Burleson man tells story of years spent as Vietnam Prisoner of War in notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton’
Jerry Singleton was a twenty-five year-old Second Lieutenant in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, when he and three other men volunteered to fly an unarmed helicopter into hostile territory to rescue a fellow USAF pilot. Unfortunately, that would be the last free moment that Singleton would experience for the next 2,655 days.
The date, Nov. 6, 1965, is one that Singleton will never forget. The crew was on a secret operative mission and took off from Laos. Officially, the US and North Vietnam were not supposed to be operating in Laos, due to the cease-fire agreement put into place at the end of the French Indochina war.
“When we landed in Laos the insignia on our helicopter had not been painted on,” Singleton said. “It was in a very small frame about the size of a license plate and we would slide it in and out. As soon as we landed in Laos, the flight engineer slid it out of place and we taped over the insignia and name badges on our uniforms, too.”
The crew was without benefit of country in Laos and was in a very dangerous situation. Singleton said that the US military did operate there, though they would not admit it, and there were at times more troops there than in South Vietnam.
“In order for us to do our mission, it was a whole lot better if we could stage out of some friendly remote sites in Laos and thats what we did,” Singleton said. “The helicopters got their nickname, ‘Jolly Green Giant’ from the olive-drab color they were painted to blend in to the terrain in Vietnam. That became our nickname and call sign. Everybody knew who we were.”
Singleton described this time as a brand-new world for him. He had only been out of pilot training for a few years and was in Vietnam for a month before he was shot down.
You will fight like you train
Shortly after crossing the North Vietnamese border, the crew ran into trouble. They started taking heavy ground fire. Singleton said everything in him went on auto-pilot.
“I knew exactly what to do and so did everyone else,” he said.
The crew of four, made up of Singleton, who was flying as co-pilot, a flight instructor, parajumper and flight engineer realized that they were going to need their own rescue. Their CH3C helicopter took a round of bullets in both fuel tanks, causing the craft to burst into flames.
“We were just an instant torch and knew we needed to get out, fast,” Singleton said. “Our PJ went first, our flight engineer was second, I went third and our pilot went fourth.”
The men were all separated, but Singleton said he could hear his instructor’s voice in his head, telling him to throw away the release o-ring and to steer his parachute away from the gunfire. In the distance, Singleton saw their only means of transportation going down in flames.
“I was moving really fast over the ground, but all the training on what to do when bailing out kicked in and I started moving towards some trees,” he said. “You don’t want to hit trees but sometimes you can’t help it. I stopped about 50 to 60 feet above the ground.”
Singleton had landed in a mountainous region of North Vietnam. He had sustained third-degree burns on his wrists, neck and knees from the flames coming out of the helicopter. He had also lost his canteen, but still had some survival rations, his first aid kit and some weapons.
For the next five days Singleton evaded the enemy. As he heard North Vietnamese troops and dogs in the distance, Singleton started to scale a mountain.
“At that point the dogs couldn’t get to me because I was mountain-climbing. I found a little place to lie down and covered myself with leaves. They passed right by me,” he said.
Singleton continued to do this for the next several days. He then came across a small hole in the side of the mountain and spent the next four days there.
“There was no rain or wind to cover movement and I knew that company of North Vietnamese soldiers were around me,” he said. “The fifth day I decided I was going to get a drink of water or die trying. I didn’t realize what bad shape I was in. Five days without water will ruin you. I went down to find water and they caught me. Every hundred yards I walked I would pass out, I was so dehydrated. I was not thinking right.”
Two other members of Singleton’s crew had also been captured. The flight engineer had been rescued the night they had been shot down. All three men were on the same truck headed to Hanoi. They did not know what horrors awaited them.
Before Vietnam, Singleton had taken part in a survival and prisoner of war training. That training consisted of a scenario much like what Singleton had just experienced. The men were “shot down” in a hostile environment and were put through an escape and evasion and torture scenario.
“Because of that, I went through the entire first year of being a POW with knowing what to expect,” Singleton said. “I knew what progressions they would make.”
