IamA American Prisoner of War who was imprisoned for 6.5 years & returned there 20 years later to meet they guy credited with my capture. AMAA!
AMy father was a prisoner of war (POW) from 1966-1973 during the Vietnam war. He is a pretty quiet and humble guy who has experienced a whole lot in his life. He doesn't really like being the center of attention, so he doesn't like to talk about himself too much. As a result, there are some mysteries about his past that I would love to learn about, including his experiences as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict. What better way than to have reddit learn with me too? Well with a little bit of convincing (and explaining what reddit is), he's agreed to answer your questions, and I'm hoping that maybe we'll all learn something about my personal hero.
Hubert Buchanan, my dad, was a 1st Lieutenant in the US Air Force who was a fighter pilot and systems operator for the F4 Phantom (a 2 person fighter jet). While on a combat mission on September 16 1966, his plane came under heavy fire and was was shot down by the North Vietnamese. He successfully ejected, and was immediately captured by a large group of villagers and militia upon landing. The pilot of his plane, Maj. John L. Robertson was never seen again. Buchanan was held in captivity for 6.5 years at several prison camps in North Vietnam, including the famous "Hanoi Hilton." While in captivity he was subjected to brutal conditions including extended periods of solitary confinement as well as a various forms of torture. After the Vietnam war had drawn to a close, the United States and North Vietnam negotiated a prisoner exchange which resulted in my dad coming home to the USA in 1973.
In 1991, my dad returned to Vietnam and visited the village where he was captured, the sites of the prison camps he was held, and met the man who got the credit for capturing him. My dad and his captor had tea together, and still communicate via skype to this day.
My dad's a cool dude. I'll do the typing - Ask him anything!
For More Information: *http://www.pownetwork.org/bios/b/b104.htm *http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=5ZVTAAAAIBAJ&sjid=KocDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6524%2C3524242 *http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1992/Prison-for-American-POWs-Hanoi-Hilton-to-be-Torn-Down/id-f0a102a82b1b4208ca6a1b6ba3a1de33
Proof: http://imgur.com/a/kaE79 Photos by: David Vogt Photography, Amherst NH. http://www.davidvogt.net/
Edit 1: (1:44pm EDT) What a great response, we're on the front page! My dad really wants to go to the dump because it closes soon, so we're going to take a break. Keep your interesting questions coming, we'll be sure to answer some more later!!
- PTSD: There are many questions about whether he experienced/experiences post-traumatic stress. This reply seems to sum it up nicely. http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2d2msu/iama_american_prisoner_of_war_who_was_imprisoned/cjlg3oj
- Torture: There are also many questions about the torture, this reply also is very descriptive. http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2d2msu/iama_american_prisoner_of_war_who_was_imprisoned/cjlj9o1
Edit 3 Still in awe about the response to this. My dad is taking a break for a few hours. He will be answering more questions tonight at 7pm EDT we would really like to answer as many questions as possible!
Edit 4 Wow, gold! Thank you! I'm not sure my dad can use it, but hey it's very kind of you!
Edit 5 Aaaand We're back and answering your questions! (7pm EDT)
Edit 6 To those of you posting in Afghanistan, take care of yourselves and thank you willingness to serve the country.
Edit 7 Thank you all very much for the turnout, the questions, and the respect. My dad is pretty pretty tired and would like to go home, watch tv, and spend time with his black-and-white cat. We're sorry if we didn't get to all of your questions, but we hope that this was informative and helps provide a newer or more detailed impression of what went on in Vietnam for my dad and his fellow prisoners. Thank you all!
The Japanese informed the village that I was coming, people came in from miles around to see me. It was a giant party. I hat tea, gifts for the village children. I knew smoking was so popular in Vietnam so I gave him cigarettes. I had to go through 3 translators, English>Japanese>Vietnamese for every spoken interaction, it was very confusing what was actually being said. But we had a very good time. He wanted me to stay the night, but we had a busy schedule.
