VENANZI, GERALD SANTO
Name: Gerald Santo Venanzi
Rank/Branch: O2/ United States Air Force
Unit: 12th TRS
Date of Birth: 30 June 1944
Home City of Record: Trenton NJ
Date of Loss: 17 September 1967
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 205400 North 1053000 East
Status (in 1973): Returnee
Other Personnel in Incident: Jon Stavast, returnee
Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK from one or more of the following: raw
data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA
families, published sources, interviews. 2020
REMARKS: 730314 RELEASED BY DRV
SOURCE: WE CAME HOME copyright 1977
Captain and Mrs. Frederic A Wyatt (USNR Ret), Barbara Powers Wyatt, Editor
P.O.W. Publications, 10250 Moorpark St., Toluca Lake, CA 91602
Text is reproduced as found in the original publication (including date and
UPDATE - 09/95 by the P.O.W. NETWORK, Skidmore, MO
GERALD S. VENANZI
Captain - United States Air Force
Shot Down: September 17, 1967
Released: March 14, 1973
I was born on the 30th of June 1944 in Trenton, New Jersey where I have
lived for my entire life. After high school I attended Parks College of St.
Louis University where I received a degree in Aeronautics in 1965. In
October 1966 I completed my navigator training and started RF-4C training at
Shaw AFB, South Carolina and Mt. Home AFB, Idaho. In June 1962 I proceeded
to Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, where I was permanently stationed.
On the 17th of September 1967 while navigator on an RF-4C aircraft, I was
hit by a Surface-to-Air missile and ejected from my aircraft about 25 miles
southwest of Hanoi. After spending 45 minutes on the ground, I was captured
by the enemy, thus starting my internment.
I think I can summarize my experience and survival as three faiths and one
Faith in your country. That the United States involvement in Vietnam was the
correct decision for our government to make. Also faith that the government
was doing everything they could for us.
Faith in God. My faith in religion grew as I was a prisoner. I saw many
things happen which could possibly be described as minor miracles. At any
rate, I knew God was with us.
Faith in my fellow POWs. No one turned in another POW to the enemy. You
could always count on another POW for support in any way they could give it.
During a period of solitary confinement I was very depressed and I attribute
my sanity directly to three POWs who gave me constant encouragement.
Last, the truth. The truth we knew to help us battle the enemies' propaganda
My future plans at this time are somewhat unsettled, although I believe I
will return to Mather AFB, California as an instructor navigator. Another
possibility is to go to law school.
Gerald Venanzi retired from the United States Air Force as a Colonel. He and
his wife Carol reside in Virginia.
Reprinted with permission of Ted Ballard 12/29/96
Date: Tue, 24 Dec 1996
Christmases In the Dungeons of North Vietnam
by Ted Ballard
On December 24th, 1966, I was living in a small twelve feet by
twelve feet cell. My roommate was Navy Ensign George McSwain. We had no
contact with other American POWs. For seven weeks George had been
undergoing a torture that was called "holding up the wall"-standing facing
the wall with his arms straight over his head. Periodically the guards
would come in and beat him up. The Vietnamese were torturing George in an
attempt to get me to sign a war crimes confession. I will not go into any
details, but earlier they had tortured me for the same thing and failed.
I had spent two months in a cast, from my left ankle to my chest,
and was now using crutches to hobble around the room.
As evening approached, a guard came and took George to be
interviewed by some Vietnamese officers. While he was gone I suddenly felt
the urge to walk without the crutches. I carried them with me but did not
use them and made it all the way around the room. I had given myself a
Christmas present and waited impatiently for George to come back so I could
share it with him.
When George returned he had a few pieces of sugar candy and a
cigarette for each of us. This was a pleasant surprise since I never
thought the Vietnamese would recognize Christmas. George said the quiz room
was full of oranges and bananas and we would receive some later. We never
Later some Christmas music was played over the camp radio. A POW
sang two or three songs. I wondered who he was but never did find out. It
was a sad Christmas Eve for me. As we went to bed, George was silent and
despondent. We did not talk as we normally did. I could only imagine his
thoughts. Mine were of my family and Christmases past.
