A large crowd of past and present service members, students and guests gathered at Grand Avenue Theater to hear Colonel Thomas J. Curtis, retiree from the United States Air Force, speak about his time as a Prisoner of War (POW) in Vietnam on Friday. Organized by Master Networks Belton Chapter and named “Living History,” Colonel Curtis revealed the brutal reality behind being imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton and how he has lived to tell his story as one of 687 POWs who returned alive.
From the day he was captured by Vietnamese soldiers on Sept. 20, 1965 to the day he was returned to American control on Feb. 12, 1973, Colonel Curtis had been transferred to five different camps and ended his time as a POW where it began: in Hanoi Hilton. For seven and a half years, Colonel Curtis was confined, beaten and tortured, forcing him to realize his faith in himself was greater than his fear.
On Sept. 20, 1965, Colonel Curtis was sent on a rescue mission as the pilot of an HH43B “Huskie” helicopter in North Vietnam. Sent with him were a co-pilot, a pararescue jumper and a flight mechanic/voice operator. Upon finding the survivor and getting the sling around him, the helicopter’s engine was reduced from 100 percent to 18 percent and crashed to the ground.
Attempting to evade to a Superior Area For Evasion (SAFE), Colonel Curtis and three fellow Americans (the survivor, the pararescue jumper and the flight mechanic) were captured with hands tied behind their backs.
“I wish I had taken better care of my physical condition before that event,” Colonel Curtis said.
That night, they were blindfolded and moved from village to village in a parade of sorts as the villagers mocked them. This treatment continued until they arrived at Hanoi seven days later.
“So, I finally got to Hanoi and to what we had learned quickly was called the Hanoi Hilton; it was a Vietnamese name that translated and meant ‘fiery furnace,’ and it turned out to be just that for the American people,” Colonel Curtis said.
Inside the prison were eight cells, concrete bunks fit with rusted, steel stocks on either side of the wall, and Colonel Curtis was struggling to discern the events of the week before that had landed him in such a place.
“Still a little bit bewildered, still wondering ‘what’s next,’ still trying to gather some sort of an idea of I’m going next, and I couldn’t, but the next morning I heard an American voice call me ‘hey, new guy.’”
This voice came from a Navy Commander who was shot down one month prior to him.
“He wanted to know my name, what I was flying, if I was injured, and then question that was uppermost in his mind: how long do you think we’re going to be here?” Colonel Curtis said.
The man then revealed the covert communication the POWs were using. On a wall in each of the cells, the American alphabet – excluding the letter “k” – was written in five columns and five rows. As one tapped on the wall, the other would follow the letters and spell out the word they were attempting to spell; thus, it was named the “tap code.”
“I spent a year in solitary confinement, but as long as I had that tap code to communicate to the POWs who were a wall away from me, then I wasn’t in solitary,” Colonel Curtis said. “We talked about things that were sometimes of absolutely no importance, but we were communicating; we were establishing our bond as prisoners of war, and that is one of the major things that got us through this.”
The Vietnamese fed the Americans twice a day, and each were given a pair of red and grey, striped pajamas and a bar of Grandma’s Lye Soap. The shower was a slanted hole in the wall, Colonel Curtis said, with the words “smile, you’re on candid camera” etched high into the shower wall.
From Hanoi Hilton (or “Heartbreak Hotel” as Colonel Curtis nicknamed it), Colonel Curtis was moved to a country camp nicknamed “The Zoo,” wherein he lived in a cellblock they had named “The Pig Sty.” There, Colonel Curtis was forced to reside in a bigger cell with no bed as the winter months approached; the Vietnamese soon after provided the POWs with sweatshirts, an additional blanket and a split-bamboo rack to lay on.
“I sometimes relate my experience to faith; after a period of time, I determined in my mind that I had faith in myself, that I was going to be able to defeat whatever the Vietnamese put before me.”
With this also came a faith in his fellow POWs and their dedication to maintaining loyalty to the United States Military Code of Conduct.
Colonel Curtis was then transported to another camp, which was nicknamed the “Briar Patch” and the “Tic-Tac-Toe Camp,” built with four cells with doors 90 degrees apart. Each cell had bars, so the prisoners created a “party line,” which allowed them to communicate to more than one person at a time.
There, Colonel Curtis and his fellow POWs played a game: whomever had the most foreign objects in his food was crowned king for the day.
“The other guys had to verbally describe what they were going to serve for dessert, so you can tell it didn’t take a whole lot to keep us entertained, but it was primitive, it was a place where most of us contracted Berry Berry Disease,” Colonel Curtis said.
Although they tried to make the most of their time in prison, there were serious issues happening in and around them that could not go unnoticed. Eventually, the Vietnamese thought of a plan for the Americans to create propaganda, in which the soldiers would have to write a biography.
“The code says we will give name, rank, serial number and date of birth, and so we resorted to that, and the Vietnamese started a very subtle program to force us to do whatever they were asking us to do,” Colonel Curtis said.
Subtle was an understatement, as the Vietnamese placed a concrete stool on the floor and forced the POWs to sit until they complied. If, like Colonel Curtis, they did not give in, then the Vietnamese would bring them to a hole in the ground, tie their hands behind their back with bodies a mess, Colonel Curtis said. After hallucinations took hold of him, Colonel Curtis said he called up to the Vietnamese and told them he would write a biography.
“And let me stress that this was the first time that I had broken the Code of Conduct, and that was probably the lowest point that I had in Vietnam as a POW; I was not as strong as I thought; I could not resist as long as I thought, and so I wrote a biography that was mostly lies, and they never used it; they were just trying to gain control,” Colonel Curtis said.
Three years later, they returned to Colonel Curtis and ordered him to re-write his biography, and he refused. This time around, they used the ropes as punishment.
Son Tay was his next place of residency, wherein the Americans executed a successful raid and came out with one casualty. Following this, the POWs were put into larger groups and shared stories of books and movies in an effort to distract themselves. For the first time, all of the prisoners were in one place and were able to provide guidance to one another, Colonel Curtis said.
“After that raid, they moved us all hurriedly back to Hanoi, and I went from three persons in a cell to 16 persons in a cell, now I’m in a cell with about 44 or so,” Colonel Curtis said.
From Hanoi, they were moved to a camp on the China border for about nine months, then returned to Hanoi and “it was obvious that we’re going home.”
Upon the reading of the negotiations of the Paris Peace Accords, the prisoner’s names were called, they were provided with real shoes and clothing, and on Feb. 12, 1973, they left Hanoi.
“It was a strange ride; very quiet, very somber as we passed some of the Vietnamese in Hanoi,” Colonel Curtis said. “Some would give the universal thumbs up, others would pick up a rock and throw it, but we had decided that we hit the ground representing the United States Military, and that’s the way we were going to leave.”
Following Colonel Curtis’ story, a couple members of the Master Networks spoke on behalf of their company and offered words of appreciation to Colonel Curtis.
“I just am grateful that everybody showed up and got a chance to see this remarkable man talk about what an incredible experience he had that we all needed to know about and be grateful for, and it’s one of many,” Chris Glenn, President of the Master Networks Belton Chapter, said.