Did you find out about the moon landing while you were in prison?
I did. There was a communist news broadcast on the radio that I heard, which described the soviet unions accomplishments in space. It said the USSR put a probe on the moon, without endangering a human life, unlike another country.
What was the first thing you did when you got out?
We went to the Philippines and visited a big cafeteria where they had every type of food you can imagine, and chefs that would make everything you asked for. The first thing I ordered was a big steak and some ice cream.
Was your captor repentant at all, or was it just sort of a "war is war" kind of thing?
EDIT: Guys, calm your tits, FFS. I wasn't implying that the captor should or shouldn't be repentant. I was asking if he WAS. Like, "Hey, man. Sorry I captured you and you ended up getting tortured in a prison camp. That's sucks, huh?"
He was very excited to see me, and it turns out he received a certificate from the government that said something like "village hero," and that helped him with prestige and perhaps got him some reward from the government. All in all, it was a "war is war" type of encounter.
I just want to ask what got him through all the years of torture and imprisonment? What did he do to get the time to fly by?
Time did not fly by. To quote Shawshank Redemption, "Prison time is slow time." We occupied time with mental activity, for instance one guy made a whole house in his head, from the foundation up, and later built that house when he came back.
What was the worst thing you saw while imprisoned?
Being tortured. You don't see most things, people screaming was one of the worst sensory things I experienced.
edit: wrong word.
Were you told you were being freed when they were letting you go?
How did the exchange go down?
Did you ever fly again after regaining your freedom?
Yes, I was told. They gave us a lot of food prior to letting us go to fatten us up. They gave us new clothes. We were taken by bus to the airport where an international prisoner exchange ceremony took place. We were put into american airplanes and flown to the Philippines very quickly.
I left the air force after returning and I became a commercial airline pilot. Maybe one of you flew on one of the planes I flew!
What planes have you flown since then?
Light airplanes, Lockheed Electra, and the Boeing 727
I know that with many cases of being a POW people experience an extreme form of PTSD. Has your father been affected by this at all, and just how extreme has it been?
I have been unaffected. Harvard University put me in a PTSD study in Manchester NH. They put me in the control group because I had no PTSD symptoms of any kind. However, some people who have been exposed to combat for short period have had extreme cases of PTSD. Everybody is different.
Mr. Buchanan, my thanks for your service and sacrifice during a terrible and hard-to-understand period of our nation's history.
Given our current, long-term state of military action, how better can the U.S. serve our soldiers to facilitate their transition back to civilian life? It seems not enough is done and what is done is inconsistent. Thanks in advance for your response.
Have good economic opportunities and they will transition effectively. I know little about PTSD as I never experienced any symptoms of it. I wouldn't say I'm too qualified to answer about psychological issues, but generally I feel like economic and employment opportunities could help troops feel productive and keep their mind on different things.
As a veteran myself, I can't thank you enough for this answer...hopefully enough people will see it. Being able to move on and feel productive in society is key to putting a war behind you, especially when a vet can find employment in a team-oriented environment. Too bad things are basically the opposite of that in today's job market.
This is true, I agree.
How did you maintain hope? Did you believe always that the US would come for you in some way shape or form?
Maintaining hope was automatic for me, i never lost hope. It was always just a matter of time for me.
Without a doubt, the US never abandons POWs at the end of the day. I feel like most of didn't doubt that we would be rescued eventually. It's hard to speak for everybody, as I didn't know everyone and was in isolation for a long period of time, but that was my impression anyways.
Well I've gotta ask but why would your dad want to relive that experience again?
A Japanese film company said that they would pay for a trip back to Vietnam in a search for POWs that may had been left behind after the war. I'm cheap, so I like free trips. My only reservations were that Vietnam was a strong armed communist country and it was (at least in my head) possible that I could be not allowed to leave again. I was one of the very first to return to Vietnam, I may have actually been the first.
How much time did he think had passed when he was released?
