Veterans share stories of service, loss, courage
By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on May 30, 2005 1:46 PM
When Jim Hiteshew, Mike Cooper, Jim Zieg and B.E. Dean drink coffee together, they share more than just a few stories and a passion for flying.
Their love for their country, and their service to America, are the glue that cements their bond.
Although none of the men care to share their exact ages, their military careers span a time frame beginning with World War II and ending with the Vietnam War.
Hiteshew, a retired colonel in the Air Force, is the member of the group the others say has the real story to tell. He was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
More than 30 years have passed since Hiteshew was released from a war camp in Vietnam, but the memories of the six-year ordeal are still fresh in his mind.
Shot down during a bombing mission, Hiteshew broke both legs and his right arm when he landed in a bamboo thicket.
Within seconds, he said, Vietnamese soldiers surrounded him and began beating him. Once they realized he was incapacitated, the beating stopped, and they stripped the soldier down to his underwear before loading him on a mobile hammock.
"They took me through several villages where the villagers yelled and threw things at me," Hiteshew said. "When I was first captured, it was like I was a third party observing what was happening."
Hiteshew was placed on a platform in the middle of one village, where he stayed for eight hours, as stones and sticks were hurled his way.
"My main fear right then was that one of my eyes would be put out," he said.
Eventually he was removed from the platform, and taken to the "Heartbreak Hotel."
"That was part of the prison camp, known as the Hanoi Hilton, where you were interrogated," he explained.
Tossed, blindfolded, into a cell by himself, Hiteshew was subjected to hours of questioning for days.
Pain from his untreated injuries made him tired during the questioning, something he says infuriated his captors.
"They would kick me, or hit me, because I kept falling asleep," he said.
Unable to get up from the floor because of his broken legs, Hiteshew would relieve himself in a small enamel cup the jailkeepers gave him.
Then, he would try to throw the urine as far away from himself as possible.
That cup was the same one his jailers used to give him water.
"At that point ... They brought me stuff to eat, but I couldn't eat," he said. "I lost about 60 pounds during that time."
After almost two weeks in the interrogation cell, Hiteshew was finally taken to a hospital.
"The nurse hit me with a needle, and the next thing I remember was waking up back at the Heartbreak Hotel in a body cast," he said.
He learned the tap code within a week from entering the prison.
The code, he said, was the only way prisoners could communicate.
"It was a five-by-five matrix, tapping for the letters," Hiteshew said. "Smitty Harris, one of the early Air Force guys, visited Alcatraz prison and heard that the prisoners in solitary confinement used a tap code. He remembered that."
Hiteshew said he was told by a fellow prisoner, who shared his cell for one week, that he had to learn the code.
"The first tapping I did was to the guy in the cell next to me," Hiteshew said. "It ended up that his wife lived one house over from us in Goldsboro, on Redwood Trail."
Within an hour after tapping his name out to his neighbor, Hiteshew heard his name being broadcast all over the camp.
"The prisoners working in the garden were using their shovels to tap out my name so I could get on the POW list," Hiteshew explained. "It was important for other POWs to know we were there, in case we disappeared."
For the next six years, Hiteshew lived in a windowless 12-foot square cell, sleeping on mahogany boards.
He was allowed out of his cell for 15 minutes a day to bathe in cold water with a small cake of lye soap. Every time the Americans saw a guard, they were forced to bow, he said.
News about the war was piped in through speakers in each cell, he said.
"It was in English, but it was propaganda," Hiteshew said. "We relied on new prisoners to get our news."
Jane Fonda made her trip to Hanoi during the time he was a prisoner of war, and his captors made sure he and the other Americans saw press coverage of the event.
Hiteshew said he didn't put much stock in Fonda's appearance in Vietnam.
"To me, she and all the people with her were a motley looking group, so I figured nobody was paying much attention to them," he said. "Things had changed since I left America, and I didn't know that everyone had long hair and looked like that."
More upsetting was the pronouncement by then Attorney General Ramsey Clark that they were "war criminals."
Hiteshew said that bothered him more than Fonda because he considered her just a "stupid actress."
But Clark, he said, was different.
"Now Ramsey Clark is one of the attorneys for Saddam Hussein," he said. "So that tells you something."
To pass the time in prison, Hiteshew did exercises, both physical and mental.
"There were 119 kids in my high school graduation class," he said. "I remembered 115 of them and put their names in alphabetical memory in my head."
The prisoners would tap out other mental exercises to each other, such as the names of all the presidents, or the books in the Bible.
Hiteshew said that the Vietnamese knew the tapping meant something, but could never figure out the code.
"They didn't have the rhythm," he said.
Although Hiteshew learned how to keep his mind and body active to survive, there were others who weren't as fortunate.
"One guy went catatonic and just stood there, not saying anything," Hiteshew said. "He didn't come home with us. They took him out right before we were released. A year later they sent his remains home."
Some, Hiteshew said, didn't survive the interrogation process.
In the fall of 1972, Hiteshew thought they might be released, but negotiations broke down.
Finally, in the spring of 1973, he was in a group of prisoners scheduled for release.
"They drove us to Gia Lam Airport and put us in a small building," he said. "Then they gave us each a warm beer."
Hiteshew said that some of the prisoners declined the beer, saying they would wait for a cold one.
"But I drank it because I wasn't sure they wouldn't send us back to prison," he said.
In fact, he said, no one really believed they were free until the airplane took off and left Vietnam behind.
After a brief stay in the Philippines, he was reunited with his family.
His children, who were 8 and 11 years old when he left, were now teenagers.
"My wife and I picked up fine," he said. "But with the kids, it was a little different. That took some time."
Coming back was a little overwhelming, he said.
"But we had a tremendous welcome," he said. "A lot of guys didn't."
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Zieg was one of the many soldiers who didn't receive acknowledgment for service in the Vietnam War.
"Vietnam was an unpopular war," Zieg said. "They didn't treat us well when we returned and most went back to civilian life with no recognition."
"To this day," he added, "there's really been no recognition."
Zieg flew Tactical Air Command in Vietnam, transporting troops and cargo near the front lines.
"The army would hack out a field on the side of the mountain and half an hour later, we would take the young kids into battle," Zieg said. "That was hard."
Dean, a retired meteorologist and former Marine, was the only one of the four who wasn't a pilot during his service.
"I wanted to be a pilot, and I had been flying since I was 14," he said. "But I was color-blind."
With the help of a naval officer, Dean was able to memorize the first color chart and was on his way to becoming a pilot.
"But then they changed the chart on me," he said. "So I became part of the ground crew."
He served in World War II and the Korean War.
Lt. Col Mike Cooper spent his whole career as a tactical fighter from the time he finished flight school in the late 1950s.
"We spent a lot of time sitting nuclear alert, and I was stationed in Japan when Southeast Asia got going," he said.
He was also sent to Thailand during the early days of the Vietnam War, in 1964.
Over the next few years, he flew more than 100 combat missions over Vietnam, and was eventually awarded the Silver Star for his service.
His missions included knocking down bridges and dive bombing, Cooper said.
"The hardest part was losing friends, having them captured or killed," Cooper said.
When he returned to Goldsboro, in the spring of 1966, the town threw a parade.
"We were well-received in Goldsboro," he said.
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