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Surviving Hanoi: Larry Spencer's Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 21, 2024 3:02 am

Surviving Hanoi: Larry Spencer's Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 21, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Larry Spencer tells the story of being one of the first POW's of the Vietnam war and surviving until war's end in both "The Zoo" prison and in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

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I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now, I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts.

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See terms and conditions 18 plus. And we continue with our American stories. Up next, a story courtesy of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge. Larry Spencer served 2,551 days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Six days short of seven years. As one of the first 20 POWs of the Vietnam War, Larry served longer than any other Iowan.

Larry passed away on May 21st, 2022. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story. On February 18th, 1966, James T. Ruffin and Larry Spencer, who you're about to hear from, were escorting an Air Force reconnaissance plane over the Gulf of Tonkin. And then a little series of things that all contribute to something bad happening take place like we had an equipment problem with our radios on the airplane. We were flying above clouds and got separated from the other two airplanes that we were with. We got on the radio and said, hey, we got a problem.

We're not sure whether to this day, whether anybody heard us or not. But finally we found a break in the clouds, could look down and saw that we were over land. And we knew that was a bad thing because we were supposed to be out over the water. So we turned 180 degrees and headed east and declared an emergency. And the next thing that happened, we heard a loud boom, which it turns out was a surface air missile exploding below and behind the airplane.

I can remember thinking, oh my, I'm going to be a POW. I looked over to the side of the cockpit where I could look at the mirror up by the pilot and he gave me a thumbs up, which usually means that's a good sign that, you know, we may, obviously we have a problem, but a thumbs up meant that I think we're going to be okay. And the next thing I knew it got real windy in the back seat.

And in this occasion, I think the thumbs up meant I'm out of here. I broke through the clouds in my parachute and came down, I was about a quarter of a mile off the coast of North Vietnam. And I could see some people putting a log boat into the water while I was still in my parachute.

This boat came out, had two or three people in it as I recall. There's certain universal language that is understood no matter what language it's spoken in and one of them is when somebody with an AK-47 sticks it in your face, your hands kind of go to the I give up position. I had a pistol which I had jettisoned at sea because I knew if somebody had, if it was me with my little pistol against some well armed people it was going to be a real short war.

So I didn't want any problem with that. So I jettisoned my pistol before they picked me up. They hustled me into this jeep, took my shoes off and I think I was tied up and we blindfolded and the jeep took off.

It stopped a couple of times during the course of the night at what I can only describe as a pep rally. I pulled into a little village, there would be a whole bunch of people up there hooping and hollering with some of the political leaders leading cheers and fight songs and they would get you out of this jeep and march you around the village and call you dirty names I'm sure and shake their fist at you and then half an hour later you'd be back in the jeep and off on another jaunt not knowing where you were going but pretty suspicious that it would be to Hanoi. And the gates swung open and they marched me into this, what turned out to be the old French prison built in Hanoi in the 1800s which became known as the Hanoi Hilton.

Larry was also imprisoned at Couleau, nicknamed the zoo by those detained there. In this camp, the zoo, there was a driveway that came in and made a circular route around the inside of the camp and so if there were some senior officers coming they would get a working detail out to sweep up the leaves and stuff and make it have a better appearance. That provided an opportunity to communicate with everybody that was in the camp by the manner in which you swept the streets with your broom and there's a communications code called the tap code which enabled whoever was sweeping to pass information to everybody who was listening and so if the guy was sweeping everybody in the camp could hear him and it was like a town crier.

He would tell you all the latest news that the guy knew and he'd be tapping it and anybody, all they had to do was sit and listen and you could get the latest news. It might be six months old but it was news to us. We had three different types of soup over the course of a year. There was four months of spinach soup, four months of cabbage soup and four months of pumpkin soup, twice a day. You could almost mark your calendar by when the food changed. You can take your pumpkin soup and mash up the pumpkin, put rice in with it if you're having rice or if you're having bread that day, you tear your bread up into little pieces, put it in the soup, stir it all up and visualize it as Hungarian goulash or macaroni and cheese or whatever. It's still going to taste the same but it helps you mentally.

