- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The first 10 days of my imprisonment were full of new experiences, few of them pleasant. I was appalled by the conditions and frequently shook my head and asked myself: What am I doing here?

The guard urinated in a gutter that ran along the outside door of the cell, so the place stank. Roaches and flies covered the walls and floor and sometimes my body. The food, by American standards, was wretched. My stomach hurt constantly from the snapped tendon, and there was the festering wound on the inside of my thigh where the other end of the tendon had broken through the skin.

I sweltered on the bare concrete bunk, clad only in my underwear. I had no shoes or sandals, and I wasn’t allowed to bathe for the first five days.

Worst of all, I was alone. I longed for the comfort, security and companionship of the Independence, and I worried constantly about the interrogations.

There was one North Vietnamese, however, who gave me a lift from the drab loneliness of my existence. Nursie was a breath of fresh air in a putrid atmosphere. In her early 20s, she was tall for a Vietnamese woman, and quite slender. Best of all, she was gracious, smart and capable. I discovered all this on my second day in prison, when she came to my cell with a female guard and [another] guard to inspect the bandage he had put on my leg. At first I refused to take down my shorts in front of the women. … As soon as Nursie saw the bandage, she looked at [it] in disgust and rolled her eyes. It was much too small and was clumsily applied.

She gently removed it and put on a bigger and much better one.

But the person who really helped to sustain me during those early days was the first American with whom I developed frequent voice contact.

It was on July 21, three days after I was shot down, that I first became aware of another prisoner in a cell near mine. I could hear the guards going in and talking to him. After much effort, I managed to drill four or five small holes in the thin layer of cement covering one of the windows flanking the cell door. Thus, I caught my first glimpse of Air Force Maj. Larry Guarino as he passed my cell.

Soon we were in voice communication. The huge wall and the side of the cell block made a nice channel for our voices as we called out to each other through the barred windows. He told me he had ejected from his F105 a few weeks before and was in irons.

I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that the Vietnamese would put an American prisoner in irons. What I heard next was even more shocking.

“Jerry, I’m in bad shape,” he said in a weak voice. “They are giving me almost nothing to eat. I’m down to a hundred pounds, and I haven’t [defecated] in 26 days. I don’t remember how long I’ve been in irons, but it’s been weeks. I don’t know whether I can make it.”

Elation at talking to a fellow American turned to horror. I was even a little conscience-stricken because the Vietnamese had done no more than push me around on the way to interrogation. I asked him why he was in irons. “I think it was because I was impolite at one of the quizzes,” he answered.

“I lost my temper and spilled a cup of tea all over the table. I was only giving them name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. They threatened me about that, but didn’t do anything until I spilled the tea. Guess they thought I was being rude.”

I didn’t come face to face with the cocky, emotional Italian until 1970, five years later, but I came to love him like a brother during the brief period we were communicating.

The quizzes continued twice a day, but Larry said it had been his experience that they would become less frequent. He doubted that I would be harmed, even if I was uncooperative, so long as I was “polite.” The interrogators we called Owl and Eagle were still asking questions that I refused to answer, but I was making an effort to be polite, even engaging them in arguments about the war that became quite heated at times.

Larry also told me about some prisoners in a cell bordering the small courtyard of New Guy Village, which he had passed on the way to the bath. They were Lt. Cmdr. Bob Shumaker, Lt. Cmdr. Ray Vohden, Capt. Smitty Harris, and Lt. Phil Butler. At various times, there were one or two others. They were always making a lot of noise, Maj. Guarino said, singing and laughing, and he was suspicious of them because the Vietnamese indicated to him that they were cooperating.

Cmdr. Shumaker had tried to get Maj. Guarino’s attention as he went past, but Larry had snubbed him.

I suspected the situation was not all that it seemed. One of the guards had let me see a basket of goodies, including cigarettes and candy kisses, and indicated he was delivering it to their room. And at a quiz, the scholarly interrogator called Owl insinuated that the men in Cmdr. Shumaker’s cell had a “good attitude” and thus received better treatment.

Later my suspicions were confirmed when I learned that the Vietnamese were playing off Cmdr. Shumaker and his cell mates against Maj. Guarino and me by pretending to give them special treatment.

It was all quite boring, until they began to make threats. I didn’t like the way things were going. As my wound healed and I gained strength, I was beginning to get a little cocky and felt that they were bluffing, but there was just enough edge in their voices to make me a little uncertain.

I decided to test them. When the interrogator we nicknamed Eagle threatened me again with “disposal,” as he kept putting it, I stiffened my resistance. Sitting as straight as I could, I half-shouted at them: “Are you daring to make threats against my life in contravention of the Geneva Conventions?”

Surprisingly, they withdrew in confusion to a corner of the room to talk things over, then abruptly dismissed me. Even though these sessions were terribly drab (I was constantly suppressing a yawn) they were potentially dangerous nonetheless. You never knew what turn they might take, and the sound of the guard at the door at an odd hour would always bring a feeling of dread.

The above are excerpts from Chapter 5 of retired U.S. Navy Adm. Jeremiah A. Denton’s book “When Hell Was in Session” (WND Books, republished 2009).

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