooden door swung open, allowing the guard and a commander to enter. It was November 28, nighttime, forty-two days after Halyburton's plane had been shot down. He knew that a visit at this hour meant he would be moved to another cell — a worse place — but he wasn't sure how much more he could endure. He used his blanket to roll up his mosquito net, some clothes, a tin cup, and his toothbrush, and he followed the guard and interrogator through the compound. The air was cool and refreshing, and the soft grass massaged his bare feet. Something was alive, he thought, something that wasn't caked with dirt. They walked about thirty yards, turned left, and approached a one-story building known as "the Office," whose five rooms had been converted to prison cells. It was, in fact, the same building he had initially been taken to. They went up two concrete steps and reached the door to cell number one. Halyburton's mind raced with thoughts about the misery that awaited him. What could be worse than a dark, claustrophobic room with coal dust, rats, and lizards?
The door opened, and Halyburton walked inside. A faint bulb emitted just enough light for him to see a man sitting on a teak board that served as a bed. He was thin, unwashed, unshaven, and injured, his left foot wrapped in a cast and his left arm hanging in a sling. He was black.
"You must take care of Cherry," the guard said.
The door was slammed shut. After a long pause, the newcomer stepped forward.
"I'm Porter Halyburton. I'm a Navy j.g. F-4. Backseater."
"Major Fred Cherry," the black officer said. "Air Force. F-105 Thunderchief."
Halyburton soon realized that his new torment had nothing to do with grimy cells, unpalatable food, or sadistic guards. His new punishment — the "worse place"— was to care for a black man.
The Vietnam War was the longest in U.S. history and, with more than 58,000 Americans killed, the third deadliest. It was also a wrecking ball through American society, igniting passionate protests in town squares and campuses, radicalizing a youth movement, tormenting political leaders, and stymieing a great military that could not subdue a peasant nation. It spawned cynicism toward public institutions, disdain for veterans, and doubt about America's role in the world. By the time the war ended in Januaryof 1973, most Americans had concluded that the effort had been ill defined and poorly executed, and the country would spend the rest of the century debating "the lessons of Vietnam."
But on one matter there was no debate — the POWs. When the Democratic Republic of Vietnam released 591 U.S. prisoners at war's end, their return represented a singular accomplishment in a conflict without defining victories or tangible gains. The POWs' sacrifice, perseverance, and patriotism were celebrated by countrymen whose faith in the armed services and in America itself had been shaken. The returning prisoners were feted at the White House, saluted at homecoming parades, and acclaimed as heroes. California's governor Ronald Reagan said: "You gave America back its soul — God bless a country that can produce men like you."
For all the attention they received, the number of POWs in Vietnam was actually quite small compared to those from the century's other major wars (130,201 in World War II, for example, and 7,140 in the Korean War). Yet the fate of the Vietnam prisoners was a national melodrama, driven in part by the POWs' wives, who orchestrated a savvy publicity campaign that pressured the country to place their husbands' return at the center of any peace accord. The POW bracelet, launched by a private organization, was another brilliant publicity gambit that allowed Americans to view the captives as individuals and support them without endorsing the war itself.
Of course, some of the captured Americans did not return. At least eighty-four died in Southeast Asian prisons and jungle camps, usually from torture, untreated wounds, or execution. But the survival rate was high, given the abject living conditions and the sheer length of their confinement. Unlike common criminals in civilian prisons, the POWs were not serving a defined sentence. Their confinement was unknown and indefinite. Until Vietnam, no U.S. military prisoner had been held in captivity for more than four years, but the Vietnam War saw more than three hundred Americans incarcerated for five or more years; two men were held for nine years. Their experience had no precedent in American history.
The prisoners in Hanoi had a very different profile from those of the grunts fighting in South Vietnam. They were professional soldiers and tended to be older college graduates whose maturity and experience sustained them through the lowest moments of their ordeal. These officers found unity and strength by developing an elaborate military command structure, a secret communications network, and a rigorous code of conduct, and many returned with extraordinary tales of survival, overcoming years of abuse and privation while finding value in their own suffering.
But in the many personal narratives of courage and defiance, the story of Porter Halyburton and Fred Cherry stands apart. They were locked in the same cell because the Vietnamese believed their racial differences would torment them — a not entirely naïve assumption. While the two officers were separated by age, rank, and military service, each man's race had produced a dramatically different life experience. Cherry, descended from a Virginia slave, was a pioneer in the integration of the armed services; though sustaining many racist slights along the way, he became one of the Air Force's best combat pilots. Halyburton, whose forefathers fought for the Confederacy, was raised in the segregated South, where blacks were poor, deferential, and inferior; his was not the virulent racism of the demagogue but the more insidious bigotry of condescension and paternalism.
Each man, ultimately, carved a distinctive legacy in Vietnam during a confinement of seven and a half years. Cherry was renowned for his resolve against the Vietnamese, who showed no mercy in trying to convince him that he should repudiate "the American imperialists" and support the colored people of Asia. Cherry suffered as much physical pain as any prisoner who survived, yet he appears to be the only tortured POW who never made concessions to the enemy. Halyburton was respected as a creative scholar, who invented such games as invisible bridge — played without cards — and whose imagination allowed him to find a meaningful life in the bleakest of settings.
Halyburton and Cherry returned home to very different circumstances, which mirrored the range of experience for all the POWs on their repatriation. Halyburton's wife, Marty, was initially told that he had been killed in action, and a memorial service was held to honor his memory. Sixteen months later, learning he was alive, she remained loyal to him, speaking out on his behalf and becoming stronger and more independent from the adversity. But Cherry's marriage, already on shaky ground when he was captured, did not survive. His wife quickly turned on him, spent his money, and splintered the family. Both the Halyburton and Cherry families learned, through years of estrangement, fear, and hope, that the inmates in Hanoi were not the only prisoners. "We were all POWs," said Cherry's son, Fred Jr.
Halyburton and Cherry were in the same cell for less than eight months. They were grateful to have a roommate, though each was initially wary of the other. Cherry thought Halyburton was a French spy, while Halyburton doubted that a black could be a pilot. But they overcame their misgivings and preconceptions and found common ground in this uncommon environment — a friendship in extremis that inspired many of their fellow prisoners. As Giles Norrington, a Navy pilot shot down in 1968, recalled, "By the time I arrived, Porter and Fred had already achieved legendary status ... The respect, mutual support, and affection that had developed between them were the stuff of sagas. Their stories,both as individuals and as a team, were a great source of inspiration."
Many of the POWs had to cross racial, cultural, or social boundaries to exist in such close confines. But Halyburton and Cherry did more than coexist — they rescued each other. Each man credits the other with saving his life. One needed to be saved physically; the other, emotionally. In doing so, they forged a brotherhood that no enemy could shatter.
Excerpted from "Two Souls Indivisible"
Copyright © 2004 James S. Hirsch.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
"Better Place, Worse Place",
One More Round,
"No Chutes Observed",
Strangers in the Cell,
No Ordinary Prisoner,
The Hanoi March,
The Home Front,
"Unspeakable Agony of the Soul",
Change in Status,
The Good Life,
Divergent Paths at Home,
About the Author,