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 final 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
On March the fourth, 1973 I was just winding up six years of involuntary participation in A Mad Tea-Party in a land, North Vietnam, where everyone was mad. Like Alice, as I descended in my parachute in January 1967, I thought: “But I don’t want to go among mad people.” On landing I verified the sagacity of the Cheshire Cat’s observation: “Oh, you can’t help that, we’re all mad here.” [Ironically, our name for Major Bui, the communist Vietnamese Camp Commander, was “The Cat”]. Over the intervening years it was proven to me beyond a doubt that everyone in that land was mad either as a mood state or a mental status and sometimes both. The master of ceremonies (MC) on this March day in 1973 – 2,251 days, 10 hours and 20 minutes after my capture – was the mad March Hare.
Incarcerated within 24 hours of my capture, having been thoroughly beaten starved and tortured, I was turned over to the master propagandist we nicknamed “The Rabbit” in acknowledgement of his distinctive ears and overbite. The Rabbit, the mad March Hare, had overseen the last stages of my torture and was grooming me for a propaganda extravaganza in conjunction with a visit from the very neutral and totally unbiased self appointed Swedish “Committee to Investigate American War Crimes in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam”.
The central thrust of this particular effort was to prove President Johnson a liar when he denied having bombed Hanoi in December of 1966. (In fact both Ho Chi Minh and Lyndon Johnson were lying: the City of Hanoi had not been bombed; the District of Hanoi had been.) I was the first Yankee Air Pilot to be captured since the supposed event. With an unsmiling visage, a monumental proboscis, a potbelly and a crew cut, I was the embodiment of the Vietnamese characture of an American aggressor. Communist central casting selected me for the part of the Mad Bomber of Hanoi.
No matter that the city of Hanoi had not been bombed, no matter that I did not bomb anything in the area, no matter that the confession the Rabbit wrote for me to tape was farcical, it was a done deal. It was presented (fittingly in March orchestrated by the March Hare) before the assembled Hanoi diplomatic and press corps including a contract photographer for Life magazine, Lee Lockwood.
I played the Manchurian Candidate grimacing, bowing and acting the fool. Lockwood got it on film. The Rabbit thought he had a victory when the New York Times (Pravda East) published the “confession” verbatim as the truth, only to get shot down in flames when a firestorm erupted over the possibility of drugging or brainwashing raised by the Life bowing picture. For six long years the Rabbit and I engaged in a test of wills – he for vindication and I for survival with honor.
However, at long last, this was my day, not the Rabbit’s. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s Secretary of State, had been smart enough in the Paris Peace Talks to insist that all POWs affected by the treaty would receive, in writing and in their own language, within three days of signing, those provisions bearing on their release. This would prevent the communists from playing last minute mind games with the prisoners as they had during the Korean Little and Big Switch POW releases.
We were to have an incremental but propaganda free release in the order of the date of our shoot down after the release of the sick and wounded. As we swept the mines from the North Vietnamese mines and harbors, the POWs would be measured out. After false starts, interruptions and many diplomatic mating dances it was now my turn to leave.
We shed our prison garb and were clothed in nondescript chinos and windbreakers. Herded on a bus, we were driven in plain sight viewed by curious crowds, through downtown Hanoi, across the Red River to the Gia Lam airport. Just shy of the airfield we diverted to a ramshackle building, dismounted and upon entering, and were presented with a feast of beer and cookies. I don’t remember anyone partaking as it looked like just another primitive effort to squeeze “good treatment” propaganda out of us prior to departure.
Upon arrival at the airport, our Seniors, elbowed the communists out of the way, took charge, lined us up and marched us in double file to a demarcation line. On one side of the line were the communists, on the other side – AMERICANS. The March Hare, the Rabbit, was the MC. As he read off a name, the POW would smartly march up to the line, cross to become a Returned POW, snap a salute to the American receiving officer, exchange handshakes and be escorted to the waiting USAF hospital plane.
When it came my turn, my handshake became a death grip as I stage whispered to the Air Force Colonel: “Get a picture of that Son of a Bitch with the big ears reading our names; he’s responsible for torturing 95% of us!!” The Colonel whispered back: “For cripes sake, Stratton, we’re not stupid; we’ve got him. Get out of here; you’re screwing up the release!”
There were about forty RPOWs on the aircraft. All were uncharacteristically subdued and extremely wary, not the norm for a group of extroverted aviators. The enemy was so perfidious, there had been so many lies, false starts, threats and betrayals that we were waiting for a hidden bomb to blow us up on the runway, a Surface to Air (SAM) to knock the aircraft out of the sky as we got airborne or a MIG fighter to make an intercept before we went “feet wet” over the Gulf of Tonkin.
As soon as the aircraft commander announced “FEET WET” all hell broke loose with yelling, whistling, laughing and simultaneous conversation worthy of the Tower of Babel. “Free at last. Lord Almighty, free at last!” I chose to just sit quietly and savor the moment.
Our destination was Clarke Air Force Base on the island of Luzon, Philippine Islands. For each RPOW there was an officer of his same service who volunteered to be his escort officer until we reached our stateside destinations. I was assigned two. It seems the Pentagon was not certain that I had not really been drugged or brainwashed; they had some concerns about my mental stability. Mostly due to the Life magazine incident and the follow on forced propaganda exposures wherein I made every effort to deepen the mystery. So I was double-teamed.
