** HEROES **
“I Venture to suggest that patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime!”
Daniel Webster defines:
one renowned for exceptional courage and fortitude; a champion; an idol
A thesaurus goes a little further when it says:
valiant; brave; gallant
I like to think of a “hero” as one to whom I can look up.
It is said that there are no heroes left in the world. In all due respect to the cynics and the pessimists of the day, I only have only one thing to say: open your eyes!
Today, I would like to introduce you to a “real life hero.” To make this introduction, it will be necessary to go back a few years to the late 1960’s. The place is Southeast Asia, and the man is one Lieutenant/Colonel, United States Navy, Robinson “Robbie” Risner. Shot down during a mission over Vietnam, Colonel Risner is taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese, and placed in a cell in downtown Hanoi. As he parades down the street as a prize for the patriots to see and jeer at, he is struck in the head by rocks, lashed out at with sticks, and he was spat upon. At the end of the procession, Colonel Risner arrived at what was to be his home for the next five, grueling years. He had all of the comforts home: a bed to sleep in, meals, and medical care. Well, not exactly the way we think of home, however.
His bed consisted of a concrete slab with a one-half inch bamboo mat for a mattress. The stocks on one end of the mat are used regularly. Every night, to be exact! His meals consisted mainly a soup made from a boiled pumpkin type vegetable called manyok, with only the liquid portion given to him, most times, only once a day! He estimates, in The Passing of the Night, his account of his time while in prison, the amount of each feeding at 8-12 ounces of this delicious gourmet’s delight. His medical care: making sure he did not “expire” while going through the torture inflicted by his captors. If he died, there would be heck to pay! He was a bargaining tool as a prisoner, worth absolutely nothing dead! His body would have simply disappeared.
He was released with most of our prisoners. I say most because documentation exists showing photos of American POW’s spotted even as late as last year “in country”, as they say. He came home with a severe limp, and unending pain due to an untreated broken left leg suffered when he ejected from his F-4 Phantom jet, and multiple other fractures from the beatings he received. His injuries are too many to count.
He is a Hero! There is no cape on his back, and to tell you the truth, if he had his way, there would be no special recognition. During his five years in captivity at the “Hanoi Hilton,” as they so affectionately referred to it, ropes are used, and his arms tied behind him at the elbows. He is then yanked from the floor. The pain from the dislocated shoulders was gruesome to say the least . . .the very least. Jumper cables are attached to his body sending its electric currents through him, as he was still elevated. Just before going unconscious due to the pain, he was plunged to the floor, only to be taken back to that apex of pain again and again in a single session. Day in and day out, this was all that he had to look forward to as he lay on that concrete slab with his legs bleeding, locked in stocks, and a world away from anyone who loved him; anyone that is except One above! He related in his book that in one time span he lay in his own excrement for 30 days with the stocks holding him firmly in place. The dignity of cleaning himself is even denied.
He could not help but hear the cries of other men every day as they endured equal, or worse, torture. He knew these men’s names only by the tapping of Morse code through the cement walls of his cell. It was to one, and only one, Individual that he could go for serenity, quiescence, and peace; One from whom he got the inspiration to persevere: his God! Through the careful tap. . .tap. . . tapping, when his mind was clear enough to converse, he and the other prisoners would relay Bible verses they had learned as children. They are used now as their only means of inspiration and encouragement. One man’s memory may only yield “I will look to the hills. . .” and another might conclude it with the only portion he remembered, “. . .from whence comes my strength.”
Or, as in I’m No Hero, the autobiographical account of his experiences at the hands, once again, of the North Vietnamese, Lieutenant/Commander Joseph “Charlie” Plumb tells of his almost six years in captivity. I was amazed as I read of what tortures he, and the other prisoners endured. The fatuous view of many is that “If you see one story, you’ve seen them all!” What an asinine statement that would be. I have sat and read many accounts of those six or seven years by many of MY heroes. Each one holds another pristine revelation of the times that every one of them viewed as adverse, difficult, torturous . . . one could choose any other of a thousand more adjectives, and never even come close to scratching the surface. Yet, through all of the hours, months, years. . . of difficulty, EVERY one of them, in the end, however reluctant their minds and bodies were, eventually admitted that their time being interrogated by “The Rat”, “Dum Dum”, “Sweetpea”, or “Slug” in whichever prison they ended up, be it the “Hanoi Hilton,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Little Vegas,” or any other, was extremely beneficial to their character. Colonel Plumb had such a well developed resolve through all of the pain and suffering that for the last two years of his captivity he was the chaplain for his group of men who needed encouragement more than anyone on the face of the earth!
Lieutenant/Colonel Richard A. Stratton, United States Navy, in his chronicle, Prisoner At War, was able to give a reason for something that went from the back pages of some off-beat, underground newspaper in 1954, when the United States began aiding South Vietnam, to the headlines even of this day, 43 years later, of the New York Times and the covers of Time, Newsweek, etc. On the last page of his gripping account, he is asked “Why?” Why our involvement in Vietnam? He said, “I am a pilot! I’m a professional!” Let’s not stop there, though, unless we’re ready to stop at “We the people. . . He went a bit further to explain his own, personal mind-set. He said, “I have used the simile before: if a doctor gets a certain vicarious pleasure out of cutting people open, he is sick!” “Then, why do you do it?” was the next logical question. “Because I do not think,” he said finally, “war should be left to the war lovers!” Point taken! There’s a thing called HONOR involved. We must honor the commitments that our country has agreed to with another that is fighting for their very freedom.
