by Dick Stratton, Former POW
from Dick Stratton's
POW Sea Stories)
BOAT SCHOOL BOYS
was a new ball game sitting in solitary confinement in a Hoa Lo
["Hanoi Hilton"] isolation cell. It was far
different than a week previous on the USS Ticonderoga [CVA 14]
goofing off in the Ready Room as a newly assigned Lieutenant
Commander maintenance officer of the World Famous Golden Dragons
[CAW19, VA 192]. No more A4E's, no more flight schedules, no
more LSO debriefs, no more mission planning, no more manning of the
spare or the ready tanker, no more mail call. It all came to
an abrupt halt on January 5, 1967 when I ate my own 2.75 FFAR's on a
weather recon hop. I
was now a tortured, beaten, starving hulk designated as the
"Blackest of Criminals" in the DRV [Democratic Republic of
Vietnam] and an official "Yankee Air Pirate" [eligible to
be hung from the yardarm having been caught in the act of piracy].
I was alone; separated from all my shipmates. I did not know
whom to trust, what the rules of my new mess happened to be or what
was expected of me in this new and strange form of warfare I was
about to embark upon. The walls had more banging and knocking than
the whole hull of the venerable 27C that had been my previous home.
There was a rhythm and a pattern to the noise that had all the class
of a wall full of woodpeckers. I remembered enough Morse code
to recognize that what I was hearing was not Morse code; but it sure
wasn't the ghosts of French Foreign Legionaries having a happy hour.
This isolation wing of
the prison had a limited number of cells. Once a day you would
put your honey bucket out and your morning soup bowl. One of
the cells would open up and those prisoners would gather up the gear
and proceed to a cell at the end of the passageway that had some
running water piped into it. These guys would do the dishes,
buckets and their armpits taking their sweet old time, making a hell
of a racket and yacking away at each other to beat the band.
But wait a minute, they were not talking to each other, they were
talking to the rest of us as if they were talking to each other.
Each cell had a high barred window open to the air. If you
stood on your cement slab pad you could pick up what they were
you read me, cough once for yes; twice for no." Cough.
"Are you Air Force?" Cough. Cough. "Are you
Navy?" Cough. "Are you an 0-5?" Cough.
Cough. "Are you an O-4?" Cough "Oh sh__,
another Lieutenant Commander!" "Do you know who won the
Army Navy game?" Cough. Cough. "Oh hell, a dumb
Lieutenant Commander at that!" " Jim Stockdale and
Robbie Reisner are the SRO's [Senior Ranking Officers]. Their
rules are: communicate at all costs; when they get around to
torturing you, hold out as long as you can, bounce back and make
them do it all over again; don't despair when they break you, they
have broken all of us; pray." Cough. "Two Thai's are
next to you and have been trying to communicate with you. They
are using the tap code; it is a box; the first letters are: American
Football League Quits Victorious. Communicate. My name is
Galanti - Paul Galanti" BANG The universal danger signal,
as I found out later. They were hauled out of the cell block,
tortured and I did not see Paul for three years.
rules of the new ball game were quite simple. To lead is to be
tortured. To communicate with a fellow prisoner was a de facto
sign of leadership resulting in torture. To fail to bow is to
be beaten & tortured. To fail to do exactly what you were
told and when you were told was to be tortured. Medical
attention was reserved to those who might have some propaganda value
and then only in respect to the parts of you that showed.
"Food" and water were rationed out only to the extent to
keep you alive but in a weakened condition. Lenient and humane
treatment were defined as permitting you to live. You were being
held as a hostage and as a propaganda tool; otherwise you had no
value. You were a slave to communist ideology.
rank questions made sense - find the SRO. But after all - the Army
Navy Game! Doesn't that beat all! The pampered nephews of
Uncle Sam!! The Boat School Boys are forever with me! I really don't
know if that is a curse or a blessing. Although I must admit that it
took a set of cajones for Paul to get the rules of the road and the
tap code to me. I had met Stockdale at Stanford University
where I was his numerical relief in the International Relations
Program. He was a Boat School Boy, but I must admit, having
already been tortured, that his rules of the road were a God
send to my resistance posture.
see, I started out in this man's navy as a Naval Aviation Cadet
having been first a Private in the Massachusetts National Guard. I
knew what it was to be an enlisted man as my father and brother had
been before me. I did not take it to be a sign of second class
status - it was just different. I was a NavCad for the purpose
of being a Naval Aviator not of being an officer; if you had to be
an officer to fly from carriers then so be it, no big deal.
But these officers were something else! Here's how the myth built up
in my mind. Recognize, that as far as I was concerned initially, all
officers were Boat School Boys.
ran out to the obstacle course; officers rode out and back in a
Cattle Car. NavCads formed up for church call on Sunday while
the officers drove by, shooting us the Hawaiian Peace Sign, to pick
off all the best looking girls at Pensacola Beach. The
officers got to go to the O Club and watch the pretty girls at the
pool and drink Bloody Marys; the NavCads got to go across the street
to the ACRAC [Aviation Cadet Recreation and Athletic Club] - a
primitive but welcome beer hall. NavCads got to wash
SNJ's while the Officers lounged around. NavCads got to man
fire bottles while the Officers started their engines. NavCads
took the leftovers while the officers got the prime flight times and
first shots at available aircraft. Not complaining mind you;
just a fact of life registering more because they were no better nor
no worse an aviator than you were.
a plow back instructor in advanced training, I started to sort out
the Boat School Boys. They hung in there together [not bad].
