Porter Halyburton, Reflections on Captivity: A Tapestry of Stories By a Vietnam War POW — Naval Institute Press, 2023
On October 17, 1965, Lt. (jg) Porter Halyburton, USN, was shot down over North Vietnam. It was his 76th mission. His squadron, VF-84, known as the “Jolly Rogers,” on the USS Independence was part of a strike force ordered to cut off a major supply line between China and Vietnam by destroying a railway and road bridge north of Hanoi. The backseater of an F-4B fighter-bomber, Halyburton and his pilot, Lt. Cdr. Stan Olmstead were tasked with taking out antiaircraft guns protecting the bridge. While enroute to the target, however, groundfire struck Halyburton’s plane. The plane fell and exploded into the mountainside. None of the other US aviators saw an ejection.
Halyburton was listed as killed in action. His family mourned. They held a memorial service for him in his hometown. His wife and infant child looked ahead to a future without him. Eighteen months later, information from a clandestine source revealed he was alive and being held captive.
He would be held for seven years, three months, and twenty-eight days. Halyburton’s Reflections on Captivity: A Tapestry of Stories By a Vietnam War POW is a collection of fifty short stores about his experiences in a number of detention camps, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. At an event this week at the US Naval Academy, Lessons of Heroism, hosted by the Naval Institute Press, Porter Halyburton spoke movingly about the profound hardships he and other POWs endured, but also about the surprisingly beautiful elements as well: the deep and abiding friendships, humor, creativity, the courage—the unbelievable courage, the indomitable human spirit, the importance of hope, and the criticality of moral leadership.
At both the Naval Academy discussion as well as in his book, Halyburton reflects in depth about how these elements came together in a team of American POWs and how they worked to help each survive and, incredibly, even to flourish. Much of Halyburton’s story feels familiar. I have often written about my preoccupation, many years ago, with the Shoah and with the literature and memoirs that came out of that terrible chapter in the sordid history of man’s inhumanity to man. While different in both obvious and important ways, Halyburton’s POW experience shares characteristics with those who endured the lager system. Among the similarities is the critical realization of the importance of choice, more than merely circumstance, in determining the quality of one’s life—or, when that is impossible, at least the quality of one’s death. One thing made clear: even when our tormentors seemingly have the power to take everything from you, it remains that they cannot, in fact, take everything. They cannot take your faith, for instance, even when they can take nearly every occasion to practice it. They cannot take away your love for your family, even if they can they can rip every member of it away from you. In Halyburton’s case, the Vietnamese authorities could not strip away Halyburton’s determination to flourish, even in the Hanoi Hilton, as honorably as he could. He writes:
In the aftermath of long captivity, suffering, and difficult times, I thought a lot about how we were able to survive—and not only to survive but to “Survive with Honor” and to “Return with Honor,” as had become our creed. I tried so hard always to stay active—mentally, physically, and spiritually—and I think this was a very important aspect of my survival. Along with the other POWs, I also made it my daily mission to deny the Vietnamese the control over our lives that they tried to establish through propaganda, indoctrination, degradation, intimidation, fear, deprivation, threats, isolation, boredom, pain, and lies.
Stressing the importance of choice, even when most occasions for choosing much of anything at all were taken away, Halyburton recalls how the POWs first line of resistance was to refuse to do or say anything that might harm or shame their country, families, or fellow POWs. The POWs’ defiance was grounded in a sharp recognition of their duty. The US Armed Forces Code of Conduct, established in 1955, guided the conduct and responsibilities of US service members should they be faced with capture or imprisonment during war. Among much else, the Code under which Halyburton was bound hammered into his consciousness the commitment to “die rather than give more [information] than is permitted by [the Code’s] Article V,” which, as is well known, is limited to name, rank, service number, and date of birth. And so, taking a literalist’s approach in the early days, Halyburton would suffer greatly giving no more information than that.
Over time, however, reality proved this duty to be essentially impossible to keep and compelled Halyburton to reassess his understanding of the real nature of his duty. In response to the POWs’ defiance the Vietnamese proved capable of cruelty beyond Halyburton’s imagination that would bring detainees to their limits. And so, in what seemed like a violation of the Code, the POWs formed a second line of defense. “When [your] limit was reached,” Halyburton writes, “and you had to do or say something, the “Second Line” reminded you that there was usually something that you could do in order to render their tactics useless in turning public opinion against the war, especially in America. Ultimately, torture and mistreatment did not serve them well.”
