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He flew with heroes

November 8, 2011

Note to the reader: Colonel Bob Waggoner (USAF Retired) will be the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day event on Friday, Nov. 11, at the Mammoth Lakes Fire Station on Main Street. The celebration begins at 9 a.m. and includes a sponsored pancake breakfast. All Veterans, their families and grateful citizens are welcome to attend. Sponsors include Mono County, Mono County Sheriff’s Department, Mono County Office of Education, Town of Mammoth Lakes, Mammoth Lakes Fire Department, Mammoth Lakes Police Department, Mammoth Unified School District, Mammoth Lakes Lions and Rotary Clubs and Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra.

The following article is adapted from one published in the Mammoth Times and Inyo Register in March 2010.

In February 2010, Bob Waggoner spoke at an event at the Bishop High School library sponsored by Bishop Rotary to raise funds for Rotary International’s Polio Plus. The library was filled to capacity with nearly 150 people of all ages, including Veterans and high school students, who all wanted to hear Waggoner’s inspirational story of how he survived 2,365 days in brutal captivity (and, yes, they did torture him.

Waggoner told his story with natural ease and true emotion.

“I was not a hero,” he told the audience. “I flew with heroes. I was just a survivor.”

I think Waggoner was the only one in the room who didn’t think he was a hero, as we listened to his stories about his time as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese from the time he “punched out” over North Vietnam on Sept. 12, 1966, to when he headed home on March 4, 1973. Nonetheless, he was a well-decorated “survivor” with a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts.

As I listened to Waggoner’s story, I wondered what kept him going and imagined that he would tell us about incredible faith and a personal will to survive.

But that’s not what we heard.

Instead, we heard about “tap codes,” poetry and fellow prisoners. Things that kept Waggoner going.
Tap codes represent a very quiet way to communicate and have their origins in Czarist Russia with the Cyrillic alphabet and were mentioned in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon — a classic book about Stalin’s purges published in 1941. Tap codes in Vietnam were based on a very simple matrix:
The first tap is the column and the second tap is the row. For example, using today’s texting vernacular, L is 3+1, O is 3+3 and L 3+1 for “ LOL” (laughing out loud).

There’s no K in the 5 by 5 matrix, but C was substituted phonetically. POWs, like today’s texters, developed their own acronyms and all newcomers could easily learn the tap codes and could “talk” by gentle taps on the walls or even on each other’s thighs. That’s how the POWs communicated (very patiently) and found out who was there and shared whatever little news they could.

Imagine how just that little bit of “talking” kept their spirits alive.

Poetry and its messages were inspiring for the POWs when they had more opportunities to talk as the years marched on. Some could recite entire poems and share them with the others. Three poems in particular were popular at the time: Invictus (1875) by William Ernest Henley, and If (1910) and The Ballad of East and West (1889) by Rudyard Kipling. Listen to the words and feel the source of inspiration:

Invictus
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

If
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

The Ballad of East and West
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

It struck me that these men — who flew supersonic aircraft — sought inspiration from 19th century poets.

The old adage that infantrymen fight not for “God and country,” but for the man next to them was true in Hanoi, too. Through their tapping and their poetry, the POWs kept in touch with each other and preserved their military esprit de corps and chain of command through all the years and the darkest of times (including Jane Fonda’s visit).

Waggoner reinforced this shared spirit with a story about the POWs last days in North Vietnam. In January 1973, all the POWs were told to gather in the central courtyard of the prison and the word went out to form up and maintain their bearing. The North Vietnamese announced the POWs were going home, but the news was not greeted with cheers or celebration; instead the men went about their routine hoping that this news was the truth and not another deception. Waggoner said the men kept that attitude in the days ahead and didn’t raise their voices in celebration until the pilot of the C-141 transport flying them from Hanoi to the Philippines announced “feet wet” — signifying they had crossed the coast line of Vietnam and were over water.

Whatever Waggoner says, he’s definitely a hero.

Rick Phelps served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era and two of his sons are now serving in the Army. He considers the opportunity to write about Bob Waggoner a true honor.

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