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Life as a Vietnam War POW

In 1966, well into the Vietnam War and three years into Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Charles Graham Boyd took his eighty-eighth mission into Hanoi to search and destroy anti-aircraft missiles. It was during this mission that Boyd was shot down by Vietnamese artillery and landed in the unfortunate location of an enemy rice paddy.

F-100D firing rockets Vietnam (1967) USAF| U.S. Defense Imagery
F-100D firing rockets Vietnam (1967) USAF| U.S. Defense Imagery

He was promptly captured afterward and taken to Hoa Lo Prison where he was interrogated and tortured by a man nicknamed “The Rabbit” for his buck teeth. After giving his captors false information, Boyd was put in a cell called the “Heartbreak Hotel,” then brought out days later for a prisoner march through a local town.

For about the next seven years, Boyd endured the hardships of Vietnamese POW (Prisoner of War) camps as he resisted interrogation, torture, and harsh living conditions. Though a terrible experience to live through, his memories are now preserved in the form of oral history, leaving behind an inspiring memoir of survival. In this “Moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” Boyd recounts his time as a POW, including communicating with his fellow prisoners through taps on the wall and learning about his neighbor’s lives and families without ever seeing them face to face. This also became a mental exercise by which the prisoners could spread knowledge. Boyd learned Spanish through this system and by the end of his time in Vietnam, he learned 2,700 Spanish vocabulary words, 700 verbs, and advanced grammar.


In 1969, Ho Chi Minh died, and POWs were moved around more to avoid any American rescue parties. In 1973 the Vietnam War ended, and Boyd was moved back to Hoa Lo Prison where he and his cohorts prepared to go home. Boyd recalls the homecoming process as “like a dream” as he was welcomed by crowds of Americans, the Commander in Chief of all Pacific Forces, and his loving wife Millicent Sample.

Boyd was first assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines as a fighter pilot where he and his cohorts stood on nuclear alert. Had China started a nuclear war at that time, Boyd and his friends stood at the ready to drop their own nuclear bombs on China. In 1963, Boyd’s two years of duty in China were up, and he returned to the United States until 1965 when the Vietnam War suddenly heated up again. He was then sent to Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand where he carried out daily missions into North Vietnam. The targets were usually heavily defended, and Boyd recalls them being chosen without any coherent strategy.

After his military career, Boyd served as the executive director of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, and later worked as senior vice president and Washington program director of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Read more about Charles Graham Boyd’s remarkable military career in his ADST oral history.

Drafted by Melinda Madden

ADST relies on the generous support of our members and readers like you. Please support our efforts to continue capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats.

Excerpts

“I remember squeezing out a reply, ‘I would rather die than give you the sweat off my …’ The Rabbit’s memorable response was, ‘To die is easy, to live you will find is not so easy.” Truthful response.’”

           
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Fighter Pilot Days: On the deck at the Red River, adrenaline racing, concentration more intense than it will ever be again after the war, find the target, pop to position to roll in with every f–ker in North Vietnam shooting at you, saying to yourself, “F–k you, I’m coming in.” Do a thousand little flight adjustments to get the airspeed, dive angle, release altitude, and bomb sight precisely on target, release, pull to 6 Gs to keep from hitting the ground, start a little turn to look back over your shoulder to see where your bombs hit. Back down to the deck, run like Foyt on the straight at Indy, danger past, rejoin flight, start climb, mask off, light a Marlboro, feeling good, really good. Land, debrief, back to hooch, sleep, read, shower, go to club, eat, drink, go visit special Thai girl, no thoughts of tomorrow. Wouldn’t trade my job with anyone. Going “downtown Hanoi,” as we called it, with hundreds shooting big guns and missiles at you, to deliver the mail on time and with precision, then escaping unscathed—that, is living.

Shot Down: On that particular occasion they fired two missiles at me, in short sequence. I saw them come off the ground. They were easy to duck, I just turned and dove into them producing a closure rate that sort of SAM, the SA-2 missile, was not quick enough to detonate as we closed then passed one another. Then I pulled back up to get high enough to roll in and dive bomb the SAM site. And it was on the top of that pull up, what we call the pop, where I got hit by the AAA, anti-aircraft artillery.

Entrance to POW Life: This interrogator, I later learned, had been dubbed “The Rabbit” by earlier arrivals for the distinctive feature of his frontal buck teeth. He was an arrogant fellow, seemed to enjoy his work, mindful of his immense power over the hapless chap now in his charge. After I declined to answer his questions for a while the guards would again apply their persuasive efforts. Eventually losing his patience the Rabbit informed me that I would talk sooner or later, or words to that effect. I remember squeezing out a reply, “I would rather die than give you the sweat off my …” The Rabbit’s memorable response was, “To die is easy, to live you will find is not so easy.” Truthful response.

Homecoming: Once on the ground, with press and hundreds of well-wishers there to greet us, we were taken to the hospital and into the presence of a large staff of doctors and nurses, greeting me warmly, but also with a look of grave medical concern. After a few initial questions, one of the doctors gave me a choice: I could stay in the hospital in a private ward, or I could go to the BOQ with my wife. He asked which I preferred. I said, “Are you shitting me? I’m going to the BOQ with my wife.” At that point they all smiled, with sort of a look of relief, as if to say, “There’s nothing wrong with this dude.” And that was that. We remained there on an out-patient basis for a couple days while they ran some more medical tests on me. This was not just pro forma stuff. I was full of parasites, for example. But basically, I was okay. Once released I got on another airplane with my wife and flew to McConnell AFB, Wichita, KS. As we deplaned there was a band playing, hundreds of people on the airfield clapping and waving flags, flash bulbs popping, with the local press recording my arrival. Someone shoved a bank of microphones in front of us with klieg lights glaring and a question. What I remember was a choked-up answer, maybe with a few tears, mumbling something like, “It’s good to be home.” After well over 7 years, I’d have to say that was an understatement.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
U.S. Air Force Training 1959-1960
BA in Bachelor of Arts, University of Kansas 1971-1975
MA in Arts, University of Kansas 1975-1976
Joined the U.S. Air Force 1961
Royal Thai Airforce Base, Thailand—F-105 Fighter Pilot 1965-1966
Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam—Prisoner of War 1966-1973
Retired from the U.S. Air Force 1995
U.S. Commision for National Security for the 21st Century — Executive Director 1998-2001