The “Hanoi Hilton” is one of the most well-known torture prisons during the Vietnam War. There, POW’s endured extreme forms of torture, such as being shackled by their legs to concrete beds and left to lie in their own excrement for days, being hung by their wrists from meat hooks and the infamous “Vietnamese rope trick,” which caused POW’s shoulders to pop out of their sockets.
Singleton was led to a cell so small, if he stood in the middle and put his arms out, he could touch the walls. A five-gallon bucket stood in the corner as a makeshift toilet. This particular cell-block was aptly named “Heartbreak Hotel.”
“I heard some shuffling and coughs and then a voice, ‘New guy, what’s your name?’ We had three senior officers that were there, including James Stockdale, who was the most senior officer as a commander. Stockdale was the wing commander on one of the carriers, Captain Jerimiah Denton was an Admiral A-6 commander in the Navy. Lt. Colonel Robbie Risner was an f-105 Brigadier General squadron commander,” Singleton said.
Stockdale was in the cell right across from Singleton and spoke with him for a few minutes on how prison life was going to work. The coughing was a sign that the guards had left and that the men were free to talk. On Singleton’s prison wall was a five-square matrix with the letters of the alphabet in a “tap code.”
“That was the predominate form of communication for us the whole time,” Singleton said. “The biggest battle we fought with our captors was communication. They didn’t want us talking to each other under any circumstances. We needed to. That was our life-line and life-blood. Those senior commanders were responsible for more of our salvation in North Vietnam than any other single thing.”
Singleton said their purpose as POW’s was to supply the North Vietnamese with intelligence and anti-war propganda to use against their friends, comrades and nation.
“They were just starting on that when I got there,” he said. “But I was just a First Lieutenant, I hadn’t been dropping bombs. I was on a rescue mission. They didn’t waste a lot of time on me to begin with. They realized when they got young guys in like me to interrogate, they would only get name, rank, service number and date of birth. Our senior officers would tell us, “Remember, you are still in the US Army, Navy or Air Force. Your mission is still the same. They are the enemy. Your job is to defeat them or to ensure any small victory they get is as costly as possible for them.””
The men were required to write confessions and would often write bogus confessions that meant nothing.
“One man wrote a confession that was read over the loud speaker,” Singleton said. “He said he was very sorry for bombing Vietnam and that he was just following the order of General Cannon. That name was from a comic strip about a soldier whose combat area was South Asia. Then he said last week was his saddest week because his best buddy, Clark Kent had been shot down and he had to give the news to his fiancé, Lois Lane. The man was broken, but he didn’t stop.”
After being tortured, the men would tap out everything and tell their fellow soldiers what they experienced so that the next man knew what to expect. However, Singleton did see some men lose their integrity. Most of the men upheld the Honor Code, but a few did not. One of those men was a Marine Lieutenant Colonel.
“The least you would expect from. Right from the beginning he cooperated with the enemy and didn’t even resist. Some other men I knew were put into a small cell with him. One of the young captains stood up and said, “Sir, I am relieving you of command. You are no longer the senior officer in this cell. Men, please follow me now. You know what he is doing is wrong.”
Singleton doesn’t believe he had an allegiance to the Vietnamese, he believes he didn’t have the “warrior” and will to fight in him.
“He never should have been in that position and how he got there, I don’t know. But it happens. The integrity comes in realizing that he was giving unlawful orders to the subordinates in the cell with him. We had senior officers there who stood up and did the right thing, even if it meant being shot. We joked that the ongoing threat was torture, death or worse. If we got caught communicating, they’d torture you. You did something they didn’t like, they’d torture you. You answered the wrong question, they’d torture you. I’m talking about real hurt. Some guys were really tough and you did the best you could. You tried to give whatever you gave to be totally useless. That was who we were,” he said.
In addition to the poor living conditions and torture, the men also battled poor food and constant gastrointestinal distress. The men in Hanoi had two meals a day, which consisted of a small loaf of French bread and “sewer-weed soup,” called that because the ingredients grew along a latrine row. Singleton spent the first year as a prisoner with relentless diarrhea. He had gone to Vietnam weighing 165 pounds and predicts he weighed 125 pounds while a prisoner.