The gong did not clang as usual Christmas morning. However, a guard
came by and told George to get "on the wall." About three hours later he
was taken to quiz and the officer (whom we called Dum-dum) told him that the
Camp Commander had forgiven him of his "crimes" and he must obey the camp
regulations. We were both jubilant at this news.
George's long ordeal was over. In a way we felt it was a victory
for us since I did not have to write a confession or condemn the United
States government. Several times I came close to calling a halt to the
torture and writing the statement, but George was a tough man and he took it
as he said he could.
The Vietnamese gave us a good Christmas dinner-a piece of meat, lots
of rice, and, for the first time, cabbage soup.
The summer and fall of 1967 was a bad time for the POWs. Many men
were tortured for propaganda purposes, and harassment by the guards was
There were about thirty men in our building, three to each room. My
cellmates were Captain Bob Sandvick and Captain Tom Pyle.
On Christmas Eve we were taken to view a tree the Vietnamese had
decorated. We were given some candy and extra cigarettes to take back to
our rooms. Later in the evening we heard a guard opening the hatches to
each of the cells. When he came to our cell he asked, "Protestant or
Catholic?" We told him we were Protestants and he gave us each a small bag
which contained an orange, several cookies. and small pieces of candy. This
was our first "Gift from the Priest." We found out later that the Catholics
got a tangerine instead of and orange. (Only the Lord knows why!) One POW
who was living by himself told the guard he was neither Protestant nor
Catholic. The guard closed the hatch without giving him anything! Next
Christmas he decided to be a Protestant!
Some Christmas music was played over the camp radio. We also had to
listen to a tape recording by a Vietnamese Catholic Priest. He allowed that
we should pray to God for forgiveness of our crimes against the Vietnamese
Bob, Tom, and I reminisced about our families and other Christmases.
It was a quiet evening for us. Our prayers were for those POWs who were
still suffering from wounds.
Christmas Day we had a good dinner of meat, vegetables, and rice.
In quantity it was about the size of an average American meal, but about six
times our normal ration.
The senior ranking officer of our building initiated a "Home for
Christmas" prayer. Each day at noon a signal was passed to all rooms. We
would then recite the Lord's Prayer.
In the spring of 1968, I was moved to another camp. Living
conditions were somewhat improved. There were nine of us in a twenty-one by
twenty foot room. Even though harassment and treatment by the guards was
about the same, it was great to have more Americans to talk to. Peace
negotiations had begun in Paris, but by the time Christmas came around our
high hopes for an early settlement had vanished.
We had continued our daily "Home for Christmas" prayer. One day one
of the men said, "What will we do if we don't make it home for Christmas?"
Someone answered, "We will continue to pray for next Christmas."
As the season grew nearer the men began writing down the words for holiday
songs. We used toilet paper, pens made form strips of bamboo, and ink from
a mixture of cigarette ashes and water. Of course we kept these carefully
hidden from the Vietnamese.
One of the men received a package from home. He shared everything
he had with the rest of us. What a wonderful treat! Actual goodies from
Again we received a "gift from the Priest."
I shall never forget that Christmas Eve. A group of men quietly
singing such carols as "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night."
Before retiring, Jim Hivner said, "Everybody who believes in Santa
Claus, hang a sock on your mosquito net. Remember, those who believe will
I did not hang up a sock because I needed to wear them to try to
keep warm. We each had two thin blankets but I had to use one of mine as
cushion for my bad hip.
In the quiet of the night, as I had done the two previous Christmas
Eves, I mentally shopped for, bought, and wrapped gifts for Ruth and Kevin.
How are they? Are they well? Please, God, let them live normal and happy
lives, and know that my thoughts are with them. May God bless and keep
them, as well as the other members of the great Ballard family.
When I awakened the next morning I found a Christmas card inside my
net. The other men had one in their stockings. Jim Hivner had made them
without any of us knowing about it!
