Friday, April 21, 2023

Insight: Bravery beyond imagination

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

Around this time in April some 50 years ago in 1973, the final U.S. prisoners of war being held in North Vietnam were freed and returning to their homes after years of captivity.

U.S. Air Force pilot Mike Lane was
shot down over North Vietnam and 
captured and held as a Prisoner of
War for 2,271 days in the Hanoi Hilton
before being freed. COURTESY PHOTO
About eight years later, when I was stationed at The Pentagon in Washington, D.C., our squadron hosted a symposium on the release of the POWs and it included a special guest speaker, a U.S. Air Force pilot, Lt. Col. Mike Lane, who had been shot down and imprisoned at the Ho Loa Prison Camp, known commonly as the “Hanoi Hilton.” It was my great privilege to be able to interview him for the Bolling Beam, an Air Force weekly newspaper, it it truly opened my eyes to the brutality and hardships that these valiant Americans endured.

Lane was from Connecticut and had participated in the ROTC program while attending Notre Dame University. Upon graduation in 1964, he then trained as a fighter pilot and learned to fly the F-4 Phantom aircraft. After a year of service in England, he was transferred to the 559th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base in South Vietnam in November 1966. Less than two weeks later, Lane’s F-4 aircraft came under heavy enemy fire on Dec. 2, 1966, while patrolling the skies over North Vietnam. The plane was so badly damaged that Lane was forced to eject, beginning a grueling ordeal that tested his mental and physical strength and will to survive.

He was shaken but alive when he was captured by North Vietnamese troops that day. They tied his hands with rope and forced him to march about 12 miles to the prison, where he was thrown into a cell and later interrogated about his mission and the military capabilities of his aircraft. He stuck to only telling him his name, rank, and military serial number.

His captors consistently beat him and demanded he tell them information about his squadron’s flights during the war and potential targets around Hanoi. He was punched, slapped, and deprived of food and water.

Yet despite it all, Lane and other prisoners held in the prison clung to the belief that one day the war would end, and they would be freed. In the meantime, the prisoners, who were forbidden to speak with each other, learned to communicate between their cells using a primitive form of tapping on their cell walls. Through this system, Lane learned the names of many of the other prisoners and how long they had been held captive as POWs.

When there was food, it was served in filthy conditions and covered with insects. I recall Lane telling me that one day he found a live cockroach in a bowl of rice he was given and a biscuit contained weevils. The worst food I wrote about him being served though was a type of pork still containing bristles that he had to pick away to eat.

The cells of the American prisoners were open-air with iron bars on the windows and the prisoners slept on dirt floors with no blankets for winter or cooling in the summer heat. Guards treated them viciously and beatings continued throughout their imprisonment.

Then one day, after nearly six years of captivity, Lane found out that a deal had been reached to free U.S. POWs. It was called “Operation Homecoming” and finally after 2,271 days as a prisoner, Lane was released on Feb. 18, 1973. He was hospitalized for several months following his release because of injuries he had sustained as a POW.

Once recovered, Lane was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry and intrepidity in action for his in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force while a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam. His citation mentions that despite the enemy resorting to mental and physical cruelties to obtain information, confessions and propaganda materials, Lane resisted their demands by calling upon his deepest inner strengths in a manner which reflected his devotion to duty and great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

He went on to resume his military career and told me the one thing he wanted everyone to know about his time in captivity as a POW was that the Americans who were held at the Hanoi Hilton were the bravest individuals he ever knew and their love for this country was undeniable. Lane later married and retired as a colonel, serving as the Chief of the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona in October 1988.

His participation in our salute to U.S. POWs at The Pentagon was the highlight of the event and came about because Lane was good friends with our commander, Col. Jerry Bronnenberg, who was my boss. Our nation’s military history is filled with tales of heroism and unselfish sacrifice, but when I think back about the things that our POWs in Vietnam went through, little compares to the treatment they received at the hands of their captors. These men and what they endured should not be forgotten or relegated to a chapter in a history book. They served valiantly and 50 years later, we honor their service.<

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