THE INCREDIBLY STUPID ONE-A Vietnam POW story

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Larryh86GT

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This was posted today on a Navy veterans group site I belong to. I thought it was worth sharing:

Great story which adds detail to what we usually only get in the headlines.

Most of us USN-types, who served during this period, know the basic story of
Seaman Hegdahl's experience but Stratton's details make it all the more
incredible and allow us to see Hegdahl for the very talented young man he
was.

THE INCREDIBLY STUPID ONE"
(SN HEGDAHL, USS CANBERRA - PRISONER OF WAR)
By **** "Beak" Stratton, Captain, USN (Ret.)

It was a warmer than usual summer day in Clark, South Dakota, when a rather
large and ungainly young man, a recent high school graduate, set about
finding his way in the world. The salivating Navy recruiter asked the
youngster what it would take to have him sign up: "why, I'd like to go to
Australia." It was as good as done. After all, in 1966, if you were lucky
enough to ship out on the USS Canberra, more likely than not, during the
course of your hitch, there will be a port call to the ship's
namesake-Canberra, Australia.

This young man came from a solid, patriotic Norwegian Lutheran stock that
believed when your country called, you answered. You did not go to the bus
station but to the recruiting station. You did not go to Oxford, you went to
Vietnam. So Douglas Brent Hegdahl III shipped out to boot camp at San Diego,
where he slept through the Code of Conduct lectures since he would not be
fighting in the trenches. Lo and behold, he did get orders to the USS
Canberra. At that time Canberra, with 8-inch guns mounted on the pointy end
and missiles on the round end, was assigned to steam with the Gulf of Tonkin
Yacht Club in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. (And, yes, she
did have Canberra, Australia, on her Port of Call list.)

Doug's battle station was the aft ammunition handling room for the 5-inch
guns, located aft in the bowels of the ship. One morning he had the 0100
watch while the Canberra was steaming down the coast of North Vietnam firing
its 8-inch guns against targets of opportunity (bicycles, water buffalo and
occasional trucks) on Highway 1. At about 0330 he rolled out of the rack.
Being a prudent farm boy, he locked all his valuables in his locker and then
proceeded to go out on deck for a breath of fresh air before manning his
battle station.

Now there is a non-repetitive exercise in the surface Navy called "going out
on deck when big guns are firing." If the concussion does not blow you over
the side, it will at least blow out your eardrums. But Doug must have slept
through that safety lecture. He doesn't know what happened. Either not being
night-adapted, or being without his glasses, or concussion did it, he ended
up going arse over teakettle into the South China Sea about three miles
offshore with no life preserver, no identification, no nothing. Meanwhile he
watched the Love Boat merrily steaming over the horizon, firing at the
coastline and never missing him for two days.

There is not much to do in the South China Sea at 0345. He took off his
boondockers and hung them around his neck in case he needed them when he
reached shore. He stripped off his dungarees, zipped up the fly, tied off
the cuffs and popped them over his head, as he was taught, to make a life
preserver. He reports back to you that it doesn't work. (He missed the part
about old dungarees, with holes, out of the Lucky Bag would have to be kept
wet if they were to hold any air at all.) So he put on his trousers, socks
and shoes. (Sharks? Sea snakes?)

Somewhere along the line he had heard that drowning was a "nice way to die;"
so he thought he would try it out. He put his hands over his head and down
he went-bloop, bloop, bloop. Now both he and I had heard the myth that when
drowning you would get cuddly, warm, all the nice things in your life would
flash by in your mind and you would go to your eternal reward to the sound
of music (harp?). Doug resurfaced and reports back to us that it is all
malarkey: there are no movies, there is no music and it's colder than Hell!

As dawn came he started swimming away from the sun, hopefully towards shore.
He could see the haze of land, but the harder he tried, the further back it
receded. So he just rolled on his back, playing like a whale, humming a few
tunes and saying a few prayers. Notice he never gave up. How many people
have we been exposed to in the course of our lives, in a situation like that
would have just plain given up? About 1800 that same day, a Vietnamese
fishing boat came by and hauled him out of the water-some twelve hours
later.

Even those peasant fishermen could figure out that this moose would never
fit in the cockpit of an A4 Skyhawk. They turned him upside down and inside
out which garnered them absolutely nothing. Remember, he had prudently left
everything back on the ship in his locker. Picture yourself being tortured
to admit you were a CIA agent who entered the water in Coronado, California
to swim ten thousand miles across the Pacific to infiltrate their shores!

