What it was really like at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’

Vanloanjack
        Jack Van Loan in 2006.

By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
ON MAY 20, 1967, Air Force pilot Jack Van Loan was shot down over North Vietnam. His parachute carried him to Earth well enough, but he landed all wrong.
    “I hit the ground, and I slid, and I hit a tree,” he said. This provided an opportunity for his captors at the prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
    “My knee was kind of screwed up and they … any time they found you with some problems, then they would, they would bear down on the problems,” he said. “I mean, they worked on my knee pretty good … and, you know, just torturing me.”
    In October of Jack’s first year in Hanoi, a new prisoner came in, a naval aviator named John McCain. He was in really bad shape. He had ejected over Hanoi, and had landed in a lake right in the middle of the city. He suffered two broken arms and a broken leg ejecting. He nearly drowned in the lake before a mob pulled him out, and then set upon him. They spat on him, kicked him and stripped his clothes off. Then they crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt, and bayoneted him in his left foot and his groin.
    That gave the enemy something to “bear down on.” Lt. Cmdr. McCain would be strung up tight by his unhealed arms, hog-tied and left that way for the night.
    “John was no different than anyone else, except that he was so badly hurt,” said Jack. “He was really badly, badly hurt.”
    Jack and I got to talking about all this when he called me Wednesday morning, outraged over a story that had appeared in that morning’s paper, headlined “McCain’s war record attacked.” A flier put out by an anti-McCain group was claiming the candidate had given up military information in return for medical treatment as a POW in Vietnam.
    This was the kind of thing the McCain campaign had been watching out for. The Arizona senator came into South Carolina off a New Hampshire win back in 2000, but lost to George W. Bush after voters received anonymous phone calls telling particularly nasty lies about his private life. So the campaign has been on hair-trigger alert in these last days before the 2008 primary on Saturday.
    Jack, a retired colonel whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing for more than a decade, believes his old comrade would make the best president “because of all the stressful situations that he’s been under, and the way he’s responded.” But he had called me about something more important than that. It was a matter of honor.
    Jack was incredulous: “To say that John would ask for medical treatment in return for military information is just preposterous. He turned down an opportunity to go home early, and that was right in front of all of us.”
    “I mean, he was yelling it. I couldn’t repeat the language he used, and I wouldn’t repeat the language he used, but boy, it was really something. I turned to my cellmate … who heard it all also loud and clear; I said, ‘My God, they’re gonna kill him for that.’”
    The North Vietnamese by this time had stopped the torture — even taken McCain to the hospital, which almost certainly saved his life — and now they wanted just one thing: They wanted him to agree to go home, ahead of other prisoners. They saw in him an opportunity for a propaganda coup, because of something they’d figured out about him.
    “They found out rather quick that John’s father was (Admiral) John Sidney McCain II,” who was soon to be named commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Jack said. “And they came in and said, ‘Your father big man, and blah-blah-blah,’ and John gave ’em name, rank and serial number and date of birth.”
    But McCain refused to accept early release, and Jack says he never acknowledged that his Dad was CINCPAC.
    Jack tries hard to help people who weren’t there understand what it was like. He gave a speech right after he finally was freed and went home. His father, a community college president in Oregon and “a consummate public speaker,” told him “That was the best talk I’ve ever heard you give.”
    But, his father added: “‘They didn’t believe you.’
    “It just stopped me cold. ‘What do you mean, they didn’t believe me?’ He said, ‘They didn’t understand what you were talking about; you’ve got to learn to relate to them.’”
    “And I’ve worked hard on that,” he told me. “But it’s hard as hell…. You might be talking to an audience of two or three hundred people; there might be one or two guys that spent a night in a drunk tank. Trying to tell ‘em what solitary confinement is all about, most people … they don’t even relate to it.”
    Jack went home in the second large group of POWs to be freed in connection with the Paris Peace Talks, on March 4, 1973. “I was in for 70 months. Seven-zero — seventy months.” Doctors told him that if he lived long enough, he’d have trouble with that knee. He eventually got orthoscopic surgery right here in Columbia, where he is an active community leader — the current president of the Columbia Rotary.
    John McCain, who to this day is unable to raise his hands above his head — an aide has to comb his hair for him before campaign appearances — was released in the third group. He could have gone home long, long before that, but he wasn’t going to let his country or his comrades down.
    The reason Jack called me Wednesday was to make sure I knew that.

20 thoughts on “What it was really like at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’

  1. Karen McLeod

    No one in his/her right mind would question Senator McCain’s bravery, or his ability to outstubborn a mule, if necessary. While I’ll be the first to admit, that it bothered me to see him back Bush, I realize that he isn’t the only one that got burned that way. Colin Powell got burned, too. Mr. Bush used, and ultimately abused, their loyalty to party and country. I can hope that Senator McCain has learned from that lesson, and is more wary in the future about being loyal to potentially unworthy causes or persons. If he and Senator Obama are nominated, we will be blessed with a choice between two of the best, instead of 2 of the worst, as we have for so many years.

    Reply
  2. Mike Bailey

    I was a young man when the POW’s came home, my step father was retired Air Force and I was in March Air Force Base Hospital having surgery when they brought in the first of the POWs, there were so many of them they had beds in the hallways, you never seen such a happy group of scarecrows, they wanted steaks, banana splits, baked potatoes, french fries etc, doctors were saying no, that their digestive systems were messed up soft diets only, I remember the Base Commander tell the doctors he didn’t care about their diet ideas, if a POW wanted it, get it, if they had to drive to Safeway and buy it and cook it themselves, he wanted all those men to have whatever they wanted and the doctors could start worrying about diets tomorrow. They are all hero’s and for anyone to say anything wrong about any of them is just despicable. Yes, I joined the Army after that and spent 15 years on active duty, I am 100% disabled Army veteran. I can’t believe any American let alone a veteran could talk bad about a war hero.

