-- by Paul Galanti
Being a prisoner of war in Vietnam had some high points but many more low ones. The worst days physically were behind us in 1970, 1971, and 1972. After Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, the routine torturing of POWs for propaganda purposes pretty much stopped. Our captors panicked in November, 1970, following the daring raid on a closed POW camp at Son Tai 20 miles west of Hanoi - and moved all of us into the huge Hoa Lo prison in central Hanoi. We finally were permitted a semblance of societal life after years in solitary and/or stuffed into tiny windowless cells with two or three other POWs.
Our morale - at least in the cells in which I lived during this time - while not so idyllic as those portrayed in the farcical "Hogan's Heroes," was tolerable compared with the dark ages of 1965-1969.
The peace talks in Paris had been plodding along since March, 1968, following the Communists' total drubbing in the 1968 Tet Offensive. Most of us expected a break in the talks after the election of Richard Nixon; it appeared there might be movement.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident, the springboard for President Johnson's launching of attacks against Communist North Vietnam, lay four years in the past. The Communists, however, were buying time. They were helped by a misinformed public in the U.S. - pressured on one side by a war that had dragged on seemingly forever and on the other by Americans whose primary interest was not the success of their government.
The Communists were without leverage over the United States during this time - except for those POWs who basically were being held hostage to pressure Uncle Sam. The Tet Offensive had been a terrible defeat for freedom's enemies. But increasingly we prisoners of war sensed, from our captors' demeanor and reading between the lines of propaganda broadcasts, a sinister force surfacing. Americans whom the Communists - the enemy - were calling "comrades" were rallying to their side. From the point of view of our captors, in America anarchy was reigning supreme.
After being shown photos of radical demonstrations, most of us were told the Communists never could defeat us on the battlefield but their allies - allies - in our country would win the battle for them in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. And it appeared to be going in their direction. The interrogators would show photos of demonstrators looking like gypsies and carrying outrageous signs that were unheard of in the mid-'60s before most of us had been captured.
And then in 1971 we started hearing about "Vietnam Veterans Against the War," whose leader was a former Naval officer. From various sources I've since learned that the most senior leader of VVAW was LTJG John Kerry, a U.S. Naval Reserve officer. Kerry claimed Vietnam was "ravaged equally by American bombs and search-and-destroy missions as well as by Viet Cong terrorism . . . ." Hunh? Hadn't I been shot down because we were required to fly close to the targets to minimize civilian casualties?
Asked for a recommendation as to possible courses of action for Congress to pursue, Kerry said he had spoken to representatives from Hanoi and from the PRG (Viet Cong) at the Paris peace talks, and mentioned his support for "Madame Binh's points." At that time Madam Nguyen Thi Binh was the Viet Cong foreign minister. These meetings took place in the spring of 1970, apparently before Kerry joined the VVAW. Hunh? It's illegal for U.S. citizens to do this, much less commissioned officers.
Kerry was the most prominent leader in the VVAW, but many of the others in it were phonies who fabricated atrocities and war stories to convince the American public the average GI Joe was a psychopath.
That's the reason Kerry's band of brothers has deserted him. I do not know a single Vietnam combat veteran who agrees with what John Kerry did in 1970 through 1972 in his self-aggrandizing crawl to a political career.
But the worst was when Kerry, clad in store-bought camouflage and festooned with his decorations, told the world he and his comrades routinely had committed war crimes while ravaging the countryside like Genghis Khan.
It was a terrible lie, but it reinforced what the leaders of the peacenik movement had been saying for several years. It was the antithesis of what our government had been reporting. And it was simultaneously the worst betrayal of the United States to those of us who had been spectating for so many years in enemy territory.
It was very simple to us. Kerry sold out his shipmates from the Swift Boats. He sold out every one of us in Hanoi - and likely extended our stay there (for which we all offer him ever so many thanks) - by concocting the lies he now calls "a little over the top." And he continues to fabricate stories to cover up a lackluster career in the Senate. When I heard a tape of Kerry's Boston accent complaining about our forces "ravaging the countryside like Genghis Khan," I had my only flashback to the large cell in Hoa Lo where I first had heard it when Hanoi Hannah - North Vietnam's woman propagandist - was bragging about Kerry's "Winter Soldiers" and the testimony of this Naval officer before a committee of the U.S. Senate.
Kerry's legacy isn't that he has the same initials as John Fitzgerald Kennedy or that he motored around the rivers of South Vietnam in a small boat for four months before asking to leave the war early. His legacy is more along the lines of Benedict Arnold's. The only difference is that Benedict Arnold was a successful soldier before he committed treason. I doubt Benedict Arnold would have much success running for President today. Are we to believe that someone who aided the enemy in time of war is worthy of becoming President?
I don't think so, and neither do many people I know. We have a war to fight. It's going to take a long time. Kerry is not the one to take us through it.
Richmond resident Paul Galanti (Cdr., USN Ret.) was shot down over North Vietnam June 17, 1966, and spent 2,432 days as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.
This article was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.