When the authorities got him ashore, they showed Doug piles of materials
allegedly written by Yankee Air Pirates who had been captured before him.
(95% of those captured in North Vietnam had been tortured, were not offered
the option of death, and were made to give more than Name, Rank, Serial
Number and Date of Birth sequence permitted by the Military Code of Conduct
and required by International Law.) Doug recognized that something was
amiss, but, as he said later, "Geeze, they're officers, they must know what
they are doing." So he decided his best ploy was to pretend to be stupid.

He got them off target by comparing farms in North Vietnam and South Dakota.
He didn't realize that even then the Communists were categorizing him to
gauge his usefulness to their cause. His dad had about ten motel units,
numberless vehicles and all kinds of land-but no water buffalo. No water
buffalo meant in Vietnamese parlance that he was a "poor peasant." This is
just as well, as Communists had murdered over 20 million "rich peasants" in
their various revolutions, because those folks are unreconstructed
capitalists. A little miffed at first, Doug caught on right away-he is a
quick study-it was to his advantage to play out the poor peasant act to the
bitter end.

Tired of the verbal jousting the Communist cadres told him that he would
have to write and anti-war statement for them. He joyously agreed. The
interrogators were dumbfounded. This was the first Yankee to agree to do
anything without being tortured first. They brought out the paper, ink and
pens. He admired them all and then stated: "But one small thing. I can't
read or write. I'm a poor peasant." This was quite credible to the
Vietnamese since their poor peasants could neither read nor write. So they
assigned a Vietnamese to teach him penmanship, spelling, grammar and
sentence structure. Immediately his learning curve went flat. Eventually,
the interrogators gave up in disgust; writing a confession for him and
having him sign it in an illegible scrawl. He admitted to the war crime of
shelling the presidential birthplace of Ho Chi Minh and signed it as Seaman
Apprentice Douglas Brent Hegdahl III, United States Navy Reserve, Commanding
Officer, USS Canberra. No one has ever seen this piece of paper.

Doug was shuffled around from pillar to post, since his captors didn't know
where he would fit into their propaganda plans. One mistake they made was to
put him in for a while with Joe Crecca, an Air Force officer who had
developed a method of creating the most organized memory bank we possessed
to record the names of pilots shot down and imprisoned in Vietnam. Joe took
this young Seaman and, recognizing the potential, painstakingly taught Doug
not only 256 names, but also, the method of memorizing, cross-referencing
and retrieving those names. It was no easy task that Joe set for himself for
it was not intuitively obvious to Doug the value of such mental gymnastics.

It was a hot summer day when I first met Doug. I was in solitary confinement
again. The Communists did not care for me, which was OK because I didn't
like them either. My cell door opened and here was this big moose standing
in his skivvie shorts (prison uniform of the day). "My name is Seaman
Douglas Brent Hegdahl, Sir. What's yours?" It is awful hard to look
dignified when you are standing in your underwear, knock-kneed, ding-toed,
pot-bellied, unwashed and unshaven for 100 days. I automatically recited,
"**** Stratton, Lieutenant Commander, USS Ticonderoga." Immediately I saw
that I probably made a mistake as his eyes rolled back in his head and you
could see what he was thinking: "Cripes, another officer!" But notice that
instinctively he asked the critical and most important question for
survival: "Who is your senior?" The rule we lived by was: "If I am senior, I
will take charge; if junior, I will obey."

The Communists took a siesta for two hours every afternoon which was a good
deal for us as we were free from torture and harassment. I was laying on the
floor on my bed board and Doug was skipping, yes, skipping around the room.
I asked: "Doug, what are you doing?" He paused for a moment, looked me in
the eye and cryptically said: "Skipping, Sir" and continued to skip. A
stupid question, a stupid answer. After a moment, I again queried: "What ya
doin' that for?" This stopped him for a moment. He paused and cocked his
head thoughtfully, smiled and replied: "You got anything better to do, Sir?"
I didn't. He continued skipping. I guess he did learn one thing from boot
camp. You can say anything you want to an officer as long as you smile and
say "sir."