    Reply
  • James D McCallister

    Thanks from me too, Brad. I’ve known Col. Van Loan about as long as you, and I’m pleased to say that I am working with him this year on getting his memoir put together.
    After interviewing him for about 5 hours last summer for a proposed feature article, I realized that there is a book in this story of perserverance, bravery, and faith, and he agreed to letting me drive the effort to get his story down on paper. Everyone wish us luck on this project…

    Reply
  • Steve Gordy

    As the son and nephew of World War II POWs, I tend to react personally when any purveyor of whack-jobs spouts off about how others reacted or may have reacted. Tell it like it is, Col. Van Loan!

    Reply
  • Wayman Stanley

    Thanks to your article I may be able to finaly talk to someone who was at the Hanoi Hilton at the same time as my nephew. Jack Walters plane was shot down over Hanoi the day before Mr. Van Loan became a prisoner. My family was kept in the dark about him until after the war five years later when we were told he died in The Hilton. Tks.

    Reply
  • Jessie Edwards

    I was in high school in the early 70’s and I wore a POW braclet with Col Jack Van Loan’s name on it, I remember seeing him on the news when he was released, I was so happy to see your article and know that he is still with us.

    Reply
  • Tom Thornton

    I also wore a POW bracket with Lt.Col Jack Van Loan in the 70’s and prayed that he would come home safe.
    Thank the good lord he did.
    I still have that braclet and would like to some day give it to him.

    Reply
  • Richard Rippy

    I was going thru some old stuff I have from a long time ago and came across a pow braclet with Jack Van Loans name on it. Very happy to see he made it back–Best wishes to him.

    Reply
  • Mark J Saslawsky

    I also wore a POW bracelet during my sophmore year of high school. We did it to show our support of those downed airmen and captured soldiers of the Vietnam war. My bracelet was made of copper and left my wrist discolored. I never took it off until my sister who was home from school with the flu, saw Lt. Col. Jack Van Loan on TV as he set foot on a US runway after his release. Thank you for your column and the above information of my personal hero.

    Reply
  • Barry Phillips

    I met Colonel Van Loan while he was the Wing Commander at the 507th Wing at Shaw AFB, SC. He needed a volunteer to help load bags onto an aging C131 (sent from the 105th Tactical Air Support Group in White Plains NY to fetch our inspection team.) He climbed into the cargo hold and I handed him the team’s luggage stored in the pickup truck; rather unusual behavior for a man of his rank and position. He showed sincere interest in my future, and met with me several times to encourage me to continue my education. Before I retired from the USAF I finished my Master’s Degree in Information Systems Management, and mentioned Col Van Loan’s encouragement during the a small, private graduation ceremony held with my TDY team in Korea. I am now the director of an international non-profit based in the Philippines and try to lead by example – a trait exemplified by Col. Van Loan.

    Reply
  • Kevin D. Dziura

    Dear Col. Van Loan:
    I wore your POW bracelet during my later elementary school years and still have it (packed in storage). This is the first time I have discovered you are well. It would give me great pleasure to return it to you. Can you please e-mail me at your convenience? You are a true American hero.
    Cordially,
    Kevin D. Dziura dziurak@aol.com

    Reply
  • Michele Walker

    I tried a few years ago to google information on Jack Van Loan to no avail. This morning I was perusing my desk drawer and saw the POW bracelet – decided to try again. I acquired my bracelet in elementary school as well while my father was stationed at Ft. Jackson, SC. I was so happy to find your article and to know that Jack Van Loan came home safely. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Cathy Mabb

    I too wore a copper bracelet with Jack’s name on it (I still have it)and didn’t take it off until the day I happened to be watching the television and saw him step off of a plane upon release. I was so overwhelmed with emotion and am so glad to hear that he is well.

    Reply
  • Jill Kepler

    I also wore the POW bracelet for Lt. Col. Jack Van Loan. I wore it for a couple of years during Jr. High and into High School. I still remember that my mom let me stay home from school to see the Colonel step off that plane onto friendly ground. I took the bracelet off that day. I was pleased to be able to return it to the Colonel in mid 80’s.
    Being the daughter of a WWII vet (Army Air Corp) and the wife of a VietNam vet (Marines), I am thankful for those who serve!

    Reply
  • Liz Koeppel

    I also wore Lt Col VanLoan’s POW bracelet in grade school/jr high…was reminded of that today when a patient of mine was wearing the bracelet of his brother who never returned… What a hero you are Lt Col Van Loan!!!

    Reply
  • Peg Pedone

    Col. Van Loan, I too wore your POW bracelet and still have it. Glad I finally discover what happened to you and most of all, to know you survived. A huge thank you to you for what you did and what you went through. If you see this and if you want the bracelet I’d be honored to send it to you.

    Reply
  • Kelley (Moore) Reid

    I so hope Col. Van Loan can see this. He has no clue what an impression he left upon me as a small girl, and later when I wore the copper bracelet with his name. I realize I am writing years and years after this article was written, but I have never forgotten you. My name is Kelley Moore. My dad Col. Rolland Moore and you left for Viet Nam at the same time and your family and mine stayed at the same apartment complex in Arizona while our dads were gone. You had three boys, and we were three girls. Your wife had gorgeous blond hair and I can remember her and my mother supporting eachother alone without their husbands-they took karate lessons together-still remember that. When our dad came home and you didn’t, the guilt was palpable. We felt so terrible for your family. I wore your copper bracelet for years. When the tv showed your group coming off the airplane in the US, I cried. I didn’t recognize you but I did your name.
    Thank you for your service and I am so happy to read about you.

    Reply
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