On another hand, what of Eugene B. McDaniel, Captain United States Navy, in his narrative, Before Honor. . .? Is this just another war torn, torture driven man writing of a distant truth? Absolutely not! The title he chose for his narrative is from the book of Proverbs. It reads in chapter 18, verse 12: “. . . before honor is humility.”
For more than six years, Captain McDaniel, “Red” to his friends, risked everything in order to maintain the lines of communication between the men. There were many avenues for talk to take. One was the incessant tapping codes used. His Vietnamese captors were not idiots. They had studied long and hard to get to their individual positions. One of the things learned was Morse code. In order to use tapping without being detected, the code would have to be made unique from its customary form. For instance, the letter “K” was forbidden at one time, so instead of “K”, the code would be first row, third letter. This slot was normally occupied by “C”, but somehow, a group of men starving, in pain, with nothing but a sense of patriotism, duty. . .and love for God nudging them on, made sense of the changes, and relayed the names of not only themselves, and their roommates, if they were fortunate enough to not be in solitary, but also those of any new men arriving along the chain. About the time they got one code down, the enemy deciphered it. Now, without aid of any verbal means, a new method would have to be invented. No sounds could be present except those of the man who was discovered using the old code as he screamed out in pain as his body was literally pulled to its very limits!
Another method of communications used was by written notes left in the strangest places; places like the rock wall behind the fifth brick from the right two spaces down, or the piece of paper under the daily refuse bucket bonded there by a speck of toothpaste. When they are caught, and make no mistake, they are usually caught, the “ropes” are always ready in Room #8. Even the sound- proofing could not hide the cries of agony.
But for my own faith in God, it is beyond me where hope came from. During the hours upon hours of isolation in total darkness, Red, a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church, said, “I felt God’s presence in my prison cell. He gave me the strength and courage to survive.” In fact, he says the suffering made it possible for his faith to be made stronger. He was strong because of God, and his family in the United States, a wife and three children, were made strong by the same faith, and, by the same God. I will never forget the picture of his reunion. Only two days after release from a living hell of over six years, he was somehow able to wrap those stinging, throbbing arms around Dorothy and the kids and convey the love still “sound as a dollar” in his heart. It lasted, folks!
They are HEROES! Although the torture was terribly severe, Colonel Risner never allowed hatred to enter his most sacred of sites. . . his heart.
They are HEROES! The things that many of us take for granted, Commander Stratton served for, and he suffered for. . . , he survived for!
Yeah, they are HEROES! They spent years in a confinement that would warp our very imagination, so that we, in protest, would have some of the most damnedable rights . . . even that to burn the flag of the country that those men loved so very dearly.
They are HEROES! Commander Plumb fought, and suffered so that we as Americans could go on any given day, be it Friday to the mosque, Saturday to synagogue, Sunday to church, or possibly not go, as atheists. Freedom of religion! Only one of many!
When they were released in 1975, it wasn’t until their particular C-141 military aircraft crossed into international air space that these men, and all of the others, over 100 on the initial flight out of North Vietnam, with tears streaming down their faces, lifted their voices and murmured words of thanks similar to those that Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted so often from that old, Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, We Are Free At Last! As Colonel Risner hobbled down the steps from the plane, and reached the ground in the Philippines, pain was still gripping his every moment, but he was oblivious of it. His fist was not shoved into the air in defiance. He did not offer a CBS news crew a condemning declaration for his President, Richard Nixon, or a criticism of his country. He turned with pride, as every man did at the bottom of those steps, and saluted a fellow officer with tears in his eyes. Colonel Risner looked, and saw his family running to him, and with those conspicuously deformed arms, those arms pulled from their very sockets by those “ropes”, gave and received the biggest hug in history, there on the tarmac of the air base.
After arriving in the United States, as his day lengthened, the crowd never left. Outside the doors of a hanger, still exuberant from joy, Colonel Stratton walked, no, ran even skipping at times, to the edge of the crowd to greet more of these free people. He reached for the hand of a man in a wheelchair, William McNair, and after a greeting was given yet another “POW bracelet” to accompany the ones already present. This man had worn a bracelet as a means of telling the world that he had not forgotten. After a few more hands were shaken, a Navy officer had to usher Colonel Stratton on to another crowd, another group of Navel and Marine brass, reporters, cameramen, and. . . Alice and the children. Richard Stratton was officially home from the war.
To this day, Lieutenant/Colonel Risner looks back at those years in that prison in downtown Hanoi a little differently than you or I could ever possibly see them. He doesn’t see an enemy wearing black “pajama” style uniforms, or a cruel nemesis who was the source of so much pain and suffering, he sees a people in need of what he had always had, what he has, and, God willing, what he will always have: Freedom!
Heroes are still around! We just have to open our eyes a bit to see them!
“Death before dishonor?” Darned right!