The first ten months of 1969 were the worst for the POWs. An attempt
to escape had failed and the Vietnamese had retaliated with extreme
In late October, however, a marked improvement in our living
conditions came about. We did not know the reason, but the death of Ho Chi
Minh may have had something to do with it. I believe now that it was the
outstanding support of the American people and the pressure they put upon
the North Vietnamese government that brought about the changes.
In December we were allowed to write our first letters home. I had
about 800 million things to say to Ruth and questions to ask, but of course
this was impossible in a six-line letter.
Several of us received packages from home, which we shared. In mine
was a set of thermal underwear for which I was most grateful. One of my
cellmates, Jim Sehorn, had given me one of his blankets. Finally, I could at
least stay warm during those long, sleepless, miserable nights.
We made Christmas cards for the men in the other buildings. These
were "air-mailed" by tying a rock to the paper and throwing them from our
courtyard to theirs.
For a Christmas tree, we decorated a small swiss-type broom with
strips of cloth and paper with various designs. Mike McGrath was quite a
good artist and enjoyed doing things with his hands. He used one of his
black pajama tops as a background and drew a tree on it. From paper and
cloth he made stars and other ornaments and attached them to the tree. Small
packages with each of our names were also attached. This was kept hidden
during the day but was hung on the wall in the evenings for our enjoyment.
We exchanged gifts that Christmas, both real and imaginary. I gave
away gift certificates and treated everyone to a dinner at the Fireside Inn
in Las Vegas. One man, who had lost most of his hair, was given a wooden
comb. I was given ear plugs and a nose clip so I would not be disturbed at
night by nearby neighbors!
Christmas Eve the guards came around and gave us the "gift from the
priest," also cookies and cigarettes. We were in a good mood and talked and
quietly sang carols til fairly late.
Before retiring we each tied a stocking to our nets. I had saved some peanut
butter candy from my package Ruth had sent and planned to put some in each
man's stocking while they were asleep. I lay awake for about an hour and
was just about ready to get up when I heard a noise and looked up. A POW was
putting something in my stocking. He moved quickly from net to net and then
sneaked back under his own. Ten minutes later another man got up and did the
same thing. It took almost two hours for all eight of us to play Santa
Early Christmas morning I was awakened by a loud shout from Jim Sehorn:
"Merry Christmas, everybody! Get up!. He did it! Santa Claus came! Get up!
Get up!" What a sight - Jim running from net to net pulling everybody out of
bed. Our stockings were full of candy, gifts, and greeting cards.
Later that day the guards came in and removed Mike's shirt with the
decorations on it. He was taken to Quiz and the officers told him they were
impressed with his art and were going to take it to the museum. Mike told
them, "No, you are not." He jerked it off the table and tore it up!
In November, 1970, there was an unsuccessful attempt by the United States to
rescue some POWs from a camp at Son Tay. Within the next few days all of the
POWs were moved to downtown Hanoi to a large complex of jails named Hoalo
Prison. We called it the Hanoi Hilton. Finally, after so many years, we were
all in the same camp, with 25 to 56 men per cell. We became better organized
militarily, academically, and religiously.
That Christmas season was a fairly good one for us. Many men had received
packages from home and were allowed to keep the items in their cells.
However, a few days before Christmas, the guards removed everything from the
cells except for what they had given us. In October I had received my first
letter from home, after more than four years as a prisoner. Included in the
letter was a picture of Ruth and Kevin. I prized that picture more than
anything in the world and I cannot describe my feelings when the guard took
We began again to scrounge materials for academic purposes, etc. We drew
names for gifts. Jim Sehorn gave me a wand and a pendulum to use with my
course in hypnotism. I gave him the use of my services for a whole week to
hold his legs while he did sit-ups and other exercises.
Christmas Eve the men put on an outstanding play. It was the POW version of
Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Scrooge was played by Dave Ford with
Jerry Venanzi directing.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas carols sung by a 15-man choir. The
singing was disrupted once when a Vietnamese attempted to take pictures
through the barred windows.
