By Amy PerryMay 12, 2016
FORT LEE, Va. (May 12, 2016) -- Senior leaders and NCOs from the 59th Ordnance Brigade attended a leader professional development session featuring Vietnam prisoner of war retired Air Force Lt. Col. Barry Bridger during a session Tuesday at Ball Auditorium on the Ordnance Campus.
Bridger -- who was interred Jan. 23, 1967, to March 4, 1973 -- was an F-4 Phantom fighter pilot in the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron when his aircraft was shot down during his first daytime mission with the unit that typically only performed night missions.
During much of the session, Bridger shared stories from the camps but little about his personal experience, preferring to provide an overview of the camp experience and discuss how and why the Americans were faced with such brutality from the North Vietnamese government.
"Words cannot be assembled that capture in full measure the horror of war -- the pain, the scars and the sacrifice -- and it begs the question why?" asked Bridger. "How have American veterans always been able to endure the crucible of war and return with honor?
"I believe the answer lies in what we Americans value about life and about living," he continued. "The American Vietnam prisoner of war experience, therefore, is not a story about the plight of American POWs surviving in prison camps in Southeast Asia nearly so much as it is a revelation about the power of traditional American values."
Love of liberty is the most cherished American value, said Bridger, and these ideals brought America into the Vietnam conflict.
"From the day our feet touched the soil of North Vietnam, the government of that land declared all of us as war criminals and summarily dismissed the benefits of the Geneva Convention that we were entitled to as uniformed armed combatants," he said. "It was easy for a nation that was a signatory to the 1954 Geneva Convention which prescribed the proper treatment of prisoners of war. They not only dismissed the benefits of American warriors but also did so throughout the duration of the conflict."
Within the POW timeline in Vietnam, Bridger focused on: 1964-1965 imprisonment; 1965-1967 emotional exploitation; 1967-1970, programmed exploitation; and 1970-1973, live and let live.
In the early years of the war, Bridger said the North Vietnamese government did not believe America was serious about its involvement in the conflict, and while POWs were imprisoned, they were not tortured, but things rapidly changed.
"In 1965, we entered into a period we described as an emotional exploitation of America's prisoners of war," he said. "It was a sudden, immature, emotional outburst on the part of the government of North Vietnam to involve us in their propaganda campaign to discredit the involvement of the United States in that region of the world.
"By that time, (the government) became convinced the United States was serious about their commitment to Southeast Asia," Bridger continued. "We weren't going to pack and go home. They reasoned it was high time that the American POWs helped pay the 'rent.' They wanted to know our military secrets. They wanted to use us for propaganda. They wanted us to 'repent our crimes.' We called this latter objective, the repentance objective and it consisted of a systematic and continuous process of abuse and torture that lasted for years."
They kicked off this period of emotional exploitation with the Hanoi march, where many of the POWs were paraded through the city.
"This march was held by the government of North Vietnam an attempt to capture world public opinion to their side. But the march actually signaled the contempt of the North Vietnamese government for international law by illegally marching American prisoners of war through their streets subjecting them to injury and possibly death. It also ominously signaled their intent to use American POWs as a potentially new and powerful tool to develop propaganda to discredit the involvement of the United States in Southeast Asia."
In later years of the conflict -- particularly 1967-1970 -- the North Vietnamese began a programmed exploitation of the POWs, where they attempted to reeducate the POWs, break the POWs' will to resist and find the weak Americans.
"The reeducation consisted of bombarding us with anti-war broadcasts, showering us with anti-war literature, showing anti-war movies and reading anti-war letters from two groups of Americans -- Hollywood celebrities and politicians," he said. "You can appreciate that not all of us were handling the trials and tribulations of POW life precisely the same. Some of us were walking on the thin line of sanity. The camp authority read these letters over the camp radio systems in an attempt to push those Americans who were having the greatest difficulty coping over the brink, causing them to become unwitting tools of Hanoi's propaganda machine and in the process, destroying their sense of self esteem.
"For the vast majority of us, this reeducation effort was a joke," Bridger continued. "The North Vietnamese camp authority -- for two years -- put intense effort into it but it fell flat on its face for lack of sophistication."
Additionally, they removed all of the senior leaders and moved them to a different camp the POWs called Alcatraz.
"They systematically and brutally tortured every leader we had until they wrote a confession," Bridger said. "One-by-one, they read all of these confessions over the camp radio for everyone elses' benefit in an attempt to demoralize the junior officers and NCOs. We ignored this. We knew how it went down."
From 1970-1973, the POWs experienced a period referred to as "live and let live." In the summer of 1969, the international American Red Cross condemned the government for its mistreatment of American POWs. In the fall of 1969, the leader of North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh died.
"American Vietnam prisoners of war would agree that the cross we had to bear was Ho," he said. "He was a vindictive, miserable old man who could not take it out on Uncle Sam, so he took it out on America's prisoners of war."
Another major aspect of this time period was a massive letter-writing campaign conducted by tens of millions of Americans and well-wishers that put the North Vietnamese government on notice that civilized society was aware of their inhumanity and they had enough of it. The change was dramatic, said Bridger, but they still didn't follow the Geneva Convention guidelines, the Red Cross still was not allowed to visit the prisoners and men went blind from lack of vitamins.
After the peace agreement was signed, and the prisoners of war were told of it, Bridger said the North Vietnamese acted like they wanted bygones to be bygones, yet the POWs ignored this, went into their rooms and waited for their freedom. At the time, the camp authority began to recognize the senior leaders.
"The chief interrogator invited Col. Robbie Risner -- later a living legend and Air Force brigadier general, now deceased and never forgotten -- and he said to Risner 'you must tell us, what are you going to tell the American people when you go home?'" Bridger said. "Colonel Risner responded 'well, I'll tell you what we're going to do. We'll do something for you and your government -- something you have never done for America's prisoners of war -- we will tell the truth. Nothing more, nothing less. You can count on us to tell the truth.'"
During the question and answer period, Bridger said a question he often encounters is military members asking what they would do under the pressure of the Hanoi Hilton.
"When I get that question, I smile and say 'it has nothing to do with you,'" he said. "I get a funny look from them and they reply that 'it must have everything to do with me.'
"No -- your conduct has been predetermined by the values you brought to the fight," he told the audience. "You don't arrive in great hell and then make up a value system. You have one. It's what you carry in that is going to determine how you act. If you enter into a period of great tribulation in your life, and it's you're inclined to focus on your sorry self, you're very likely to come out even more self-centered. But if you enter into a period of great travail focused on ideas that are more meaningful, more lasting, and ultimately more human -- ideals like fate, family, friends, service to others and doing those things you cherish that are truly worth remembering -- then you're very likely to come deeper, more profound commitment to those enduring life principles."