As your grandmother used to tell you, you don't have to like this, all you have to do is eat it and most days you didn't go out of the room for anything but the thing that you have to keep in mind is that when you wake up in the morning you have no idea what that day holds. I'm sure our blood pressure jumped thirty or forty points when a guard would come to the, on the walkway outside your room and just rattle the keys to the door because if they came to the door, opened the door, pointed at you or gave you whatever Vietnamese name they had assigned to you, it was a Vietnamese word, I have no idea to this day what the name that they gave me meant, it may have been dirty dog or something like that, if they told you to put your shirt on and your pant long trousers on that you were going off to see somebody, that was not good. Nothing good ever happened when you went out and nothing good ever happened at night either. You were mistreated. It was more so in the first years than the second but the Vietnamese were very willing to utilize physical discomfort when they deemed necessary. There were times when, well there were a couple escape attempts and that started purges that would last for months at a time where people were brutally tortured but it was not something that happened every day. Sometimes you thought it was going to and they certainly tried the psychological thing of telling you, okay if you don't do what we want you to do here, we're going to beat you up and the threat that they would most often try to use, well someday when the war ends, if you don't cooperate, we're not going to let you go, we're going to keep you here.

I don't think anybody believed them but it was always something in the back of your mind but yes, physical torture was a part of the experience but it didn't happen every day. On July 6th of 1966, the United States conducted air raids in Haiphong and Hanoi for the first time. That was a significant step as far as the Vietnamese were concerned. They, to think that the United States would bomb a target in Hanoi made them very angry and so that night they took most of the people from this camp, the zoo and some people from another camp, there were less than 100 prisoners total at that time. They took about 55 or 60 of us and we were blindfolded, we didn't know where we were but they took us to downtown Hanoi, they got you out of the truck, they handcuffed you to one other prisoner and you were sitting on the floor, on the street here out in the middle of this residential area. They had Vietnamese soldiers on both sides of this line of people and when they took the blindfolds off and told you to stand up and you were walking, they turned a corner and the streets were lined, it was like a 4th of July parade and the streets were lined with people, 6, 7 deep in rows on both sides calling you bad names and it's really wonder that somebody didn't get killed in that, what we came to be known as the Hanoi march. The cadres were trying to keep the people back from throwing rocks at us and hitting you in the head with shoes, it's a wonder somebody didn't get a knife stuck in their back when that was going on. It ended up a couple hours later at a soccer stadium in downtown Hanoi and when they opened the gates of the stadium to try to get the prisoners in here, there was a surge of population, of civilian population in Hanoi that just burst right through the gates at the same time.

They ended up with all the Americans sitting out in the middle of this soccer field with soldiers all around us trying to get the, and while they tried to get all the civilians out of here. February 12th was the first day of prisoner release in accordance with the agreements that were signed in Paris at the end of January 1973. And then in my personal case, I was on the first airplane home from Clark Air Force Base on Valentine's Day of 1973. There were 20 guys on the first airplane home and I had the good fortune to be one of them. The adjustment process to life in the 70s was pretty remarkable in itself. That was quite an experience as well. Fortunately for us, the one thing that everybody could agree on about the Vietnam War is that they were glad to have us home.

And a great job on the editing by Monty Montgomery and a special thanks to the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge for graciously allowing us to air this audio. And as he said, simply hearing the keys of the guards instilled fear into the prisoners. Nothing good happened when you left your cell. Little good happened at night. Unimaginable what men like this went through.

Nearly seven years, Larry Spencer served as a prisoner of war. His story here on Our American Stories. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA. He says somebody's in the house and I screamed. Listen to Uncanny USA wherever you get your BBC podcasts, if you dare.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-21 04:31:29 / 2024-05-21 04:37:02 / 6

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