Wallie Newcomb (center) with his war buddies in this 1973 photo. All had been POWs in Vietnam, and all were at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio for the 'Champagne Flights,' their first time in the air since capture years before. Newcomb was accompanied by flight instructor Jack Rodgers (standing, partly obscured), who ensured that Newcomb managed the aircraft properly.
(center) with his
war buddies in this 1973 photo.
If there was a single common preoccupation, says Wallie Newcomb
, it was this: No one could imagine how, or when, it would end.
The prisoners had only one another and a shared motto: Return with honor.
Preparing for prison
This is the story of Wallie Newcomb
and a couple of his
pals, of what it was like for them to survive as prisoners of war in North Vietnam, an experience that dragged on longer than anyone could have imagined.
Newcomb, now 68 and living in Charleston, got on with his life after the war, becoming a corporate pilot and shift manager at Corning Inc., the glass and ceramics manufacturer in New York state, returning to school to earn a Master of Business Administration, marrying and raising a family.
Born in Easton, Pa., and raised in Painted Post, N.Y., he attended the University of Michigan, where he joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
was commissioned in August 1963, the same day he
graduated, and soon left for pilot training school in Selma, Ala.
After flight school came three weeks of survival school at Stead Air Force Base near Reno, Nev.
The simulated POW camp was based on the Korean War model of internment.
Trainees had to squeeze into the "black box" while role-playing guards screamed at them and played recordings of crying children.
didn't really mind it.
small stature made it easy to slip into the tiny space.
was off to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas for gunnery school.
learned to fly missions in the F105 Thunderchief.
From Nevada, he
was stationed at Spangdahlem Air Force Base
in Germany, where he
spent most of 1966 on alert as one of several pilots ready to take off at a moment's notice in a plane loaded with nuclear weapons.
In 1964, the war was cranking up.
By January 1967, Newcomb
was on his
way to Korat, Thailand, stopping on the way for a week of jungle survival training in the Philippines.
He was a lieutenant in the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing and spent about six months bombing targets in North Vietnam.
was shot down at 7 a.m. Aug. 3, bailed out and landed with a thump in a hilly area populated by an ethnic minority group.
might have escaped but for a broken leg.
might have fashioned a crutch with bamboo and made his
way to the forest a couple of hundred yards away, he
could have climbed a tree and perched for a while.
knew a U.S. helicopter was tracking him; he
had an emergency locator in his
Instead, excited villagers, some armed with rusty weapons and half-trained in capture procedures, converged on Newcomb
and started beating him.
When they realized he
couldn't walk, they made a stretcher and carried him all day to a little building along a dirt road where, a full 12 hours after he
fell from the sky, North Vietnamese soldiers in uniform arrived to take command.
"They pulled things from my survival kit and gave them to the people as payment," Newcomb
The Army knife was especially desirable.
Blindfolded and thrown in the back of a Jeep, Newcomb
then continued the journey, keeping track of his
location, more or less, through the careful use of his
knew when they were near the northeast railroad, and when they reached the Red River.
As they approached Hanoi, he
heard the sounds of the city â€" street cars, open markets.
The Jeep stopped.
Soldiers talked among themselves.
was led into the "knobby-walled room," part of "New Guy Village."
Globs of mortar adhered to the walls.
sat on a stool at first.
There was a little table with flowers before him.
An officer who spoke English entered the room.
Two armed soldiers loomed threateningly behind Newcomb
"It's quite nicely orchestrated to be intimidating," he
"It all works well from the standpoint of the Vietnamese.
Everyone has a different breaking point, Newcomb
When a San Diego paper printed a story about how Clark Kent and Peter Parker refused to fly missions, the pilot who "confessed" to his captors was badly beaten when they discovered the ruse, Newcomb
At the end of his
10-day interrogation, the Vietnamese forced Newcomb
to promise that Hanoi would not be bombed.
At the time, he
says, a military policy forbade bombing within a 10-mile radius of the city.
"I promised the United States would not bomb inside the ring.
I promised with my life, in writing."
A few minutes later, air raid sirens sounded, and Newcomb
heard the roar of planes approach.
heard a popping sound.
thought, "Was this an exercise of some kind?"
"Heartbreak Hotel is where you start the long haul," Newcomb
In it together
was held captive for 5 1/2 years.
Veteran Laurie Lengyel, who now lives in Texas, flew an F-4 reconnaissance plane and was captured Aug. 9, 1967, a few days after Newcomb
got sick with typhoid fever in early 1972, he
had to be moved to another camp.
The Vietnamese wanted a prisoner to accompany Newcomb
was in bad shape, his
One hot summer day, a little man who knew no English came into the room and indicated he
boiled leaves in a pot and placed the steaming brew under two blankets that covered Newcomb
so the sick man could breathe the vapor.
was on the road to recovery.
was one of the rascals," he
For the captors, the objective was to explain their version of the war, Newcomb
For the captives, the objective was to keep the quiz from becoming a torture session.
The trick was to find language that would appease the enemy without betraying country and honor, Newcomb
answer was pragmatic: "Yes," he
would say, "I understand what you are saying."
began his imprisonment with one roommate, Charlie Zuhoski, then moved to a four-man group, then to a nine-man group.
A prisoners' code of resistance was quickly formulated, Newcomb
The men would endure the agony of torture only until they reached a certain threshold.
They did not want to lose control or compromise their ability to endure the pain the next time, he
"This ability to endure would cause the Vietnamese to run out of enthusiasm and things would just fizzle."
It was difficult to imagine how it all would end, Newcomb
and Lengyel met McCain.
chatted with McCain in a courtyard and remembers sharing French lessons with him in one of the classes prisoners arranged.
The Paris Peace Accords took effect Jan. 27, 1973, and the Vietnamese organized a sensational fireworks display along the banks of the Red River, Newcomb
Soon after, the POWs were released in order of shoot-down date.
and Lengyel emerged from their internment March 14.
underwent a physical examination and debriefing.
He was assigned to an administrative post at a hospital but negotiated a deal: three months with no duties.
bought a Ferrari for $14,900 with his
back pay, took delivery of it in Europe, then drove around on an extended vacation.
was back on active duty with the Air Force, shuttling government officials around the country on the T-39 Saberliner.
Vietnam experience has changed him, he
"I'm more accepting of other people's ways of doing things."
has gone about his
business living a full life.
"It takes a very short time to fall back in your old ways," he