Again we received a "gift from the priest."
That night was a sad one for me. I was reminiscing over past Christmases
when I had a strong feeling that my Mother had died. (She passed away in
August 1969, but I was not notified until our release.)
Christmas morning I was again awakened by Jim Sehorn - with the same
enthusiasm and excitement. About this time a most fascinating event occurred
- big Tom McNish (six feet, two inches tall) was running up and down the
long room with a large bag slung over his shoulder. Tom was dressed in white
long-handled underwear and continued his prancing until everyone was up.
Then he set down his bag, opened it, and out jumped Santa Claus! Rod Knutson
had on a red suit, black "boots", stocking cap, and a white beard and
mustache! I never found out where or how they scrounged all that material.
Rod then proceeded to give out hilariously funny imaginary gifts to
We had an exceptionally good meal Christmas Day, and everyone was becoming
optimistic about going home soon.
Our optimism suffered a setback in early 1971 due to the torturing
of many individuals and especially the senior ranking officers. This was in
retaliation for our attempts to conduct religious services and to gain
improvements in living conditions. The United States had resumed the bombing
of North Vietnam.
Ten of us had been removed to another large cell along with thirty
four other POWs, all considered to be "die-hards" or trouble makers by the
Christmas, 1971, was about the same as the year before. The choir
sang carols which I thoroughly enjoyed. Six of us non-singers put on a skit
imitating the choir.
Ed Davis sang a lovely song, one I had never heard before, having to
do with Mary and her unborn child, Jesus.
I'll never forget Gobel James and his beautiful rendition of "O Holy
One man entertained us with his version of "How the Grinch Stole
Tom McNish and Rod Knutson did their Santa Claus number again. Rod
gave me some silver oak leaves indicating my promotion to Lieutenant
Colonel. Ruth had written me that it was Autumn in Carolina and the silver
oak leaves were falling!
Dwight Sullivan presented me with a small poker table which he had
made from bread and sticks. It even had ash trays. I kept the table for
almost a year until the guards finally found it and took it away. I gave my
friend Leroy Stutz an imaginary book, "How to Play Winning Poker" and
allowed him to "pin" me at his discretion once per week for a whole month.
The bombing of North Vietnam continued into 1972, and many targets
near our camp were being attacked. In May over 200 of us were moved to a
camp within a few miles of China, in mountainous terrain. Our food and
living conditions greatly improved. We were permitted more time outside,
given canned meat and various types of vegetable soup to eat with the
ever-present rice. Periodically the Vietnamese would go to a nearby village
and kill a buffalo and cook it for us. We conducted weekly bridge and chess
I spent one week in solitary confinement due to a minor disagreement
with the Vietnamese officers. During this time my thoughts were mostly with
my wife and son. Kevin is now thirteen years old. Graduating from high
school soon. Hard to believe. I had missed so much of his growing up. One of
these days he will come to me and ask for an automobile.
Most of us were given letters and packages from home that Christmas.
There was a picture of Ruth and Kevin on a motorcycle. A black dog lay
nearby. I could imagine the companionship that the dog provided for Kevin. I
mentally composed a letter to "Blackie." I was both thankful for him and
envious of him. He knew more about my son than I did - his habits, stomping
grounds, and hiding places.
One of the men heard from the guards that the United States was
bombing targets in Hanoi with big bombers night and day. We were jubilant at
this news and felt that the attacks would continue until the Vietnamese
agreed to release all prisoners.
Christmas Eve, 1972, was a quiet one for us. The choir sang some
carols and that was about it. Our thoughts and prayers were about the
In January 1973, we were taken back to the "Hanoi Hilton" and were
told that the war was over and we would all be going home soon. What would
it be like? How have things changed after six and one-half years of
isolation from the real world?
I was among the group of prisoners that was released on March 4,
1973. I did not look back at the camp. I said a prayer that went something
We thank you for taking care of us for such a long time.
We now ask that you give us the courage to face the future
and to accept the changes that have taken place.