Richard (The Beak) Stratton, former Vietnam War POW and USN Captain (ret.), wrote “The Tales of South East Asia” in answer to questions from both his children and grandchildren over the years. These stories touch upon many of his experiences while held captive by the North Vietnamese in their prison system for over six years – some memories are humorous, all reflect a need to maintain communications, faith, hope, perseverance and honor to survive. The Beak no longer writes, but has granted me permission to share that part of his life on this blog. I’ve chosen four tales to share – posting a new one every other day for the next week. Be sure to subscribe to my blog at the end of this article and be notified by email every time something new is published. The final installment will include website links to both The Beaks‘ website and the Vietnam POW website. This is the second installment…
Tales Of South East Asia
The occasional memoirs of “The Beak,”
a.k.a. Capt. Richard A. Stratton, USN [ret.]
Celebrating 15,011 + days of Freedom since
March 4, 1973
It had been seven hard days in cell #7, torture chamber with knobby walls to suppress sound and a hook in the ceiling from which to hang you like a side of beef.
The new accommodations a solitary confinement cell 6 feet by 4 feet were not much better. It was one of eight cells in an isolated prison wing of Hoa Lo [the “Hanoi Hilton”] we called heartbreak hotel. The torture wounds had become infected, the discouragement factor was high and mortal fear was at a peak.
Isolation and torture were the name of the game. Communication compromised was a guaranteed trip back to the torture ropes where anything went and death was not an option except by accident. Later we found that 95% of the men captured in North Vietnam had been tortured, mostly for propaganda less for military information. To lead was to be tortured. Communication was a de facto sign of leadership. Yet communication was the life blood of resistance and survival.
In the middle of the night in between the rounds of the guard patrol I heard a knocking on my wall. It started with a series of taps with the rhythm of ” Shave and a Hair Cut”. The rest was unintelligible. Was it a trap? Was it for real? I struggled back 12 years all the next day to dredge up the Morse code learned in the Naval School of Preflight to be ready for the next night. It started up again in between guard patrols. The incessant tapping still did not make sense.
One two man cell was let out twice a day to clean up out sanitary pots and soup bowls which tasks were accomplished in one of the end cells that had a spigot of water piped in through a high window. These would talk out the window as if talking to each other attempting to contact the solitary confinement cells.
One day it finally dawned on me what these guys were doing at great risk to themselves and listened in with rapt attention.
“Hey new guy in cell number six. Listen up. Cough once for yes, twice for no. Spit for I don’t know.”
“Are you Air Force?” Cough, cough.
“Are you Navy?” Cough.
“Are you O-1? O-2? O-3?” Cough, cough.
“Are you O-4? Cough. “Oh s___t, another senior officer!”
“WHO WON THE ARMY NAVY GAME?” Spit. “Oh s__t, a stupid one at that!
“CAG [Carrier Air Group Commander] Stockdale is the SRO [Senior Ranking Officer]. His policy is to resist torture as long as you can. Do not despair when they break you [too late!!]; everyone here has been tortured and bent. Make them torture you to get anything. Communicate at all costs. Pray. Did you get that?” Cough.
“The guy next to you is RVN [Republic of Vietnam]. He is trying to contact you. The guard is coming! Just remember the RVN is calling up with a shave and a haircut and tapping a box: American Football League Quits Victorious. GBU [God Bless You]. Oh s__t!!!”
The twosome and the RVN were moved within the hour. It took a week, but I finally figured out that the tapping was not the Morse Code but a quadratic alphabet which I could not track through repetition because they had left the letter “K” out of the box. At the risk of their lives, these two gents had given me the means to communicate through two years of solitary confinement, to retain my pride and my sanity.
The first series of taps gives you the line in the five by five box. The second series of taps gives you the letter within the box. Tap-tap/tap-tap-tap, tap-tap/tap-tap-tap-tap says “Hi”. A “Shave and a haircut” rhythmic rap answered with an immediate “two bits” – two quick taps is a call up the communists never figured out or were able to duplicate. A rapid series of bumps were the erasers. A loud thump was the danger termination sign. The normal termination was GBU acknowledged by two taps. The sound is distinctive enough to reverberate along a cement pad or wall over a hundred feet long without alerting a guard.
We could tap faster than sending Morse Code, we could flash our hands under the cell doors in tap code, we could punch holes in paper in tap code, we could sweep brooms in tap code, and we could cough, hock and hack in tap code.
Up through 1968 the Navy classified the tap code as secret and guys were told in survival school they had no need to learn it as we would teach it to them when they got there!!! This code was first mentioned in literature at the turn of the century in Arthur Connan Doyleís “The Sign of Four” and was featured in “Darkness At Noon” in 1942. European and American miners have used it to communicate during mine disasters. We thought we had invented it in prison.
Communication indeed was the key to survival in prison. Those that risked their lives to pass it along were heroic as were our seniors who had the courage to lead in the face of the greatest of dangers – torture and death. Then Commander James Bond Stockdale currently of Coronado, California was our Senior Naval Person [to steal from Winston Churchill]; Lt. Col. Robinson “Robbie” Risner, currently of Austin Texas was our Air Force Senior. Others more senior came later, but these two warriors set the pace. Oh yes, the irreverent junior officer who passed me the code was then LTjg Paul “Pablo” Galanti currently of Richmond Virginia.
I still do not know who won the Army Navy game in 1966.
Richard A. Stratton
April 4, 1997
Atlantic Beach Florida
Please stay tuned for the next installment from the POW memoirs of USN Capt. Stratton (Ret.)
Who DID win the Army Navy Game in 1966?
Army: 20 – Navy: 7
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