They were adventuresome but over confident [reasonable for
aviation]. But they were as a rule unprepared for hops, careless
about academics and cavalier about performing for grades.
a plank owner in a new fleet attack squadron forming up, it became
obvious that the leadership put the Boat School Boys in desirable
positions of trust. In the wardroom their napkin numbers kept them
together at the formal sittings. They tended to pull liberty
together. They had contacts ashore and afloat that
enabled them to get things done and take care of their troops in a
manner I could only aspire to. They got the recommendations to
Test Pilot School and nifty post graduate programs. Sound
green eyed with envy? Jealous? Left out? Angry? It may
sound like it, but it is not so. They were different and I was
different. Someday they would be in command and in the Flag
Mess. If the Navy kept faith with me I'd fly my butt off and
aspire to have a shot at Commander and maybe even get my own
squadron. We were different.
how different the Boat School Boys were! During the six years
I spent in prison I had the good fortune to be in a position to be
in the middle of the internal prisoner communication nets that the
VC [Viet Cong - Vietnamese Communists] never could eliminate.
I watched good SRO's stand up and be counted, only to be cut down
like firewood. I saw their replacements come and go. I
assisted in building up new communication nets when old ones were
compromised. I got a good feel for those of my shipmates - the
vast majority of whom were sterling, outstanding warriors - who had
that something extra to rally the troops, restore faith, charge the
hill one more time and be there when you needed them.
we as survivors all had in common was neighborhood, church, school,
friends and family that made us the people we are today. Our
education and training only built upon, refined and honed what
already was there. However, it did not take me long in Hanoi
to discover that the Boat School Boys, BSB, were in a class all by
themselves. Indeed my first life saving contact was with Paul
Galanti, BSB extrodinaire.
great risk to life and limb, you would try to communicate.
The purposes or communication were to formulate resistance plans,
escape plans, resistance to enemy propaganda ploys, names of downed
and imprisoned Americans and their allies, setting up the chain of
command, establishing our rules of the road, build morale and
basically to screw the VC over in any way that we could think of.
We had our own war to fight and could not do it without
last thing you needed when you started to set up a communication net
or pass the word was to have some overly educated jackass try to
debate with you the theology and philosophy of what you were trying
to do, especially when you were tapping. Some guys wanted
convincing, others wanted it to be fair, still others thought it was
too something [dangerous, frivolous, demeaning, childish, hard,
soft, etc. etc.]. You don't know what a thrill it was to find
that on the other side of the wall you had a BSB. He would get
it right the first time around. You would get no guff.
"Roger WILCO Out" Later on he might come back and
ask you if you or the SRO knew what you were doing, or suggest a
better way, or tell you frankly that he thought it was useless.
But he never passed that down the line.
of our acting SRO's [a BSB] took it into his head that the POW's
would all go on a fast to show the VC that we would not tolerate the
torture and beating of prisoners. We would fast until the VC
granted us the rights of POW's under the Geneva Conventions.
He passed the word down the line to his emaciated, already starving,
sickly troopers via a net made up of mostly BSB's. We went on
the fast much to the amazement of the VC who were only to glad to
eat the rations themselves [since we actually were winning the war
about the time LBJ knocked off the bombing]. Meanwhile, the
BSB's went back up the net to convince our stalwart but misguided
leader, that the fast was counterproductive and got the order
rescinded. Obey - an easy word - but with critical
implications for survival. Innovation- not always productive, like a
fast for the starving; but better than sitting on your duff.
of the lessons that Mother Bancroft taught her sons, many of which
did not have the approval of the Academic Committee, were played out
on the VC. A BSB during a filmed propaganda session blinked
out "torture" in Morse code. A BSB is on the cover
of Life magazine showing and inverted Hawaiian Peace Sign [Life
airbrushed the fingers out lest their customers be scandalized].
A BSB, seriously injured and on a stretcher refused the offer of an
early release at a time when our own internal policy for release
would have let him go with honor. The stories of the sons of
mother Bancroft go on and on. But BSB's were a life saver
through unflinching leadership and an inspiration through example to
me. I came out of the prison experience vowing to become a
part of the BSB system, which was certainly a change from all of my
earlier NavCad and JO carping. And indeed, my Navy twilight
tour was within the USNA system.
United States Naval Academy performs a unique service for the
country that other institutions, like my Georgetown and Stanford,
never could nor should perform. USNA is in the business of forming
from the raw material of society a group of leaders of men and
women, a class of warriors, a cadre of men and women who are willing
to sacrifice their treasure, bodies and very lives for the
constitution and citizens of the United States of America.
USNA recreates the dedication of the signers of the Declaration of
Independence who gave their all for their beliefs. USNA is in the
business of developing integrity, honesty, courage, stamina through
rigorous physical and intellectual conditioning.
product of USNA is not an engineer, a political scientist, a
chemist or a physicist. The product is a citizen, a person
formed in a heroic mold, who we hope will never have to be a hero,
but who we are confident has the fortitude to go in harm's way to
protect the Republic. The product is a person who will do the right
thing for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. The
product is a person who recognizes excellence and is willing to
strive for it. The product is a person dedicated to the caring
for the enlisted men and women of the U. S. Navy, those people
who do most of the work and most of the dying in our Navy. The
product is a person that well represents the nation no matter what
port he enters or sea she sails upon. No other institution
greatest accolade given the USNA in the Vietnamese Communist prison
was the statement the Camp Commander, Major Bui, made to John Sidney
McCain III, BSB, when John, son of the Commander in Chief Pacific,
John, a man born to serve, refused an early propaganda release: "They
have taught you too well, McCain! They have taught you too
we always continue to teach the Midshipmen "too well".