What Heroes Are Made Of
“There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war, and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.” ~John F. Kennedy
We often think of the challenges we face choosing a career, or a buying a home. We complain when we have difficulty finding a parking spot close to where we plan to eat or shop. Seldom do we consider the privileges of our freedom, that is, until we reflect upon the sacrifices others have made to preserve these freedoms.
One such man who paid an exceptional price in the service of our country is a local Duluthian and UMD graduate who found himself as a guest, against his will, in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison for seven years and four months.
What follows are excerpts from his story and why veterans in this community went to the lengths they did to raise funds to honor his service with a monument to be placed at the Duluth International Airport, though in his modesty his desire is to honor all POWs and soldiers who put their lives on the line in the name of freedom.
David Wheat was born in Dearborn, MI, the youngest of five children. When David was six his father Leonard moved the family to Duluth where he became an education professor at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. When David graduated high school he also went to UMD, graduating in 1963 with a BA degree in Industrial Education.
After college the new grad entered the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate (AOC) program at NAS Pensacola, FL. After his commission as an ensign, he began training for the Naval Flight Officer program, receiving his NFO wings in April of 1965. Though the U.S. had been involved for several years in an advisory role in the Viet Nam conflict, President Johnson began to escalate the war in this difficult year.
Ensign Wheat had joined Fighter Squadron 41 (VF-41) at NAS Oceana, VA, flying the F4B Phantom. On May 10 his squadron embarked on the USS Independence as the first East Coast Aircraft carrier to deploy to Vietnam. He flew his first mission over North Vietnam on July 1. Just over three months later, during his 80th mission, Lt. Wheat and his pilot Lt. Rod Mayer were shot down while supporting a strike mission against a railroad. Two other fighter jets were shot down during the same mission.
After their aircraft was struck by enemy fire Lt. Wheat and his pilot Lt. Mayer ejected. When Lt. Wheat hit the ground he knew he’d injured his knee because he couldn’t stand up. Looking back he saw Lt. Mayer’s parachute stretched out but there was no movement. Because enemy troops were closing in the injured Wheat tried crawling up a hill to hide in some brush behind a tree but within a relatively short time he was captured. When the enemy militia found him it was apparent he couldn’t walk so they placed him on a board and carried him out of the hills, placed him in the back of a truck and drove him through the night to Hanoi.
David’s parents were quickly notified of the incident and that he was Missing In Action in North Vietnam. This was followed by a second Western Union message from Vice Admiral B. J. Semmes Jr., chief of naval personnel, stating that two men ejected their aircraft but it appeared that only one was moving afterwards.
Life in the Hanoi Hilton
“I didn’t know it then but my life as I knew it was over,” the retired Cdr. David Wheat said when he recounted his ordeal. “I was 25 years old and about to spend the next seven years and four months in the most challenging and inhumane environment ever.” It was an old French prison called Hoa Lo that the American POWs held there later nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton”. “I was put in a cell that had the windows boarded up and a cement slab with leg irons attached for a bed. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling and was on all night long. There was a bucket in the corner for a toilet.”
Despite the inhospitable conditions he was grateful that the slab he slept on was up off the floor. His first meal was some kind of inedible material in a putrid green water that passed for soup. “I didn’t eat it,” he said, and when he woke later he saw a rat lapping it up from the bowl.
For Wheat and others who had been taken, the fear of what lay ahead and the sudden loss of freedom was overwhelming. “The guards took everything I was shot down with and gave me a pair of pajamas, a blanket, and mosquito net. Twice a day I was brought a bowl of soup and a ball of rice with gritty stones along with mouse turds in it and if it wasn’t eaten, the rats would come in at night and eat it. I sat thinking of home and family and tried to communicate with any other POWs in the adjacent cells.”
His first months there he was immobilized by the injured knee. Once his knee repaired itself he spent his days pacing in his cell, three steps in each direction. Those first nine months he was alone, but over time more planes were shot down and more pilots captured so that eventually they were placed two in a cell. Despite the cramped quarters, finally seeing another American face-to-face was such a thrill that he and his new friend stayed awake all night just talking to each other.
POWs during the Korean War had developed a special tap code that enabled them to communicate effectively. One of the POWs at the Hanoi Hilton, who had been a POW in Korea, passed along this system that quickly spread through the prison community. As Cdr. Wheat explained, “We had nothing but time so we became very proficient at the code. The alphabet was put in a 5x5 box omitting the letter k.” They could use the same method by coughing or if they were outside they could sweep out a message. They would also lie on the floor and flash code under the door to other POWs.
The soldiers had been trained to give only name, rank, serial number and date of birth, and to resist further questioning to the best of their ability. But their captors wanted information and they had their methods of torture and beatings to get what they wanted. “The sound of the jailer’s keys jingling was one of the most heart-stopping stomach churning sounds because it meant one of us would be taken out for an interrogation.” For any so-called infraction of the rules the punishment would be whippings, beatings, hands cuffed behind your back for several days, leg irons, isolation in a sweatbox (a cramped cell exposed to the hot sun) or on your knees with your arms in the air for several hours.
“At different times I was whipped with a fan belt from a jeep, on my knees, for several hours. My hands were cuffed behind my back for ten days, four days, different periods of time.” He discovered that that by chewing all the hair off his wrists that he could slide the cuffs down closer to his hand so that he could wriggle them under his butt and bring them up in front when the guards weren’t around.
