Vietnam War veteran and retired U.S. Air Force Major Gen. Edward Mechenbier, 76, of Columbus was held as a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973 in North Vietnam, where he was beaten and tortured but survived on as little as 600 to 800 calories a day.
The nearly 600 Americans who survived captivity in North Vietnam “weren’t special. We were just products of the American society,” Mechenbier said.
“Some people say, ‘I couldn’t take the torture. I couldn’t take the isolation,’ ” he said. “People always sell themselves short, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ Yes, you could.
“I mean, you just think about things in everybody’s life. We all face challenges. We all face hardships. We all face things that are going on and we say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’
“Well, I couldn’t do what I did in my own mind ... but you know, you look around at all the other guys who were in there with you. There were no supermen there. We were just ordinary guys doing our job, and we just never gave up.”
Mechenbier was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, and graduated from high school in Dayton. His father, a welder and steamfitter, had told him he would need a scholarship to go to college, and bet his son $5 he couldn’t get an appointment to a federal military academy.
Mechenbier won that bet, he said, and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1964.
By 1967, he was flying a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II interceptor and fighter-bomber in Vietnam.
On June 14, Mechenbier, who was with his crewman – Kevin McManus, who operated the plane’s radar, among other tasks – was on his 113th combat mission and 80th mission over North Vietnam.
They weren’t required to conduct another mission that day, but they did.
Their unit lacked enough qualified crews for a mission to Hanoi. Mechenbier and McManus were asked to join the mission, he said.
Mechenbier said, “Well, let me check with Kevin,” who answered, “Why not? Let’s go.”
First, they had a breakfast of pork chops, he said. Mechenbier remembered thinking, “This is a heck of a last meal.”
“I’d never had that thought before,” he said.
Normally, the F-4s flew as protection for Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers.
As a result, 54 planes in Mechenbier’s unit took off at 10 a.m. on a mission to attack a railroad yard, he said.
Mechenbier’s plane had been hit on another mission five days earlier but appeared to be in good shape, he said. While executing a maneuver over the target, he had one engine on idle while the second was using its afterburner. When he fired the first engine’s afterburner, the engine exploded, he said.
Just before the explosion, he said, the plane was flying at 700 mph. Mechenbier and McManus ejected, and the plane hit the ground before Mechenbier’s parachute opened.
He and McManus were under parachutes while “over 6 million people with 6 million guns (were) shooting at us.”
Mechenbier carried a .38-caliber revolver but knew he was in no position to put up a fight, he said. He threw the pistol away before he landed on a roof in a village and rolled to the ground, where he immediately was surrounded.
The North Vietnamese used machetes to cut away his gear and uniform, leaving him in his shorts and a T-shirt, he said.
His captors threw rocks at him and jabbed him with bamboo sticks before leading him to an air-raid trench, where the North Vietnamese acted as if they would execute him before a laughing crowd.
His introduction to ‘Hanoi Hilton’
Mechenbier’s next stop was at what the POWs called “New Guy Village” at Hoa Lo Prison, which the Americans called the Hanoi Hilton.
The North Vietnamese goal at New Guy Village, he said, was to torture and beat the Americans into submission for two or three weeks.
The North Vietnamese “just wanted to hurt you. They were mad. ... no doubt about that.”
In addition to beatings, they would “tie your arms behind your back and then rotate them up over your head, dislocating one or both of your shoulders,” he said.
“All the traditional things, you know, ... kicking you, burning you with cigarettes and things like that,” he said.
North Vietnamese guards were “trying to beat you to the point you would do anything, say anything that they told you to do. It was not an intellectual discussion. It was not a rational thought process and no dialogue. They were just trying to get you to sign a confession and trying to intimidate you physically, and they did a pretty good job,” he said.
Art of avoiding continued beatings
According to the military code of conduct, prisoners of war should give only their name, rank, serial number and date of birth, he said. It also “goes on to say, ‘I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability,’ ” he said.
“When they’re trying to get you to admit to crimes, of course, you wouldn’t do that,” he said.
One strategy for a POW, he said, was “you don’t answer ... or you lie, you cheat, you make up answers and things like that,” he said.
“For the most part, they didn’t understand you,” he said. “They wanted you to ... tell them things about your airplane, your missions and things like that, which you wouldn’t do, and their only resort was to beat the crap out of you.”
The Americans made sure they endured “some days of abuse because you didn’t want to be an easy patsy,” he said.
The POWs took advantage of the fact the North Vietnamese generally didn’t understand much English beyond a few key words, he said.
