The large crowd in attendance Saturday night at the American Legion stood and clapped as Colonel Bill Talley, Vietnam veteran, fighter pilot and prisoner of war, was introduced.
The large crowd in attendance Saturday night at the American Legion stood and clapped as Colonel Bill Talley, Vietnam veteran, fighter pilot and prisoner of war, was introduced. Talley began by minimizing his own Vietnam POW experience by saying he was “only a prisoner of war for one year,” referring to other servicemen who spent several years as captives.
Talley briefly told his own story, and then spoke about three other POWs who exhibited qualities of faith in God, country and their comrades.
Talley, who learned to fly F105’s at McConnell Air Force Base, had flown 151 missions in 10 months in Vietnam, 18 more missions the next year, and then a year later was sent to Thailand.
From there, he flew a dozen successful missions. On Easter weekend 1972, he was given his 13th mission, after which he intended to retire. He was 40 at that time. Instead, his plane, known as a “Wild Weasel,” was hit by a fighter. He and his co-pilot were forced to bail out. Landing unharmed, they hid under a rock for about 20 hours before guerrillas caught them.
One soldier put his knee on Talley’s throat and brandished a long machete, “what seemed like the longest sword I’d ever seen.” They removed his flight suit and boots, handcuffed his hands at his back, and then forced him to walk for three days. He was given no food, though occasionally a soldier would give him a capful of water from his canteen. At one point he was able to eat some pea-sized hail that was falling.
When walking through villages, people would hit him with rocks and sticks, and spit in his face.
“That was hard to take, being spit at,” Talley said.
Talley was put into a truck, and they passed through two large cities, stopping finally in Hanoi.
Talley showed a picture of the entrance to the Hanoi Hilton, “the only entrance,” a facility about a block in size, with three foot thick walls about 15 feet high, with barbed wire on top.
Talley’s first real drink of water came during interrogation. He knew he needed to drink it slowly since he’d been without food or water for days, but though he drank it slowly, he soon vomited it back up into the same bowl he drank it from. Later, seeing that it was clear water, he drank it again.
“We were told that because no war had been declared, the rules of the Geneva Convention didn’t apply,” Talley said. The POWs were asked to write letters or give press conferences telling how well they were being treated, for propaganda purposes. Talley refused. Refusal meant “punishment,” as the guards called it; or torture, as the POWs knew it.
“For a short time in my life, I lived in the company of heroes,” Talley said, referring to all those who endured with dignity and faith. John McCain was in the same prison at that time. “Had
I known that he would later become a senator, I would have asked for his autograph,” Talley joked.
Prisoners were given two bowls of watery soup per day, either cabbage or pumpkin-based.
Talley lost more than 40 pounds during his year in the Hanoi Hilton. They shared their small, spare quarters with mosquitoes and rats “the length of cats, and then the tails,” Talley recalled, adding that they did have mosquito nets, unless they were in solitary, where they might have to do without them.
Talley talked about the men’s use of a tap code in order to communicate between prison rooms, using the beat of “shave and a haircut” to see if anyone was in the next room, and “two bits” to reply. They ended each conversation with “CUL” (see you later) and “GBU” (God bless you).
“We were texting without mobile phones,” Talley said with a chuckle.
After the POWs were released, they were asked to write a one page letter about their treatment as POWs. Talley said he has read many of these letters, and nearly all of them stated that they survived by three faiths: in God, in America, and in each other.