When Singleton was first captured, he didn’t think that he and his fellow soldiers would make it to Christmas. There were times when the soldiers had their hopes up, because the North Vietnamese would give them bananas, extra cigarettes or food.
“We had been there so many times (dreaming about being released) that we didn’t dare get our hopes up,” he said. “You couldn’t take it.”
However, Singleton and the others held in the “Hanoi Hilton” were freed during Operation Homecoming on Feb. 12, 1973. Singleton was being held up near the Chinese border at the time and had no idea what was going on in Hanoi. At this point in the war, Hanoi was being heavily bombed by b-52’s.
Singleton and his fellow prisoners were put in trucks and taken back to Hanoi. One of the stipulations of the Paris Peace Accord was that a third of the prisoners were released at a time, starting with the first group that was captured.
“That was the only time being shot down early was a good time,” Singleton said.
The sick and injured went first and then Singleton’s group was up. The group was given street clothes, leather shoes, a jacket and a bag. They also received haircuts. The next day, the men were taken out to buses and were not handcuffed or blindfolded. They boarded the bus and were told that they were going to an airport where the exchange was to take place.
“It was nice to be able to see the city we had been held in but we didn’t get our hopes up,” he said.
About 20 minutes into the drive the buses pulled over and the men were taken to a large, empty warehouse where they were told the Americans had broken the agreement and that they would not be returning home.
“It did hurt because we did have our hopes up a little bit but it was no surprise,” he said.
After a short break they were loaded back into the bus and were told they were in fact going to the airport. Sure enough, there were three Air Force C-141’s on the ramp.
“They were hospital planes because they didn’t really know what to expect. That was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen,” he said.
The men were transferred one at a time. Their name was read by one of the Vietnamese interrogators and they were allowed to cross a white line that had been painted on the tarmac.
“A US Air Force Colonel was standing there with a great big grin on his face and saluted us as we crossed the line,” he said.
Singleton could not believe the attitude of the Americans because he still thought that the transfer may not happen. After the men were loaded into the plane it was totally quiet. It wasn’t until after they crossed the Vietnam border that the men celebrated and erupted into cheers.
“The whole place was up for grabs,” Singleton said. “I’m surprised the airplane stayed up. We were jumping around, whooping and yelling, hugging, shaking hands.”
The men were taken to Clark Air Base, located in the Philippines and were loaded onto buses where they immediately went to the hospital. A dentist came onto the bus, asking if any of the men needed dental work that couldn’t wait.
“One guy stood up and said, “I’ve had a terrible tooth-ache for about five years,” Singleton joked. “We had to keep the humor going.”
One of the first things the men did was visit the chow hall, where all hands were on deck. Every single burner and oven was on and the cooks asked the men what they wanted.
“That first meal was heaven. It was five-star.”
After they were settled in, the guys went from room to room, visiting friends, some of which they were meeting face-to-face for the first time. Singleton remembers the nurse coming around and telling the guys if they had trouble sleeping that night, they could get something to help.
“The only thing that happened was I couldn’t talk quite as fast. I couldn’t sleep for the first eight days,” Singleton said.
Part of the reason for not being able to sleep was that Singleton had dreamed so many times of going home and then he woke up.
“I wasn’t going to take that chance again,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake up.”
Singleton returned home to Dallas to a changed America. For a couple of weeks Singleton would go to his front door, open it and just look out and around his neighborhood.
Singleton now regularly visits local ROTC classes and speaks about his experience in Vietnam and his time in the Air Force. He thinks it’s important to teach children that nobody owes them anything.
“I was born just before the second World War started,” Singleton said. “During that time, America was fighting for its life. Since then, our nation has never really been afraid. It’s important our kids remember these things and that they provide for themselves and their families. If they can, they should give to those who cannot do those things for themselves. I lived in a world where I saw more evil than I could ever imagine and looked it in the eye. I think it’s important that kids know our history.”