I didn’t help things any when, to break my silence and establish rapport, one of the escorts offered me a copy of Playboy magazine to occupy me. I politely refused since the concept of women being reduced to peddling their flesh in full frontal nudity offended my sensibilities. I certainly like women in all their manifestations, but believe there is a time, place and state in life for taking full advantage of all God’s beauty.
Facetiously, in declining their offer, I asked if they had a copy of a Sears catalogue. In my youth, the raciest publication available to a pubescent teenager was the ladies’ underwear section of the Sears catalogue. At least in the catalogue there was not total nudity. My attempt at humor fell flat most likely due to a generation gap. When queried in flight about my mental status, the escort officers breathlessly reported: “You’ll never guess what happened. He turned down a copy of Playboy and requested a Sears catalogue instead. We were unable to provide.” Suspicions confirmed. Stratton had gone over the bend. Strike one.
At Clarke, we were received with a reception worthy of conquering heroes and rushed to the hospital for a three-day medical check and opportunity to decompress. Intelligence debriefings that commenced during the flight continued, initially stressing the identification and location of prisoners we had been in contact with or had any knowledge of.
Bathed, clothed, inoculated, dewormed and shrived of our sins, that day of arrival we were lined up for phone contact with our families and then led off for our first decent meal. The hospital had set aside the entire cafeteria with an array of foot fit for royalty and in a quantity sufficient for a full division. In charge and stationed at the head of the chow line was a commissioned officer, female, a medical dietician, assigned to make sure that we did not eat ourselves to death.
Folklore has it that all red blooded American males when starved for food, dream about and lust after a ranch breakfast of steak, eggs and pan fries regardless of the hour of the day or night. Alone, I came through the line and asked for a dozen scrambled eggs.
The attractive dietician balked and made a deal. I could have half a dozen if I would take a steak. When I finished that I could come back for more. To her wondering eyes, I slopped ketchup over the six eggs, scoffed them down, tossed out the steak and went back for the next half dozen scrambled eggs. After all, a deal’s a deal. However, a flash message went back to my stateside Department of Defense handlers: “He’s eating alone, passing up all the good stuff and sucking eggs – a dozen of them!” Oops, strike two.
The system was set up so that we could go through the chow line every four hours. While waiting for the next cattle call, I overheard my shipmates remarking about the splendid and extravagant salad bar which I had missed while realizing the fruition of my long dreamed of dozen-egg quest. I resolved to hit the salad bar the next go round.
This time the dietician was a male officer who had stationed himself at the end of the line instead of the beginning. I picked up a tray and two humongous salad plates. One plate I loaded up with an infinite variety of lettuce and garnishments. The second I filled to overflowing with cottage cheese and a medley of fresh fruit.
Still alone, I warily approached the dietician, anticipating some sort of a rebuke. He eyeballed me and remarked: “Oh, you like salad.” My initial reaction was to choke back the normal shipboard response to the obvious: “No sh__, Dick Tracy.” (We were still working on cleaning up our language.)
He mistook my reticence and loss for words as embarrassment. He tactfully tried to reassure me: “Don’t feel embarrassed. Some nut came through here four hours ago and ran through a dozen scrambled eggs in one fell swoop. And would you believe it, he put gobs of ketchup on them to boot?” I quickly and carefully tip toed away to a remote corner of the chow hall hoping against hope that no one could identify me as the “nut” from the previous session.
That night, oblivious of the minor sensation I was causing, I was ready to try to get some sleep. We had been running on adrenalin for 48 hours ever since it was apparent that there was a good chance we were this time going to be set free. We were now four to a room in the hospital instead of the forty to an open bay cell we had been used to in jail during the last two years. I tossed and turned on my bunk. It was too comfortable, too soft, too clean, too nice. I couldn’t get to sleep. For six years I had been sleeping either on a board or a cement pad.
Finally, in desperation I wrapped myself Indian style in my blanket, stretched out on the floor, and fell sound asleep. By now they obviously had me under close observation – more accurately surveillance. The report went back to Washington: “You’ll never guess what the jerk is doing now – sleeping on the floor and letting a perfectly good bed go to waste.” Strike three; I was out.
Like when the moon mission was in trouble, a cryptic message was relayed to D.C. similar in meaning to: “Houston, we have a problem.” I was held over for twenty four hours, four days vice three, while the rest of my shipmates continued on their journey to the great PX in the sky – the U S of A. My beloved Navy had to figure out what to do with the Mad Bomber of Hanoi. I had no problem. I was free and sleeping soundly for the first time in years.
A madness to the end, the Mad Tea-Party, commencing and terminating under the auspices of the mad March Hare, came to closure for me on March the 4th in a blaze of glory with a colorful plate of a dozen scrambled eggs – a tangible proof that it was not all a dream. I had made it and the Rabbit was left behind.
As we say in Naval Aviation: “Any landing you walk away from is a good one.” Even though this one was six years from takeoff from the USS Ticonderoga to a landing at Clarke Air Force Base. Even in the Philippines I was continuing to validate the Cheshire Cat’s dictum: “We’re all mad here.” Still shrouded in mystery, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen as we made landfall in California.
Richard A. Stratton
Dearborn, Michigan May 17, 2002
Armed Forces Day
By special request of son, Charles
Thank you Richard for allowing me to share part of your story. Welcome Home! God Bless You!
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If you are interested in reading more from “The Tales of South East Asia” by Richard “The Beak” Stratton or other stories from Vietnam POW’s – click below:
http://www.talesofseasia.com/ – also see
Three’s In *** – the Vietnam POW Home Page at the same link – scroll to the bottom of directory on left side of page.
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