By William K. Alcorn
Freedom with honor was their goal.
Forty years ago, two area men, both Navy pilots, were set free after years of physical and mental torture as prisoners of war in North Vietnam.
The bodies of Bradley E. Smith of Lake Milton and Robert H. Shumaker of New Wilmington, Pa., were ravaged by lack of decent food, medical care and exercise. But their minds and honor remained intact through determination, courage, endurance and faith.
They were among the first POWs released as part of the Paris Peace Accords. Called Operation Homecoming, the release began Feb. 12, 1973, and was completed March 29, 1973, when the last of 591 POWs were set free and returned to the United States.
Looking back, Smith and Shumaker said in separate interviews their faith and their Midwest backgrounds were major tools in their POW survival kits.
Smith, a Baptist, said the POWs tried to have Sunday church services using a tapping code through 2-foot-thick concrete walls. “In many cases, prayer for ourselves or others was all that we could do,” he said.
Shumaker, who grew up a United Presbyterian and married a Catholic, said that since the prisoners were held in solitary confinement for many years, religion was a “very isolated and personal thing.”
About two years from the end of confinement, the U.S. military attempted a rescue that changed things.
No POWs were freed, but afterward the Vietnamese took the POWs out of solitary confinement and put them into large cell blocks within the Hoi Lo prison in the middle of Hanoi, which Shumaker had dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.”
“There were 70 in my cell block. We always held Sunday church services, but one Sunday the Vietnamese broke in and hauled off three of the ministers,” Shumaker said. “As they were being led away, the whole camp broke into previously unheard of singing. We loudly sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ Some six weeks later, the trio was returned to our cell block, and someone asked the senior minister, Air Force Lt. Col. James Robinson “Robbie” Risner, how it felt to hear the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ after six years of imprisonment. He said it made him feel like he was nine feet tall,” Shumaker said.
And so today at the Air Force Academy’s quadrangle in Colorado Springs, Colo., there stands a statue of Robbie Risner, cast in bronze, wearing his flight suit and helmet. And it stands exactly 9 feet high, Shumaker said.
Shumaker described how he came to call Hoi Lo Prison the Hanoi Hilton.
“I was confined to a single room and had been there about three months without any contact with fellow Americans,” he said. “The guard would open the wooden door once a day so I could carry my bucket of waste to the bath area some 125 feet away. Peeking through a worm hole in the door one day, I noticed that another American POW would then follow my trip to the bath area. I decided to try to make contact by leaving a note as I left. Using some toilet paper and some reconstituted ink which had dried on the floor, I wrote, ‘Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton; if you get this note scratch your nose when you leave.’ I was overjoyed when, peeking out the hole, I saw Air Force Capt. Ron Storz scratch his nose. Later on, others started referring to the prison by that name. Unfortunately, Ron died while in prison.”
Smith, during the nearly seven years he was a POW, said he was beaten with stones many times and endured fake executions “where they would put you in front of a firing squad and you never knew if they were going to do it or not.”
He said that when he was first captured he was kept in isolation, which he said was as bad as physical torture. He lost 80 pounds the first few months because he was fed wormy bread, garbage and weeds.
“You had to keep your mind active, and keeping in touch with other captives, if only through tapping on the walls and pipes, was crucial,” Smith said.
He said he designed houses in his head, composed poetry, and tried to remember everything he had ever thought about.
“Tough as nails” was how Smith described his day-to-day POW existence.
“When you woke up in the morning, all you had were the rags on your back. You might be in solitary confinement. If injured or sick, there was no medical treatment. The first thing that you had to do was to resolve to live for that day, that you would endure whatever torture and beatings that you might well receive, that you would continue to resist and return home with honor, that you would eat whatever garbage they gave you.
“You would be locked up in a small cell that might be almost freezing cold or 120 degrees with nothing but your own mind to keep you occupied.
“You might be let out for 15 minutes once a week to dump a bucket of water over your head,” he continued. “The toilet facility was a rusty bucket in the corner. In other words, you got really tough in a short time or you died. The thing that kept me going was the thought that I would get out of there one day, that the American people would not let us die there. Our goal was to survive, but to survive with honor,” Smith said.
Both Shumaker and Smith still deal with the effects of their POW experiences.
Smith suffered oral damage from a broken jaw and broken teeth and still has some nerve damage as the result of torture.
For three of the eight years he was a POW, Shumaker said he was in solitary confinement in a 4-by-9-foot concrete cell with no windows and immobilized in leg irons.
His back was broken when he ejected from his plane, which he said still causes some discomfort. During one of his 12 torture sessions, a metal bar was rammed down his throat to keep him from screaming. “That still is bothersome,” he said.
But despite the torturous experience, or perhaps because of it, Shumaker and Smith say they came away uplifted in some ways and able to resume productive lives.
“I learned the power of the human brain,” Shumaker said. “We were able to recall vast amounts of information even though we had no books, paper or pencils. And we shared our knowledge with our fellow prison mates.
“And I learned the friendships I made there are invaluable, and that freedom is the most-precious gift we’ve inherited,” he said.
Smith said he also took a great deal from his POW experience.
“I learned that I could endure even the toughest of times, which has given me great confidence in my life. It made me realize that the material things in life are just that.
“When it really comes down to the things that are important, it is your freedom, your family, your friends and your religion,” Smith said.