On one occasion a couple of men escaped from the camp. A couple days after they were caught their captors came in and bricked up the windows so there was no circulation whatsoever. “This was all the more miserable because the summer is so hot with high humidity and we weren’t allowed to bathe at all. Each of us had a little pitcher for water twice a day. We’d take a rag and moisten it to wipe ourselves off but all you’re really doing is rearranging the salty surface there. You’re not really cleansing yourself at all.”
Being an early shoot-down some of the POWs didn’t get hammered right away. “Because we refused to break,” Wheat said. “Those who were taken later were hit much harder right away.”
The worst sound in the prison was not that of the jailer’s keys, but the sound of other men being broken through the horrors perpetrated by their captors. Hearing grown men whimpering like babies and crying out for their mothers was heart-breaking. Despite the Pavlovian reaction generated by the keys Wheat said he would prefer to have been the one tortured than to have to hear the sound of others being thus inflicted.
“They had taken our clothing, our dignity, and our freedom, but they couldn’t take away our minds,” Wheat shared. “We knew we were going to have to protect ourselves physically and mentally if we were going to survive. Every POW had something to offer. While always on alert for guards we taught each other German, history, and math. We made a chess game by using folded toilet paper as a board with rocks, twigs and lint as chess pieces that could quickly be brushed away to blend in with the other litter on the floor. We did sit-ups, pushups, we paced the floor, and we memorized names. At one point we memorized as many as 350 POW names. When our toilet bucket filled to the halfway point we would use it for weight lifting. We watched ants and flies and communicated by tapping on the wall. Once a day we were let out of our cells to wash from a bucket of water drawn from a well. Every Sunday we faced the east and said the Pledge of Allegiance. We constantly thought of our families and friends back home.”
The prisoners had no way of knowing how long they were to remain there, and Wheat’s parents suffered equally in the not knowing when — or if — they would hear news of their son again.
“We kept thinking freedom would come, maybe at Easter, maybe the 4th of July, maybe Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas, maybe Easter.” Initially, Wheat would get very emotional as he thought about his loved ones back home. In the beginning he made a decision to wait until Christmas to have a good cry. Christmas came and went and the months passed into years.
“The continual brutal treatment, lack of food, and filthy living conditions took their toll. The winters were cold and drafty and the summers brought intense heat and mosquitoes. Sickness and frustration were constant,” he said. “At various times we all had dysentery, boils worms, beriberi, toothaches, abscesses and respiratory problems that we had to endure without hope of any medical attention. One time I found a piece of copper wire and sharpened it to a point on the concrete floor and used it to poke my gums to drain an abscessed tooth to relieve the pressure and swelling of my face.”
At one point during his captivity Wheat’s cell was adjacent to future presidential hopeful John McCain who had two broken arms and a broken leg when captured and brought to the prison. “It’s so devastating when you’re in a situation like that,” Wheat stated in a 2010 interview. “He survived tremendously.”
When accounts of U.S. anti-war demonstrations, college campus riots and political assassinations blared over prison loudspeakers, prison morale dampened considerably. “The protestor’s actions only prolonged our imprisonment in North Vietnam. The will to survive, sheer desperation, and our strong loyalty to our country got us through one day at a time,” Wheat said.
In 1970 a Special Forces effort to extract prisons from the Son Tay POW camp failed, but had the happy consequence of moving prisoners to the Hanoi Hilton where they were locked in larger 50-man cellblocks. They finally saw the faces of men whose names they had memorized over the five previous years of isolation.
Another positive event took place at this time. “After five years we were finally allowed to receive some mail. One of the high points occurred when someone received a letter with a stamp depicting Neil Armstrong walking on the moon,” Wheat noted. “That walk was only a dream when we were shot down and we rejoiced knowing that the moon shot was successful for the U.S.”
The attempted liberation led to the prisoners being moved numerous times over the next few years, but even this was looked at as a positive for it gave them the opportunity to meet other Americans.
Finally in 1973, after 5 years of negotiations, the Paris Peace agreements were signed and the POWs were told we were going home. “Over the years we had had some hopeful moments but they always ended in disappointment. February 12, 1973 we couldn’t believe it was really over until that moment when the C141 rumbled down the runway, rotated and lifted off the runway in Hanoi. Then, all hell broke loose. We were finally headed for freedom. Eight Christmas’ in Vietnam were enough, we were going home.”
They weren’t sure how the war had been resolved but they knew they had won their battle. “We came home with our heads held high,” Wheat said, “knowing we had done the best we could under extremely difficult conditions. We had succeeded in living up to our motto, ‘Return with Honor,” and came home with a profound appreciation for our country and the knowledge that we would never, and could never, take this freedom for granted again.
“If someone had told me that day in 1965, that in a few hours I would lose my family and freedom and spend 7 years and 4 months in a prison in a hostile country, I wouldn’t have believed I could do it. But we did do it, because we had to in order to survive. That proved to me that we can get through anything if we make up our mind to.”
By the time of his retirement in 1984 Commander David Wheat USN had earned the Silver Star, Legion of Merit (V), Air Medal (6), Navy Commendation Medal, Purple Heart, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, Prisoner of War Medal, Navy Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
I had the privilege of meeting Cdr. Wheat in his home after several months of research on this project. It became clear to me why — after far too many years in a cell with no view — he chose a home with one of the most spectacular of views in the region, atop Skyline Drive overlooking the Great Lake Superior. A modest and gentle man who early in life was forced to become wise beyond his years, it quickly became apparent why his fellow veterans worked so hard on his behalf to produce a monument to honor him, though in point of fact he would say it is for all who made these sacrifices.