One siesta period he said: Hey, Beak, you went to college and studied
government; do you know the Gettysburg Address?" We got a brick (no paper or
pencils for the criminals) and started to write it out on the tile floor
until we got it correct. Then he stopped me with the question: "Can you say
it backwards?" Well, who would want to say the Gettysburg Address backwards?
Certainly not the Jesuits at Georgetown and especially not me. Doug could
say it backwards, verbatim, rapidly. I know because I could track him from
the written version we had on the floor.

"So what?" you might say. The so what is that when they threw him out of
Vietnam, and throw him out they did, he came out with 256 names that Joe
Crecca had taught him memorized by service, by rank and alphabetically; next
to each name he had a dog's name, kid's name or social security number to
verify the quality of the name which we had picked up by tap code, deaf
spelling code or secret notes. He still has those names memorized today and
sings them to the tune of "Old MacDonald Has a Farm." One of our
intelligence officers asked him if he could slow the recitation down to make
for easier copying. Doug replied "No" that it was like riding a bike, you
had to keep moving or you would fall off. If it weren't for Joe Crecca, Doug
and our government would not have had those names until the end of war five
years later.

In trying to get people to accept early propaganda releases, the Communists
would have some "good cop" interrogator like the ones we called the "Soft
Soap Fairy" talk to the prospect and sound him out for pliability. They got
Doug one day and asked what we eventually learned to be the lead question:
"What do you want more than anything else in the world?" The answer of the
weak and willing was : "To go home to my family." Doug thought for a long
time, then cocked his head with a smile and said "Why, I'd like a pillow,
Sir." This was not an unreasonable response since we had no pillows on our
cement pads or bed boards. However, the response sure confounded the enemy.
They eventually came up with a name for Doug amongst the guards and
interrogators: "The Incredibly Stupid One." His original resistance ploy had
paid off.

Because they thought him stupid, they would let him go out in the cell block
courtyard during the siesta to sweep up the grounds period monitored by only
one sleepy, peasant guard. I thought that was great since it kept him from
skipping and I could get some rest. However, curiosity got the better of me
and I started to watch him through a peephole we had bored in the cell door.
He'd go sweeping and humming until the guard was lulled to sleep. Then Doug
would back up to a truck, spin the gas cap off the standpipe, stoop down and
put a small amount ("Small, because it's going to be a long war, Sir.") of
dirt in the gas tank and replace the cap. I watched him over a period of
time do this to five trucks.

Now, I'm a liberal arts major who shot himself down, so all I can do is
report what I saw. There were five trucks working in the prison; I saw Doug
work on five trucks; I saw five trucks towed disabled out of the prison
camp. Doug Hegdahl, a high school graduate from the mess decks fell off a
ship and has five enemy trucks to his credit. I am a World Famous Golden
Dragon (VA 192) with two college degrees, 2000 jet hours, 300 carrier
landings and 22 combat missions. How many enemy trucks do I have to my
credit? Zero. Zip. Nada. De Rien. 0. Who's the better man? Douglas Brent
Hegdahl, one of two men I know of who destroyed enemy military equipment
while a prisoner of war.

Later on, Doug, having left his eyeglasses on board Canberra, discovered
that he had difficulty linking up isolated cell blocks throughout the prison
compound with his defective distance vision. So he went to the authorities
and asked if he could read some of their propaganda. They were delighted.
Here was a prisoner, without being tortured, volunteering to read their
swill.

But then Doug cautioned them with his: "Small thing [They never learn]; I
cannot read without glasses." So they trolled out a dime store clerk who
fitted him with glasses by trying one on after the other until Doug said he
could see. His near vision was OK. Unbeknownst to the clerk, he was fitting
Doug for distance vision, Now, in between sweeps and gas tanks he was able
to link up cell blocks not only by sweeping in code but now also using the
deaf spelling code.

The Vietnamese were big on token propaganda releases of prisoners to make
various peace groups look good and our government look impotent. They would
try to pick people who had not been tortured or in jail long enough to look
emaciated. Usually they were volunteers, violators of direct orders from
their Seniors and traitors to our cause of resistance. These releases always
were of three at a time. The magic of the number three was always a mystery
to us. As our leaders exercised greater internal communications and
controls, it became harder for the Communists to make up a propaganda
release party. Seeking to round out the number they finally turned to "The
Incredibly Stupid One" who, although not volunteering, was certainly too
dumb to do them any harm.