Also, were other inmates there with him? If yes, how did they communicate? I've read where some would tap to for a row and again for a column to delegate the letters they wanted to spell out.
There were other inmates, but we were kept in isolation for most of the time. We could communicate with the tap-code you're describing. Here's how the tap code works: Take the alphabet, remove the letter k, and that leaves 25 letters. The 25 letters are arranged in 5 rows of 5 letters. The first series of taps indicate which row of letters of 5 letters you're going to select, the second series of taps indicates which letter in that row. some examples would be: A: one tap pause one tap z: 5 taps pause 5 taps.
How I found out about the tap code was that POWs in a neighboring cell passed a small piece of paper to me.
One time a new prisoner was put in a cell nearby to me. And we passed the tap-code explanation sheet to the new prisoner and the first question is always who are you? because we don’t want anybody to be captured and not come back. That way we can keep track of who is there.
So we asked him “what is your name.” eventually he replied with “Terry” then he spelled out U Y E Y ….. then I interrupted him and said he must be messing up the code. I had him start over again. Then he send back U Y E Y A …. I interrupted him again, I tried to figure out why he wasn’t getting the tap code. Maybe the sheet was wrong or something? Finally, he sent “I am Japanese-American UYEYAMA”
Was it this guy? http://www.pownetwork.org/bios/u/u004.htm
Wow. This just made this so real to me. Not that I didn't believe it before, but this is amazing.
What do you do if you need to communicate the letter k?!
You can use the letter "C" phonetically as a replacement or 6-taps can indicate indicate K. Abbreviations and adaptations were commonplace.
Was the any attempt or plan to escape?
Yes. Both - There were attempts and plans. All were unsuccessful. I was 10 miles away during the Son-Tay raid, there had been a bombing moratorium for about 1 year (no bombing in the north), and suddenly one night stuff was going on EVERYWHERE. Decoys, helicopters, bombing, planes, everything. I didn't know what it was initially, but it was a very big event. The next day some of the N. Vietnamese officers were running around scared and were hinting that there was an attempted rescue mission. I didn't quite think this was good news, it almost seemed like the USA was desperate and out of ideas. After all, we could get killed in such an operation.
Edit: wrong words
Being a pow must have been a dark and terrible experience. Do you have any stories about humanity shining through, either from your captors or other prisoners?
My fellow prisoners were the best. I could completely trust them. They may die trying to help each other. Most people don't have to be in such a situation, but they were there for me.
Have you had any contact with your fellow prisoners?
Yes. Many of us attend annual get-togethers. It's always fun to see them again.
What changed the most about the world during your imprisonment(what was noticeably different about things such as the US culture before and after your imprisonment)?
I saw a huge increase in drug use, from non-existent to prevalent. And the women's liberation campaigns and feminism became popular in the United States.
How much food would they give you per day?
How bad was the torture?
2 meals a day. Mostly rice and some sort of vegetable. Its wasn't an adequate amount. It could be the same meal 2x/day for 40 days in a row, it was very monotonous. On Tet (Vietnamese new year) they would give us something special.
Torture: it hurt. If you want to come over, I'll show you! (He has a pretty healthy sense of humor)
edit: trying to put his jokes into text.
During the torture, what information were they trying to get out of him?
Initially, military information. Later propaganda. They would want us to write letters to senators and people in high positions about how we were being treated wonderfully and how we support the North Vietnamese people and that the USA should surrender.
Do you feel as though the American government's involvement in Vietnam was justified? What do you think about current involvements such as Afghanistan and Iraq?
In hindsight it was unwise to get involved in Vietnam, but given that time and history it was understandable that the US got involved. As for Afghanistan and Iraq, I think it was a bad idea to get involved at all.
I don't really understand how the relationship with your captor became friendly. Weren't you tortured for years because of him?
He didn't torture me, he was just a villager who got the credit for capturing me. It's illogical to go from the particular to the general. For example, I don't blame the Vietnamese people. If people were bombing my country I might try to capture the bombers.
