“It’s conference time again.” During 1971, these four words were part of the brief daily communication between rooms two and three at Camp Unity, a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. They stirred emotions, brought back memories, boosted morale, and gave a needed reminder that there was still good in the world. They meant that the places I dreamed about still existed. Hearing those words was a very significant, memorable event.
On August 24, 1967, the F-105 I was flying over North Vietnam was hit by ground fire while pulling off a target on the railroad northeast of Hanoi, near the Chinese border. It caught on fire and pitched down uncontrollably. I ejected, and in the chaos that followed, I was captured and became a prisoner of war in Hanoi. During that time I stayed in camps we called the Hanoi Hilton, Annex, Zoo, Faith, and Unity. Days seemed to be a week long and nights were longer. Four years of isolation often made me question what was real, imagined, or a dream.
I was allowed to write my first letter on Dec 13, 1969—more than two years after I was shot down. In it I wrote: “These are important: temple marriage, mission, college. Press on…Set goals, write history, take picture twice a year.” After my family and friends back home in Utah received this letter, my military status changed from missing in action (MIA) to prisoner of war (POW). After a rescue attempt at nearby Son Tay on November 21, 1970, they moved everyone to big rooms in the Hanoi Hilton. There were 40-50 of us crammed in each of seven cells.
Though communication between rooms was difficult and rarely personal, one long-time prisoner, Air Force Captain Smitty Harris, taught a tap code to others. By chance, he had learned it at survival school. It wasn’t part of the curriculum, but an instructor had told him about British POWs during WW I or WW II communicating between buildings by tapping on pipes that ran between them.