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On Sept. 20, 1973, the final U.S. prisoners of war were freed from the infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam. Four decades later, former POW Orson Swindle shared his memories of his mission gone wrong, surviving captivity, the perseverance of his fellow prisoners and the sweet taste of freedom.
So what comes to mind first for Lt. Col. Swindle on this important anniversary?
"Certainly the joy of freedom," he told WND. "You never know what it is until you've lost it, and 600-700 of us experienced losing it for a very, very long time. When I hear people bemoaning the difficulties of these times, they don't know anything about what difficulties really are. This group of people overcame obstacles that are somewhat unparalleled in our history."
In "When Hell Was in Session," Jeremiah Denton, the senior American officer to serve as a Vietnam POW, tells the amazing story of nearly eight years of abuse, neglect and torture. This historic book takes readers behind the closed doors of the Vietnamese prison to see how the men fought back against all odds and against all kinds of evil.
Then-U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Swindle flew more than 200 sorties against the enemy while flying in a Vought F-8E Crusader. He was flying his last scheduled mission when he was shot down on Nov. 11, 1966, over Quang Binh Province.
"They had just shot down two Air Force F-4s on the target area," he recalled. "As soon as we got there, I was not leading the flight. I was flying wing on another pilot, and we maneuvered to make runs on the target. He couldn't see the target, couldn't find it. I saw it. I rolled in on the target, dropped the bombs and pulled off and got hit underneath the aircraft and lost hydraulic controls in the airplane. It doesn't fly very well that way."
"I couldn't even read my instruments, so I have no idea but I can roughly guess (I was) probably about 2,000 feet and going down at a very fast rate. I had to just get out of the airplane. There was nothing else do to."
Once he parachuted to the ground, Swindle was immediately taken into custody by enemy forces.
"I violated one of the cardinal rules of being an attack pilot," he said. "Don't dare jump out of the airplane over the target you just bombed. They were just a wee bit angry, to say the least. I was pretty brutally treated, which was commonplace back in those days."
Swindle said the horrific treatment he received in those first years of captivity was pretty standard for U.S. prisoners of war. And he added that the effects of that torture are still felt by the survivors every day.
"Pretty much all of us have very restricted shoulder movement. Raising our hands above our head is rather difficult. We suffer a lot of arthritis, mostly skeletal type and nerve-ending damage," Swindle said. "I have spinal stenosis and numbness in my hands and my feet, but all in all I'm probably one of the luckiest people you've probably ever talked to."
Compared to their Vietnam contemporaries who were not prisoners of war and even returning soldiers today, the vast majority of those held in the Hanoi Hilton came home remarkably well adjusted. Swindle and many of his fellow prisoners give the credit to Commander James Stockdale for keeping the men organized and hopeful. Stockdale's leadership is chronicled in the new book,"Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams" by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland. Swindle extolled Stockdale in the book and in his interview with WND.
"Jim Stockdale was just a remarkably intelligent man, but he was a leader who led by total example," Swindle said. "He spoke softly but firmly. He set the example, and he was incredibly courageous. Just being around him was uplifting.
"In the book there's an accounting of my first 'meeting' with him, and it was whispering under a door to him after he'd been badly tortured," Swindle said. "I told him six years later when we were finally face-to-face, 'Talking to you that Sunday afternoon a long time ago in the spring of '67 probably helped save my life. You were that much of an inspiration to me and the rest of us. We just want you to know how much we admire and appreciate what you did for us. Just a great man and a great friend."
Stockdale was thrust onto the political stage as Ross Perot's running mate in 1992. His performance in the lone vice-presidential debate prompted some to turn Stockdale into something of a punchline. Swindle was a spokesman for the Perot campaign.
"He never should have been in that role. That was not Jim Stockdale by any stretch of the imagination," Swindle said. "He is just an incredible intellect. In fact, the two people he was engaged in the debate with (Dan Quayle and Al Gore), if you put all their intellect in one container, it would be somewhat like a thimble up against a mountain. Jim Stockdale was just a brilliant man. They have no idea the nature of his character, the depths of his belief system, his fortitude. He never should have been in that environment. He did it out of friendship to Ross Perot."
Forty years later, Swindle said the greatest legacy of the prisoners is the astounding success they achieved in the military, in public service, in law and business in addition to raising families. He said the bond now is as strong as ever.
"They're dear friends of mine," he said, "and I have a great love and affection for all of them."