Christmas Eve At The Hanoi Hilton
Christmas Eve of 1968 found me less than two years into my seven-year incarceration as a POW in North Vietnam.
Solitary confinement was still common, because the Viet Cong hadn’t yet run out of space to impose solitary on every man. December in Hanoi was cold enough to form ice on the mud puddles and to see my breath in the cold-soaked cell. I was wearing every piece of clothing I’d been issued, and had my thin blanket wrapped around my head and hunched shoulders. My bare feet were drawn up under my thighs in a cross legged effort to minimize my skin exposure to the chill.
My Christmas reverie was suddenly shattered by the unexpected CLANK of the steel bolt of the lock and the immediate inward swing of my heavy planked door. There stood a guard we named “Swish” (for the way he walked), making a chopping motion at his wrist indicating I should put on my long-sleeved shirt — I was going out of the cell. Swish led me out into the courtyard. The sky was black and clear, and stars seemed to stretch from one horizon to the other, as best I could see the horizons.
The interrogation room was illuminated by a couple of 50-watt bulbs hanging by their cords from the ceiling. Near the entry door was a scrawny little tree bent almost double from the weight of more 50 bulbs, each painted with poster paints — blue, red and green. Rabbit (named for the size of his ears) and the camp commander were seated behind a table, which held plates of fruit and candy.
“Co! (My Vietnamese name; typically the first syllable of the last name.) Sit down and enjoy the Christmas tree. You see, the friendly Vietnamese people provide for your holiday even though they hate you very, very much. Feel free to get on your knees and pray at the tree.”
“No, thank you. I’ll do my Christmas praying back in my cell.”
“Well, then, how you think about this war?”
“I think my country will win this war next year. This will be my last Christmas in your country.”
“Hmm … Co! You always say wrong. You have very bad attitude. But because of the humane and lenient policy of the Vietnamese people, you
can take some things back to your cell,” sweeping his hand magnanimously across the fruit and candy.
I quickly gathered up with both hands all the candy and bananas I could carry, and followed Swish back through the frigid courtyard and into my cell block. As he put me back into my cell, he dug into his pocket and pulled out three candy bars wrapped in tin foil.
“Socola (chocolate). Eat!” I had one of the bars unwrapped before Swish even got out of the cell block, but, ugh, what a downer — it tasted like rancid sawdust (if sawdust could go rancid)! So, I unwrapped the other two and smoothed out the red and silver foil, put the “chocolate” on the floor for my rat, recocooned in my blanket and started smoothing the foil. Then, while humming Christmas carols, I carefully “origamied” a swan, a rosette and a star. I then pulled three threads from my blanket, tied them to each ornament and hung them from the edge of the empty upper bunk, so they were at my eye level.
Each of the little hanging ornaments rotated slowly on their thread in the dense, cold air. With the background of carols in my mind, my thoughts went to family Christmases past, recalling as much detail as possible, then to the very first Christmas, and the glory of the Christ Child’s birth. Like the three kings from the East, I offered up my three little shimmering gifts to the Baby Jesus, and finished up with my own Christmas prayers.
This always will be the most memorable Christmas of my life.