Did the US government offer you any support or compensation after your release? Did you feel like it was enough? Would you go to war for your country again?
I had many sessions with psychiatrists for evaluations when I came back, and I was assigned to a hospital for a month with psychiatric help. I was payed for my time in prison, as well. It was sufficient.
I would go war again, but it depends on the circumstances.
Hello! I am Leo Profilet's grand-niece. Hubert, did you know Leo, AKA Corky? You and my uncle were in the Hanoi Hilton together during the same time period, although you were there a year longer than he was. Did all of you guys know one another?
I have so many questions. I loved my uncle and I got to know him much better when I lived for a few years quite near him in Northern CA. But there were some things I was curious about but afraid to ask him.
One thing was...his health. He had trouble breathing a lot as he got on in years, and while I understood that he had been tortured, I never knew how, or why it might have long-lasting impacts on his cardio-vascular system in general. Do you know?
Were you one of the guys who told stories through the walls/pipes? What stories did you tell? Which ones were your favorites to hear? Did Corky tell any good ones?
Corky's first wife divorced him while he was a POW. He met his new wife, my beloved Aunt Sue (she's still alive!) on his return flight when he was released. She was a flight attendant. It was love at first sight. Did Corky know that his wife was going to leave him while he was in there? Did word get to him, or did he find out only after he was released? What did he say about his first wife, or his kids?
Who was your best friend there? Do you still keep in touch with him? Corky died a while back. I went to the ceremony for him at Arlington. So did a lot of people. He's gone but never forgotten.
I'm sorry, but I didn't know Leo. There were many other POWs and we did our best to keep track of who was there, but we had a relatively small number of people what we would get to know very well. If he were one of my cellmates, I could tell you much about him, but I didn't know him.
The majority of messages between cells were informational, what was happening to people, messages from senior officers, but every kind of communication took place. Tap code made it pretty challenging to tell long stories, and when you were caught tapping, the punishment would be pretty bad for a long time. This made us conserve our words generally, not that stories weren't told.
I had several close friends, we keep in touch today.
I'm sorry I didn't have any personal contact with your great Uncle!
How did the individual 'prison' guards treat you?
They mostly just did their job. They were very disciplined, and did what they were ordered to do. If they were told to maintain you, they would, and if they were told to torture you, they would do that too. Occasionally they would give us some information as to what was going on. There were three Thas prisoners and one South Vietnamese prisoner in the camp too that could speak Vietnamese and they translated what the guards said into a tap-code so we could stay informed.
Thats very intriguing. Did the guards ever catch on to your tap code? Wonderful to hear you were able to communicate amongst yourselves. I imagine that made the situation much more bearable.
Sometimes they would catch us tapping. Punishments would be severe.
I know you may not want to share, but I'm curious as to what the methods of torture they used were? Thanks for your service!
One was called "the ropes." It is a method of tying arms and legs into stress positions that cause strain on joints. Those who had experience with broken arms or legs, those existing wounds were twisted or manipulated. I didn't have broken bones but those that mentioned that "the ropes" were just as painful.
They had a figure-8 shaped piece of steel that resembled handcuffs. They could be tightened while your arms were behind your back. They could force your elbows out of the sockets and the handcuffs could cut down to the bone.
They would tie your hands behind your back and then suspend your wrists from the ceiling, but they never did that one to me.
Sometimes they would just beat you, but they tried to avoid something that would leave marks.
Was there any chance of you escaping? Was there a moment where you saw an opportunity to escape, but didnt take it?
Only once. But it would been unrealistic to escape. There was never any "good" or "realistic" opportunity to escape. One time was a dark, stormy night that would have provided some decent "cover" but in reality, I look so different from everybody in the middle of a city of a million people that there was no way I could ever have gotten anywhere.
On his trip, how did he meet the person who captured him? Was just by chance or was it pre-arranged?
It was pre-arranged. The Japanese television company did the research and arranged for the meeting.