Two things to note here. First, even giving useless information suggested to Halyburton a betrayal of the Code. Throughout Reflections in Captivity, Halyburton dwells on this inability—if only sometimes seeming inability—to adhere to one’s sense of duty. He wrestles with the idea that the moral life is not always able to be lived in strict compliance with the literal letter of one’s duty or a literal interpretation of moral rules. There is a grey zone, between strict compliance and, on the other extreme, dereliction of duty—or, as is often the case, moral cowardice. It is in this grey zone that much of life—including the moral life—is lived. The poles that demarcate the grey zone are important to grasp, for actions within the grey zone do not signal an actual betrayal of the duty or moral rule. Rather, they are efforts to manifest the moral rule or duty within the limits of reality. They are efforts to follow the rule as closely as possible. This was a critical realization for Halyburton, as it ought to be for all of us. Much of the moral life is mired in moral conflict—circumstances in which one or more moral goods are in tension and in which performing one duty seems to violate another duty. How we work that out without becoming silly idealists or jaundiced cynics is tricky.
The second thing to note comes out of my added emphasis, above, to the word “usually.” Halyburton’s use of the word suggests that it was not, in fact, always possible to do something that rendered the Vietnamese tactics useless. Sometimes, in fact, the Americans said or did things they did not want to do or say. These genuine breaks with moral responsibility or duty hurt. It didn’t matter to the POWs that their breaking under torment was understandable. They still felt the shame. It’s here that Halyburton highlights the criticality of good moral leadership. Admiral James Stockdale was part of a cohort of exemplary moral leaders that helped shape the moral fiber of the POW community in Hanoi. In an earthy and oft’ told anecdote, Stockdale once consoled a POW who had broken under torture. “There are no virgins here,” Stockdale reassured him. Nobody, Stockdale implied, is pure. We all fail. Stockdale simultaneously acknowledged both the POW’s moral failure and he offered absolution. Both were critical in dealing with the moral shortcomings in the POW experience. Both are critical for dealing with them now.
Naturally, Halyburton’s long imprisonment took much from him. Life–and death–continued in the outside world. While in captivity he lost his grandparents with whom he had grown up. He lost his mother too. He also lost much of his daughter’s childhood as well. Dabney was five days old when Halyburton deployed for Vietnam. He would not see her again in any way until the end of 1969 when the Vietnamese finally permitted a package from home to actually be given to Halyburton. Included in that much-pilfered parcel was a picture of his wife and daughter. By then she was almost five years old.
While overwhelming, the picture reminded Halyburton of everything he had to live for. In response, he wrote the following poem:
The Three of Us
Yesterday on meeting you,
Hoping without knowing you,
Knowing without asking you,
Loving without telling you.
The young and misty two of us,
Sharing each the best of us,
Accepting too the worst of us,
And we so good for both of us.
And as for me the faulty one,
The wild and hungry needy one,
To spend my life in search of one,
And finding you the perfect one.
And so we shared our pastel days,
Our soft and glowing magic days,
And you with child within those days,
And then our few but perfect days.
Now two of you to wait for me,
To love, to hope, to pray for me,
And I still feel you part of me,
Though you and she so far from me.
The future still so bright for us,
For you, for me, for three of us,
And she the best of each of us,
Will fill the lives of both of us.
This calls to mind holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s frequent reference to the Nietzschean aphorism, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
At the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, on the day that Halyburton was finally released, he overheard other Americans plotting revenge on their captors. Porter relates how he, instead, turned back to look at the prison gates and said, “I forgive you.” He really appeared to actually mean it. He recalled, “all that hatred, all that armor, fell away.” The hatred had, during his captivity, been a mechanism for survival. It was a form of defense. “Hatred,” Halyburton insisted, “had become an armor against the Vietnamese.” Now, it seemed, perhaps, merely a burden. It had taken hold and had a power over them. Halyburton insisted, “I was not going to take that home. These people were never going to adversely affect my life again.” That pronouncement of forgiveness, Halyburton asserted, “was the most liberating thing I ever did.”
In a way that his mere physical release could never have accomplished, Halyburton was no longer a captive of the Vietnamese.
And that, too, was a choice.