As part of this conditioning they had both Doug and I examined by "the
Doctor." This was a female soldier we saw through a peephole we had in the
door get briefed up and then dolled up like a physician. The physician made
a grand entrance worthy of a world-famous brain surgeon. The effect was
somewhat spoiled by the face mask protecting her chin rather than covering
her mouth; she really had no idea what the face mask was for. The exam,
after looking in all the holes in your head and listening your heart,
consisted of "feeling you up" under the guise of palpitating your internal
organs while the translator asked, "The Doctor wants to know if you miss
your wife (girlfriend)? Wouldn't you like to be with her now?"

Then they would pull Doug out for interrogations sounding him out for an
early release. They told him not to tell me as I was an officer who did not
care about his welfare like they did. They informed him: "Stratton would
never even speak to you if you were in America." Doug would come back from
each go around and immediately tell me everything that was said. One time he
plaintively asked: "Beak, you'd speak to me if we're home now, wouldn't
you?"

They started to try to fatten us up with large bowls of potatoes laced with
canned meat. No one else in the prison was getting it. As a result I told
Doug we couldn't take it. We could either not touch it and turn it back in;
in which case the guards would eat it. Or we could dump it in the slop
bucket so that no one could eat it without getting sick. Doug thought this
was a bit on the scrupulous side, but went along with it. I told the Camp
Commander that under no condition would I accept an early release even if
offered and if they threw me out I'd have to be dragged feet first all the
way from Hanoi to Hawaii screaming bloody murder all the way. It was time to
cut to the chase. Doug would have to go.

Doug did not want to go. We finally told Doug that as long as he did not
have to commit treason, he was to permit himself to be thrown out of the
country. He was the most junior. He had the names. He knew firsthand the
torture stories behind many of the propaganda pictures and news releases. He
knew the locations of many of the prisons. It was a direct order; he had no
choice. I know, because I personally relayed that order to him as his
immediate senior in the chain of command.

Well throw him out they did. The 256 names he had memorized contained many
names that our government did not have. He ended up being sent to Paris by
Ross Perot to confront the North Vietnamese Peace Talk Delegation about the
fate of the Missing in Action. He entered the Civil Service and is today a
Survival School instructor for the U.S. Navy and the James B. Stockdale
Survival, Evasion, Resistance, And Escape Center (SERE), Naval Air Station,
North Island, Coronado, California. And yes, he can still recite those
names! You can watch him do it on the Discovery Channel special on Vietnam
POW's-Stories of Survival.

A while after Doug had been released, I was called over to an interrogation.
It was to be a Soft Soap Fairy kind of gig since there were quality
cigarettes, sugared tea in china cups, cookies and candy laid out on the
interrogation table. A dapper, handsome Vietnamese, dressed in an expensive,
tailored suit and wearing real, spit-shined wingtip shoes, came into the
room with a serious look on his face-all business. "Do you know Douglas
Hegdahl?" "You know I do." "Hegdahl says that you were tortured." "This is
true." "You lie." Rolling up the sleeves to my striped pajamas (prison mess
dress uniform), I pointed to the scars on my wrists and elbows and
challenged: "Ask your people how these marks got on my body; they certainly
are neither birth defects or the result of an aircraft accident." He
examined the scars closely, sat back, stared and stated: "You are indeed the
most unfortunate of the unfortunate." With that he left the interrogation
leaving me with all the goodies. Upon release I compared notes with Doug and
we determined that time frame was the same time he accused the Vietnamese in
Paris of murdering me [I had not written home once writing became voluntary]
for embarrassing them in a Life magazine bowing picture. Thanks to Doug,
despite the scars on my body, the Communists had to produce me alive at the
end of the war.

"The Incredibly Stupid One," my personal hero, is the archetype of the
innovative, resourceful and courageous American Sailor. These sailors are
the products of the neighborhoods, churches, schools and families working
together to produce individuals blessed with a sense of humor and the gift
of freedom who can overcome any kind of odds. These sailors are tremendously
loyal and devoted to their units and their leaders in their own private and
personal ways. As long as we have the Dougs of this world, our country will
retain its freedoms.
 

JohnT

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That was simply great! Thanks.
 

AlFulchino

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one could sit down and play the American Anthem (sung by Norah Jones) from The War and read this story
 

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