What was your father held captive in? I'm picturing a cage
It varied over the years. From a small room about 6 feet wide and 8 feet long, to a large room that could hold maybe 30 people. Everything in Vietnam is made out of concrete and cement. Never had a way to see outside.
Do you still have contact with the other POWs that were held with you?
We have a group called NAMPOW that meets every year. The last one I attended was in California in 2013.
How many POWs are in the group?
Maybe 600 by the end of the war, when I was captured there were about 150 total.
Did you ever fear for your life? Like being executed in a prison camp? Or were you convinced that you'd return home to America one day
Early on, execution was possible. They said they were going to have "war crime trials" in Vietnam and that POWs could/would be executed. Later it became obvious that we were hostages and very valuable to the North Vietnamese.
How good were the Vietnamese fighter pilots? Did you suspect that you were ever flying against Soviets?
Thank you very much for this AMA.
I was shot down by a Vietnamese fighter pilot. What does that tell you? (He's laughing)
There was some evidence that the Soviets were in Vietnam.
When he got out, was he still technically in the Air Force? How do they handle that? Did you get back pay for six years?
Yes. All of the above.
Thank you for doing this AMA! Below you say you were provided 2 meals / day and that it was an inadequate amount. Did you suffer any health ramifications as a result: short-term or long term? And was there any medical care provided by captors?
Significant weight loss, some people died of disease, I didn't. I got sick, but never life threatening. If the N. Vietnamese thought you were going to die, they would try to keep you alive. They had medics and a french-speaker come in to try to keep you from dying if you that bad-off. Once a guy was taken to a hospital to treat his appendicitis. Medical treatment was only to keep people from dying.
How did you cope with solitary confinement?
I was held in solitary confinement for about 6 months. It very different from being in a cell with somebody else. Humans are very interesting, it's far more interesting to have another human around. They have an infinite experience to discuss, being without that one has to occupy yourself. Some were in solitary confinement for 4 years.
One was in solitary confinement for a year, and when he was finally put in a cell with 30 people he was joking about how he was "working on a project for the whole time and now he's going to have to put that on hold to deal with all these people".
People who have been in solitary confinement, when they get out of it, they talk very very very fast.
Do you like Pho?
I never Pho in captivity. Mostly rice and cabbage, rice and cabbage, rice and cabbage, rice and cabbage, rice and cabbage, rice and cabbage. But I do like Pho, it's pretty tasty.
So, how good was that double bacon cheese burger you had when you got back?
I think it might have been steak and ice cream, but it was very good.
What are his thoughts on US wars post-Vietnam?
"I prefer no wars to wars. But, you have to have locks on your doors and have an army to protect you."
How different is Vietnam now, since you last was there?
I communicate by Skype with the grandchildren of my captor. They're still very traditional, but do have advanced technology like smartphones and laptops, much like us.
Prison is nothing but years of boredom. It's difficult to make an interesting movie about that. And I'd tell them to be careful, and don't get shot.
Thanks for this very interesting AMA. My grandfather was a POW, but never talked about the time.
What is your point of view on memorial days such as Veteran's day?
It makes me feel uncomfortable when people thank me for my service. I just did my duty, nothing else was required. The nation has been wonderful to me, and it's time to move on.
You were shot down and held captive under infamously brutal conditions.
Was it hard to adjust back to normal life in the States after your release?
It would be a similar experience as leaving hell and going to paradise. It didn't take much adjustment for me.
What are you thoughts on the US use of "enhanced interrogation" on enemy combatants?
Torture is usually ineffective and I am opposed to it. I don't support the use of torture. On another token, I could understand that if I had a child who was kidnapped and my child were going to run out of air in a few hours or something, I might even try it myself.
I don't care about Jane Fonda, she was a little misguided in some things but honestly, I don't care what she does.
What were the conditions in the prison camps? I mean like did they have strict no-talking rules and were they super strict like in Cambodia (I don't know much about the Vietnam war, sorry).