The Americans could stop torture by giving the North Vietnamese a “confession” of obvious lies, mispronounced words and near-gibberish, he said. The North Vietnamese would be satisfied if words like crime, criminal and guilty were used.
For example, Mechenbier said, a POW could say he flew for the Germans in World War II and was in a unit with Superman (in his secret identity) and a dead U.S. president and get away with it: “I, ... fumerly (made-up word), a lieutenant in the Luftwaffe, ... am guilty ... of bombing churches, dams, pikes, pagodas, cesspools, outhouses and other ill houses of repute. I and my squadron mates, Clark Kent, Jimmy Doolittle, Abraham Lincoln ... have committed heinous crimes.”
Any English-speaking person “obviously would know, ‘Hey, here’s a joke,’ ” he said, but the North Vietnamese were satisfied because they recognized the words they wanted to hear.
After his time at New Guy Village, Mechenbier was put in a 9-by-9-foot cell with his crewman, McManus, and spent “23 hours, 59 minutes and 45 seconds a day” there for four years. Meals were about a quart of soup made from seaweed, turnip tops or pumpkins, with moldy bread and rice that contained bits of rock.
The door was opened for meals twice a day and to empty a chamber pot, he said. The door also might be opened for more beatings and torture.
A frightening sound, he said, was “a jailer with keys. ... He was getting somebody for interrogation. That was scary.”
By this point, the North Vietnamese goal was only to get POWs to participate in propaganda, Mechenbier said.
One example is when American anti-war delegations visiting North Vietnam unwittingly caused the POWs to suffer more beatings, he said.
The North Vietnamese wanted the POWs to meet the war protesters.
“You don’t want to do that,” Mechenbier said.
The North Vietnamese always had the same response – “beat the crap out of you” – whether they wanted the POWs to talk to U.S. protesters, issue an anti-war statement or record a tape to be played on radio.
“You just never wanted to go outside your cell,” he said.
The POWs coped, he said, by supporting each other. He and McManus got to know each other very well and would tell each other stories about everything they could think of.
POWs in adjacent cells could communicate in code by tapping on the cell walls or by placing an ear next to a cup held against a wall, he said.
Beginning of change for the better
With the death of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Mihn in 1969, the Hanoi Hilton guards eased up on beatings and torture for a time, he said.
In November 1970, the U.S. military launched a raid on the Son Tay POW camp 23 miles from Hanoi. The effort to rescue U.S. POWs failed because the camp recently had been emptied of prisoners.
The raid was criticized in the U.S., but it created a boon for the POWs. Fearing another raid, the North Vietnamese moved all the POWs in other camps to the Hanoi Hilton, creating a communal living area know as “Camp Unity.”
That was quite a morale booster, Mechenbier said.
“And now we had 39 guys in one room. ... That was wonderful,” he said.
One group of POWs fashioned a deck of cards from scrap paper and played bridge nonstop for three days, he said.
“The chatter was unbelievable,” he said.
The Americans still had more than two years of captivity left, and Mechenbier was held for a time at a camp near the border with China.
February 1973: prisoners’ release
After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the North Vietnamese told the POWs they would go home. The POWs thought that was a propaganda trick until a uniformed U.S. officer visited them and confirmed the news.
“This is a dream,” Mechenbier thought at the time.
It wasn’t a dream. He was released in February 1973 after nearly six years of captivity.
He was flown to the Philippines, where he had 13 root canals on his long-neglected teeth. He weighed 198 pounds when his F-4 went down and 133 pounds by the time he had arrived in the Philippines, he said.
Upon returning to the U.S., most POWs decided, “This is the first day in the rest of your life,” he said.
The POWs were given a book on what had occurred in the United States while they were gone – such as the Watergate scandal, for example.
Mechenbier stayed in the Air Force.
“Putting on a blue uniform every day was a little bit of a security blanket,” he said.
He left the Air Force in 2004 and has been a consultant to defense contractors and serves on several public and private boards. He also has been a technical consultant to air-show broadcasts and was the subject of a book called “Life on a $5 Bet,” by Linda D. Swink. The title is a reference to the bet he had made with his father prior to joining the service.
Mechenbier is highly decorated. The short list includes the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star Medal with oak-leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak-leaf cluster, the Bronze Star Medal with V device and Purple Heart with oak-leaf cluster.
His advice to struggling veterans is, “Don’t be alone. ... Friends don’t let friends be alone. ... (Otherwise) they don’t have a beacon to look forward. They’re not being told how important they are.”
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