Posted: 12/29/2003 10:36:42 PM EDT
I had the pleasure of having Doug as "the enemy infiltrator" during the "rescue" portion of my SERE school back in 92.
After the class was over I listened to him talk about his experinces.
They guy is a hero in my book.
Issue Date: December 29, 2003
POW’s memory skills gave comfort to worried families
By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times
One of the most controversial episodes of the Vietnam War was the release of 12 men who came home early from prison camps in North Vietnam.
Of these, 11 lacked permission from senior U.S. prisoners of war. The North Vietnamese let them go for propaganda reasons.
The 12th early release — the only one with official blessing — was the sole enlisted sailor. Nearly all prisoners were officers and aviators.
“What happened to me could have happened to anybody,” Douglas B. Hegdahl, now 56, said from San Diego.
In fact, though he only held the rank of E-2, Hegdahl was far from being just “anybody.” For one thing, he had an extraordinary memory — which became a weapon against the North Vietnamese.
As the U.S. commitment in Vietnam deepened in the 1960s, Americans inevitably faced capture. The first U.S. prisoner of war was a Special Forces officer captured in 1963. With a handful of exceptions, all of the U.S. prisoners of war were aviators, beginning with Lt. j.g. Everett Alvarez in 1964 [“Naval aviator endured tough 8½ years as POW in Vietnam,” Damn the Torpedoes! June 9].
As officers, these men endured mistreatment and torture, communicated secretly using a “tap code” between cells and organized a military chain of command, using Air Force terminology, with wings and squadrons. The senior officer, Air Force Col. John P. Flynn, led the men in resisting their captors.
In many cases, the prisoners’ families did not know the service members were alive. North Vietnam withheld the names of many of them, and families were left wondering.
Enter Douglas Hegdahl. Born in Clark, S.D., Hegdahl had what he called a “normal life” until he enlisted in the Navy in 1966 and was sent to postal clerk training. His life remained unremarkable until he fell off the cruiser Canberra in the Gulf of Tonkin on April 5, 1967 (as he remembers it), or April 6 (according to the Navy).
Hegdahl was rescued by fishermen and ended up in a North Vietnamese prison camp called The Plantation, near Hanoi.
Because of his youth and inexperience compared to the other prisoners — and his lack of value for intelligence purposes — the North Vietnamese wanted to release him. Hegdahl initially resisted and once made an obscene gesture to a peace activist visiting his camp. But then it became apparent that Hegdahl could help by going home early.
Without pen and paper, the 19-year-old sailor used the catchy tune “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” as a mental tool to help him memorize the names of over 200 fellow prisoners.
Hegdahl was released in August 1969 — along with two of the 11 other early releases — when the North Vietnamese handed him over to a peace committee led by Rennie Davis, a peace activist.
For many families, the names he brought out of North Vietnam were the first evidence that their husbands, sons and brothers were still alive.
Retired Air Force Col. John Stavast, 77, of Austin, Texas, said in a telephone interview that Hegdahl was “a young hero, a champion.”
“My wife didn’t know whether I was dead or alive until Doug brought my name out,” Stavast said.
In March 1973, following the end of the U.S. combat role in the war, Hanoi released 661 prisoners of war who had been held by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, some for up to eight years.
Hegdahl left the Navy as a postal clerk second class in 1970, but worked as a civilian advising the Pentagon on survival issues until his retirement last year.