Yes, no contact was permitted with anybody outside of the cell. Communication was done covertly by means of a tap-code, which was spelling out letters by the number of taps on a wall.
Thank you guys for doing this!
My question(s): Throughout the 6 & half years as a captive, when did you start to change your mindset? Were you always thinking of getting out or did you eventually realize you have to try to endure to stay sane until rescue comes?
I used my time efficiently, and tried to make the best of my situation and hold out until rescue came.
What's your opinion on Agent Orange?
It wasn't a good idea.
I could never forgive someone who tortured or had me tortured. How did you come to terms with it emotionally and learn to forgive, even be friendly to someone who ruined 6.5 years of your life. I mean, you guys don't even have kids together, why be amicable?
The person who captured me did not mistreat me. Other prisoners were hoping to see their torturers in an alley and have a "conversation" with them.
How much news from the outside world did you get while a POW, if any at all?
When you did come back home what were you surprised at the most?
Thank you for your service!
Not much information came through, but everything that came through seemed to be managed, or propaganda. There were speakers in each cell that would broadcast news stories from English newspapers in the communist world.
When I came back, things felt a lot more busy, like there was a population increase or something.
Ever hear anything about McCain being held while you were in the Hilton?
When he was captured, It was announced to us that he was captured because his father was the Admiral who was running the war in vietnam. Normally we found out that somebody was captured only by the sounds in the building when somebody new arrives.
What airline did you fly for afterwards?
As a F4 weapons officer did you also have pilot training?
Did the pilot who shot you down use a missile or cannon?
Were you aware of the incoming weapon and airplane that got you?
Eastern airlines and Delta airlines.
My role in the F4 was a pilot systems operator, but was also trained as a pilot.
37mm cannon was used to shoot me down. I was very aware of the incoming fire. I prefer not to be shot at. It's a very uncomfortable situation.
My father served and watched a close friend die in Vietnam. He came back to live a successful and quiet life. I'm sure such experience caused him some tram a and he too doesn't like to talk much about particular details of the war. My question to you is why do you think you generation has seemingly handled combat better than those that followed? We're you guys better trained? Has war got harsher or have we gotten softer?
My group of POWs were mostly pilots who tended to be older and more experienced in the ways of the world. Often in past wars, they were young men who weren't even 20 years old. They didn't have the life experience to handle the environment (in a prison camp) as easily. PTSD has always been around, they used to call it shell shock, it's not a new thing.
Did you ever hear any music while you were held? Also, what were some of your favorite bands up until you were captured?
On Sunday's they would sometimes play Shostakovich, but that was very rare. Every once in a while they would play Vietnamese music, which isn't exactly good. Before being captured, I didn't really have a favorite band, but the Beatles were good.
Mr Buchanan, I grew up with my family being great friends with Col. Ben Purcell. He was the highest ranking POW during Vietnam. He was an amazing man who never ceased to amaze me with his positive attitude, who told many fun stories about the terrible ordeal he went through. He even had little cups and things he'd made from trash while held prisoner for over 5 years. All the kids would gather around him and he'd tell the most fascinating stories that never got old - I happily heard them all many times. I just wanted to say that you seem a lot like him - in your humor and strength and positive attitude. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice. Did you ever meet other POWs once you were back in the US?
I never met Ben, but I knew of him while in captivity. Many vietnam POWs have annual meetings were we get together. Many of us are good friends.
Seems like all my questions about the war have already been asked.. So did you find anything neat at the dump?
I found a neat PVC cutter. Thanks for asking!
Did being a prisoner for that period change how you felt with political and religious views etcetera?
Well, it made me a lot more interested in politics, because the war was a political situation.
Did he fly with Robin Olds?
I didn't fly with him. I know all about him, but I was already in prison when he flew
May seem silly but did you meet John McCain while in Hanoi?
We were not at the same camp at the same time, but we kept track of everybody who was there.
How did meeting with your credited captor go initially?
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