Navy pilot says seven years as POW in Vietnam was positive experience which made him better
Flying just 50 feet above ground at over 500 miles per hour, the Navy pilot had just dropped his bombs on a power plant in North Vietnam when he was hit in the cockpit by small arms fire. One round lodged in his neck and another ignited the oxygen in his mask, temporarily blinding him. Though his chances of survival were near zero, he ejected and landed safely but doesn’t remember his parachute ever opening.
Capt. Ray Alcorn, USN (Ret.) told the Washington Rotary Club the incredible story of his capture, imprisonment, and eventual release after spending 2,610 days in what was called the “Hanoi Hilton.” The guest of Lt. Col. Bob Johnston, USA (Ret.), Alcorn is the recipient of two Silver Stars for Valor, the Navy Legion of Merit for Valor, and the Air Medal.
Aboard the USS Enterprise in 1965, he said, his world was ordered, structured, familiar, and predictable. In December of that year, orders came from the Pentagon to hit a power plant even though the weather was bad for flying and visibility was low. The Pentagon insisted because, according to Alcorn, it was important to get a report of the strike on the six o’clock news that day. So the A4 aircraft took off and flew under a 400-ft. ceiling to carry out their mission despite the adverse conditions.
“In a split second, everything in my life changed,” the captain related. “Everything looked different, it smelled different, the people spoke a different language, and there was absolutely nothing in my life that was the same.”
Alcorn had landed only about a half mile from his target and upon his capture, his flight suit was cut open and a young boy about 12 was given a rifle with a bayonette and told to hold it to the the pilot’s chest. Sometime later, Alcorn said he saw a picture of that moment published in a newspaper. The caption under the picture translated something like “Young boy captures enemy pilot.”
“That was North Vietnamese propaganda at work,” Alcorn said, “and I was labeled the blackest criminal in North Vietnam.” He explained that they told him he was not a prisoner of war but a criminal because it was illegal to bomb a power plant.
The night of his capture, Alcorn was taken to H.a Lò Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, and later as “Little Vegas.” It was build in the 1800s. He was placed in a “purely stark cell” in a section with thick wooden doors and ugly rusty hinges. There was lots of solitary confinement, sometimes for months at a time, and the time spent there was characterized by hours and hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror.
The temperature felt like 110 degrees day and night in the summertime. There were gray walls, no windows, and a raised concrete portion of the cell that served as a sort of bed. On the end of that bed was an iron thing that lifted up – “leg irons, which sometimes you were hooked down into – and that was just about all that we had,” Alcorn said.
“The biggest problem was in keeping your mind occupied in order to keep yourself sane,” Alcorn said. “Sometimes you could live in a kind of dream world where you could be the most handsome, the best skier, have the hottest women, or have the best life possible. We would even build houses in our minds.”
Eventually, the prisoners developed a system of communication with each other by tapping on the walls of their cells. They organized classes and those who knew anything about anything taught the others. Some, he said, even learned new languages well enough to exempt college classes when they returned to the states. They even “told” movies to each other and Alcorn said they must have been “made for TV” movies because they included advertisements, “and you can imagine what kinds of advertisements a bunch of guys 25-35 in solitary confinement could dream up! We had some great products!”
After some years, a few of the prisoners were allowed to send and receive mail. As they began to receive photographs, they noticed that wives, girlfriends, and other women were wearing very short skirts. They didn’t quite know what to make of that and wondered if it was some kind of special outfit for the pictures. Through the tap system, even though it could take a month, the older prisoners eventually learned from the younger, newer prisoners that “miniskirts” had become all the rage and were worn by women all over the country.
“In a person’s lifetime,” Alcorn said, “there’s a good likelihood that two or maybe three things will happen that will go down in history. While I was in North Vietnam, we had a man to land on the moon and I missed it ... and I missed miniskirts.”
In 1972, the prisoners were taken outside to hear the announcement of the end of the conflict and the release of the prisoners. About two weeks later they were given clothes and shoes and were lifted out of Hanoi and taken to Clark Air Force Base in the Phillipines where they enjoyed a breakfast of steak and eggs.
Alcorn returned to flight school and eventually left the Navy after a 30-year career.
“What happened to me was a very important part of my life,” he said. “It changed my life and I even consider it a positive in my life. I think I am a better person because of it.”